So Say We All: The Visual Effects of "Battlestar Galactica"
I’ve always been a huge sci-fi fan, growing up in the ’70s with the likes of “Star Wars” at the movies and “Battlestar Galactica” on TV. I was initially skeptical of the SciFi Channel’s re-imagining of “Galactica,” which launched as a series earlier this year. I found myself quickly won over by the show’s deep character development and realistic depiction of a group of wartime refugees on the run from the now complex and clever Cylons. A major part of the show’s appeal is the Emmy-nominated visual effects work created by Culver City-based Zoic Studios and Atmosphere in Vancouver, Canada. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Zoic’s digital effects supervisor Chris Zapara and visual effects producer Steve Kullback to discuss their efforts.
“Battlestar Galactica” is modeled and animated primarily in NewTek’s LightWave 3D with a sprinkling of Maya. Compositing is accomplished with Discreet Combustion and Adobe After Effects. Zoic employs a modest but effective crew. According to Chris, the team comprises “at the peak of a typical episode: five Lightwave Artists, two compositors along with supervisors, producers and support crew. As many as eleven people work on a given day per episode.” Many of the animators are huge fans of the original “Galactica” and bring a lot of that love to their work on the new series.
One of “Galactica’s” most distinctive features is the camera work. Shots are constantly zooming and reframing like classic documentary combat footage. This style adds visual energy and great verisimilitude and is used consistently in the live action and animated footage. The show’s aesthetic stands in contrast to the stately, majestic shots typically seen in science fiction shows and films. Artist Mark Shimer demonstrated that the seemingly erratic camera movement is created by strategically placing start and end keyframes for a shot in LightWave, then adding “wild” keyframes to shake things up. Chris joked, “the effects ‘cameraman’ in our show would be fired on any other show, because it’s losing frame and there’s always a lot of zoom! But it adds realism.”
The Galactica herself is a huge model consisting of over 3.4 million polygons. The ship can be loaded in various levels of detail to suit each camera angle without overloading the animator’s workstation. Zoic is able to provide its creative producers with a lot of flexibility by rendering each shot in several layers, including a key light pass, depth pass and radiosity pass. Steve commented, “our models are really good, our LightWave artists are really good. We’ve gone the extra step in splitting out the rendering layers so we can fine-tune.” By outputting them in separate passes, shots can be greatly finessed during compositing to allow for creative changes in lighting and depth of field without requiring a costly and time-consuming re-render in 3D.
An assortment of civilian spacecraft referred to affectionately as the rag-tag fleet usually surrounds the Galactica as its charge. Fans of the original series have noted many ships from that show remain in the new fleet. “Galactica’s” first season CG supervisor Lee Stringer helped lead the initial effort by studying the original model ships and meticulously recreating them in LightWave. Chris noted, “Lee really liked those older models. He even went the extra mile by researching the original plastic models that were kit-bashed to create the Colonial Movers ship, [a fan favorite.]” Having the old ships flying with the new Galactica provides a great visual bridge to the classic show and contributes to the update’s nostalgia factor.
A recent episode saw the arrival of The Pegasus, another Battlestar whose power seemingly eclipses the mighty Galactica. Zoic was able to model this complex ship on a greatly protracted schedule. Chris outlined the process, “our turnaround on the Pegasus was a matter of 5-6 weeks vs. the original Galactica model which took 5 or 6 months. Jose Perez was the chief modeler for the Pegasus.” Fan reaction was very positive to the new ship and its clear ties to the look and feel of the same ship on the original series.
Zoic receives live action plates from the production on D5 tapes in HD 1080/24p. CG elements are composited into these plates after they are motion tracked using Boujou and often a degree of manual eyeballing. Chris and Steve are quick to praise the efforts of visual effects supervisor Gary Hutzel and his producer Mike Gibson, who run the effects efforts on the “Galactica” set in Vancouver, “Gary does a good job making sure we’re supplied with tracking markers and camera data. He also comes from a background of lighting and shooting traditional effects and miniatures. Gary really keeps us on task. Even with good data, tracking live action is probably one of the harder aspects of the show.”
Zoic is able to successfully composite elements such as the robotic Cylon Centurions as well as virtual extensions to the show’s sets using Boujou’s tracking solutions. The menacing, reflective Centurions are frequently glimpsed running, often through varied environments like rain, smoke and fire. Meanwhile, the Galactica’s main hangar bay is a large set made massive by digital extensions. These extensions are seamlessly blended via a mixture of 3D set pieces, background ships and equipment along with CG and 2D people shot on greenscreen.
A new technique Zoic is experimenting with is something called enhanced animatics. A typical effects shot begins with a description on a script page along with a storyboard and possibly a rudimentary animatic. Adam 'Mojo' Lebowitz, a longtime Lightwave wizard and Zoic artist, pioneered the concept of creating greatly enhanced visuals that depict entire effects sequences as described in the script rather than on a shot-by-shot basis. The upgraded animation is combined with sound effects, music and dialogue and edited on an Avid to present to the producers. This method sounds like a win-win situation. Producers get a near-final looking previsualization of a given effects sequence and the artists at Zoic have an opportunity to contribute creatively to the design and flow of entire sequences. Chris and Steve also credited Executive Producer Ron Moore for creating an environment open to this level of collaboration.
Zoic’s completed shots are output back onto D5 tape in full 1080/24p. Steve described the power required to deliver this level of resolution on a weekly series schedule, “we have approximately 300 render nodes. Most are dual-CPU Intel boxes in a 1U form-factor with a minimum per-processor speed of 2GHz. They all have 4GB of RAM and are connected via Ethernet with Extreme Networks switches. For storage we use Isilon Systems and have approximately 40TB available for production work. We’ve also just brought a system online that uses artist and producer boxes with a screensaver coded in-house to advertise availability. This adds 120 CPUs.”
Zoic employs a full-time staff of engineers and IT wranglers to organize and schedule renders. The system is often employed on other effects work done by the company, which has recently included the feature films Serenity, The Day After Tomorrow, Spider-Man 2 and Zathura. Zoic’s other TV series work has included Angel, Firefly, Invasion and CBS’s CSI series.
The success of “Battlestar Galactica’s” visual effects comes out of the great affection Zoic has for the series and a clearly evident pride in its signature look. Chris added, “the artists who work at Zoic are truly fans of the show. We enjoy sitting down on Friday night to watch it every week just like everyone else.” The Galactica is in great hands and should continue to fly proudly for many seasons as she leads her rag-tag fleet in search of a home called Earth.
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