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    From the ways in which television and film production are covered by the main stream media, one would have to assume that the Big Bang created movies out of thin air and everyone rested on the seventh day.

        No problems ever seem to happen, everyone looks happy, and there’s carefree laughter in the background as reporters are told, “We were all one big, happy family” even though we know that’s not true of the majority of productions.

        What holds a production together through good times and bad, is one common desire; everyone involved loves what they do, and they want to see it through, knowing they have a great deal to gain if they can create a vision that takes the audience’s breath away.

        But we rarely have the opportunity to see that process up close. Which is why in this series of articles, CGSociety will follow the production of Babylon 5: The Lost Tales from beginning to end, covering as many aspects as a feature article allows, focusing today on a 23rd century scene set in New York City.

    Tim Earls has been in the industry for 10 years and has worked as a storyboard artist on such high profile films as ‘Flight Plan', ‘Poseidon' and ‘Mission Impossible III’. He had just finished working on another Bruce Willis Die Hard film the day before we met in mid-November ‘06. Earls knows the Babylon 5 universe well, having worked on the original series fourth season, rising to VFX Supervisor on the fifth season and on ‘Crusade.’

        At the time of our meeting, Lost Tales was being rewritten. What started out as three episodes was being condensed to two, cutting one of Earls’ favorite scenes, a tube car traveling along the surface of Mars to an archeological excavation.

        His style is based in realism, incorporating visual cues that will register in the back of people’s minds, almost subliminally, even when the audience doesn’t notice they are there. This often requires creating a whole back story. “I think about things like the transportation systems on alien planets. How did these people get around? If it’s an alien culture, how did they distribute power?
        Did they have communal eating, did they have fast food? Did they have roads, or do they take the rail?”Earls waited roughly a week before hearing feedback on his Mars storyboards, which helped to determine the budget that, ultimately, led to the Mars scene being cut. This is of course one of the main reasons for such storyboards, to determine what can and can’t be done for the money.

        “They were pressed on time to get the CG elements out. The third episode had most of the story we needed to do, and the middle episode had most of the CG, so we’re just taking the second episode out and putting all the CG into the other two. In a way it’s a creative defeat, but I look at it as job security. They keep changing stuff, but I don’t mind.”

        His new favorite is the New York cityscape in the 23rd Century, set before, during and after an attack by Centauri forces, culminating in a New York City in ruins, blasted and pockmarked by craters. Earls had two weeks to do the storyboard for this episode, which was much heavier effects wise.
    On the same day I interviewed Tim Earls, J. Michael Straczynski started shooting in Vancouver. Lost Tales was scheduled to shoot in 10 days, but he finished in nine. “Having edited all 110 B5 episodes, I know what I’m looking for and I only shoot what I need,” says Straczynski. “Often a director will come in and shoot multiple takes, say ‘that’s the one’, and then shoot 10 more to be safe.

        But if I get it the first time or the second time, I’m done, and we turn the camera around and get the other side of it.” Consequently the crew was usually able to break on schedule or an hour early, meaning they could pre-light for the next day, saving additional time. Warner Brothers was pleased, and the crew was happy because instead of shooting 16-18 hour days, they shot a 12 hour day or less.

        Shooting entirely on greenscreen with a background added later sounds easy, but the lack of references can create unexpected problems. In some scenes two people would enter, one from camera left and the other from camera right. They exchange dialog then walk off.
        You first shoot the master shot, then the over the shoulder shot, person A to person B. Then you shoot over the shoulder from person B to person A.

        But on greenscreen, instead of turning the camera around, you turn the actors so they are facing the other direction with the greenscreen in the background.” What was camera left became camera right. The actors now enter, and leave, in different directions. Adding a third person, walking in on a diagonal, can become even more confusing.

        At the end of filming, Straczynski was able to return to Los Angeles for a few days to follow up on the screenplays and comic scripts he had put aside and to say hello to his cat Buddy, who had gone on a food strike and would only eat when Straczynski called in via speaker phone.

        He returned to Vancouver the following Sunday to finish the Directors Cut. Monday and Tuesday he edited segment one, with segment two slated for Wednesday and Thursday. Friday was for playback to make sure everything worked together.
        The approach to the two segments was inspired by the play, ‘The Norman Conquest.’ In Lost Tales, a 72 hour story arc is covered, but told from two different perspectives as two separate but interwoven stories.

        In segment one, Sheridan is en route to Babylon 5 for the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Interstellar Alliance, when he picks up an unexpected guest, and segment two follows Lochley on Babylon 5 preparing for Sheridan’s arrival. Each runs about 35 minutes. Straczynski has done this sort of work with his comic book writing such as Spiderman and Fantastic Four, and in the civil war arc he has out now. “Every so often I play with different tools to see if I can learn something new.”
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  • When principle photography is finished, and the studio approves the cut, the movie enters the postproduction phase. At this point the estimate includes about 200 VFX shots, many of which require redesigning and re-envisioning the Babylon 5 station, rebuilding it from the inside out.

        Since the original geometry was more than 10 years old, all the wireframes and texture maps had to be rebuilt using the silhouettes and basic designs from the show back in ’93 and ’94. The goal was to keep the silhouettes familiar but without being limited by that early technology. “We’ve done some preliminary animatics, and it looks pretty cool,” Straczynski said. “It feels familiar, but it looks contemporary.”

        Since the Centauri Cruisers, Earth Cruisers, and Starfurys have been previously established, there is no need for new conceptual work except for the major set piece involving the destruction of New York City, requiring a comprehensive 3D map. “It’s a really nice sequence from a skyscraper view high above.” Atmosphere, the FX company handling the digital work, already has extensive footage of New York.
        “We’ll put in a couple new buildings here and there to bring it up to date, while keeping it recognizable” As was the case on the original B5, the work is being done in Lightwave, with Digital Fusion for compositing. What was done with texture maps will now be rebuilt with detailed modeling. Babylon 5 has an extensive and loyal fan base with thousands of fans sites that still discuss the nuances of the story and character arcs with every detail scrutinized and clarified.

        Given that, it was imperative that the CGI remain accurate to the B5 universe. It is a formidable undertaking, especially considering the deadline is the end of March. Further complicating matters, Warner Brothers had misplaced the original CGI assets. When the original B5 wrapped, all the wireframes, set pieces, wardrobe, designs, and renderings of the station, ships, planets, and everything was handed over to WB, which requested nothing be copied for personal archives.

        That request was honored, so when the archives came up missing or scattered, there was a scramble to find whatever was available. Ironically, it was the fan base that came to the rescue.
    The team searched the extensive databases of information the fans had collected. Dozens of recreations of ship meshes in high resolution were pulled and sent to Atmosphere for reference, allowing Atmosphere to begin the process of building high resolution ships with the accuracy needed. Straczynski found this twist ironic. “We created the show initially, then the fans created their version, then we had to go to the fans to make the show again.” Full circle.

    Since vast tracts of the wardrobe were also missing, departments were scavenged to find the missing pieces. One fan had bought a large portion for his own archive, so they got him to send some of the wardrobe up for filming. This meant that only a few pieces of original wardrobe had to be designed for Lost Tales.

    Straczynski is now bouncing back and forth between Los Angeles and Vancouver during post, often working with Atmosphere remotely via ftp. When they sent their first low res models for approval they were concerned Straczynski might not understand why there was such a lack of detail, but to his amusement, the current low res version was equal to the high res version from the original show. “We were at 2K per frame, which is easy to do these days.

    We were working on Amigas, Video Toasters, which were massively primitive.” Straczynski, never at loss for a story, went on to elaborate. “The initial render farm consisted of several Amiga’s linked together with wires that ran through the apartment of the guy who initially did the FX. The wires also ran through his rabbit cages. Every so often, in the middle of a render, a rabbit would chew through a wire. They would call me to tell me they had a rabbit crash. And now here we are today.”

    Atmosphere was wrapping FX work on Battlestar Gallactica and Stargate just as Lost Tales was ramping up. Andrew Karr was on set for the Lost Tales filming, and Alec McClymont came in for the day to observe. McClymont recalled, “Straczynski gets what he wants out of the actor, and as soon as he’s happy they cross it off the storyboard on set.

    There is not a lot of lingering.” He noted that the crew switched between lenses and got their shots set up pretty quickly, and if something was casting a shadow on the greenscreen it was moved out of the way so the shadows didn’t intersect with detail that would cause a compositing issue later on. “We don’t really get exposed to the specifics on set. It was nice to actually see it in action.”

    All images courtesy of
    J. Michael Straczynski & AtmosphereVFX.
    Andrew Karr, the VFX Supervisor, was already planning the next steps. “The original B5 station was a few thousand polys. Our current version is in the millions, with highly detailed modeling and texture maps so the camera can zoom right in.” Since this version will be in HD, every detail will be visible. I guess the fans best prepare for a whole new database.

    Related links
    J. Michael Straczynski
    JMS on IMDB
    Tim Earls
    Atmosphere VFX
    Discuss on CGTalk


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    » Following the New York City destruction.
    » A new battle scene is added.
    » An extensive CG interior view of the docking bay.
    » Managing multiple scenes in the pipeline.
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