Atmosphere Visual Effects Brings Old Models Up to Date

It’s one thing to do groundbreaking VFX work on a show like Battlestar Galactica, which dramatically reinvented the look of the original 1970s TV series for a contemporary audience. But it’s quite another to start working on an upgrade of a not-so-long-in-the-tooth program like Babylon 5, which aired from 1994 to 1998. Babylon 5 helped usher in the era of CG VFX for television – while its effects are more primitive than today’s state of the art, they’re not a completely different animal. That mean that, when Atmosphere Visual Effects started work on the new direct-to-video release Babylon 5: The Lost Tales, it had to lift the CG to match today’s standards without making any alterations that would alienate the substantial fan base. VFX Supervisor Andrew Karr talked to us about updating 10-year-old spaceship models, plotting out camera angles and lighting in advance, and destroying a futuristic New York City.
How does working on a direct-to-video title compare to working on a series?

We had approximately a month and a half to do the project, and there were 150 shots. Forty of them were this full virtual green-screen environment. So it was very much like a TV deadline. In TV, you’re generally fighting back-to-back air dates with the next episode. On direct-to-DVD, you’re fighting the PR system for advertising materials. They need all the material, and they need it cut, so you still have a very short deadline on it. All things considered, it came out really decent. We actually rebuilt the Babylon 5 station, for example. And the star fleet. We were able to dig up the original models, which were really light. They’re around 10 years old, and a lot of it was just done with texturing. It was nice to give the whole thing a facelift. The station looks very similar, but now you can get right up close to it.

What was your role as VFX supervisor?

Because of the short deadline, we had to get a jump start on building all the assets. I worked quite closely with Joe [writer/director J. Michael Straczynski] on set. We’d do ideas here at the office and I’d take them on set with me. While we were shooting, I’d go, “What about this for the lighting direction?” I’d work with Karl Herrmann, the DP – with Joe’s consent – to shoot things in a certain way for the 3D universe, especially the full virtual interior shots of Babylon 5 [the titular space station]. The actors were just standing there with a green screen behind them – the idea was that they were on a big walkway in the docking bay of Babylon 5 – so Daniel Osaki [lead 3D modeler] had to get a head start on building a rough interior of the set.

Because of the time constraints, we were only planning on building six or seven angles using matte paintings. But when we got into shooting, things changed. We got some camera moves in there, and there ended up being 17 angles. So we were trying to go down and match the practical camera in 3D. It was quite tricky, even with all the set information. Originally we wanted to try and cheat it, because we were only budgeted for seven angles. But in the end we ended up basically building the whole thing virtually. That way we could move the camera anywhere.

Was it a combination of a virtual environment with a lot of 2D work?

Yeah. The detail in the model was pretty impressive. But a lot of the shots were lock-offs, so we could go in and actually start painting more detail on top of the CG set extension.

And what about the lighting considerations on set?

We were shooting a shot where Sheridan and Galen are up on a roof overlooking the city. We went into the computer ahead of time and stuck in some rough geometry for the two characters and some buildings, and then we worked with different directions of light. We gave that to Joe: “Aesthetically, if the shadows are doing this, you get a nicer composition.” Then we’d go and get the gaffers and go set up a separate direction to match what we had conceived in 3D ahead of time. That helped us out – we could quickly whip things up, figure out the lighting directions, and take that to set. It was nice to have control over what would look nicest in CG.

What were some other big scenes?

The New York sequence was quite fun. Jeremy [Hoey] created quite a bit of it in 3D, but a lot of it was matte-painted. It was a concept of futuristic New York, with hover cars flying around. Of course, we had these big beams come down and actually destroy it. That’s one of the bigger sequences from a technical standpoint.

As our matte painter, Jeremy uses a lot of Lightwave 3D. He’ll build a lot of the foreground as 3D geometry – that way he can get his compositions – and then he’ll go in and paint on top of that. That gives us the liberty to change the composition and angles at early stages. There’s definitely an advantage of incorporating 3D in the matte paintings. Nowadays I think a lot of the matters are doing that. In the old days, it was classically done and painted on plates. But now, you don’t just have Photoshop. You’ve got 3D programs, compositing programs – there’s so much they can do. They have nature generators for trees and mountains. Technology has definitely helped them.

For the destruction of New York, are we talking about explosions and fires and collapsing buildings?

Well, the beams are supposed to be about a block long. It’s more that you hit a building and they basically disintegrate. You’ll see the particles whip up into the beam. And then you cut later on to a shot where the whole city’s just leveled. In that sense, it’s a bit of a cheat. You don’t see the whole city being destroyed. You see the beams come down and start ripping sections, and then you cut to a shot later on where the whole thing’s leveled. And a lot of that stuff is matte-painted, with smoldering debris. Jeremy painted quite a bit wider so we could do some kind of camera movement, a push-in to give it some life. And the compositor would go comp in burning embers or whatever else to bring in some real elements.

What was the biggest challenge overall?

The big thing was being able to give the show a bit of a face lift. At the time Babylon 5 came out, it set the bar for what we were seeing on TV. It was one of the first shows to use that amount of CG. Watching Babylon 5 when I was younger, I remember seeing the 3D and going, “Wow, I’ve never seen something like this before.” We work on other SF shows as well, like Battlestar Galactica and Stargate, so it’s nice to be able to bring Babylon 5 back up to where current shows are now. The big thing for us was giving the show the detailing and the lighting it deserves.

But Joe created a universe, and there are a lot of rules that apply. Things have to look a very specific way, just as the characters have to act a certain way. We had to get into the Babylon 5 universe and make sure everything was correct. Babylon 5 fans are pretty hardcore fans. They’re like Star Trek fans. And this show was on for five seasons, so they know exactly how things are supposed to look. I had to go back and look at the DVDs and make sure nothing was missed. The fans would definitely pick up on that.