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The decision to go CGI.

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  • The decision to go CGI.

    With all this talk about posts from 1992, I was wondering if anyone knew the story behind this.

    I was watching the special features on one of the DVDs the other day and was listening to Doug Netter talking about how early on they decided that the FX were to be done in CGI.

    I was wondering, does anyone know how early on that decision was made, who made it and why. It was a pretty brave move given the quality of previous CGI seen on television and a bit of a radical departure from the well known approach of things like Trek and space 1999 (using physical models) a good few years earlier.

    The other aspect of the CG stuff was, I suppose, things like the visual effects in the live action shots. Rather than using wires and (obvious) camera trickery they composited in digital animations and the like.
    Last edited by Triple F; 12-06-2007, 08:20 AM.

  • #2
    Here's a quote from an interview I did with producer John Copeland some years ago, that might help put things in context for you:

    Joe: WerenÆt you originally talking to Ron Thornton about doing it with miniatures?
    John: Absolutely, we were going to use miniatures and motion control. Ron and I had some definite ideas about how to get the most bang for our buck, but it would still have been limiting. About the time we started talking with the Warners/PTEN folks, Ron got hold of a Video Toaster and started messing around with it, and at that time, Ron and I were a heck of a lot closer than we are now, and at least once or twice a week, he and I and Karen and Shannon had dinner together or we went out for drinks or went over to each otherÆs houses, and he was constantly showing me stuff that could be done, and it became very apparent that we had a potential for a paradigm tool that would change the way that things could be done, and we could make something very unique with Babylon 5 using this thing, and eventually after going through loops and hoops and hurdles with Warners, because Barry Meyer was very nervous about this show, even thought he stations said, æWe want Babylon 5; we think itÆs totally cool, and we think itÆs a great notion,Æ he was afraid of getting into another V situation.

    They had also had a similar situation with The Flash which they sold to CBS, which also had budgetary and schedule problems, so he was afraid if he did something else like that, theyÆd kill him, which was probably right. The first thing he did was put us together with Greg Maday as a creative person. Greg was right up front with us and said, æI donÆt like science fiction,Æ and was really grumpy about it, and we were saying, æOh man, whatÆs this going to be like?Æ Greg was also very suspect about us being able to do this, because everybody in Hollywood says, æOh yeah, we do this on time and under budget!Æ and theyÆd just go off and act totally irresponsibly, so that was most peopleÆs experience. So they had us meet with Steve Papazian, who was the head of production for Warners Television. Steve is now head of production for Warners Features, and he came in and looked at my budget which I had put together; I had been working and studying very hard for how we could do this and for the cheapest and most different way of mounting this production. Steve looked at it and said, æYou know, this is perfectly do-able, these guys are right. There are all these tools that are available now that were not available when we did V. TheyÆre not as restricted in doing things the old way. He didnÆt even know about where we were with computer graphics, so we got over this hurdle with the production department over at Warner Bros, so they gave us their stamp of approval, but still, the higher-ups were saying, æYou guys are not going to have anywhere near the money that Star Trek does, so youÆre not going to be able to spend the money on the FX,Æ and we said, æThatÆs okay, we can still do it.Æ

    We did about 50 seconds of animation, which is stuff that Ron came up with, and it was really a prototype Babylon 5 station; it was very different from what the station wound up looking like. It looked pretty cool, and we had a ship come at us from infinity and as it passed by us, we pan with it and then we followed it about 150 kilometers up to the space station and into the docking bay all in one shot, which would have been absolutely impossible to do with models. We put a little music behind it, and we showed that to PTEN, and they asked us to see it again.

    We must have showed it ten times at that meeting, so then we got past the thing of, æIf theyÆre not spending any money on this, the FX are going to look like shit.Æ These guys had never seen anything like this in their lives, but they were still afraid, because we were an unknown entity- who the hell was Joe Straczynski? John [Iacovelli] and Doug had been off doing a show in Australia and then up in Canada, so weÆd been out of the Hollywood production community for a few years, so they wanted to hedge their bet as closely as they could, while kind of going along with the stations but not at the same time, so they gave us the order for the pilot, so that was how that came about.

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    • #3
      Interesting, thanks. So it looks like they went for the computer option before the pitch to Warner (which was ultimately successful).

      So the decision to go CG wasnÆt really made early on then , as such, since they had been punting the show to other studios for the previous 5 years or whatever, and it was Ron Thornton that came up with the actual idea, makes sense. So IÆm guessing he wasnÆt part of the punting team for the earlier years then.

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      • #4
        Thanks for sharing that, Joe.

        I've never seen much from John Copeland and I know how critical he was to the entire B5 operation so I'm always interested in seeing what he had to say.

        Interesting that Greg Maday wasn't happy about being their liaison, too.

        Jan
        "As empathy spreads, civilization spreads. As empathy contracts, civilization contracts...as we're seeing now.

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        • #5
          What!!

          Jan, IÆve only ever seen/read a couple of interviews with John C, didnÆt know he was critical of anything, usually because he had his PR producers hat on. Any hints as to what was grating him.

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          • #6
            Sorry, that may have been a poor choice of words, TripleF. I meant 'critical' as in 'extemely important to' the B5 operation, not that he was critical *of* anything about the show. Like you, I've never seen anything he's ever said of a negative nature.

            Jan
            "As empathy spreads, civilization spreads. As empathy contracts, civilization contracts...as we're seeing now.

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            • #7
              I've always thought the production triad of Straczynski, Copeland and Netter was one of the elements that made B5 so successful Each of them brought their own strengths to the production, and I always felt in a small way that maybe the post-Crusade projects may have suffered a tiny bit in Copeland's absence. Not sure why he wasn't involved, but I would be interested to know why. Plus he was a cool guy as well, and very generous. Even if his dog did pee on my briefcase.

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              • #8
                Originally posted by Joe Nazzaro View Post
                I've always thought the production triad of Straczynski, Copeland and Netter was one of the elements that made B5 so successful Each of them brought their own strengths to the production, and I always felt in a small way that maybe the post-Crusade projects may have suffered a tiny bit in Copeland's absence. Not sure why he wasn't involved, but I would be interested to know why. Plus he was a cool guy as well, and very generous. Even if his dog did pee on my briefcase.
                JMS mentioned in one of the script books that he and John had had a falling out during Crusade and hadn't spoken to each other until Rick Biggs' funeral. No indication of what it was about but it hasn't kept him from giving full credit to John and his contributions to the show.

                Jan
                "As empathy spreads, civilization spreads. As empathy contracts, civilization contracts...as we're seeing now.

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                • #9
                  I need glasses.

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                  • #10
                    I'm not that captain...

                    The original inspiration for using computer animation, I have believed for a long time, was Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (wikipedia, imdb), AFAIK most of the visual effects were computer animated, and it was the first TV show to use computer animation extensively.
                    And in that show guess who was a story editor...
                    JMS
                    and guess who the producer was...
                    John Copeland


                    (If you can't guess highlight to read)
                    Last edited by Capt.Montoya; 12-06-2007, 06:24 PM. Reason: for clarity
                    Such... is the respect paid to science that the most absurd opinions may become current, provided they are expressed in language, the sound of which recalls some well-known scientific phrase
                    James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79)

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                    • #11
                      Not to mention a producer named Doug Netter, a production designer named John Iacovelli, a miniatures supervisor named Ron Thornton and a story editor named J. Michael Straczynski. Not hard to see where the origins of Babylon 5 came from.

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                      • #12
                        Also Larry DiTillio was a writer on Captain Power.

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                        • #13
                          Has there ever been any comment on the nature of the show affecting the choice to go GC? Compaired to your say typical trek episode B5 did tend to be more active and destructive with its FX which is I'd guess more expensive and limating when models are used.
                          Who are you?
                          What do you want?
                          What is the average inflight speed of an unladened swallow?

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                          • #14
                            Why CGI only? Hm . . . let's see.
                            One Trek episode = Million to A Million and a half bucks.
                            compared to
                            One B5 episode (thanks to CGI fx instead of modeling and animation and matting etc.) = 750,000 t0 850,000 bucks.
                            no boom today . . .

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                            • #15
                              Originally posted by luvB5 View Post
                              Why CGI only? Hm . . . let's see.
                              One Trek episode = Million to A Million and a half bucks.
                              compared to
                              One B5 episode (thanks to CGI fx instead of modeling and animation and matting etc.) = 750,000 t0 850,000 bucks.
                              (Hmmm . . . Hindsight does make many a genius doesn’t it.

                              Of course, but before B5 it had NEVER been done even though the "video toaster" had been kicking around for nearly a decade before hand, so no one knew for sure if it was possible. Besides, what little cg work that had been done in the movies and tv was very very expensive and/or of dubious quality. Another reason why Babylon 5 was ground breaking.

                              I’m not sure linking all of those involved with captain powers so strongly with B5 FX is totally accurate though – at least as far as the decision to go digital was concerned.

                              Remember that they (the producers) had been punting the show for something like 5 years (using models) and getting nowhere. It looks like (based on what Joe’s interview says) that it was Ron Thornton who introduced the idea into the equation which jms, netter and copeland hadn’t previously considered – after all they're only producers not tech heads.

                              [edit]
                              Besides those figures mean nothing as who knows what the VFX budgets were for B5. I believe things like the wardrope and make-up departments might have cost a few quid as well.
                              Last edited by Triple F; 12-07-2007, 07:25 AM.

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