Contents: Overview - Notes
All special effects for Babylon 5 are computer generated. Foundation Imaging, headed by Ron Thornton, produced the special effects for the pilot movie and seasons one through three. Starting in season four, the special effects were moved in-house to Netter Digital Imaging, another subsidiary of the parent of B5's production company.
The B5 effects teams, both at Foundation and at NDI, use
by NewTek and specialized software to design and render the visual effects.
For the pilot, the effects were rendered on a network of Amiga computers;
later, Foundation used 12 Pentium PCs and 5 DEC Alpha workstations for 3D
rendering and design, and 3 Macintoshes for piecing together on-set computer
displays. The NDI team uses a similar array of equipment; see George
Johnsen's comments below.
CGI space scenes are clearer and have more realistic movement than model shots.
Some interior shots such as docking bays are "virtual sets" combining live
action with computer imagery. Computer-generated aliens make regular
appearances on the show as well.
Babylon 5's makeup is put together by Optic Nerve Studios, which has done makeup work on such projects as Batman Returns and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, among others. On B5, they've made an attempt to break away from the minimalist approach often seen on weekly series, preferring full-head (and, in some cases, full-body) prosthetics rather than simple changes to the nose or forehead. Their work has paid off in the form of an Emmy award.
The Babylon 5 FTP archive's Pictures directory contains numerous examples of the show's special effects and makeup.
An interview with Ron Thornton.
An interview with Mojo (supervising animator.)
BlackPool Studios home page
Interestingly enough, big swooping camera moves aren't something we can do very often for a good reason: you have no points of reference in space. Next time you're driving around, look at the clouds. using only them as reference, it seems as if you're standing still - even at 120 MPH! Now let's move into space, where your only reference are stars and planets - it doesn't matter how fast you move the camera, it's going to look as if you're standing still. In addition, without the background moving, if you move a camera past a ship it tends to look as if the ship is moving, which is why you will almost never see a shot of the camera moving past Babylon 5.
All this is why we tend to bank the camera a lot (twist it from side to side) - it's a way of adding camera motion to the scene without bothersome perspective problems!
Even though the Joe uses "another" platform, the show actually uses many! Macs have been essential to the creation of the show from the beginning. Even farther back, the Amiga and the Newtek Toaster were employed.
Currently we use Pentiums and Alphas for animation, Macs for Editing, Matte paintings and Compositing, and SGI's for Compositing and titling. If that isn't platform independent, I don't know what is!
Alphas for design stations serving 5 animators and one animation assistant (housekeeping and slate specialist). Most of these stations run Lightwave and a couple add Softimage. VERY plug-in hungry. PVR's on every station, with calibrated component NTSC (darn it, I hates ntsc) right beside.
P6's in quad enclosures for part of the renderstack, and Alphas for the rest, backed up 2x per day to an optical jukebox.
Completed shots output to a DDR post rendering and get integrated into the show.
Shots to composite go to the Macs running After Effects, or the SGI running Flint, depending on the type of comp being done, and then to the DDR (8 minutes capacity on the SGI).
Boy it sure sounds easy! The only problem is, we have a killer schedule and very picky producers, and ESPECIALLY picky viewers! :-)
It is, however, a bunch of fun!
At completion of that point, a move test is done, approved or rejected by myself, John Copeland, and JMS, and the object is added to the animator's arsenal.
Yes, it is collaborative, and fairly time consuming, but it does result in some cool ships that no single vision could produce!