Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 166 / JULY 1994 / PAGE 68

The making of Babylon 5. (television science fiction series; includes related article) (Multimedia PC)
by David Sears, David English

Digby demands attention. An insistent yellow-haired hound of indeterminate purpose, he has covered my writing hand with friendly saliva. Wet, organic, unexpected--much like the computer graphics the people here create. Scratching Digby's head gives me a moment to bask in the modest aura of Foundation Imaging's unpretentious Valencia, California, offices and to wonder just how this team came together from what seemed nowhere with no money and managed to win an Emmy for outstanding technical achievement with-in its first year of operation. Digby knows, but in the noncommittal way of an office mascot, he's more concerned with talking to the animators than this transient reporter. Ron Thornton, Foundation Imaging's visual effects director, ambles in to take Digby's place.

Thornton doesn't lick my hand but for all intents and purposes seems just as amiable. Who wouldn't be with a show reel of Foundation Imaging's caliber?

To understand Thornton's success, you must also know something of "Babylon 5," a revolutionary science-fiction television series airing weekly on Warner-affiliate stations. Since the pilot episode early last year, the video effects industry, science-fiction fans, TV Guide, and even Hollywood's high-powered executive class have taken notice of Foundation Imaging, the effects house that provides the brunt of computer graphics for the show. What the series and Foundation Imaging prove in tandem is that you simply don't have to spend millions of dollars for quality work. Revolutions can consist of nuances, detail work, and business ethics.

>From the first moment the warp gate in "Babylon 5" powered up and regurgitated a Vorlon armada, the viewing world knew that television had changed: something about the way an hour of television is produced, perhaps, but something that allows for unprecedented graphics displays, sweeping dramas, and intense acting, all on a shoestring budget. Overnight, "Babylon 5" was canonized by the pursuants of the desktop video faith. "There," they said. "It's all done with Amigas and Video Toasters." They also muttered, "I could do that. I can do that. Maybe I will do that."

Anyone interested in producing world-class special effects should talk to Thornton and his partners in the impossible. The Foundation Imaging trinity, consisting of Thornton, Paul Beigle-Bryant as computer imaging director, and Shannon Casey as producer, has its collective head together when it comes to generating the average of 6000 frames of CG (Computer Graphics) animation seen in each "Babylon 5" episode.

Thornton takes me upstairs to hold council and introduces me to the team. They wax philosophically on the video effects industry, Commodore computers, and attitudes good and bad. Digby soon joins us, flopping languorously on a nearby sofa. He's heard it all before, but he recognizes the importance of being there. Things are afoot at Foundation Imaging--revolutionary, quiet things that echo throughout the entire "Babylon 5" series. There's a reason that Foundation Imaging and everyone else involved with "Babylon 5" share a vision of what the series can accomplish, a reason firmly rooted in their attitudes.

The vision began five years ago when Michael Straczynski--the show's executive producer and creator--put together the initial necessary components for a pilot--script and art included--and made the studio rounds. Eventually, Warner bought into the property and agreed to the proposed budget--a budget far smaller than anyone expected. Could anyone produce a film demanding the level of detail "Babylon 5" required without spending enormous sums of money? Obviously, yes.

Straczynski admits that stringent budgets enforce conservative scripting. For this reason, "Babylon 5" shows us a realistic space station largely unadorned and reserves special effects for special occasions. This logic works well within the milieu of be-lievable space fiction, of course, but it doesn't entirely overrule one-upmanship volleys at "Star Trek: The Next Generation"--the closest thing to a kindred spirit, at least on television.

Take the now-classic Vorlon armada, for instance. We never see more than 12 ships onscreen during "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and those are static models. The Vorlon armada numbers in the hundreds, and the ships fly at varying speeds in mesmerizingly disparate directions, a veritable swarm of unearthly alloys and mystery.

Thornton had immediately seen possibilities well beyond a simple and limited number of looming war craft. A fleet is a fleet, and that's what Foundation Imaging delivered. This constant intent to overkill, to ignore the technology envelope and do what hasn't been done--that's Thornton. And to do it on a limited budget (the golden rule of "Babylon 5" production), Thornton needed inexpensive hardware. He found that in the Amiga, Commodore's multitasking wonder baby, and NewTek's Video Toaster, an add-on graphics card. Thornton, a special-effects designer, renounced physical model construction and embraced CG.

Foundation Imaging houses 24 Amiga 2000s, 16 of which serve as dedicated rendering engines. Each of the 16 packs 32 megabytes of RAM, a Fusion 40 accelerator, and a Toaster. All the Amigas share data through a Novell network and offload data to a 12-gigabyte 486 PC file server. Beigle-Bryant's home-brew task manager parcels out rendering work to each of the Amigas in the rack and ensures that no machine sits idle. Thanks to his clever resource management, the rendering time for a frame of "Babylon 5" animation averages 45 minutes, not too much more than that required for the less complex models used in the pilot episode. A true technologist, Beigle-Bryant takes pride in the fact that no machine sits through a day without working. Even the animation workstations double as serious data crunchers when the animators themselves take a break.

On the sensitive issue of the Amiga's future, Foundation Imaging's opinion is realistic and familiar. "Commodore as a company doesn't exist," says Beigle-Bryant. "There's no new technology coming from Commodore...and we have to look at the general market for platform availability." On the other hand, Foundation Imaging doesn't throw away equipment, either, and the team's love of the machines is obvious. The Amigas and Toasters already in place will continue to process graphics data alongside whatever other boxes join them. Foundation Imaging would change a few things about its Amigas, but most notable is the speed of each animator's workstation. Even accelerated, the machines can perform sluggishly at times, leaving the animators to read novels or romp with Digby. Perhaps this is less a deficiency and more a built-in license for good-natured distractions. After all, as Beigle-Bryant points out, to increase the speed of the animators' interface would dump more tasks on the rendering network. As things stand, work progresses at a comfortable pace.

This discussion raises serious concerns about NewTek's future. Its Toaster, after all, works only with Commodore Amigas. Foundation Imaging makes it clear that NewTek is a forward-looking company and is aware of the steps it must take to succeed.

This leads me to inquire as to just how eager Foundation Imaging is to invest in new technologies, perhaps PC based, or even to use high-end Silicon Graphics workstations. As forthe PCs, Beigle-Bryant notes that data is data and the network taskmaster could be tweaked to support parallel processing on a network made up of PCs and Amigas. Currently, NewTek's Lightwave software requires a Video Toaster to run; it could conceivably be rewritten to run on any machine. As to whether NewTek has begun such a project, Beigle-Bryant can't comment, but industry scuttlebutt has long predicted a PC-compatible version of the Toaster. So why not a PC Lightwave package? Furthermore, NewTek's very sexy rendering engine, the Screamer--though still living a beta-version existence--promises Silicon Graphics power at a reduced price. This hardware, too, has found a home at Foundation Imaging.

Is Foundation Imaging otherwise satisfied with its Amiga-Toaster assembly? Not entirely. The company's overwhelming desire to break the rules of what can and cannot be done for television has led the team to believe that a major upgrade to the network will have to occur in the next five to six months.

According to Thornton, the overall look for the series may be set, but the things Foundation Imaging intends to do beggar description. More CG-generated interiors, more sophisticated models still. The hardware direction Foundation Imaging will take remains off the record, but Thornton admits to using PCs and Macintosh computers for various effects seen in the show and for touching up some Amiga-generated images. What probably won't happen, unless Silicon Graphics starts giving machines away, is an upgrade to Silicon Graphics workstations. Prohibitively expensive, that hardware could break a rough-and-tumble outfit such as Foundation Imaging. The team is quite proud of the fact that its entire stock of personal computers costs less than a single Silicon Graphics Reality Engine and that the results are nevertheless remarkable.

Admittedly, no one will mistake the CGI (Computer Graphics Interface) space sequences in "Babylon 5" for the real thing. Ships gleam with an unearthly sheen--but the believability factor depends on how the craft moves, and Foundation Imaging can squeeze a great deal of motion out of Video Toasters and Lightwave software.

"The goal wasn't to make it look not CGI, but to make a cool shot. Design should come first. If it looks cool, great," says Thornton. For an upcoming episode, Foundation Imaging outdid expectations yet again by tackling organic modeling--creating a functional (and dangerous) creature bent on eating brains. This is only the second time that an entirely computer-generated beast has appeared on television; "seaQuest DSV" takes pioneering honors for its squid. It's worth noting, though, that the "seaQuest DSV" team used Amigas and Toasters to create its creature in much the same way that Foundation Imaging created its brain feeder.

Selling the "Babylon 5" crew on the concept of a fully CG monster wasn't easy. Thornton began pitching the idea many months ago and, even after convincing everyone involved that Foundation Imaging could do the job, still had to contend with a bit of trepidation. In effect, the director kept the actors largely in place, forgoing what he feared was too much motion for the special effects to handle. In the end, the brain feeder looks believably sinister and moves much like any one-legged parasite would. The actors appear a bit silly because they don't move with as much frenzied activity as the creature. With this lesson learned, however, we can expect more daring experiments from Foundation Imaging and "Babylon 5."

In essence, Foundation Imaging isn't so much a CG house as an effects house. Its motto distills to Whatever It Takes, and the team at Foundation Imaging believes this. Thornton has no problem combining physical models or arrangements with CG images. A CG planetscape often looks ridiculous when viewed from space. Why bother, reasons Thornton, when you can scan a picture of a model and expect it to yield believable results? The same holds true for machine textures--just build a miniature and scan away. This saves the art team a remarkable amount of time, and the product looks great. Of course, these down-and-dirty methods upset some Hollywood types. Foundation Imaging has lost jobs because the team wouldn't agree to follow unnecessary procedures and waste valuable computer time. Perhaps the ability to save money frightens adherents to the highend status quo; perhaps the results of ingenious modeling efforts and superior art direction have startled a slumbering Tinsel Town into a predictable arrogant panic. Perhaps.

What's certain? Foundation Imaging does work of surperior quality on dreadfully slim budgets. If Warner renews "Babylon 5" for another season, Foundation Imaging intends to generate more stunning CG effects than any other television series. If not, the company will find work doing great things its own way, with people who recognize the team's vision for what it is: breathtaking.

Babylon 5--The Universal Encyclopedia

Want to learn more about the universe and production of "Babylon 5"?

Compton's NewMedia and Warner Bros. Consumer Products are teaming up to release Babylon 5--The Universal Encyclopedia. This CD-ROM contains multiple pathways, including The Universe of Babylon, which describes the space station and its inhabitants; Aliens, which provides an encyclopedic description of the aliens and their home worlds; and Technology, which includes technical specifications for the high-tech tools used throughout the show, as well as the space station itself.

You can also step outside the fictional world of "Babylon 5" and explore how the series is created. You can choose Special Effects, which gives you a look at Foundation Imaging's Emmy-winning visual effects, or Behind the Scenes, which offers a peek at the actual production of the show.

An original bound "Babylon 5" encyclopedia will accompany the disc. The title should ship sometime this fall.