As the SCI FI Channel’s beloved cult hit, Battlestar Galactica, sails into its final season (beginning Friday, January 16th), VFX Supervisor Gary Hutzel promises viewers a series finale that is “completely unexpected and, at the same time, not fanciful or illogical”—the same standard Hutzel sets for the show’s visual effects. Each episode is solidly grounded in story.
Hutzel got his start in visual effects with miniatures and green screen. “I spent 13 years working on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” Hutzel recalls. “Most of the work on, for instance, exterior shots of the Star Ship Enterprise was miniatures.” A miniature is a special effect generated by the use of small-scale models and motion control photography.
(If you yearn to hear Captain Picard utter “Make it so,” in Patrick Stewart’s inimitable Shakespearean intonation, check out Star Trek: The Next Generation is on SCI FI Channel Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m.)
In fact, Hutzel got so good at making miniatures look astonishingly real (and in record time) that he was a CG hold-out, shooting miniatures right up until the last season of Deep Space Nine, when he finally made the transition to computer-generated effects. Even after completely retraining himself, his philosophy was to “shoot things live-action, practically, as much as possible.”
But Battlestar is a show in constant creative flux, the producers and director refining and revising right up to air date, so Hutzel and his in-house team must keep pace with ever-changing effects that can only be achieved virtually. “And we don’t do 'wallpaper shots,'” Hutzel notes. “We’re working on full-scale, computer-generated set pieces for every show.”
A significant set piece for which Hutzel and his team had nearly total creative control was in Battlestar Galactica: Razor, a stand-alone, feature-length television film that originally aired on the SCI FI Channel before being released into the home video (DVD/Blu-ray) market. “In the script,” Hutzel remembers, “the Fleet is under attack by Cylons and a battle with Pegasus (a Battlestar class cruiser) ensues.” As originally written, the entire scene was only two or three shots, a missile firing at Pegasus and not much more, everything left up to the imagination. “The writers were trying to save money,” Hutzel notes. But, however laudable the writers’ cost-consciousness, as Hutzel and his team began discussing the scene, they realized its potential. “We saw it as a major set piece,” says Hutzel, “and we designed it as such, taking into account the lore of the show.”
As faithful fans know, Battlestar is a futuristic allegory about the nature of terrorism and religious fanaticism. In the back story of the re-imagined series (anyone remember the campy 1978 original?), the Cylons are sentient bipedal robots built for dangerous work like mining and intra-colonial warfare—until the day they revolt against their human creators. Following an uneasy armistice, the Cylons are forced into exile, where they establish their own homeland. They’re supposed to send a representative to an annual summit with the humans but, like a defiant cyber-North Korea, never do.
Over time, the Cylons take on humanoid form and become an even bigger threat to the Battlestar fleet since they can now infiltrate the ships’ crews, like crafty, double-dealing Cylon Number Six, known as Gina Inviere (among other aliases) in her sultry human form. Pegasus, in turn, is one of the premiere battleships in the fleet, so it’s easy to understand why Hutzel wouldn’t want to short shrift this dramatic confrontation.
“When we begin work on a set piece, we do a study,” Hutzel explains. “We start tossing out ideas, always keeping the lore of the show uppermost in our minds.” For instance, Hutzel and his team knew that Cylons have the power to send a signal that would prevent a counter-attack, so they put that concept into the “pre-viz,” or pre-visualization for the Cylon versus Pegasus battle sequence. “We use Lightwave for all of our 3D modeling and animation,” Hutzel notes. “We used this tool to create a rough animatic of our vision of the sequence for the producers and the director to view and approve.”
“Our sequence had 28-30 shots dramatizing the Cylon attack on Pegasus, compared to the two or three that were in the original script,” says Hutzel. At this pre-visualization stage, principal photography has usually wrapped, “and the ships in the battle have been predetermined, along with other elements.” Still, the team created another virtual Basestar and a CG flagship for the fleet “just to add a bit of variety.” Hutzel’s favorite shot of the sequence is one of the ships exploding, and smoke rising. “We brought sizzle to areas of the story that would otherwise be straight exposition,” he says.
“Every phase of every visual effect we do on Battlestar passes by me,” says Hutzel. After viewing the pre-viz, Hutzel might add shots or camera moves. “The great thing about virtual design is that you can place the camera anywhere you want. It does take more time,” he acknowledges, “to create multiple camera angles rather than a single set-up, but then the editors can cut the virtual footage like a real scene, as if it had been shot practically, on set, with five cameras.”
Speaking of the Pegasus set, according to the Battlestar Wiki, it would have been impossible for the show to afford new sets for the interior of Pegasus. As luck would have it, writer/producer Ron D. Moore (who also worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine) and executive producer David Eick were able to buy for next to nothing the abandoned sets of the failed pilot for FOX network's Lost In Space remake (directed by John Woo). The sets were radically redesigned and painted to give them the aesthetic look of Galactica.
Of course, now that the series has completed production, the sets have been struck, or torn down, but not before Hutzel convinced the studio to allow him and his team to “image,” or photograph, all the sets and props, using High Dynamic Range Imagery (HDRI) for future use. “We shot the sets with both high-definition video and still cameras, at five stops above and below key settings,” Hutzel explains, which will enable his team to rebuild the entire “backlot” virtually, in 3D. “Now we have the potential to create a full virtual environment for webisodes,” he says, tantalizingly.
While understandably tight-lipped about the series finale, Hutzel reveals that “storytelling is heavy in the first five to six of the last ten episodes of the series. As we get into the second half of the final season, you can expect more battles. The excitement builds until the breathtaking, two-part finale.” Hutzel says even the filmmakers didn’t know exactly what was going to happen until just a few weeks ago. “In the visual effects department, we didn’t know what was in or out,” he recalls. “At this point, we have over 200 visual effects shots.”
For those of you bracing for Battlestar withdrawal, rejoice: Caprica, a prequel to the re-imagined series that chronicles the Adama and Graystone families on the planet Caprica during the invention of the Cylons, is on the way. It’s scheduled to premier right after Galactica’s swan song. Hutzel is particularly proud of one tracking shot that director Jeff Reiner dubbed “a oner”: a continuous, single shot of the unfolding action, a shot first made famous by Orson Welles in the spectacular, three-minute, uncut opening of Touch of Evil.
“In the scene, the U87, a Cylon prototype—the earlier, robotic 'toaster'—comes to life and looks at itself in the mirror for the first time,” Hutzel explains. He notes that the scene, as written, comprised about five different shots. “But then Jeff had this great idea to do the scene as one continuous shot,” which excited Hutzel because his team would be responsible for compositing, or digitally blending, the live-action and virtual elements.
“The live-action plate was shot with a Steadicam” says Hutzel. (A Steadicam is a camera rig that attaches to a camera operator, mimicking human motion.) “We enter through the doorway and, in the middle of this futuristic, clinical lab space, there’s a gleaming, stainless steel tabletop, like in a coroner’s examining room,” he continues. The camera approaches the table and, in a medium-close shot, scans the length of the table, then tilts up to view the various implements hanging above the table, “eventually ending up where we entered,” Hutzel elaborates. “Then the camera moves forward toward the table and tilts down so that the robot can see its reflection for the first time in the stainless steel tabletop. We used a cardboard cutout as a stand-in for the robot.”
Knowing that everything would be composited, Hutzel put proper tracking markers in the scene. “We did several passes with the Steadicam,” says Hutzel, “which made the scene a bit harder to track, since there’s some movement, or ‘play,’ in the native footage.” But Hutzel swears by SynthEyes, tracking software that he describes as “incredibly fast and really productive for television work, great with HD.” Tracking software not only helps composite and smooth the camera movement but also integrates virtual elements, such as the U87, into the practical environment while preserving the object’s scale. According to Hutzel: “You can’t really know the scale of a CG object until you bring it into the environment and start to manipulate it.”
Hutzel has again collaborated with Ron D. Moore on a pilot called Virtuality, a co-production between SCI FI Channel and Fox Network which may air on Fox. (The pilot has been shot, but no firm air date has been set yet.) Virtuality focuses on the 12-member crew of Phaeton, a starship that leaves Earth on a 10-year exploratory mission equipped with state-of-the-art virtual reality modules that let the crew escape their constrained surroundings. Of course, when things start to go wrong with the virtual reality—like the appearance of serial killer!—there are serious repercussions. Hutzel’s job was to create all the virtual environments, like a Civil War battlefield, and composite the live actors into their virtual worlds.
“The Civil War scene was supposed to take place in rural West Virginia,” recounts Hutzel, “which we shot on a horse arena with over 200 feet of blue screen all the way around the principal actors using three cameras: one on a crane, one handheld, and one Steadicam.” The director was Hancock’s notoriously prickly Peter Berg who asked Hutzel “Are you actually going to be able to pull this off, or is it going to look like crap?” “Absolutely!” Hutzel reassured Berg, and they did. “When we screened the pilot,” Hutzel notes proudly, “one artist who hadn’t worked on the show didn’t even realize the environments were virtual.” And that’s a real compliment.