Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of working on Battlestar Galactica is the creative freedom we’re given; Ron Moore encourages his team to go the extra mile by always being open to new ideas and concepts. Many writer/producers expect to see their script produced verbatim on screen, while Ron sees the entire film making process as very fluid. In a sense, the final draft of the script becomes the first draft of the show; on stage, contributions from the cast and director begin to evolve the process, while the editing suite becomes Ron’s typewriter for the final draft of the episode.
At first glance, visual effects’ job may be seen as simply to spruce up Ron’s final product with cool eye candy, but, like any other aspect of production (be it cinematography, music or sound effects), ultimately our work is judged by how well we tell the story. As a previz artist (short for previsualization), my job is to do just that – translate words on a page into something that tells the story visually. When I’m reading a script, I’ll often have ideas that may change a shot, or add entirely new ones; thanks to the “elastic” approach of our show, we’re generally encouraged by Gary [Hutzel, VFX Supervisor] to go wild and let Ron pick what he thinks works best.
And go wild we do. As the episode takes form, effects shots are changed, added and even (sniff) cut out, all depending on how they affect the flow of the show. We’ve had entire sequences pared down to a single shot because that’s all that was needed to tell the story, and other times we’ve turned two shots into ten because it just worked.
It should therefore come as no surprise that when the dust settles after an episode is finished, in addition to the live-action casualties of war (also known as “deleted scenes”) there are also visual effects shots that never see the light of day; sometimes they’re early versions of shots that were redefined, sometimes they’re cut from a sequence that got a little, shall we say, ”overindulgent” (when we get excited we tend to go overboard) and sometimes they get trimmed out of a show that’s running too long – but one thing they all have in common is that no one ever gets to see them!
Until now, that is.
[NOTE: MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD}
For "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," I tackled the sequence where the Baseship jumps into the fleet, nearly getting blasted before our heroes realize it's friendly. There's one shot in particular which didn't make the final cut that I absolutely had fallen in love with, so I'm going through the monumental effort of writing this entire piece and providing you with a deconstruction of the effects sequence just so it can finally be seen. How's that for ego?
Here are annotated stills from this part of the sequence that explain how it all came together, followed by early video of the scene [NOTE: these are all previzualization shots - "rough drafts" of effects shots which use low resolution models; this saves time when developing a sequence and final touches are only added when the shot is approved].
This was the first version of the Baseship jumping in; I wanted to start with a standard establishing shot of the fleet, something very normal and familiar to viewers, and then completely turn it on it’s ear with a Baseship jumping in! However, after the zoom-in, it just looked too close, so we went with an angle from the Baseship’s point of view.
The idea of the Basehship getting in the way of Fleet traffic was not scripted. As I began working on the “jump in” shot, I was trying to find an “empty spot” in the Fleet where the Baseship would not be in the path of incoming ships; I soon realized that it would be just too convenient for this to happen and far more dramatic if the civilian ships were now on a collision course! Because this wasn’t in the script and required adding a few shots, I talked it over with Gary; he agreed it would add a nice extra element of jeopardy to a scene in which all hell is supposed to be breaking loose. The image you see above is from the first of three shots we cooked up to sell the idea (ultimately is was cut for time).
We originally had an insert shot of Vipers launching to meet the Baseship, but it was cut for two reasons: first and foremost, time! Our shows always dance on the limits of running time, so anything not essential to the story usually winds up before a firing squad. Also, this shot came early in the sequence, with a lot of time passing before we finally saw the Vipers close in on the Baseship; we didn’t want viewers to wonder “what the frak took those Vipers so long to get there?” so we opted to include the launching fighters at the tail end of a later shot where Galactica comes about.
This was the “money shot,” in which we witness the pandemonium of civilian ships wildly flying to avoid hitting the Baseship. It was designed specifically to end with the cargo ship Prometheus on a collision course with the arm so we could cut to the shot I really wanted…
… the view from inside the Prometheus as it barely manages to fly up and over the Baseship. This would be a rare point of view from one of the Fleet ships and really give us a sense of just how big the Baseship is. In addition, putting the viewer on the ship about to get smacked would really heighten the sense of danger (for the final shot, we had planned to put people helplessly watching and backing away from the maw of the ship). Here’s a video of the previz sequence cut together, after which I’ll divulge the fate of my beloved shot:
When Gary came to give me the news that the ”open maw” shot had been cut to make time for a taco commercial, he had three burly men wrestle me to the ground, just in case I took the news badly (although I’m not sure if you really can committ seppuku with a Master Replicas Lightsaber). I think I only cried for a few minutes.
Ultimately, we ended up with only one of the three shots of the careening fleet - the “money” shot. Ron saw them all and liked the idea, but as cool as the other ones are, the shot he picked was the only one needed to tell the story. Am I still sad? Am I bitter? Do I have a rag doll of Ron Moore filled with pins? Are you kidding? I came up with an idea for my favorite show and it made it on the air!
So now, dear reader, you have a tiny glimpse of what goes on behind the locked doors and barbed wire fence of Battlestar Galactica Visual Effects (and believe me, that barbed wire isn’t to keep you out, it’s to keep us in – do you think we could finish the season if they let us go home?).
There are many more tales to tell, so stay tuned – a few might slip out.
ATTENTION WEBMASTERS: I’d take it as a personal favor that if you plan to link to this story, please let the video stay here. If you’d like additional content to make your story about this post stand out, get in touch with me on the “about me” page and we’ll talk! – Mojo