bsg vfx: anatomy of a cylon

It’s no secret that I’m the biggest fan of the original Battlestar currently working on the new incarnation; you could almost say I’m the “ambassador” of the 1979 version, always looking for opportunities to include classic Galactica material on the current series. It was maybe two years ago that I was talking to [writer/producer] David Weddle and hypothesized, “you know, if we ever did a flashback to the first Cylon war (maybe something that showed us what Adama was like as a young pilot), it would showcase the original hardware! Remember the miniseries museum scene?” He thought about it for a second and said, “yeah, I suppose you’re right.”

Of course, a flashback like that would be a wet dream for any fan of the original series, but would it ever happen?

Eighteen months later, Mr. Weddle came up to me in commissary and said, “Mojo, you’re going to get your wish.”

Anyone who’s seen Razor, (the BSG DVD project made between seasons three and four), knows exactly what he was talking about. Not only were we going to get a huge, all-out battle between original series spaceships, it was decided to go for broke and give the fans what they’ve really wanted to see – old school Cylons.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, those chrome-plated, sword-wielding, skirt-wearing, “by your command” shouting robots were returning – and the visual effects team were going to make damn sure they came back ready to kick ass, take names and blow up the list of names.

Gary Hutzel (visual effects supervisor), had one important direction in mind for the all-new old Cylons; first, they would be all CGI (say goodbye to the guy in a suit) and, in an important follow-up to the first concept, they should be so hardcore that no one looking at them would even think it could be a guy in a suit. The task of breathing new life into our old friends went to Galactica’s chief engineer/CG model maker, Pierre Drolet.

“In 1978, Battlestar Galactica  was my favorite show,” Pierre remembers. “And it was already very exciting when, five years ago, Gary used my re-design of the Viper (Mk II) for the new series. But to have a chance to redesign the actual Cylon Centurion was really, really exciting!”

The driving force behind the update was to, essentially, make the Cylons look the way they were always intended – big, scary, completely robotic, solid-steel killing machines.

[NOTE: These images are Pierre’s final study renders, originally created for internal use only.  I wanted fans to finally have a chance to see how detailed these models are, so here they are – seen for the first time outside BSG]  “I always thought it was a great design,” Pierre explained. “My goal was not to redesign it from scratch, but to work with the original and make subtle additions.” A key factor in retaining the basic look of the Centurion was to keep the upper body panels, which now act as the protective armor for the complex gears, servos and other sensitive, human-hating parts that make up the basic Cylon endo-skeleton.

From the back, we see that the large power cell/backpack has been faithfully reproduced. Perhaps the biggest surprise was, against all odds (and the office betting pool), Pierre actually managed to keep a hint of the original skirt! Now, instead of it being an actual, fabric skirt designed to hide deficiencies in the costume, we have a piece of flexible armor, further protecting the mechanisms within.


Also created was a bigger, beefier version of the Centurion known as the “Cylon Soldier” (as seen in the Tauron ground battle in Razor. Didn’t see it? Buy the DVD, it’s part of the extended version). Primary differences between this and the Cylon “pilot” model are a slightly redesigned, more aggressive head, additional flexible armor and handy belt of ammo clips. Below is a tasty reference image that will let you compare both models (click picture to enlarge and drool over):


Here’s a “before and after” picture comparing the original Cylon costume from 1978 with the updated CGI version:

For all of us, Razor  was one of the visual effects highlights of working on this show; the schedule was grueling and we probably put in more hours in the studio than we did at home, but you know what? We were giggling the whole time. Sure, we had been working with Vipers and Raiders and Cylons for a few years already, but this time was different – this time is was the Vipers and Raiders and Cylons we grew up with – the ones that inspired us to become visual effects artists in the first place. I’m sorry, did I say we were working with Cylons? I think I meant playing.

Perhaps the best image to demonstrate how much fun all this hard work can be is the render Pierre did after it was time to go home (click picture to engourge):

Which do you prefer, classic or new Centurion? Let us know in the comments!

EXTRA EXTRA!  There is now a part two to this story… check it out here.

(COMING SOON: The Sound of Cylons…)







55 Responses to “bsg vfx: anatomy of a cylon”

  1. 1 The Hey
    May 12, 2008 at 6:06 am

    I like the render of the “classic” centurion but the new style is still bad ass especially in the current story line where they shoot first take commands later.

  2. 2 Elizabeth
    May 12, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    You know those are incredible. You should know that those original cylons that inspired you to do visual effects have definitely inspired me to pursue the art. Thank you so much. The original centurions in Razor were some of the coolest things i’ve ever seen.

  3. May 12, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    You guys did a great job with these. To be honest, seeing pictures of the originals after seeing the re-imagined series made them appear a bit cheesy. However, their redesign in Razor definitely brought back the menace!

    To answer your question, I still find the new Centurions more terrifying, there’s just something about the curved swooping lines of their shoulders and the machine gun hands!

  4. May 12, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    Thanks for the behind the scenes look, Moj. The new Cylons are very cool, but I would have to go with the classic. It’s kind of like picking between a ’60s Mustang and the current model. They’re both great cars, but I tend to prefer the original.

  5. 5 Roy
    May 12, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    Mojo, you may be the biggest fan of the original BSG but I’m the 527th biggest fan! … No wait, that didn’t come out right.

    Uh, in any case, suffice it to say despite being very impressed with the current reimagining of BSG, I was a little underwhelmed by the new and improved Centurions; they’re not very toaster-like.

    So imagine my excitement when I read on The Digital Bits (www.thedigitalbits.com) that “Razor” was gonna feature the original toasters (albeit in CG).

    Great, post, man.

  6. May 12, 2008 at 9:19 pm

    While I love the old school Cylon CG remakes, the new Centurians are far more terrifying than the old ones. Their heads just have this sinister look to them, especially after some of the latest story lines. However, going back to the old school Centurians, the remodeling of them for Razor is badass. They finally have the menacing look they should have always have. But again, the new “taller” ones have the slight edge in the menacing department.

  7. May 13, 2008 at 3:45 am

    OH MY GOD! I just stumbled across your blog and I am sooooo loving it! It’s Brilliant, you write so eloquently for a start, and I love your photography and your captions:) But..BUT..I’m loving your BSG stuff beyond belief…your line of work sounds amazing and must be so fulfilling! Anyways, I’m hooked on BSG-watching this latest series on Sky here in the UK. I loved Razor too-saw it as soon as it came out on DVD and thought it was just fabulous, and was utterly gob-smacked at the centurions..so your photographs and writings have just made my day:))
    The re-rendering of the original cylons is beyond superb..it’s been done so well that it just seems like a natural development on the original designs whilst retaining their spirit. However I do agree with Dave..the new cylons are menacing, evil and uber chuffing cool!

    Thank you!

    Kitty =^..^=

  8. 8 Galley
    May 13, 2008 at 4:14 am

    Classic Cylon!

  9. May 13, 2008 at 7:55 am

    Holly Cow this is great. Dude I though when I read the head line you were just a wanna be Cylon fan till I read your involvement in this bad ass work. I think I might have topped me, and YES I AM A BIG FAN of the original Cylon design, and the Razor CG. I do love the new show also, but my roots of fandom are based off the original Cylon. I own a screen used Cylon, and have a Cylon builders forum, but dude you worked on this so to me that trumps me. That to me is the crown jewel of a real Cylon fan to have worked on this new retro Cylon. I guess my real (wearable) helmet I am sculpting is the next best thing I can do, or have since CG can’t be used. Glad to see the assume detail to the Cylon like the salt and pepper shaker holes, and a realistic look, and feel to this design. By far the best follow up design ever seen, and Pierre’s metal flap skirt was perfect. Hats off to Pierre and your work. I have finally met a TRUE equal to me faithful to the original Cylon.

  10. 10 Thomas Jensen
    May 13, 2008 at 8:02 am

    You know, I like guys who pay homage to an original version of a show by re-designing and updating objects which are recognizable, yet, are new and related visually to that original show.

    That’s one of the many things I love about this new Battlestar Galactica, because I was 20 when the original came out I was very critical of it. I wasn’t quite young enough to accept it as being very good. I wanted it to be better then it ended up being. Watched all the episodes once, then basically forgot about it. So, when the new show debuted, it really stepped up to the plate and hit it out of the park, as far as I’m concerned.

    I hope the Star Trek movie guys can do it too in the same fashion. …Love the CGI guys, you really help make this show truly one of the best sci-fi/drama shows ever made.

  11. May 13, 2008 at 9:06 am

    When it comes to Cylons, I’m not looking for menacing. I’m looking for right. Sure the design of the new Cylon is neat looking, but it’s not as universal looking as the older Cylons. I’d go for this newer version of the classic Cylon Centurion because it’s not the looks that make it menacing, it’s what it does. Plus the older versions look more “alien” too. =)

  12. May 13, 2008 at 10:10 am

    Until Razor, I most definitely preferred the reimagined Centurions to the guys in suits. But now…I think the old school ones are quite badass! Especially when one is hurtling through the air, arm-wrestling with “Husker”…

  13. 13 Aj
    May 13, 2008 at 11:54 am

    The classic toasters are shinier, but the new ones are, well, more killer. Both are awesome. Thanks for the post.

  14. 14 Marcus
    May 13, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    First of all, thank you for helping create the best show on television.

    Second, Is there anyway you can make that picture of the two cylons staring at eachother available with the text at the bottom instead. I want to selfishly geek out with that as my iPhone wallpaper. You have no idea how happy that would make me, and that’s a bit sad.

    Thanks again!

  15. 15 Kraig
    May 13, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    Hey, I’ve been working on videogames for the last 10 years, and I really love hearing your thought process on reimagining this stuff. Super friggin cool stuff.

  16. May 13, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    I was weary of seeing the old school cylons in the new series but it worked out so well with the tweakage. Droolage

  17. 17 Chad N.
    May 13, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    The classic Cylons look great with all of the modern tweeks, but I love the new Cylon Centurions more!

  18. May 14, 2008 at 8:52 am

    Looks like the CGI old school Cylon spent more time in the gym than its costumed brother (who looks like he spent more time in the pub… Look at that belly :))

  19. May 14, 2008 at 9:02 am

    In 1992 I had an interview at a company working on a star trek video game, and was given to one of their artists to go over my portfolio. The guy was very encouraging, and nice. When we were done, I asked to see his. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but it was Andy Probert, so among starship designs (such as the enterprise-d) was the original cylon design. I think I wet myself!
    That was my biggest happy fan-boy moment ever.

    I love the redesign of TOS centurians, but the RDM ones have my vote for best.

  20. May 14, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    I’ve gotta go with the redesigned TOS Centurions, if only because I’m a big fan of exposed pistons.

  21. 21 Towaway
    May 14, 2008 at 9:52 pm

    Fan-frakkin’-tastic! That face to face shot should be made poster size!!!!!!!!
    You guys understand what so many who are “re-imagining” classics….a respect and love for the original. Keep up the great work!

  22. 22 Scott A
    May 15, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    Even though I love the new series’ CGI Centurions… and their built-in guns make a lot of sense… I still have to go with the original look Centurions. I just think that the solid look of the chest and helmets make them look scarier.

    But then, maybe that’s because old-school Cylons “captured” the tram I was riding in at Universal Studios when I was a kid.

    That had to be the highlight of my life when I was six years old, even if I did know it was all part of the tour and not real. When the Colonial Warriors “rescued” us, the laser battle was one of the best “you are there” theme park moments I’ve ever experienced. :-)

  23. 23 Biguns
    May 15, 2008 at 6:18 pm

    I love the work done on the CGI classic centurians, as seen in Razor. I am not a huge fan of the other CGI new style centrurians as seen in the Battlestar miniseries. They always looked to thin to be a real threat; like a giant metal Kate Moss. I much prefer the original 70’s Cylons over all the rest – sure they are big and slow, but they are so damn shiny. I love the real reflections of their suits, and the way the light bounces of them. Even if they look like robot disco balls… :)

  24. May 15, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    I’m going to have to cast a vote in favor of the old school Cylons. You just can’t reproduce all of that glitter that makes them look like giant walking bling!

  25. May 16, 2008 at 12:44 am

    Give me two of those and I’ll show you just how well 2 Cylons can “interact” with each other.
    Did this with 2 Terminators a while ago:
    Make Love Not War

  26. May 16, 2008 at 12:44 am

    Bless ya, Mojo. BSG TOS lives on (in a fashion) with work like this. Hope to see your influence in “Caprica.” :) Still wish Richard Hatch had been successful with his efforts, or even Tom DeSanto. We would have been treated to even more old school BSG.

  27. May 16, 2008 at 5:01 am

    I’m curious .. is Pierre Drolet from Québec ? With a name like that he must be a Quebecois. If so, I’m very proud that one of my ”compatriote” in this wonderful series.

    Keep on the excellent work.

  28. May 16, 2008 at 9:53 am

    “Razor” was a huge treat for both me and my son, 1st and 2nd generation fans with particular love for the Cylon Centurions. We love the badass new ones too, but the originals still are first in both our hearts, especially with their dryly sarcastic personalities. The non-speaking new models don’t have that appeal – though it seems now that they’ve been given self-determination, personalities may start to develop.

    My son always cracks at the line in the original pilot when Imperious Leader is bitching to Flight Leader Serepentine about his attack on the Galactica failing despite the fact that “we took them by surprise.” With that robot monotone it’s hard to be sure, but taken one way, Serpentine’s answer could be seen as evidence that centurions lack a sense of irony, but taken another, it seems like he’s backtalking some serious smarm at his superior: “It appears that it was not as big a surprise as we had hoped for.” My son’e reaction was like, “Oh man, he’s totally dissing Imperious Leader – TO HIS FACE!”

    So it was with great pleasure we watched “Razor” and were rewarded with old school centurions, even if they only spoke once. Seeing the redesigned original raiders were cool too – perhaps you could post some images of the classic raiders and the “Razor” redesign too, huh? :)

  29. May 20, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    Classic! The new one looks kind of humpback?

  30. 30 Freakshow
    May 24, 2008 at 8:19 pm

    Classics always. the new ones are pretty lame looking. Like a rip off of the super battle driod from Attack of The Clones. The old one really looks more menacing and more capable to me than the new sleek weak framed new ones.

  31. 31 Mark
    June 3, 2008 at 1:29 am

    Hi i love the old Cylon better they look more cool i own a old Cylon suit and have it on display in my home looks really good but i would also like to have one of the the new Cylon (Razor) cylons to one day?? IM a big fan of the old Battlestar Galactica show im not to ken on the new one !!!! they should of contiued the story for the 1978 show would of been much better, i also collect BG items i have a few, anyone what a chat then e mail me back.



  32. June 12, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    When my father first got desktop access to a UNIX (yes, UNIX, not UN*X, he worked for Bell Labs) machine, it was back around the time that BG classic was winding to a close.

    He set his standard prompt to

    by your command%

  33. 33 Mark
    June 24, 2008 at 3:19 am

    Hi, im Mark from England and im a big fan of Battlestar Galactica espically the old 1970’s one and i collect items to do with BG and have my own Cylon on display in my house a old 1970’s one hopig to have one in gold oneday!!!!!!!! Are there any fans out there that collect items to do with BG etc??? Also i have watched RAZOR cool to see the old cylons back in it they the best ones, will they be in any more new BG shows???? I do ike the old cylons the best.


    Mark (UK-Manchester)

  34. 34 Joe B
    June 28, 2008 at 10:49 am

    I really liked the new cylons in the RDM series..more up to date, etc.

    But after seeing the old school cylons reworked, I have to wonder if they wouldn’t have worked just as well or better than the new versions.

    The updated (old school) design is just so badass, I wish we could get to see more of them on screen.

  35. 35 Mark
    July 2, 2008 at 6:50 am

    Hi, does anyone know if the old Cylons will be in the next series of battlestar Galctica after the Razor Series???????? Also does anyone on here collect items to do with BG like any one have their own Cylon etc


  36. 36 Ned
    July 18, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Hey, got any new CGI Cylon Centurion images to put up?
    Man, I like them CGI Centurions; they’re so cool and so
    Thanks for the awesome pics and keep up the good work.

  37. 38 Nemo
    February 25, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    In a sense I like the Old, Old cylons the best because of the shining glitter :P

    But the New Old ones have better design (evidently because the don’t need a guy in lol), yet lack that glitter and chromed apperance…

    New, New ones are not that cool, but yes, they are more “future-like”.

  38. 39 dave
    March 1, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    Hi, sorry but I really do like the original, Football player in a shiny suit Cylons. No matter how good the CGI there’s nothing better than something really being there, the updated version has an insubstantial quality too it, they give an air of weakness, They looked very unconvincing in the scene’s too, if you’ve got a small budget doing shiney things reflecting a real enviroment is always going to show you up.

  39. March 22, 2009 at 7:34 am

    Not super hi-res, or anything (but too big for most games, I’d imagine) — in case you wanted a copy just for the frack of it, here’s a CG

    http://www.whatever3d.com/freebies/Cylon.exe (3.9 MB)

    (it’s in Poser format, BTW, but that’s an Alias Wavefront OBJ so it’s easy to extract)

  40. March 22, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    BTW I Wanted to note (I found this while looking up photoreference for my TOS cylon) — the “Face off” picture is really great in concept, but the reflection maps used are inappropriate. This is most apparent on the shinier Razor/Finale style cylon on the left — it’s reflecting things that aren’t there. That makes it look fake.

    Another thing — it’s the same reflection map used in everything, which from what I can tell is the same shot that’s used for the background scene. That’s a fine trick most of the time, but you have to be very careful when you’re dealing with rounded surfaces like the paldrons and helmet — since reflection maps are projected onto a sphere and then reflected off the surface, it causes an effect where the pole of that sphere makes all the lights come into a visible pole, which is clearly not the case above the cylon from the background picture itself.

    I’ve found it’s better to edit the picture to make the poles go away. A very easy trick is to make sure the top 1/3 of the reflection map (or the bottom 1/3 if looking from below) doesn’t have any noticable detail. You can check the map ahead of render simply by dumping it onto a sphere using a standard spherical projection.

    Another option is to use three photos — one looking out, one looking up and one looking down, and merge them carefully in photoshop. Then you can leave in the details, and still avoid the “star arrangement ceiling lights” effect that the paldron and helmet keep getting there.

  41. 43 John
    May 13, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    I like the old Cylons… cant find a good wallpaper of one yet… good pix here though

  42. 45 pedro05
    June 25, 2009 at 6:00 am

    I like the render of the clasic, the only thing that bugs me is the idea that the soldure is sapose to remble roman leagonares thus the sword on the old clasic, it is the only thing I think you are missing I thought it was really cool in the clasic battlestar.

  43. 46 Awar
    August 2, 2009 at 11:52 am

    I like the new model as a solider but as a body guard/pilot I like the older model CGI redsign.

  44. 47 m.steyger
    December 6, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    i still like the original cylons.

  45. 48 Karl
    March 25, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    Your version of the original ‘classic’ Cylon is by far the best.

  46. 49 PoklahFX
    July 10, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    I vote for the new classic but with the glittering shine from the old one.
    as for the new centurion i can still accept, but the humanoids cylon?

  47. February 15, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    If you check out my website you guys can see the original concept sketches I did for these “retro” cylons.
    One of the things Gary said NOT to include in my concepts for these beasts was a skirt, as some folks thought it would be too much like the 1970’s Cylons.
    I was also asked to make it really obvious that these would in no way be mistaken for an actor in a suit…hence the complex leg joints.
    What Pierre did with these critters is nothing short of awesome.
    I Liked the tank tread idea Pierre built into his model…much classiness there.

  48. 51 James Threats
    March 13, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    I prefer classic, chrome rules.By your command!

  49. May 18, 2011 at 8:12 am

    always been a big fan of battlestar. love the roving red eyeballs and monotone cold voices of the cylons. these just added to the scary cold nature of these machines. would love to have a cylon suit w/roving eyeballs and talk some monotone trash to oil company executives and some congressmen and senators right now!!! can you hear me now???

  50. 53 Anonymous
    October 18, 2011 at 9:08 am

    I orefer the classic cylon !

  51. 54 Owen Wildish
    December 28, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    Oooh I think the CGI “classic” version” is brillient can’t wait to see them in action, I’ve always loved the original 70s Cylons and that voice they use, I quite like the re-imaged versions but I’m only just getting to know them as I only just managed to get my first taste on new Battlestar, people are going to kill me for this buuuut I have a request, or a question, depending on how you take it, as a Doctor Who fan (aah I said it) what would you do if you could redesign the Cybermen from Doctor Who (complete with thier iconic handlebar heads) if you ever had a chance? seeing what’s been done to the Cylons,I really would love to see your version :)

  52. 55 Matt Kohutek
    June 18, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    Defiantly old school cylons!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Don’t like the spidery looking hands on new models. Plus the long stretched look of the head looks sort of awkward because there doesn’t seem to have a purpose for it to be that way. The design for the old cylon seems very practical and functional. Form following function for a really efficient battle fighting combat robotic unit.

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May 2008

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