Babylon 5 turned the sci-fi world on it’s pointed ear by being the first-ever production to use zeroes and ones instead of film and models to create visual effects. That’s right, folks, the CGI nightmares you must endure all summer long can be traced back to 1992 in Valenica, California! Computer effects pioneer Ron Thornton had seen the writing on the wall and convinced Warner Brothers that it was possible to forego plastic spaceships on strings in favor microchips on desktops. Despite being billed as the first all-CG effects show, Babylon 5 almost had a dirty little secret…
Images of spaceships and distant planets had sold Warners on the idea of CGI, but the B5 pilot script also called for “the garden sector” of the station. Deep inside the massive, rotating centrifuge, lay the main living section – complete with apartment buildings, office space, lakes, trees and a lot of green pasture. Could CGI do that in 1992?
“Well, remember back then there was no Photoshop [for the PC or Amiga],” pointed out Thornton. “I was very nervous about trying to create something so organic as trees and lakes to the sufficient level of detail. But I knew we could probably build a decent miniature…”
It was for this very reason that Foundation Imaging (the company Thornton founded to create the effects for B5) included a sizable workshop/stage adjacent to the office space. In July of 1992, work began on the miniature of the centrifuge interior, seen here for the very first time:
Carving out the basic topography of the landscape.
More finely detailed sculpting helps create scale (note the addition of rivers and outlets coming off the main lakes).
In the background you can see some of the bits of high-tech detail (called “nurnies”) that will be duplicated and combined to create the living quarters, support structures and other hardware that let you know this giant landscape is inside a spaceship. In the foreground are tiny, hobby-shop trees and bushes, ready to populate the landscape and give it life.
This “miniature” was six foot high, twenty feet long and built in two, curved sections to make construction easier; here you can see the sections combined into something that is beginning to resemble the Garden Sector. You’re probably thinking, “good god, that was supposed to look real?? Remember, in the world of visual effects, whether it be a real-world miniature or CGI, a good paint job and the right lighting makes all the difference. The image below was taken specifically to mimic the kind of lighting that would be used to photograph the final model:
See the difference a little airbrushing and the right angle can make?
So why was the model abandoned? “I decided to drop the miniature when we were not even 25% finished but had spent most of the money,” Thornton recalls. “I was being optimistic about the capacity of the model unit and how much time it would take. We had to try short cutting the process, and to me the result was less than wonderful.”
This meant the only option left was to rebuild the model from scratch inside the computer – something Ron initially didn’t feel was possible. “I just had to improvise,” he said. “Making the Centrifuge in Lightwave in multiple passes was our only choice. It wasn’t fantastic… but it got better as the show progressed.” Here’s an image of what it looked like in the 2-hour pilot film & first season:
The show rarely called for full CG shots inside the garden, so the model was left alone for more than a year (many of the live-action scenes that featured the Garden as a backdrop utilized a matte painting by Eric Chauvin).
It was at the end of the second season for “The Fall of Night” that the show featured its first fully-realized sequence inside the Centrifuge. We knew the original CG model simply wasn’t going to hold up, so it was decided to completely rebuild it; not only were there new tools and more mature software available, the experience of almost two years lent itself to the creation of a far improved model, seen here in a still from the final episode of season two:
Now all this may look very pretty, but is there any real science behind having lakes and trees and barbecues inside a giant spaceship? Way back in 1996, one particular B5 fan had been arguing (in a usenet message group) that the whole idea of lakes on a spacestation was “foolish” and he was glad we didn’t see more of it. Here is the response Ron & I crafted to answer him and the other naysayers:
USENET FLASHBACK – OCTOBER 1996
According to the book “High Frontier,” by Dr. Gerard K. O’Neil (which introduced the concept of the L-5 space station on which B5 is based), lakes might very well have a place.
The amount of water needed by 250,000 people (assuming even a recycled minimum of a gallon per day each) is staggering. The practical question arises: where are you going to store it? The area needed to hold such quantities would be the SIZE of a lake, so why not just make one (or several)?
Also, let us not forget the 20 square miles or so of vegetation and plant life that need water too, so storing it nearby makes plenty of sense from an irrigation standpoint. In addition, lakes would create the much-needed humidity for such an environment.
The large bodies of water also act as an integral counter balance for weight elsewhere in the station. If one locale contains a high concentration of living areas and people, the water (in addition to other balancing schemes) will help spread the weight distribution and prevent the station from rotating off-axis.
Last but not least, NASA itself determined that people would have a psychological need for such bodies of water if they are to remain in an enclosed environment for an extended period of time.
The bottom line is: The water has to be on the station somewhere, and keeping it in lakes solves many problems simultaneously!