B5 flashback #2: The Forgotten Miniature

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:



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!

So there.


[CLICK HERE to read B5 Flashback #1]



19 Responses to “B5 flashback #2: The Forgotten Miniature”

  1. June 1, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    Damn, I’d have paid more attention to usenet if I knew you guys were.

    Photoshop did exist at that time, although I’m not sure if it was useful to you all at that point.

    I feel a bit bad that the model wasn’t used at all, after so much work had obviously been spent on it.

  2. 2 Chris H.
    June 1, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    Amazing shots, thanks!

    Of course, there WAS Photoshop back then — Photoshop on the Mac was, IIRC, around 1990 and 2.0 was ported to Windows a couple of years later.

    But that’s just nerdish hair-splitting, because his essential point is unchanged. :)

  3. 3 Tripper
    June 1, 2008 at 7:57 pm

    I remember seeing some of this at a Video Toaster demo given by Kiki Stockhammer at some AV expo. I was buying stuff for a conference center and needed to do some shopping, I turned the corner and there was Kiki, in a miniskirt, on a barstool, giving a demo. Then I spotted her in the B5 pilot in the bar scene.

    Whatever happened to her?

  4. June 1, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    Man, that’s so cool to see these flashbacks to my favorite show of all time. Thanks for these inside looks Mojo :)

  5. 5 Boris
    June 1, 2008 at 9:35 pm

    Thanks for the background info. Are we looking toward the fusion reactor end or away from it, and how much of the theoretical Garden space are we seeing in these shots? Did you work out a cross-section showing this particular model in relation to the station exterior?

  6. 6 Will Silver
    June 1, 2008 at 11:58 pm

    Kiki was at the NAB this year.

    She left NEWTEK to go with the rebel engineers and start PLAY.

    When they folded, she joined a band called Warp 11… that’s a Star Trek “parody” band…
    Now she’s taken her rightful place back in front of the Tricaster for Newtek.

    Right back where she belongs…

  7. 7 JustBob
    June 2, 2008 at 12:36 am

    Usenet use-groups…those were the days! I remember that particular post well. The naysayers were most annoying. They were forming conclusions without the prerequisite facts and, in the end, received a much-needed education. Boy, has time raced by!

  8. June 2, 2008 at 8:15 am

    I just saw Kiki play here in Sacramento a few weeks ago. She was all over the stage, great Trek music.

  9. 9 darthmojo
    June 2, 2008 at 11:44 am

    Photoshop was not yet available for the PC… also note we were primarily using Amiga computers until the second season.

  10. 10 Ryan T. Riddle
    June 2, 2008 at 2:27 pm


    Thanks for these insights into the early days of Babylon 5 (still on of my favorite shows, right after the original Trek and The Prisoner). Keep ’em coming, please.

  11. 11 Matt
    June 2, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    You’ll be glad to know, B5 is still alive and well on Usenet. JMS even pops his head in from time to time (as his insane schedule allows) to keep us updated on the latest myriad pies he has his fingers in. If your ISP doesn’t carry rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated, ask them to pick it up, or use any of a number of free or commercial newsservers out there (I use news.motzarella.org – free but requires registration). Or just go through Google Groups.

  12. 12 Twinkx
    June 3, 2008 at 12:38 am

    Thanks, Mojo, for the fascinating behind-the-scenes looks at the old B5 series. Seeing the birth of the Foundation Imaging legacy is really interesting – the weekly “wow!” factor as each new episode’s work came out was unforgettable, and a large part of what hooked me onto the show. Such a shame the production egos went rampant later in the series, Foundation got replaced and the standard of work dropped. But your legacy remains, and for that we should all be incredibly grateful.

    As for the usenet group – don’t bother – two posts in four months from JMS, and most of them advertising something from the Straczynski Franchise (books, convention appearances etc) or plain old ego-stroking!

  13. 13 Seanboy
    June 3, 2008 at 4:29 am


    Thanks for letting us get an inside peak at one of the best TV shows ever!
    hard to believe its gone over 10 years now.

  14. 14 David
    June 3, 2008 at 7:21 am

    As always, Thanks Mojo!

    Since I spotted your first B5 post, my wife and I have been watching an episode a night of B5. What a treat on all levels, story, characters and images. Last night, Lieta helped take out their first shadow vessel, and I was trying to imagine how you guys managed the shrivel effect on the ship “back” then.

    And for those who it might matter to, registered user #73 of sculpt 3D here.. the first “desktop” 3D modeler and renderer for the Amiga. But boy-o-boy, I remember getting that video toaster and how excited I was to crack open Lightwave! Those were the days!

    Look at you were able to do with stone knives and bear skins!

  15. 15 Raipe
    June 3, 2008 at 11:49 am

    Thank you for sharing those photos and memories. B5 is still the best show ever to grace the medium of TV. One of the biggest reason for it’s quality is the crew’s dedication for making those small details with care and class. I hope there will be more flashbacks and shared experiences.

    – Riku

  16. June 3, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    B5 is the #1 reason behind me wanting to get a job in TV/film. Such behind-the-scenes looks are much appreciated. Thank you!

  17. 17 Byong
    June 6, 2008 at 7:01 am

    Very cool. I love hearing about the background thought. Thanks for sharing.

  18. 18 alextree
    July 17, 2008 at 7:20 am

    I am really enjoying these flashbacks – I started watching B5 when I was ten, and me and my younger siblings really feel like we grew up on it. My sister still watches the whole series through every year or two, like other people read all of Tolkien every summer.

  19. 19 Anonymous
    April 29, 2015 at 10:33 pm

    Photoshop, was not the only answer.
    I would have imported or scan photographs. Strip the chroma to make a gray scale image, made a bump map; then a reflective map (great effect for the lakes) and finally a color map. Repeat the same process for the buildings. All this would go into the image definitions for the cylinder model. Tile if necessary.

    I know this works because I used the same method, but for a planet (sphere object).

    The only major issue would have been the rendering time.

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June 2008

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