Imagine you’re driving on a moonless night in a desolate area with no street lights. Now let’s say your car’s headlights don’t work and you’re approaching an 18-wheeler who’s decided to have some fun by turning off all his illumination. The above image is pretty much the last thing you’d see before a bright, orange and yellow fireball reminds you to get your headlights fixed. It’s also what you’d see on Battlestar Galactica if we didn’t put some lights on our spaceships!
Adding a “self-lighting” kit (aka running lights) is generally the finishing touch when completing one of BSG’s models, but this oft-ignored phase can sometimes be the most important part of the process.
For the vast majority of space scenes, we like to “edge light” the ships; this means positioning the key light (usually the sun) at an extreme angle so as to only catch the edge of the model. Here’s an example using a Cylon Baseship:
See how only a small section of it is catching the light? We do this for three basic reasons: The look of Battlestar Galactica is very dark and contrasty, almost like a film noir; since the visual effects should be consistent with the live action, we’re always mindful of matching the look. Secondly, the less you see of something fake, the better; even the best physical miniature in the world is going to look like ass if you bathe it in bright light – edge lighting is flattering to CG models. Finally, we prefer this style of lighting because it looks awesome!
Of course, if 90% of the model is black and you’re photographing it against the black background of space guess what you’d see? That’s right, a whole big mess of high-definition, crystal-clear nothing. That’s where self-lighting comes into play. In the image above, the interior lighting of the Baseship highlights just enough of the surface so you can still make out what it is, even in darkness.
Usually our approach to running lights in a minimalistic one and we generally add just enough to fill in the blanks; however, the Demetrius would prove to be a special case…
IN THE DARK
It’s always fun to experiment with giving a scene a unique look, but of course if we’re going to break with the established style, it has to be dramatically motivated. FX Supervisor Gary Hutzel assigned me the sequence at the beginning of “The Road Less Traveled,” which begins with Starbuck and her crew on board the Demetrius, searching for Earth. Essentially, this entire storyline is about being all alone in the vastness of space, looking for a needle in a haystack. I wanted to try and get this feeling across visually, so I began with a super-dense starfield to suggest the endless sea Starbuck has to search through. The backdrop was given a subtle blue tint to make the environment feel cold and lonely, an idea that I thought should also be reflected in the lighting.
Normally, we use a very bright, sharply-defined source as sunlight. However, to create a unique mood for this episode, I wanted to make it feel as it there was no sunlight at all and Demetrius was being lit by space itself. What I came up with looked something like this (click to enlarge):
Very nice, very spooky, but very dark! There was no way we’d be able to put shots like this on the air; by the time it went over the satellite and got beamed to all the poorly-adjusted TVs out there, people would think they’d gone blind. I didn’t want to pump a lot of extra light into the scene, since that would destroy the mood I was after… so what could I do?
I knew that by covering Demetrius with a slew of tiny running lights, the ship would essentially become self-illuminated; little pools of light from head to stern would create contrast and let the viewer know what ship they were looking at. My first step would be to decide on art direction for the lighting scheme. As nice as it would be just to throw a bunch of lights all over the ship, something random and haphazard would look… well, it would look random and haphazard. You, the viewer, would point to the screen and shout, “hey, that doesn’t look real, that looks random and haphazard!” Or, more likely, “Jesus that looks like ass.” So, if I wanted to avoid ass-ness, I needed to come up with “a look.”
Since Demetrius is essentially an industrial freighter in space, I clicked over to my good friend Google Image Search and began to look for reference. Here are two pictures that began to point me in the right direction:
Since people are familiar with the amber & green color scheme of industrial lights, I knew that using the same motif on Demetrius would give it a feeling of realism; matching the layout of the lighting on real ships would provide further visual clues that Demetrius was an industrial vessel.
Unfortunately, there is no button in Lightwave for “put cool industrial lighting all over the ship,” so I sat there and placed little, tiny lights in every nook and cranny of the Demetrius. Using these and other photos for reference, after three days and 157 clicks of the “add light” button, I came up with this (click for bigness):
Not only do the self-lights help illuminate the ship and define its shape, they go a long way towards providing a sense of scale; all those tiny splashes of light and little “bulbs” make the ship look huge! Here’s the view from the front:
Self-lighting is often the final touch that brings a model to life, creating interest and the illusion of detail where there was none before. Part of the trick is to place lights where it looks like they might belong; see those bright, round bits at the bottom of the above image? I have no idea what they’re supposed to be, but they became floodlights. It’s also important to have multiple scales of lighting; from the distance you can see the large pools of light, but when the camera moves in closer, smaller details emerge:
Landing lights are generally blue, so I used that scheme to surround the Viper platform. See the small ladder leading up to the platform on the bottom right? People need to see where they’re going, so it was a natural area to illuminate. Speaking of the Viper platform, take another look at the reference images up above and you’ll see the real-world solution that inspired this concept:
Nothing beats reality! Fortunately, model maker Pierre Drolet (of Cylon Centurion fame) peppered the Demetrius with incredibly fine detail, providing me with plenty of logical places for lighting. If you look carefully at the center left in the picture above (click for hugeosity), you can make out a tiny walkway where pilots can get from the Demetrius to their Vipers. Here’s a better look at it:
Yes, Pierre is a madman. Of course, it takes an equal amount of insanity to spot a tiny walkway that no one is every going to see and put even tinier lights all over it. Still, as crazy as it may seem, there is a method behind the madness – while we never got close enough to clearly see the walkway, even from the distance, your eyes can subliminaly detect that there is a something logical going on in that part of the ship; if the lights were just tossed in randomly, you would still detect that something wasn’t right, eventually causing you to point at the screen and shout “ass!”
In the end, this alarmingly anal attention to detail paid off; the already gorgeous Demetrius got a face lift that took her up a notch in realism, and I had the tools I needed to make my shots work. With the addition of the self-lighting, I was free to be as dark and spooky as I wanted to. Compare the original shot of the Demitrius with this one (click for monstrosity):
And all it took were three days, 157 lights and a whole lot of Visene…
Coming up next on Darth Mojo: I get some sleep!
[CLICK HERE to read the previous BSG VFX post]