BSG VFX: A Thousand Points Of Light

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…



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]


28 Responses to “BSG VFX: A Thousand Points Of Light”

  1. 1 Josh
    June 4, 2008 at 3:00 am

    I really enjoy this blogposts Mojo, thanks!

  2. 2 Boris
    June 4, 2008 at 4:15 am

    BTW, the density of the starfield increases as one gets closer to the center of the galaxy. (Asimov points this out in the Foundation books.) I don’t know whether the density here is correct for the intended position within the galaxy, but I thought I’d mention it since it shouldn’t be driven just by the dramatic requirements of a shot. I can’t tell whether you took this into account or not, though.

  3. June 4, 2008 at 6:07 am

    Have we seen Demetrius from the front before? It looks a bit like a trojan helmet.

  4. 4 LW_Will
    June 4, 2008 at 7:06 am

    Oh, good.

    I just started my first work on PR CGI and my eyes hurt too.

    Thought it was just me.

    So, how long until I’m blind? ;-\

    Yes, there must be realism in the realism that we do. My father worked in a boatyard for years. So there is alot of boats and boat-related things that creep into my meshes.

    I think you go guys right across the spectrum. With the Demetrius you have a utilitarian ship, everything where it is for a reason. Compare that to the the Battlestar or the “gravity ship” or Colonial One… these are meant to look sleek and pleasing to the eye.

  5. 5 reconbot
    June 4, 2008 at 9:26 am

    Even better is when we shout at the screen “Jesus Christ! [that’s beautiful]”. Now only if I could get the show in HD without having to download it off the net…

  6. 6 Christopher
    June 4, 2008 at 9:42 am

    That’s awesome, man — I’m really enjoying this peek behind the SFX curtain. There are some people who say knowing this stuff just destroys your appreciation for it somehow — that it becomes harder to suspend disbelief later on. My feeling is, though, it gets a little easier. That you and the rest of the BSG FX team put this much care into the work is obvious every week, and really does make the show feel real in a way that few shows with a great deal of CGI or other FX works have managed.

    Thanks for taking the time to put these entries together, and I can’t wait to see what’s coming next here and on BSG!

  7. 7 ety3
    June 4, 2008 at 10:08 am

    Great information and images.

    Curious, though. Why, in some of the Demetrius shots, does space look less black than the shadows on the ship?

    Is it because of the aforementioned satellites and poorly-adjusted televisions that you need the brightness to be higher on your end so it’ll look dark on our end?

  8. 8 darthmojo
    June 4, 2008 at 11:28 am

    ETY: Yes, space was a *pinch* brighter in this sequence… since I wanted to keep Demetrius dark, a very dense starfield and slight tint to the backdrop would help keep her visible via sillhouette. Usually, space is pitch black and the ship has a hint of fill light to seperate the object from the backdrop; in this case, we did the opposite (note that the images I put in this post are a bit more exaggerated than what aired to illustrate the point).

    BORIS: While we do take real science into account as often as possible, sometimes dramatic requirements rule the day. Of course, just because we SEE a denser starfield on screen in this episode, doesn’t mean the location of the characters has changed… the amount of stars you can see at any given time is entirely dependent on how much OTHER light pollution is around you… in the middle of the desert on a moonless night, you can actually see the cloud of the Milky Way. The same is true for photography – if the camera has to open the apeture to let more light in, more stars will be resolved; in “The Road Less Traveled,” maybe the local sun was in eclipse, making things darker than usual and thus the camera had to shoot at a wider apeture, making it APPEAR as if there were more stars than usual :-)

  9. 9 RN144
    June 4, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    Hi, I was wondering how exactly do you texture these ships? Do you use UV mapping or apply materials to different sections of the model… and were there light fixtures on the ship before you began adding lights or are we being tricked into believing they’re there?

  10. 10 Peach
    June 4, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    Thanks for this. Believe it or not, I actually wondered how they were getting out to their vipers/raptors and this helped answer the question.

  11. 11 Chris H.
    June 4, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    That is *so cool*.

    Of course, now every time I see a ship onscreen in BSG I’m going to be looking for all the damned lights!

  12. 12 Robert
    June 4, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Interesting that Orion is in the background, correctly oriented as if seen from the direction of Earth. Was that feature included deliberately or was it just a random star patern inclusion?



  13. 13 Jarno
    June 4, 2008 at 10:33 pm

    “Unfortunately, there is no button in Lightwave for `put cool industrial lighting all over the ship,'”

    Is that a feature request?

  14. 14 darthmojo
    June 5, 2008 at 1:41 am

    JARNO: Yes, please add that feature. And an envelope for the eye seperation in stereoscopic rendering!

    ROBERT: Several people have noticed the Orion thing in the last few episodes. We are aware of this. Have you noticed the flying Dagit too?

    RN144: We use mostly normal mapping, but the occasional UV is done when need be. Since we generally wouldn’t be getting close enough to these ships to see a light fixture, most often there isn’t one. That being said, I generally try to put lights where there WOULD be one (above doors, in the corners, etc) so it looks right – if there were big, bright disembodied pools of light across flat surfaces, it would just *feel* like something was wrong. I also like to have light spilling out from areas where you wouldn’t see the fixture, but it is implied.

  15. 15 RN144
    June 5, 2008 at 3:51 am

    Yet you see these little super bright white specks of light before the fading green, did you use smaller white lights to simulate the ‘source’ of the lighting?
    This is mighty interesting and I’m hoping to apply it to my gamemodels, it’d be useful for some great renders. Also, I don’t know if you know this but you’re still using all the ZOIC models? I thought you switched over to an inhouse production, but with the same people I presume then or?

  16. June 5, 2008 at 6:36 am

    Very very clever….I love this blog so much, because it’s amazing to be able to get a look behind the scenes and understand what makes the BSG universe tick. We’re so lucky that this series is in such skilled and evidently passionate hands!
    I’m sure the work can be ball-breaking at times, but the job satisfaction must be immense..Question: Do you have any images of your work blown up/framed and decorating your walls? If so..which ones?
    Nom nom NOM!
    Kitty =^..^=

  17. June 5, 2008 at 8:51 am

    I love this blog! Keep it up! I love this peek into the FX world of such an incredible show! (I also think the BSG effects are better than a lot of motion pictures. The destruction of the Pegasus and the atmospheric jump of the Galactica were two of the coolest scenes ever!)

    I’d like to hear sometime about the space explosions. I’m sure they’re all CG, as opposed to practical explosions overlayed, but the fire effects are incredible in their realism.

  18. June 5, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    All of that in 3 days, that is outstanding. It took me 3 days to make a box, and a ball with horrible results.
    Thanks for the extreme detail that yes out minds might see as back ground noise that help make it a realistic ship. Great lighting, but I can’t see what the source area is for those coffin like row of boxes on top side.

  19. 19 darthmojo
    June 5, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    RN144: Yes, I often have to use two lights for every fixture – one as very hot, tight point to simulate the “source,” and another to cast the actual spill light. If you’re doing work for a game and want to save resources, you could always create a luminosity map of tiny white specs to be the source and then use just one light to cast… or if the light doesn’t flicker or change in any way, you could always just bake the lighting into the texture maps.

    CYLON: Look carefully, you should see tiny bright dots on the corners of the cargo containers, that is the source.

    Also note that EVERY SINGLE light is a different color and luminosity; of course they are all close (green or amber), but in the real world, no two lights are exactly the same color or brightness; in the world of CGI, everything is always exactly the same – it’s our job to build in some imperfection and make it real. So, after I finish the light kit, I go in and slightly alter the color and value of each light. If you look carefully at the renders, you’ll notice slight variations in lights that initally look like clones of each other; in some cases I completely turned off or dimmed lights to imply that the bulbs were either broken to dying (it’s an old ship, after all). These little touches help create realism – if I left every light exactly the same and the rows were all uniterrupted and geometrically perfect, you might not be able to put your finger on it, but when you saw the image something in the back of your mind would tell you it looks fake.

    KITTY: I’d like you have *you* in my skilled and passionate hands!

  20. 20 PKAT
    June 6, 2008 at 4:36 am

    Railroad modelers have a saying “There’s a prototype for everything” but it’s normally used to fend off Nitpickers. However external lighting does exist in the real world. Many civilian airliners have spotlights illuminating their tails making them flying billboards and landing lights do a good job illuminating a lot of the exterior of the jet.

    As was illustrated recently on “Deadliest Catch” the external lighting of the crab boats is highly necessary for not only the deck hands who are working around the clock but the captain too needs illumination for visual clues as to what’s going on in the nearby sea water.

    And military aircraft also have external lighting called Formation Lights so they can see each other while flying in formation in the dark. It’s actually kind of spooky seeing a flight of 4 Phantom II’s with their formation lights on while flying on a moonless night.

    Awesome work! Your lighting effects really make the Demetrius pop!

  21. 21 JustBob
    June 6, 2008 at 11:44 pm


    You, sir, are quite the personality. I was provided an education with regards to lighting techniques (I’m a Lightwave hobbyist….noob) and wonderfully entertained at the same time. Thank you!

    I am sure you are a very busy soul but would you consider producing a training dvd addressing the subject of space and spacecraft lighting? My credit card is ready when you are. :)

  22. 22 Dr. Image
    June 7, 2008 at 9:19 am

    As a professional photographer and collector of Cinefex magazine from issue #1, I applaud your approach totally. It calls to mind not only logic, but Doug Trumbull’s self-illumination concept of the TMP Enterprise miniature (done with an array of dental mirrors!), which resulted in it never looking better. Loads of fill in space shots never made any sense, and I can’t believe so many just never think of it.
    Keep up the great work!

  23. 23 RN144
    June 7, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    Heh, can you tell us how long on average it takes for one frame filled with special effects to render? (or maybe just the ones you did with the lighting)

    also, “The Hub” was great.

  24. 24 scottm4321
    June 7, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    Speaking of stars, do I see the constellation of Orion just above the ship?

  25. June 8, 2008 at 11:42 am

    Since I started getting more into 3D, for some reason I became a bit more critical of the VFX of BSG, and one of the things I am a bit disappointed (no offense intended though to whoever made those shots) it is the lighting of the capital ships in Season 4. Such as the Galactica and most especially the Base Stars. They are brighter than ever before. It’s like they have a dozen bright splotlights embracing their hull. And so i find it funny you talk specifically about lighting in this blog post.

    I must say the Demetrious VFX shots were pretty much my favorite so far in Season 4 along with the whole Racetrack Raptor crash scene and the shots of the Vipers doing the nuke strike on “The Hub”.

    I truely loved the Viper launch and landing shots from the Demetrius, the whole “pad” and lighting, the eerie look and feel. The demetrius itself and the lighting was very awesome and really did give that feel that they are in the middle of nowhere chasing Starbuck’s crazy visions.

    You know, now that you showed us the access ramp, the stairs, and all those details around the landing pad, it makes me wish even more they showed the pilots actually get into their Vipers. When I first saw those shots the FIRST thing that jumped into my mind was “How do they get into their Vipers? How do they get out and back into the Demetrius?” I just wish they had not left that to our imagination, it’d have been very cool to see.

  26. June 26, 2008 at 11:59 am

    Awesome work on the Demetrius. I remember walking through the Demetrius set while it was being built. Matches the style of the interior perfectly.

    Thanks also for the great advice on lighting, I’m anxious to try it on my next project! I’m planning to be a regular here as I see there is lots for me to learn.

  27. 27 MarkHB
    September 24, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    Superb. Thanks for sharing. Setting phasers to “Plagiarise”!

  28. 28 mnwolf
    October 28, 2008 at 7:02 am

    I just wanted to say thank you for posting this, it taught me a good thing starting out :)

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June 2008

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