A few days ago, in the comments section, I revealed that the CGI stars as seen in that backgrounds of Battlestar Galactica were, for the most part, random. They are an accurate representation of what stars look like from Earth, but they were randomly placed. This greatly shocked and disappointed a small legion of fans who had been analyzing these backgrounds for clues; by screen-capturing images of the stars and overlaying constellations, they had been hoping to pinpoint the exact location of The Fleet and how close they were to Earth. The revelation that all their time had essentially been wasted because the visual effects team hadn’t actually planted any clues left them very cross indeed…
I ran across a few posts in various forums where this disappointment had grown to anger; some of these fans felt betrayed that we didn’t put as much thought into the starfields as they did and actually chastised the FX crew for their “slap in the face to real science.” I normally don’t let myself get caught up in online debates, but I felt compelled to respond to these accusation and have drafted an open letter to any and all of the astronomy buffs who feel they didn’t get their money’s worth from Battlestar Galactica:
First of all, it really stings to hear you imply that the work I or any of my co-workers did was a “slap in the face” to real science. I personally cut my CGI teeth painstakingly animating Babylon Five’s Starfuries to move with real physics and both Ron Thornton and myself were very proud to be bringing at least some “real science” to science fiction.
From B5 to BSG, much thought was put into making sure the visual effects were as real as the story would allow (I assume it’s a given to fans that poetic license in telling the story always comes before technical accuracy). In fact, hats of to BSG’s VFX supervisor Gary Hutzel for making sure we always moved the ships with zero-G dynamics and put in the RCS thrusters (sometimes it slipped by).
So much work and effort goes into creating FX on BSG’s scale for a weekly series, I hope you can understand that we all have to set our priorities – naturally, the ships on screen get top billing over the starfield backdrop. For the most part, we paid attention to the stars insomuch as to make sure they were visible and rendered properly.
There were occasions when I did manipulate the stars for artistic affect – sometimes, to imply that our characters were really “out there,” I made sure we saw more stars than usual, or I’d change the star pattern (or add a nebula) after a jump to show that they had gone a very long distance.
But the thought that people might analyze the stars in the hopes of finding clues simply never crossed anyone’s mind. With all the work that was going into making the ships look right, all I can ask is forgiveness in not spending extra time thinking about how people might be framegrabbing and studying the backdrops.
As I stated earlier, during last season I noticed that people had been recognizing Orion’s Belt, so at that point we made a conscious effort to at least rotate the stars so the same exact backdrop didn’t keep appearing (when you start up LightWave (our 3D software), it has the camera facing a default direction – unless we have a very good reason not to, all our animations start off facing that direction. So, when the Starpro plugin generates its stars, we would always get the same view unless we purposely went the extra step of manually rotating the stars. Which we did!).
At this point it was too late to go back and think about “realistic” star placement based on the fleet’s location. With so much work to do, can you blame us? Some have said “there is plenty of software that can easily do this…” Ok, let’s look at the process that would have been involved here:
- Figure out where the fleet actually is in the storyline
- Find a program that would generate a starfield from this location (potentially anywhere in the Milky Way galaxy)
- Figure out some way to translate that map to LightWave (something that would have required extensive R&D)
- Make sure every animator is religiously following the procedure
- Explain to the producers that all the FX shots are late because of the extra time needed to insure the stars were correctly placed
- Learn to love eating dog food when you get fired
And remember, all of the time and effort in doing this would be to satiate the viewers who might be analyzing the backgrounds.
It saddens me to think that any fan of the show would look down on the hard work of the VFX crew because we didn’t foresee this sort of microscopic analysis of our work. If I had to do it all over again, with the knowledge that a small minority of the audience would be paying that kind of attention, you know what? I actually would make an effort to see if we could “get it right,” because I’m a nerd. Right now I’ll tell you that taking even ten minutes to do this would be at the chagrin of most supervisors and producers, who would rightly argue that it’s a waste of time and money if it doesn’t impact the storytelling. But I’d try it anyway, and if I found an easy way to do it, sure, why not?
But if it took more than a few minutes of the schedule, it would be ixnay on the stars, eh. And that’s not out of any disrespect to the fans, it’s simply a matter of balancing priorities on a tight deadline.
Speaking of time, here I am, breaking the first rule of proper time management – don’t argue with people on the internet! But I took offense at the accusation that me and my brothers are anything less than dedicated and respectful to the fans.
Everyone associated with creating BSG has nothing but love and respect for the show, each other and everyone who helped make the series what it is – and that includes every single person who watched it.
We all did our best to make BSG the finest show on television, wanting nothing less than to deliver the moon and stars.
In this case, we got it half right ;-)
Mojo (Battlestar Galactica Visual Effects artist)
As a consolation prize, if you click on the image that leads this post, you’ll be treated to a hi-def wallpaper image of the “default” starfield from Battlestar Galactica, courtesy of the Lightwave plugin Starpro.
[DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed on this page are those of MOJO and not necessarily those of BSG In-House Visual Effects or its employees]