bsg vfx: anatomy of an (ancient) cylon


SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t watched the second half of the Battlestar Galactica’s 4th (and final) season, you may want to stop reading now.

After discovering the depressing wasteland that turned out to be Earth, the crew of the Galactica did some digging as part of their search for answers about the burnt-out planet’s past. One key find was an excavated, centuries-old Cylon head (as seen below in a scene from the episode).  This “ancient Cylon” was only on screen for a few seconds so viewers never really a very good a look at it… until now!




The script simply called for an ancient Cylon, so the production turned to the visual effects department for some ideas about what the grandaddy of all Centurions might look like. VFX supervisor Gary Hutzel worked with chief model maker and Cylon builder Pierre Drolet to hash out a concept that the prop department could build. “Gary and I talk about every design, tossing around some ideas to come up with something cool,” remembers Drolet (who was also responsible for building the updated original series Cylon as seen in Razor). 

 “It was supposed to be a 2000-years-old, ancient Cylon,” he continued.  “A different model, but still recognizable as Cylon. We both liked the idea of what a samurai Cylon would look like, so, from there, I start to build and design it.”



Some of Pierre's original design reference for the Samurai inspired ancient Cylon


The first model I presented had to much of the feel of Darth Vader,  so I took off two layers of the helmet band:


[click to view full size


This was the only real change made to the model.  Pierre created several “study renders” (seen here for the first time) which were handed off to the prop builders to guide their creation of the physical model used in the episode.  Even though the CG model was never intended for use on-air, Drolet enjoyed the process nonetheless.  “I actually had a lot of fun doing it.  Robots are always fun to build,”  he said.  “But it’s too bad I never had the chance to build the body for it… Maybe I will do it for fun one of these days!”

Fun, indeed.  Here are a few more of the images used to make the prop:






[If you have any questions for Pierre, leave them in the comments section and I’ll be sure he gets ’em.   I hope this satisfies everyone until we get inside the anatomy of yet another Cylon.  Stay tuned and have a great weekend – Mojo]


40 Responses to “bsg vfx: anatomy of an (ancient) cylon”

  1. 1 Hardhat
    June 12, 2009 at 1:36 am

    Excellent stuff.

    Just such a shame that more of the detail wasn’t visible on the physical prop in the on-screen version.

    Seeing an army of those things coming at me, I think I’d probably run a mile.

    Actually, probably just the one would be enough!


  2. 2 Kevin W
    June 12, 2009 at 2:03 am

    So how far was the CG version taken? Was it UV mapped, split into separate components, etc… What determines how much time is put into CG prop design? Were there say, any CAD drawings made with dimensions or only the study renders?

    Sorry for all the questions. It’s nice to see how his reference was incorporated into the design, that was really cool!

    Kevin W

  3. June 12, 2009 at 6:22 am

    Oh, man that is sweet. Question for Pierre, if I may: is the resemblence between the forward-swept “moustaches” either side of the mouth-grille deliberately reminiscent of the updated Raider’s wing-blade sweep, or was it just one of those things that kinda happenned?

  4. June 12, 2009 at 7:32 am

    I assume the red eye is a candle, in those ancient models :)

  5. 5 doubleofive
    June 12, 2009 at 7:54 am

    Wow, I just thought it was a regular TOS-style Centurion head. Guess I didn’t look too hard. I was still in shock, honestly.

  6. 6 roycommi
    June 12, 2009 at 8:10 am

    Very cool. A completely different branch of the mechanical cylon evolutionary tree, yet still easily recognizable as the evil menace it is. Dune had it right, no thinking machines, ever…

  7. 7 Buckaroohawk
    June 12, 2009 at 8:19 am

    Very, very cool design. The Samauri influence fits very well with the shape of the Cylon head. It would be interesting to see that influence carried over the rest of the mechanical body.

    “I hope this satisfies everyone until we get inside the anatomy of yet another Cylon.” You know, Mojo, considering what some of the cylons looked like on BSG, this phrase could have a very different meaning than I’m sure you intended. ;-)

  8. 8 ety3
    June 12, 2009 at 10:25 am

    Nice. Very nice.

    If “Caprica” progresses far enough, I can’t wait to see armies of those bastards in action.

  9. June 12, 2009 at 11:22 am

    I had assumed that it was based on the “updated” cylons from the second series that didn’t get off of the ground. I’ve played the video game and the centurions looked a bit like this in the face…

  10. 10 Hardhat
    June 12, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    You can almost hear a suparare collectibles company going: “Bingo!”


  11. 11 Andy
    June 12, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    Cool write up, it’s great to read background info, thanks.

  12. 12 Jon S.
    June 12, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    Hmm… can’t say I like the helmet design. The eyes and face are awesome-looking though. Now I’m curious what the body of a samurai-inspired Cylon would look like.

  13. 13 Boris
    June 13, 2009 at 7:37 am

    I don’t think the show ever explained what happened to the Samurai Cylons after they had nuked Earth One. Assuming the nuking wasn’t suicidal, there is no reason why they couldn’t secretly appear out of nowhere on “Caprica” eventually, providing us with the much needed history of Kobol and the Thirteenth Tribe. If we go back far enough with the “All this has happened before” line, there is no reason why the Lords of Kobol themselves couldn’t be Cylons who created the “humans”, while the head beings could’ve created the Lords of Kobol. In turn, maybe the head beings were actually created by humans from our future, as a form of advanced AI that can exist in multiple time periods at the same time, avoiding the cliche time travel device and yet explaining how humans who evolved on our Earth according to scientific evidence ended up on Kobol.

  14. 14 Reverend
    June 13, 2009 at 7:37 am

    I’ve often suspected that the design of the Centurions has some kind of ancient cultural significance, like for instance it’s all based on a design of armour worn by the (very) ancient humans back on Kobol. Now that’d be interesting to see!

  15. 15 Jack
    June 13, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Wow, that is one very pretty Centurion…. Thank you, so much! I was always left hungering to see more of that Centurion in SAGN (or at least, more of what we saw), especially given the importance the model has in the history of the show…..

    I’m also glad to learn a little about it’s design, very interesting. Most fans had actually seen a similarity between this model and one of the Centurions from the scrapped De Santo BSG project, but this clear view is so much better, not to mention interesting (and well….pretty)

    This is amazing, it looks great!

    One question: When conceiving this model, did you guys see it as having the roving red eye (or some sort of version of it) like the modern Centurions did?

  16. 16 Dan
    June 13, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    Nothing but praise for the design team.

    On the plot however, a different story. As far as I could understand the tedious and convoluted back story the writers were forced to create, the Cylons had human form when they left Kobol. They then developed their own centurions, who later rebelled and destroyed Earth I. Thousands of years later and many light years away on Caprica, the Capricans develop their own centurions.

    Since each society developed their own centurions independently of one another, why should the two centurion versions look similar? Why was that a starting point for the design? Was this yet another “God said so” moment?

  17. June 14, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    I wondered at the time why the Colonials weren’t asking themselves questions over the similarity of Cylon helmet designs, but it wasn’t a big deal for me. “All of this has happened before” had been drilled into us so much, I accepted that that was the reason behind it, even if I find that idea stretches credibility a bit. Anyway, regardless of any of that, the design rocks. It sets my imagination going just wondering what that whole society would have been like.

  18. June 14, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    Very interesting. I remember the general consensus after the episode aired was that the ancient Cylons were a tip of the hat to the model developed for the abandoned DeSanto/Singer continuation of the series. There was no direct correlation?

    The two models do look VERY similar. Interesting that it was just a coincidence.

  19. 19 emperorkalan
    June 15, 2009 at 4:41 am

    The flaceplate also strongly resembles some of Raplph McQuarrie’s early concept art for Darth Vader, but then you can only alter similar templates so far until they start resmbling each other. Glad to see that the helmet bands were removed to keep some distance from the Darth look.

  20. 20 Michael
    June 15, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Awesome! I wonder if we will ever see a BSG movie detailing the destruction of Earth 1? There are so many more stories that could be told in the BSG Universe!

  21. 21 oscar
    June 15, 2009 at 11:51 pm

    they left out a lot of stuff in that episode that would explain stuff way better than the guesswork going on. trust me when I say they really frakked up by leaving too much to the imagination. that whole “daniel the cylon is starbuck’s father bs” just reinforced the idea sci fi fans are idiots.

  22. June 16, 2009 at 10:52 am

    I always like seeing new designs of Cylon on screen, and concept work. This design although it is a new design it reminds me of the work that Dave Lowe did in some of his concept art work for the failed 2001 production of Galactica. His Cylon design seemed to be based off the Roman centurion. It would be great to see the rest of this concept work come to life in full suit format.

  23. 23 Michael
    June 16, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Oscar, i thought Daniel would have tied into Daniel Greystone in the prequel, Caprica.

  24. 24 oscar
    June 16, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    @michael: you’re joking right? you have to be. To make some sort of leap of reason like that could only be made by someone who is a) having a laugh or b) is honestly stupid. How in the HELL could “Daniel Greystone” who lived long before the Final Five came to create the other Seven be a cylon created by the Final Five.

    I have to say for a show that claims to have such a smart audience, people really come up with some boners. That said, it’s understandable since in this case, they left out a huge section about how all their scriptures were wrong, and that they’d made many assumptions that were wrong because humans wrote history, and left out the fact that on kobol, the 13th tribe were the artificial life forms.

    that group moved to Not Earth, built their own robots, who had their own nuclear tea party, and so on. The “all this has happened before” jazz is about the fact that when “humans” (or “human like biologicals) build robots to do their bidding, they end up self destructing. First Kobol, then the 12 Colonies ,and so on.

    The final 5 spent 2000 years trying to get back to the 12 colonies to warn ’em but it was too late. The war only ended when the 5 promised Resurrection and a biomechanical life form. No way in hell those robot cylons on Not Earth have a thing to do with the 12 colonies cylons.

    but like I said, you are either having a laugh or maybe BSG fans really are that fucking stupid.

  25. June 22, 2009 at 10:45 am

    “but like I said, you are either having a laugh or maybe BSG fans really are that fucking stupid.”

    Or maybe it was a reference to the interview where Ronald D. Moore said that the Cylon Daniel’s backstory would be featured on CAPRICA.

  26. 26 FormerTrekkie
    June 25, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    Awsome!Id love to see a prequel show or at least a telemovie with an army of those samurai cylons!Could you make a 2d vector of it so we can start making pumpkin heads in this style for next Halloween?!Question did they wield samurai swords to?

    Though having them look like samurais complete with an orientel looking face could be considered racist. Not all Japanese people make robots you know!

  27. 27 FormerTrekkie
    June 25, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Mabey Japan should build an army of these and attack North Korea with them!

  28. 28 Nohan Talamoa
    August 16, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Hey, man.
    Keep up the good work and let us know when
    you’ve completed building that Earth Cylon Centurion.
    I was personally impressed when you made that helmet
    using Darth Vader as a reference.
    Maybe you could use that Vader-Earth Centurion helmet
    to be a similiar – “Earth Command Centurion”-type
    or something.
    Anyways, keep up the good work and good luck.

  29. 29 Frank
    August 26, 2009 at 7:33 am

    @ Oscar
    Hey Oscar, don’t be such a grouch! It’s just a show.. We all enjoyed it, and we all hated the ending. Deal with it like the rest of us.

  30. 30 Exar Kun
    October 2, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    It would be a must to have this helmet done in Replica;

    MUST buy! I love that design.

  31. 32 suckitandsee
    October 20, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    @Oscar… I wrote a very immature comment expressing disagreement with your views which is now being edited by mojo. The gist of what I said was: “you’re someone I see as being inferior to myself; clearly my testicles are far larger than yours and I suggest you try and behave more like an adult.”

    [an interesting suggestion from someone who calls himself “suckitandsee.” I wonder how many other guys he’s convinced to suck it for him? – mojo]

  32. 33 Exar Kun
    October 30, 2009 at 3:54 am

    Seriously: this should be presented to some companies making replicas.

    We know that we can have Darth Vader, Predator helmet.

    But what I like with this one, except the design which I like a lot, is the mystery. The mystery about those cylon robots we do not know so much. And That is the point (on the opposite, for instance, Darth Vader, we him too well now.)

    Qfx Mecaniks should get this licence

  33. 34 Eicos
    October 31, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Cylon head we get to see on Earth-1 is quite different from the model published here: they differ mainly on the “moustaches” around the mounth-vent; also the mouth-vent on the Earth-1 head is more prominent than the model’s. Maybe this model was slightly modified before filming? If this is the case, could you publish the model of the Earth-1 head?

  34. 35 Spyros
    November 7, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Pierre, this is absolutely awesome stuff. I am working on something, and would like to get into contact with you. If you could shoot me an email, I’d really appreciate it! Thanks for all your wonderful Cylons!

  35. 36 Michael Hancock
    November 7, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    Hey Guys,
    Different Michael than that who posted earlier.

    My explanation for the similiar style of Cylon heads was as follows:

    The 13th colony on earth who developed AI were nuked out. We know the ‘final five’ resurrected as cylons on a ship placed in orbit, they then went out to seek the 12 colonies.

    It stands to reason that they would have schematics and so forth of the AI created on earth.

    We also know that by the time they got to the 12 colonies that the Cylons had already created an uprising and we find out that they made a treaty with them to stop the war.

    We know they made Cavil and he helped create the other Cylons. Cavil suffocated the ‘final five’ and blocked their memories. I simply reckon that the Cylons got the earth Centurion design off the ‘final five’, be it either willingly or unwillingly and made their own version of them that looked similiar.


  36. 37 Exar Kun
    February 14, 2010 at 4:44 am

    I am gonna have a replica made of these: I just do love the design!

  37. 38 syed faizan
    November 16, 2010 at 5:55 am

    good work dude

  38. 39 Umut
    May 29, 2012 at 5:02 am

    @Oscar, I don’t understand why someone blames another for stupidity. The thing is clear: When the Final Five arrived, the Colonial Cylons wanted to name the 7th model after their creator, Daniel Graystone.

    Or Daniel Graystone was living his last moments and helped the Five programming Cavil.

    Just like @Frank said, this is a show. Chill out dude.

    So say we all.

  39. 40 Matt Kohutek
    June 18, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    To Mr. Drolet:
    I think that you are absolutely the coolest vfx creator on this planet. Your design for the caprica atmospheric viper is positively superb! I love designing art and CGI images, and I just got to say you inspire me with your awesome work. Thank you for sharing your talent with the world. Without your creativity the world would surly be a poorer place.

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June 2009

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