coolest CGI shot of all time (with video)


A few months back we showed you how we created a brand-new CGI Viper from the original 1979 Battlestar Galactica.  Using a model built by the talented Derek Smith, I painstakingly recreated the lighting and studio look of the TV classic just to see how close a match we could get to the original.  But what about the Galactica herself?  Not too long ago, FX veteran Lee Stringer enlisted a few cohorts and spent quite a bit of personal time building an exact replica of the original filming miniature (as seen above – yes, he did this on his own time) so I thought I’d take a crack at creating a brand new shot of the girl and see how close I could get it to looking like a scene from the original series…

So, after spending much time studying the original footage, tweaking the lighting and color and coming up with a few other tricks to match the look of 1978 motion control, here’s my brand new, cgi version of the most iconic shot from the entire series:

Personally, seeing that shot again gave me goosebumps.  It’s a unique combination of old and new – I think it still retains the look and feel of the original, but  benefits from the clarity and smoothness of new technology. 

Isn’t it amazing what nerds do in their spare time just for fun?

UPDATE: Due to overwhelming demand, I’ll do a follow up on this next week with a spotlight on what it took for Lee and his cronies to build the model and exactly how the shot was constructed.  Also, we’ll look into the controversy over the font!


31 Responses to “coolest CGI shot of all time (with video)”

  1. October 8, 2009 at 4:31 am

    Longer! I need it to be longer! Show her all over, please!


  2. October 8, 2009 at 5:53 am

    Ah… beautiful!!!!

    Now all you need is that bow-on rising approach shot. “Baltar… you should really look at the other battlestar!”

  3. October 8, 2009 at 6:49 am

    Well done Mojo. I have worked with some effects programs in the past like Maya, but I couldn’t work in-program cameras if my life depended on it.

    Now, if you could replace the name “GALACTICA” with “SOUTHERN SUN”, I will be a very happy MISTIE fan. I kid of course. Nice work!

  4. 4 Will Silver
    October 8, 2009 at 7:06 am

    Okay, some questions. (sorry, 2 VFX guys talking shop).

    So to simulate the motion control camera, you did not move the model. What did you do to the shot to make is look so 1978? What were your camera settings? (Interested in the blur and focal settings here.)

    I think for the best effect, use the “old style” cameras, and then to a non-traditional move. Like in APOLLO 13, when they have that shot of the Saturn V passing the launch tower that everyone has seen a million times, and then they track in and pan upwards… turns a standard shot into something special.

    Love the shot, btw.

  5. 5 Eugenia
    October 8, 2009 at 11:54 am

    Now all you need is that bow-on rising approach shot. “Baltar… you should really look at the other battlestar!”

    “Battlestar? What battlestar? There is no other battlestar. What are you babbling about? . . . It’s impossible!”

    “No, it’s a battlestar. . . “

  6. 6 Buckaroohawk
    October 8, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Oh yeah, that was nice! Stringer’s version of the TOS Galactica is an amazing example of CGI model building. I’d love to see some other video of it in action, duplicating some of the other beauty passes from the series.

    The only thing I could never figure out is why they used a simple Helvetica or Arial font for the ship’s banner when everything on the interior sets was labeled using the angular “Galactica” font we all know and love.

  7. October 8, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    I agree completely on your description of it being a perfect combination of old and new. Nice work!

  8. October 8, 2009 at 3:39 pm


    That was a real(ly impressive) treat.

    How long did it take to do this shot? (And how long did it take Lee to build the model?)

    Thanks so much for sharing.

  9. 9 darthmojo
    October 8, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    I know everyone wants to see more and a longer video, but remember – we just wanted to see how close we could get to the original. I’m sure anyone doing this experiment would have started the same way – duplicating the most famous shot in the show. If it were any longer it wouldn’t be faithful :)

    I should also mention that what you see in this shot is all that presently exists of the model; Lee built just enough to do this shot. As you can imagine, building the full Galactica with all its intricate detail is a massive undertaking and I applaud Lee for even doing this much, considering how swamped he is with his day job (cgi supervisor on Clone Wars).

    Rest assured that Lee does plan to finish the model, it’s just going to take some time. Hopefully by then computers will be able to handle the weight of the final object!

  10. 10 Gep Malakai
    October 8, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    First, awesome work Lee and Mojo. Second…you guys got the ire of the folks on The RPF up good because the “Galactica” font is wrong. :lol:

    Apparently, you guys used “Ariel,” but it’s actually in Futura Demibold. Have a look: http://www.therpf.com/showthread.php?t=71822

  11. 11 Captain Video
    October 9, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    I’ve been obsessed with how the show’s shots were done ever since I first saw them in ’78. Luckily, we got to see them many, many, many times! Sometimes reversed.

    This is a fantastic effort! Thank you for sharing it.

    My one minor (VERY minor) gripe is that the camera appears to be tracking a point coincident with the landing bay, causing an accelerated pan to the left toward the end. This seems very CGI to me. If programming a motion control camera is anything like a CNC tube bender, it would be hard to program a move to match a point on the model perfectly like that.

    I also think they kept panning either minimal or at a constant rate to economize on foregrounds and backgrounds. For example, the famous scene of the Cylons doing a rolling dive to Caprica. The camera isn’t following the fighters, but rather tilting up at a consistent rate. I think this allows them to add the same Cylon fighter element but at different starting frames to give the illusion of additional ships (although, there were only 3 in this shot. Maybe more were intended?)

    Keep up the good work. I miss the slow deliberate moves which give you a chance to actually see the model. The lighting on the new show left so much unseen it was hard to get a perception of scale.

  12. 12 darthmojo
    October 10, 2009 at 1:16 am

    GEP: Since I’m not a member of the site it wouldn’t let me read the thread. I hate when sites do that – ok, fine, make me register to post – but just to read??

    CAPTAIN: Bite me. Ok, just kidding. I know what you’re talking about with the motion, and that was one of the trickiest parts of the animation. In the original shot, the ship isn’t moving – the camera just pushes in. In my new version, while the primary goal was to recreate the original, I wasn’t looking to recreate it *exactly* – I wanted to make it just a slight bit more modern. Not 2009 modern, but a shot that at least looked possible with motion control had they the time and money.

    Since in my shot the Galactica is moving, as the camera gets closer it HAS to pan to keep up with the moving nameplate. Since a motion control camera is computer controlled, it can definitely track an object – as long as you program it to *appear* as if it’s doing that.

    I’m not sure I see how the pan makes the shot look CG, but then again I have no objectivity. Perhaps some other readers can tell us what they think.

    The odd thing is that since I was wanting to mimic a motion control rig, I figured I should have a very simple, linear move from A to B on the camera with no variation; strangely enough, *that* made the shot look extremely CG! In the end, I actually put a lot of variation on the Lightwave camera, almost a subtle hand-held feeling. I wasn’t going for a hand held look, and I don’t think anyone looking at the shot confuses it for hand held, but it was the only way to take the curse off that perfect A-B camera move.

    To be honest, I’m still working on figuring out why an A-B move on a moco rig looks natural, but in CG it looks artificial. It might simply be that in the real world, despite being computer controlled, nothing is perfect – there could be hundreds of subtle imperfections in the original shot, from minute varience in the camera move to gate weave and film judder and so on – but in CG, everything is absolutely perfect; that alone would make a CG recreation of something real never quite match.

    Of course, if there *was* slight varience in the moco passes, then the elements wouldn’t line up, so it’s almost back to square one.

    Stay tuned for more as it develops ;-)

  13. 13 Gep Malakai
    October 10, 2009 at 3:06 am


    Crud. I forgot that not only does the RPF has the off-topic forum locked, but registration is closed for the time being too. D’oh.

    So I took some screengrabs of the pertinent posts and stitched them together so you can read it here: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2463/3997813784_cfea7dca9e_b.jpg

    On the plus side, it would seem that Lee Stringer has an account there.

  14. 14 darthmojo
    October 10, 2009 at 6:52 am

    WILL: there are no special blur or focal length settings for this shot – what made you think there were? Focus is at infinity, as it would be in bright sunlight at this scale. Personally, I get annoyed when people do depth-of-field gags on shots like this – it’s incredibly unrealistic and generally makes the shot look like anime or it severely reduces apparent scale.

    I think I only did a small handfull of shots on the new series that used a depth of field blur and they were designed to make sense – either a VERY telephoto lens with something blurred in the foreground, or a shot with very low lighting (in which the apeture would be wide open, resulting in limited depth of field.

    One of my least favorite examples of this was the opening shot of Sci-Fi’s “Dune” miniseries a while back – it featured a helicopter shot over some sand dunes, and the foreground dune went out of focus. I literally yelled at the screen, since that would NEVER happen in reality; between the massive scale of the dessert and the blindingly bright sunlight, you’d be shooting at something like f32! Good luck gettng a foreground object to go out of focus under those circumstances!

    Now many of you reading this “gripe” of mine might be shaking your head and thinking that I am being way too critical, but little details like that are what can make the difference between a cg shot that looks real or looks fake. Often an audience will “just know” that a shot looks fake, even if they can’t put their finger on exactly why. MY job is to be able to figure out that “why” so the next time I’m working on a project and the director asks “why does that shot look so fake” I’ll be able to come up with an answer better than “come on dude you are being way too critical.”

  15. October 10, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    No, I’m just shaking my head realising I need to learn a lot more about real life filming before attempting to replicate it on my computer.

  16. 16 Captain Video
    October 11, 2009 at 7:33 am

    Is our fascination a reflection of how well they did in the ’70’s? Or is it our geeky, obsessive desire to replicate something that made an impression on us in the past?

    I get quickly frustrated using Blender to get realistic-looking output, but this work certainly shows I hadn’t scratched the surface of what is possible. Even with Blender.

    Partly out of this frustration and partly out of my better understanding of what has to happen physically, I’ve had a desire to replicate the actual motion control and model process used to make the original effects. I’d composite via PC, of course.

    I only have intermediate knowledge of electronics and the hardware required so it remains just an idea. But I think I’ll eventually produce something, even if it is only motion control on one axis. I think I could do that easily with an Arduino, stepper motor, a solenoid to operate the camera shutter, a track and some gearing.

    I took a first step, of sorts, several years ago when I put a camera and tripod on a turntable used for stretch-wrapping skids. It could somewhat reliably reproduce the same left-to-right pan, stopping in about the same place. I videotaped several iterations with me sitting in different places and composited them together to create a pan across several iterations of myself.

    The turntable had too much variation and it wobbled a bit after it stopped, but it wasn’t TOO obvious in the final result.

    Anyway, I guess my point is that I don’t think CGI is the only way some of us would like to duplicate some of the iconic images of our past. As software and technology becomes cheaper and more capable what we can accomplish on our own will become closer and closer to the original.

    And camera tracking software is cheating!

  17. 17 Will Silver
    October 11, 2009 at 9:46 am

    I think you miss my point, Moj… could be me…

    when you are building a camera in a program, like LIGHTWAVE 3D, you need to simulate some of the atributes that a camera would have, i.e. lens aberrations and even the subtle and hardly detectable depth of field in a relatively flat, over lit shot like this.

    I know Dave Jerrard, and he does allot of simulations of real cameras so his shots look “real” in the rendered sense. He does as much work on the color, texturing, lighting, camera and the render settings as any human, I believe.

    so… which camera did you use? Standard, Perspective or something else? And the render, anti-alias, and all the rest. ;-) I want some indicators of how you managed to build a camera that would look this reel.

  18. 18 LordStarFyre
    October 11, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Nice work Folks

    Lee is definitely the man!

    Hopefully the folks doing the new movie have been ringing his phone off the hook!!!

  19. 19 AO
    October 11, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    Beautiful! Here’s hoping we will get to see the real “Big G” in all her glory on the silver screen soon.

  20. October 11, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    Remember Mojo… if you’re trying to replicate a shot from a TV show… you aren’t replicating a shot of a real spaceship bigger than 4 football fields in bright sunlight… you’re replicating a 6 foot model lit by studio lights… with the inherent depth of field that would be… that said, they were doing long exposures on the mo-co rig, so depth of field wouldn’t be an issue here either.

    Just sayin.

  21. October 12, 2009 at 10:25 am

    Mojo awesome work as normal. Thank you for finally releasing this short vid.

  22. October 13, 2009 at 4:04 am

    Forgive me while I squeal like a little girl. Squeeee! There.

    I’m watching the push-in from the original series, and it really doesn’t look like a perfectly smooth A/B move. Thinking about the mechanics of a moco shot, it the camera track was consistently imperfect, the shots would still work – but to my eye it really does look like there’s some wobble in the original footage.

    Entertainingly, trying a Google search for “1978 motion control rig” now brings up this page as the first result.

  23. 23 Pavlov's God
    October 13, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    When does the full movie come out? ;) Great work and great post as always. Maybe Universal will hire someone to fix up the original Galactica for Blu-ray like they fixed the fx for Star Trek tos blueray. It really brought that series up to date, made it watchable and I think made the series better. The FX were good when it came out but watching the same stock shots over and over on the original galactica gets old when you look at the series now. And when you watch the original galactica shots after watching the new series – you see how limited they were in the 70s.

  24. 24 me
    October 14, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Have consider / tried matchmoving the original 78 footage as a starting point for your updated camera? Impressive none the less!

    @will As for recreating lens flaws, in pipelines I’ve worked on, things like lens distortion, aberration, etc are handled at the compositing stage.

    In the 3d app, you get the “basics” of the camera down (ie, filmback, AOV/FOV, _sometimes_ DOF, moblur settings, etc). Render out passes (spec, normals, mattes, OA, Z, etc, etc) and hand all those out to the compositing team.

    You hardly ever finish a shot in a 3d app…takes too much time to “tweak” things and re-render if director/client/producer/sup/whatever changes their mind (“ummm…can we have more backlight on this cgi character?”, or, “that’s nice, but can you make that car, ummm, BLUE, instead of black like we agreed to yesterday???”)


  25. 25 Diginerd
    October 14, 2009 at 10:57 pm

    Nice work, and discussion. :-)

    AFAIK BSG used a similar “Go-Motion” technology to that used by ILM for Star Wars. The camera was flown around the object just as here, but with a couple of subtle cues to make it different to the CGI renders.

    1) The whole point of the go motion was to produce smooth motion by having motion blur from frame-frame.

    2) By shooting under very strong light with a high speed camera during a motion take, and then playing the movement back at 24fps there’s a significant increase in the sense of scale.

    3) The camera movement wasn’t totally perfet. It maybe moving in a straight line, but the camera accelerates/decelerates in the direction of travel (slightly), and there is a tiny amount of camershake too.

    4) The camera lens isn’t so perfect either.. Pin cushion / barrel distortion, and non apochromatic glass gives differing levels of focus to differing parths of the gamut.

    I love VFX and the way they are put together is fascinating for me, but a lot of the issues that I see being talked about so closely parallel my own area of real specialty (Audio) that it’s scary..

    Hmm, why do the old recordings sound warm, huge and great even though they were utterly flawed technically? The same thing for video (except 100x more obvious, as everyone has a trained eye!) It’s the imperfections that make it believable.

  26. 26 darthmojo
    October 15, 2009 at 2:16 am

    DIGINERD: Go-Motion was indeed designed to create blur for stop motion sequences, but it was developed much later and first used in DRAGONSLAYER and RETURN OF THE JEDI. And you are absolutely right that, like it or not, the lack of imperfection is what makes something look imperfect! In a lot of CGI, the reason it looks fake is because it’s not fake enough. Sounds like a good T-shirt slogan in the making…

    DAREN: You are correct in that I am recreating a shot of an 8 foot miniature and not a mile-long spaceship, but the original FX artists WERE trying to make it look like a mile-long spaceship so, as you said, they made sure depth of field was constant.

    Also, while I was trying to give the shot the look and feel of the original, I also wanted it to look more contemporary – I had no interest in adding huge amounts of grain, matte lines, gate weave, chromatic abborations or anything else that would have made it look EXACTLY the same as an FX shot from the 70s.

    A little progress sprinkled in with my homage, ya know?

  27. 27 Captain Video
    October 17, 2009 at 4:54 am

    I’ll be really impressed if you can duplicate the Viper crashing in the snow in “The Gun on Ice Planet Zero”! ;)

  28. 28 Zinjo
    October 22, 2009 at 12:21 pm


    Yeah I got goose bumples watching that too!!

    I agree that in many ways it is a perfect recreation of the shot, yet better….

    The original shot didn’t have the subtle sheen of the metallic material used to skin the CGI model…


  29. 29 Zinjo
    October 22, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    What would be cool to see the original get the same re-mastering treatment and CGI SFX that Star Trek TOS has gotten.

    Now THAT would be cool!!

    I’d have to buy the series all over again, but what the hell!

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October 2009

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