No Space For Old Pilots – Making the Most of Your Effects Budget

Babylon 5, Bajor and More

Welcome back to our in-depth look at the evolution and development of graphics in digital consumer media. Today we’ll be discussing ’90s CGI and doing your best with a budget, as evidenced in television shows such as Babylon 5.


In the mid- to late-’90s, live-action television had started to explore the limits of computer-generated special effects. Older science fiction shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer had been slowly updating their FX with the burgeoning technologies, doing their best to create a visual experience that continued to engage audiences without breaking their limited budgets. The Next Generation in particular got a lot of mileage out of its computer-generated shots of the flagship, Enterprise, by recycling the same action frames, and keeping most of the ship-to-ship combat off-screen, instead showing the reactions of the crew and ship interior as the ship was damaged.

When creating a fictional universe, particularly one for television and film, attention to detail becomes extra important. Practical effects, makeup, costuming, and CGI all need to blend almost seamlessly. Suspension of disbelief can be held only so long in the face of glaring oversights or poor execution of these aspects of fiction. There are good and bad examples of this integration across fiction, but the one we will be examining today is Babylon 5 [ 1 ]. This show managed to do quite a lot, despite the budget limits of television, and it pushed the technology of the era to its limits in terms of graphic fidelity. Longtime fans will naturally hail the show as remarkable, but can a newcomer enjoy it, despite its age? How did it compare to its television contemporaries? Let’s take a deeper look. 

First Impressions: Changing the Show Intro Sequence

“The year is 2258, the name of the place is Babylon 5.” This strong tagline is delivered toward the end of the show opening. We are greeted with a CGI panning shot across a planet with a sun rising over it, and eventually over the so named space station, Babylon 5 [ 2 ]. This is accompanied by several shots of actors in costume, presumably shots from actual episodes yet to be seen. The narration discusses the importance of the station itself, being the last bastion for peace among several space-faring species.

With some production value that grew over time, Babylon 5 benefited from excellent writing and memorable cast performances – including Star Trek alum Walter Koenig.

While I was not on board with the original airing of the show, my research looking into how it achieved the things it did was extensive and quite eye-opening. I imagine that, had my tastes been a little different at the time, this is a show I would have absolutely latched onto. It has a long-reaching story arc with a conclusion that defies the established tropes of the time, which I won’t spoil despite its age, but obviously, there are going to be some spoilers in this article, as we’ll be discussing some key plot points as it relates to the visual effects of the show.

In fact, the first season intro shows off some, for the time, impressive CGI work. Granted, when you are presenting shots in space, you can leave a lot of it blank, dotting it with distant stars, nebulas, and maybe a planet or two, much like this show intro does. As the seasons of the show progress in storyline, the introduction of the show changes—as does the tag line, with the story going through five years of time. From a technological standpoint, five seasons of any show is a long time, and while the show still had to work within the constraints of its budget, the CGI did indeed improve over time. Each successive season introduction included more complex shots of space battles, with more intricate ship designs and details, and even the space station itself receiving a decent graphic re-skinning [ 2 ]. Each successive cut of the intro also served to amp up the drama of the current season, adding in more dramatic musical stings and tighter cuts of each of the main cast in action. The showrunners also had the wherewithal to change the narrators each season, with seasons four and five featuring narration from multiple actors of the show.

It is simplest to contrast this introduction with Babylon 5‘s period contemporary, namely Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This new show among the Star Trek franchise began just one year prior to Babylon 5, so the intro sequences would be running on roughly the same sort of technology. While Deep Space Nine decided to forgo the narrative introduction style of its predecessors, it follows a similar pattern of those shows, showcasing a shot of outer space, following a comet that eventually goes out of frame as the show titled space station comes into view, and a shuttlecraft streaks by to facilitate the shot transition to several close ups of that station [ 3 ]. In a similar fashion to Babylon 5, DS9‘s introduction sequences would change over time to reflect the differences in each season, as well as to showcase the improvements in CGI. One might suspect that one of these shows took inspiration from the other when it came to these gradual changes in the introduction, but it is hard to say which one. In terms of overall quality, the sequences are about evenly matched, though I give the slight edge to Deep Space Nine if only because it has a more established visual style guide with which to prop itself up. Babylon 5‘s introductory CGI gives us a good glimpse of what to expect from its depictions of space and the various vessels that will populate it.

So, with just the season intros of the show thus far, we have already seen a slow progression of CGI throughout the series. Naturally, this is not the full picture, as it takes a lot more than just fun CGI action scenes to make a good show.

Practical Effects and Makeup, and Integrated CGI

Any science fiction show worth its weight is going to want to show off the creator’s vision of alien races. Sci-fi forerunners, such as Star Trek, paved the way for actors to portray alien species with the use of makeup and costuming. One of the most featured races of the show, the Minbari, is displayed as humanoids with a sort of skeletal ridge that curves around the back of their heads (which makes wearing long hair a bit awkward) [ 4 ]. While this makeup is not as complex as some, it’s a very practical way to display an other-worldly heritage. And believe it or not, the makeup process, even for something this simple-looking, originally was a four-and-a-half-hour process [ 5 ], which eventually was streamlined down to two hours. As Billy Mumy alludes to in his interview about being cast and getting into makeup, it is a lot of commitment to say “yes” to five years of a show where you have a two- to four-hour makeup process before shooting actually starts for the day [ 5 ]. Imagine then, the dedication it would take when getting into the more complex Narn makeup [ 6 ], which features prosthetics from the neck upward, as well as the use of colored contact lenses. In the expression of art and practical effects—as seen in the stunning complexity and groundbreaking nature of this character makeup—would set a new bar for future science fiction and fantasy productions. It showed that, even under the seemingly small budget of a television series, you could create something quite complex and not lose visual fidelity. The makeup techniques are only one part of creating an alien species, of course. The other parts are costume design and writing—literally building a whole society from the ground up. The Minbari, Centauri, Narn, Dilgar and Drakh all have their own unique styling and cultures which further characterize them. The actors portraying them use different kinds of body language alongside their wardrobes to showcase what this particular race is all about. Physical acting often gets looked over in this regard, but how a character stands, walks, and holds themselves in a conversation is no less visually important than all their other props. When we think of an alien species as iconic as Klingons or Romulans from Trek, they both have distinct speaking patterns, mannerisms, and even bodily movements. So too do the Minbari and Narn, or any of the other various aliens in the show. In this regard, the actors on Babylon 5 have done very well in portraying themselves as something other than human.

Of course, the practical effects were not the only way that alien creatures appeared on the show. As Shant Jordan, supervising animator, recalled in this CGI featurette: “We had to animate Shadows, we had to animate various characters that were digitally integrated into the worlds, and that was always a challenge, specifically because everyone has to have pretty much the same vision… It was a really great feeling, though, when you got it just right[ 7 ]”. Indeed, the Shadow aliens and their ships both have distinctive and memorable appearances. The ships of the Shadows maintain a menacing presence throughout the series, even before they are engaged in combat. Their visual textures, when partially seen, resemble some sort of unknown mineral, as though the ships are sprung to life from marble. The addition of foreboding music amplifies this effect. While we don’t see the actual form of the Shadows until much later in the show, this only serves to make their appearance more captivating when it finally happens. They resemble a sort of shortened centipede, with a dark, marble exoskeleton that matches the aesthetic of their ships. They have no apparent face or mouth, which makes them all the more enigmatic and dangerous, as their feelings cannot be read from a surface expression. While these designs do show their age, within the context of the show and how these foes are built up, they are nonetheless imposing.

Another aspect of using CGI shots was to get around budgetary constraints. Associate Producer George Johnsen related a specific shot from the episode Gropos

“In Babylon 5 we were occasionally budgetarily challenged, so we tried to do… more with less. We didn’t have the stage space, we didn’t have the number of extras that we needed to bring an entire army into Babylon 5 for Gropos, so we had to create that gate. And creating that gate meant we had try to figure out, with X feet of stage space, how to do it so it was a multiple angle gate[ 7 ].”

He further explains that they did six separate shots of one gate, combining them to create the feeling of a large, multi-sectioned gate that could be viewed from multiple angles. This is quite a clever editing trick to pull off, and if the show had been attempted at an earlier time in television history (when the technology was not as advanced), there is a good chance they would not have been able to put this shot together. This one example is a perfect showcasing of lining up set design with digital enhancement techniques in order to achieve something that one or the other could not do alone.

We can again contrast this to Deep Space Nine, or even The Next Generation, as that show was wrapping up around the same time that Babylon 5 was beginning (and the two Trek shows tie into one another so, it’s more like a single comparison anyway). In The Next Generation, CGI use for alien species was quite limited, favoring the more traditional approach of makeup and practical effects. Even in the first episode, Encounter at Farpoint, which introduced us to the super-powerful, highly intelligent alien known as Q, he was simply portrayed as a human man with extraordinary powers, which are reduced to flashes of light [ 8 ]. The makeup for Klingons and Romulans was well established in the first Star Trek (Romulans being a subset of Vulcans), and the other races introduced in The Next Generation, like Bajorans and Cardassians, had the benefit of a very well-directed art department, coming across as sufficiently alien without needing much of a stretch of the imagination. Of course, this choice was as much a necessity of the time as anything else, as even with a hefty budget, you simply couldn’t get amazing CGI in the late ’80s. By the time the show ended in 1994, the CGI was notably better, and that improvement carried on into Deep Space Nine (which began in ’93, but I think that is still a chronologically correct statement). While both Trek shows set a standard of what was achievable with makeup and practical effects, Babylon 5 ventured much deeper into the territory of CGI, allowing it to set itself apart from these titanic shows.

One of the most critically acclaimed Star Trek series to date, Deep Space Nine broke ground on both its narrative and its use of special effects.

The decision to use a combination of old-school practical effects and new-school CGI helped to catapult both the success and fame of Babylon 5, as well as make advancements for future television shows that had, at the time, been thought to be too expensive for television productions. While the practical effects here hold up a lot better than the integrated CGI, it still isn’t terrible to look at, even several decades later, and you won’t (or shouldn’t) find yourself extracted from the narrative due to poorly executed CGI shots. 

Space Battles, the Height of ’90s CGI

So of course, we have to talk about the various space battles that take place in the show. It does feature a large-scale war, after all. This war doesn’t kick off until the third season of the show, so there had already been two years of time to become familiar with the animation software and techniques, which helped to further enhance these battle sequences. You can do a lot with a little if you understand how to stretch that little in just the right ways. Mitch Suskin, the visual effects supervisor, elaborated on the choice to use computer graphics for these shots, rather than traditional models: 

“Before computer graphics, you designed shots that the limitations of a motion control rig could handle. By making the choice to make Babylon 5 computer graphic, it meant that we could do anything we wanted with those models. We could spin them, we could tumble them, we could have the camera fly around them, and it made the style of the show distinctly different from anything that came before it, because we were free to move the ships, and the camera, anywhere we wanted[ 7 ].”

Indeed, many of the forebears of science fiction shows did use miniatures for spaceships, juxtaposing some very finely crafted models against a space-like backdrop to achieve the desired effect. One familiar with sci-fi would naturally think of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the many similar shots of the Enterprise moving through empty space, usually as a transition shot. The model miniature of the Enterprise was filmed in front of a green screen to achieve this effect. The model itself came from Industrial Light and Magic, the same crew responsible for the groundbreaking ship models of the Star Wars films years prior. And, obviously, we can also look to that movie for masterful use of miniatures as starships. Still, those groundbreaking films and television episodes did have many hard limitations when it came to filming with miniatures, as Suskin pointed out. The artistic freedom offered in using computer graphics to handle the entirety of spaceships and outer space battles was desperately needed for a weekly program that would feature them heavily.

Despite its narrative pedigree, the one less-than-bright-spot in Babylon 5’s case is certainly its use of computer graphics, still very much in its infancy at the time.

One of the best examples of CGI in the show’s space battles comes from Season 3, Episode 21, Shadow Dancing [ 9 ][ 10 ]. An allied fleet of ships from various races battles against the Shadows, the Big Bad Evil of the show. The battle itself only lasts for three minutes, and while the amount of action taking place on the screen at any time is almost overwhelming, even a new viewer can follow the tide of battle. We see the many-pronged, semi-insect-like Shadow ships engage against the various other vessels, destroying many, and taking minimal losses in the process. The uniformity of the Shadow fleet is contrasted against the many and varied designs of the allied fleet. This fleet consists of ships from all across the galaxy, built by different races with different ideas of aesthetics and functionality, and the computer graphic artists do their best to represent what that sort of conglomeration this might look like. This also serves as subtle (or maybe not subtle) coding, intending to show that diversity among the allied fleet demonstrates the will of these different species coming together to fight for a common goal: survival. Even those who know their war technologies are not up to par with the best available still offer up everything they have for this fight. While the allied fleet is ultimately victorious, it sustains heavy losses and was barely able to fight back against the Shadow fleet with its combined firepower. In other sequences, the Shadow ships are juxtaposed against the dark backgrounds of space and set to dramatic music, creating an imposing, nightmarish feeling to the seemingly endless and nearly invincible Shadow fleets [ 11 ]

Comparing this older CGI to newer, more detailed techniques, the effects displayed in Babylon 5 are clearly dated, but nonetheless very impressive for their time. Seeing outer space, starships and bases with this level of detail in the ’90s was, practically speaking, unheard of. Other shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation barely scratched the surface of this technology until much later on and kept the majority of their space battles limited to one or two ships with high amounts of detail on them. Among its contemporaries, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine first got into large scale engagements in the premiere of Season 4, with The Way of the Warrior [ 12 ] in 1995, just one year prior to Shadow Dancing [ 8 ]. This episode was an extended 2-hour premiere that featured a climactic battle between the space station and a Klingon fleet, with multiple, dynamic shots of the various Klingon ships being blasted apart by the new armaments of Deep Space Nine [ 13 ]. The CGI used in the battle was tightly framed, keeping only the most relevant focal points of action. This would allow the strain on the available CGI technology to be low and keep the graphic fidelity of the on-screen action high. Comparatively, Babylon 5 was trying to do a much more complicated scene in Shadow Dancing, with multiple ship designs and fast-paced, open-ended action, so each action shot ends up looking slightly lower quality than those of The Way of the Warrior. Still, a very impressive feat from Babylon 5‘s CGI team to have so much going on at once and still make it look as good as it did. Having a dozen or more detailed ship models on the screen at once was quite the technological feat for this, or any, television show.

As the seasons passed, the tech crew and the available technology became incrementally better, as one might expect. If we look to Season 4, Episode 6 Into the Fire [ 14 ], which depicts the final battle between the alliance of light and the Shadows, we’ll find that there is a definite smoothing out of all the previous ship designs, as well as their movements [ 15 ]. The massive allied fleet loses none of its artistic flavor as the numbers of ships on-screen swell to a size appropriate for a final confrontation. The amount of action on screen this time is chaotic, the frame panning around in multiple directions as the ships engage. The number of ships is truly too many for the human eye to count, giving the full impression that this is the battle to end all battles (it isn’t, but it does end the second Shadow War, so that counts for a lot).

Again, to contrast, the final fleet battle in Deep Space Nine aired nearly two years later in 1999, in the finale of Season 7, titled What You Leave Behind [ 16 ]. While we do have two years between this finale and the final battle (but not final episode) of Babylon 5, there is a striking difference in ship detail in favor of Trek, despite having roughly the same number of ships and action on screen [ 17 ]. This is likely due to the series as a whole having a longer run time and a more fleshed-out vision for its interstellar races, and how their ships would look and operate, rather than a lack of skill or ability from the CGI crew on Babylon 5. Even seeing these differences, it is impressive how much the CGI of Babylon 5 was able to progress in the time it was on air—and they almost certainly didn’t have the budget that a long-running and quite popular show like Deep Space Nine would have.

The only question to pose here is: would Babylon 5 have benefited from using the traditional models approach? And that is hard to answer. The showrunners obviously had a very specific vision in mind and chose not to use scale models, and it seems to have worked out well for them. Perhaps the introduction of the space station would have benefited, at least early on from using a model, since the complexity of a full space battle was not going to enter the show for several seasons. Even with that particular consideration in mind, there is nothing to be ashamed about in the visual presentation the show has.

But is it Good Enough?

So now comes the incredibly subjective question: do the visuals of Babylon 5 hold up? Well, thematically, I’d say they absolutely do. While the show made heavy use of different CGI techniques in combination with practical effects, as well as several groundbreaking leaps in what was considered possible for television of that time, it is clear enough to see that newer graphics just look better, as they surely should. If strict detail, pixel, and polygon counts were the only factors in consideration, then Babylon 5 would fail that test. In context of the show, however, each piece of CGI conveys the emotion and drama of the scenes superbly, especially with budget constraints in mind. It displays a strong connection between artistic vision and writing that allows one to enhance the other, rather than be a spectacle or distraction. It’s easy, even in modern times, to fall into the trap of making CGI into a gimmick, rather than an enhancement to storytelling. This is a trap that Babylon 5 gracefully sidesteps, and that is what allows its graphics, despite their age, to keep up with the times. Any show with this many moving parts to its plot and characters is solidly grounded in that drama and doesn’t need to have the absolute best graphic renderings attached to it in order to keep it entertaining.

Turning a show filmed in standard definition into one viewable in HD is no easy task, as evidenced by the Deep Space Nine documentary team’s travails.

It is always a risk to be on the bleeding edge of new technologies and techniques, as your vision for your artistic work can easily outpace even the best of available tech. Many of the older sci-fi shows take the path of least resistance regarding this, keeping away from potentially shoddy or sub-par CGI, heavily favoring the tried-and-true methods of practical effects and makeup (despite sometimes falling short there too). It was a bold move for the showrunners of Babylon 5 to step so heavily into CGI during this time period, as well as to attempt to bring their own flavor of alien design and makeup. Such a show in the hands of less capable people might have quickly flopped, dismissed as a poor imitation of better shows, like any of the Trek series I’ve compared it to. But thankfully, in this case, the cast, crew, and other teams were able to bring together a believable sci-fi future to the small screen that etched its own unique image in the annals of television history.

Images

  1. “With some production value that grew over time, Babylon 5 benefited from excellent writing and memorable cast performances – including Star Trek alum Walter Koenig.” Babylon 5. 5 seasons. Warner Bros., 1994-1998.
  2. “One of the most critically acclaimed Star Trek series to date, Deep Space Nine broke ground on both its narrative and its use of special effects.” Deep Space 9. 7 seasons. Paramount, 1993-1999.
  3. “Despite its narrative pedigree, the one less-than-bright-spot in Babylon 5’s case is certainly its use of computer graphics, still very much in its infancy at the time.” Source: ‘Babylon 5’ Is Great, so Why Does It Look so Bad? 22 June 2018, www.engadget.com/2018-06-22-babylon-5-digital-video-quality.html
  4. “What We Leave Behind” vs TNG Episode Birthrigh”Turning a show filmed in standard definition into one viewable in HD is no easy task, as evidenced by the Deep Space Nine documentary team’s travails.”Source: trekmovie.com/2018/04/13/deep-space-nine-documentary-team-gives-a-spring-update-discusses-hd-footage/

Resources

  1. Babylon 5. Syndication. WRSP, Springfield, IL. 26 Jan. 1994. Television.
  2. High Lord Baron. “Babylon 5 – All Intros.” YouTube, YouTube, 20 September, 2014. youtube.com/watch?v=7vIVFgXaxsU.
  3. Dtec95, Star Trek – Deep Space Nine Intro (Season 1). YouTube, YouTube, 19 Dec. 2012. youtube.com/watch?v=cwNFUgYWGG4.
  4. Davies, Jeff. “Fantasy: the Minbari of Babylon 5.” Themakeupgallery, themakeupgallery.info/fantasy/alien/b5/minbari/index.htm. Accessed 2 February, 2020.
  5. FoundationINTERVIEWS. “Bill Mumy discusses getting cast on “Babylon 5” and the make-up process – EMMYTVLEGENDS.ORG.” YouTube, YouTube, 31 January, 2014. youtube.com/watch?v=XVG_1_OriPM.
  6. Davies, Jeff. “Fantasy: the Narn of Babylon 5.” Themakeupgallery, The Makeup Gallery. themakeupgallery.info/fantasy/alien/b5/narn/index.htm. Accessed 2 February, 2020.
  7. WaveRider. “Babylon 5 – Digital Tomorrow | CGI Featurette.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Mar. 2016, youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=jL3dfT9KkYw%20.
  8. “‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ Encounter at Farpoint.” IMDb, IMDb.com, 26 Sept. 1987, imdb.com/title/tt0094030/?ref_=ttep_ep1. Accessed 23 May, 2020.
  9. StarTrekMarco. “Babylon 5 Shadow Dancing-Battle Scene (S03E21).” YouTube, YouTube, 6 November, 2010. youtube.com/watch?v=UAsk3ay3e98
  10. “‘Babylon 5’ Shadow Dancing.” IMDb, IMDb.com. imdb.com/title/tt0517687/. Accessed 23 May, 2020.
  11. BenJamin Croft. “Babylon 5 – The Shadows pt. 2.” YouTube, YouTube, 6 September, 2013. youtube.com/watch?v=CAl_e_7Dtlo.
  12. “‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’ The Way of the Warrior.” IMDb, IMDb.com, 2 Oct. 1995, imdb.com/title/tt0394906/?ref_=tt_ep_pr.
  13. Star Trek DS9: The Battle of Deep Space 9 (Part 1), Starfleet Captain, 26 Oct. 2017, youtube.com/watch?v=Uidd41oaPCI.
  14. “‘Babylon 5’ Into the Fire.” IMDb, IMDb.com, 3 Feb. 1997, imdb.com/title/tt0517661/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1. Accessed 23 May, 2020.
  15. McCracken, Scott. “The Battle Of Corianna VI.” YouTUbe, 19 Jan. 2008, youtube.com/watch?v=IIpg-N_Pp-g.
  16. “‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’ What You Leave Behind.” IMDb, IMDb.com. imdb.com/title/tt0394907/?ref_=ttep_ep25. Accessed 23 May, 2020.
  17. Illusstrated Fiction. “The Battle of Cardassia in Star Trek Deep Space Nine (1993-1999).” YouTube, YouTube, 14 Feb. 2019. youtube.com/watch?v=P1OP0_rg2Ws.