Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 2 (Feb 2002)

Space Continuum

GVFX transports television viewers to a new phase in Babylon 5's history

By Karen Moltenbrey

Following a three-year hiatus, the mysterious ranger group from the science-fiction television series Babylon 5 returned to active duty last month in a 90-minute television movie, Babylon 5: The Legend of the Rangers, which aired on the Sci Fi Channel.

Written by J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5, the movie picks up in the year 2265, approximately three years after the events chronicled in the final episode of the series. While the spin-off contains many familiar names and faces, one leading role-that of visual effects production-has been assigned to a new player, GVFX (Toronto and Vancouver, Canada). GVFX assumed the post from now-defunct Netter Digital, although the studio's former CEO, Douglas Netter, returned in his role as executive producer.

According to Straczynski, the Legend of the Rangers is more action/adventure-oriented than the original drama series. To augment the action, GVFX produced 300 visual effects shots that portray the futuristic universe, including a crystalline city, explosive mines that propel themselves through space, and realistic star fields created by Emmy-nominated compositor Sean Stranks, who used Hubble telescope images as reference for his backgrounds.
Among the hundreds of effects GVFX created for the television movie Babylon 5: The Legend of the Rangers were those used to simulate the icy and rocky debris inside the tail of a comet encountered by the starship Liandra.

According to Mark Savela, visual effects supervisor, the most complicated sequence was of the Liandra starship as it became immersed in the tail of a comet. Artist Kyle Yoneda reviewed NASA photographs of comets for reference, but the images were so small that, for the most part, he had to follow his own creative direction.

Yoneda's goal was to simulate an overall feeling of confusion and uneasiness as the ship enters the comet, by generating an area littered with tiny rocks created with Alias|Wavefront's Maya. Next, he added elements to the comet's tail using Maya's particle system and volume shaders.

Yoneda also incorporated a giant rock that detaches from the main body of the comet and threatens the Liandra as the rock melts and breaks apart. To show the ice chunks melting away, he modified the brush palette in Maya's Paint Effects tool and applied paint strokes, "which resembled plasma-like bands of energy," to the ice pieces. "I used the paint strokes to simulate the look of vapor or dry ice traveling at a high speed," Yoneda explains.

The compositing team completed the comet sequence by layering 2D and 3D elements-in some instances, more than 80 layers-using Discreet's combustion, flint, flame, and inferno.
The artists created an animatic in Maya, which was used as a choreographed reference for actress Myriam Sirois during her performance as she fired weapons in a virtual environment with zero gravity.
Images courtesy GVFX.

Another challenge was creating the battle scene in which weapons specialist Sarah Cantrell, played by actress Myriam Sirois, fights the enemy from a gunnery pod located inside the ship. "She is in charge of the weapons aboard the ship, and during a battle she becomes completely immersed in a virtual environment, where she is able to visualize the scene from the entire ship's perspective," ex plains animator David Alexander.

To help prepare Sirois for the greenscreen shoot, the visual effects team created an animatic in Maya that indicated where the spaceships would be positioned and where she had to focus her attention as she was hoisted into the air.

After the shoot, the animators replaced the low-resolution models in the animatic with detailed models of the spaceships they had built in Maya. The hero ship Liandra has a sleek, organic look with a distressed, aged appearance, which was achieved by applying texture maps created from photos of actual metal objects. By contrast, the enemy ship is more geometrical, with moving texture maps created in Maya to give it a rocky, lava-like surface for a menacing appearance.

Despite a tight deadline, the GVFX team believes that the number and quality of the effects set the movie apart from typical science-fiction dramas. De pending on the ratings and interest generated by the movie, a new series based on the production may be commissioned for the Sci Fi Channel, which is currently airing past episodes of the original Babylon 5.

Key Tool: Maya, Alias|Wavefront (