Half the Battle
Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 5 (May 2006)

Half the Battle

Part effects-laden battle scenes, part intense drama combine to make Battle star Galactica an out-of-this-world experience.
By Karen Moltenbrey
The expanse of outer space has always held great fascination, and there is no doubt that television and film stimulate our imagination of distant galaxies and alien races. Transcending time and space, many shows and movies have become classics that still draw legions of fans today.

About the same time that millions of moviegoers experienced space travel through the eyes and adventures of Luke Skywalker, another large group of devoted fans tuned in their televisions to the weekly exploits of the ragtag crew of the Colonial BattleStar Galactica. In the late 1970s, the character-driven epic—which held a prime time slot on ABC—was crafted in a similar style as Star Wars, using what was then cutting-edge effects. The 148-minute series pilot—the biggest budgeted at the time, at $7 million—premiered with spectacular Nielsen Ratings, drawing65 million viewers. As Battlestar Galactica continued, its ratings began to lose altitude. And, although each episode carried an impressive $1 million budget, the sum simply wasn’t enough to sustain the amazing effects that the viewers came to expect. As a result, the show began reusing many of its special effects shots—a decision that no doubt contributed to viewer exodus.

So, after only two years, ABC cancelled the show. The concept was re imagined, though, in December 2003 as a miniseries by the Sci Fi Channel, this time with a socially evolved cast facing complex tactical threats and moral challenges. The sophisticated characters and effects reignited viewer interest, spawning a new weekly series. Now in production on its third season, Battlestar Galactica is the highest rated program in the SciFi Channel’s history, and last month, the show was honored with the prestigious Peabody Award, which recognizes distinguished achievement in electronic media.

Since enjoying its most recent incarnation, Battlestar Galactica indeed has shot for the moon in terms of maintaining a high standard for its visual effects—so much so that the show received an Emmy nomination for its effects, and won a Visual Effects Society Award for an animated character in a particular episode. One of the VFX studios responsible for establishing the show’s high visual effects bar is Zoic Studios, the primary facility tasked with the series’ animation, effects, and compositing. Atmosphere Studios in Vancouver serves as wing man, completing effects for a number of sequences, including many shots of the centurion Cylon warriors.

Many scenes contain a great deal of fire and smoke, and a number of
explosions. Often the luminance values are tweaked in Sapphire’s Rack
Focus to enlarge the effect.

VFX Evolution

According to Chris Zapara, Zoic’s VFX supervisor on Battlestar Galactica, today's effects are drastically different from the practical models, optical printers, and other techniques used in the original series. Back then, the shot turnarounds were limited by the lab processing; today, they are dependent on render times. "Now we get things like optical lineup for free, which opens the artist up to new obstacles, like 3D camera tracking," he says. "Also, the set extension of the 1970s was a lock-off with no traveling mattes, while the set extension today is just like any other documentary-style shot: a handheld, zooming camera that loses focus." Another effects evolution:Spaceships that used to move in straight lines or small arcs to hide or avoid support rods, C-stands, and jib arms can now twirl, spin, change direction, or break apart without worrying if there’s room for the camera, lights, or lenses.

These are just some of the state-of-the-art effects created at Zoic by a team as small as one 3D artist to a group of 15, depending on the type and number of shots in an episode. Almost all the 3D elements are generated in NewTek’s LightWave, while most of the compositing is accomplished with Autodesk’s Discreet Combustion, with some done in Adobe’s After Effects. The artists also use Wondertouch’s Particle Illusion to generate small details in effects-heavy shots.

According to Zapara, most of the group’s shots fall into three main categories: space shots, centurion shots, and set extensions. Space shots are starkly lit with subjects that vary in scale by three orders of magnitude or more. "Composition is often tricky, and we end up using very long lenses, just like an aerial photographer," he says. Comparatively, the centurion shots and set extensions require camera tracking and precise lighting that blends the CG elements with the filmed elements. "Centurion shots, obviously, include a larger amount of character animation. Other shots, like landscapes, nebulae, and rig removal each require their own specific solutions," he notes.


The space shots are typically starkly lit and contain
objects that dramatically vary in scale. The effects are
composited in Combustion and After Effects.
Among the biggest improvements the studio has made this past season has been in scope and detail. As an example, Zapara points to Episode 212, "Resurrection Ship, Part II" (see "Shooting for the Stars," this page). "We had two battlestars and three basestars all pummeling one another, while scores of smaller ships swarm over a new Cylon ship and literally tear it apart," he says. "Some shots are right in the thick of the battle, with thousands of tracers, glass shards, and plumes of smoke and fire all about us, while other shots are miles away from the point of view of an ejected pilot. We used a faint scattering of standing smoke to isolate the burning ships, which not only made them appear larger, but also enhanced the mood of desperation and loneliness, the major themes of the episode."

The series’ documentary style doesn’t lend itself easily
to digital effects. Despite this, an episode can contain
upwards of 40 VFX shots.

Unlike most shows, Battlestar Galactica tends to avoid a "pattern"when it comes to a certain number of effects in a scene, Zapara notes. Some episodes completely reuse stock footage from previous episodes, while others have 30 to 40 involved battle shots with hundreds of ships. In addition to the realistic battle scenes that arise in nearly every show, the effects crew also creates several set extensions, such as those on the hangar deck. The artists also paint out wire rigs during stunt sequences, tracking marks on otherwise non-effects plates, and real-world artifacts from locations, such as street traffic or flagpoles on the Colonial planet Caprica. Recently, the team encountered moresplit-screen effects, where multiple copies of a particular Cylonmodel were used in the same shot.

From a technical standpoint, Zapara says, the biggest challenge is making the effects shots look like all the others shots in the show. "This is always a challenge in visual effects, but Galactica has a very documentary-style look, which does not lend itself to easy effects integration," he explains. "Much of our time is spent either tracking our work into jittery, out-of-focus plates, or it is ‘messing up’ our all-CG shots with camera bumps and focus slips to match the shots around it. Where some shows may present an effects shot as a unique spectacle designed to draw attention to itself, many of our shots are supposed to quietly flow from one scene to the next."

As a fan of the show, Zapara’s favorite part is the drama, which is a result of the writing and the aesthetics. "Watching an episode, I can feel the desperation the character feels," he explains. "My job and the job of my team is to further the drama, which means staying out of the story’s way. The result is that we show things that don’t exist in our world, but show them in such a way that the viewer does not realize they don’t exist."

So, what new aesthetics can viewers expect in the upcoming third season of the show? "There are some really big challenges coming up for us, and I’m hoping the result will be many viewers jumping out of their seats," hints Zapara.

Karen Moltenbrey is chief editor of Computer Graphics World.

Shooting for the Starts

While creating an effects-heavy television series set in deep space, the Zoic compositing team has discovered quite a gem. To generate Battlestar Galactica's many battle-scene effects, the compositors use Gen Arts' Sapphire Plug-ins, a collection of 175 image processing and synthesis effects, including those for creating glows, lens fl ares, light beams, and more. Running under Autodesk's Discreet Combustion, the plug-ins enable the visual effects team to put the viewer in the midst of battle—and there is always a battle.

"That is done with an array of parameters, giving me the options I need to create the ‘fantasy-reality' look I'm always shooting for," says lead compositor Lane Jolly.

In Episode 212, "Resurrection Ship, Part II," for example, the battlestars Pegasus and Galactica face off with two enemy Cylon baseships in an epic conflict that will ultimately turn the tide of the ongoing war. The battle culminates with the total obliteration of the Cylon's Resurrection ship; and in the midst of the final assault, Apollo (the commander of the Pegasus)is ejected into space when his stealth ship is hit. The scope of the destruction is subsequently viewed through his eyes as he fl oats helplessly in space.

"For this scene, we wanted to achieve a really cavernous, warlike look in the wide shots, where the extent of the battle is evident," Jolly says. "So we created a massive haze/smoke layer that floated and shifted overhead. Then I composited all the fire and explosion elements together, and piped their combined luminance values into Sapphire's Rack Defocus."This blew out the luminance values and enlarged the explosions while keeping their positions on the screen. He then used that result as a matte to light the smoke layer. "Ultimately, the light from the explosions intermittently illuminated the base of the haze, creating a realistic combat visual," he adds.

According to Jolly, when an object is blowing up, the image gets big, fast. Rack Defocus actually duplicates pixels, enabling him to amplify this type of effect and make the explosion get bigger, faster.

"Also, Rack Defocus's brightness parameter allowed me to blow out the brightness of an input image while significantly blurring it," explains Jolly. "If I was using a regular color corrector and blur effect, I wouldn't have been able to brighten it enough. The pixel values wouldn't be there because the bright areas get too spread out."

In addition, Jolly uses the Feedback Bubble feature to stretch out the smoke layer in these types of scenes. He notes that this effect acts almost like a particle system in that it takes pixels, holds them on the screen fora longer period of time, and then splits them—blowing them off like particles emitted from a texture. "So when the smoke footage runs out, I can apply Feedback Bubbleto get a longer-lasting, smoky fade-out look."

Furthermore, Jolly uses Sapphire Shake and Distort effects in battle scenes. Shake provides a camera shake effect and is highly animatable, and it has a built-in motion-blur parameter, which works well when ships collide or get hit, he notes. On the other hand, Distort creates an image-distortion effect, which is effective at conveying gravity or heat forming off an engine or gun.

Other key effects, Shapphire's Blur and Glow, enable the crew to soften the crispness of many scenes shot in HD, such as those in Episode 212, as Apollo drifts along in space. The footage was shot in HD on a green screen, and it was ultra sharp, Jolly notes. So, he added Blur to muddy the edges, which took the luminance of the color values and washed them back into the shadows to soften the footage overall. Lastly, he took all the shots' highlights and added Glow, again to soften the edges a bit.

"In general, being able to turn off the source opacity within Sapphire's Glow effect is really handy. Often with rendered footage of fire, you don't get an alpha channel, so you have to create one based on the image's luminance. Adding Glow to that original layer can adversely affect the image colors—they get pushed and broken because I have to actually mess with the pre-multiplication of the color," explains Jolly.

Jolly continues: "In this scenario, Glow is overreacting because the fire isn't pre-multiplied by the alpha channel. However, if I put a Sapphire Glow on its own layer and screen it over the fire layer, I can then turn the source opacity off so the source image's light is obscured. It's essentially avoiding the time-consuming pre-multiplication of adding the Glow on the original layer. By being able to turn off the source opacity, the edges of the image are pulled in, the black is pulled out, better mixing it with the background—and no one can tell that I skipped a step." —Karen Moltenbrey