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Battlestar Gallactica

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By Mary Ann Skweres
Twenty-five years after the original hit the airwaves, a new miniseries on cable’s Sci-Fi Channel revives the cult classic Battlestar Galactica. Writer/executive producer Ron Moore (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine) has penned a sexy, apocalyptic story paralleling the post 9-11 world. Michael Rymer (Queen of the Damned) directs multiple storylines for a cast that includes Edward James Olmos (American Me), Mary McDonnell (Dances with Wolves) and Katee Sackhoff (The Education of Max Bickford). Production designer Richard Hudolin and visual effects supervisor Gary Hutzel create a world with an air of reality that sets Battlestar Galactica apart from traditional sci-fi.

Below the Line asked the team how they developed the visual concept:
Rymer: Ron wanted to reinvent science fiction—do a lot of docu stuff, a lot of hand-held, and stay away from the clichés that have emerged from classics like Star Wars.
Hudolin: We didn’t want conventional things like the window or a big screen. We wanted to retain the size and scale from the original Battlestar.
Hutzel: And make the environment real. That was something I wanted to do for a long time —rely on the visual effects to create environments that don’t detract from a natural, documentary style. The original concept was for the ship to be shot at actual locations, aboard aircraft carriers, a submarine—a very real, industrial environment.
Hudolin: This was an older Battlestar, I wanted to give it some sense of age. I tried to combine a clean look with a bit of retro.
BTL: Who came up with the term Frank Lloyd Wright in space?
Hudolin: That was me. It’s representative of his design approach. The walls have big, massive blocks to them. I referenced a lot of Frank Lloyd Wright materials when I was doing my research.
Hutzel: Richard was able to woo the network with that concept. He integrated a lot of those elements into the backdrops as well as creating the pointed arching structure that is a primary design element of the show.
BTL: I understand Gary designed some of the ships?
Rymer: Gary had done more spaceship shots volume-wise than any other single person on the planet.
Hudolin: I started on the interiors. There was so much to do I said, “Gary why don’t you start working up ideas for the exteriors?”
Hutzel: That was one of the nicest things that could have happened. Generally the art department manages all the spaceship designs. If you’re drawing something, you can imply that a line goes from here to there, but when you physically create it, you’ve got to make sure they connect. In the past I’ve had a lot of problems dealing with designs that are beautiful on paper, but don’t work in 3-D.
BTL: How did you decide to do real science?
Hutzel: Michael wanted to know what happens if a nuke goes off in space. How are people really killed in space? We probably spent as much time talking about people dying in a vacuum as we did about anything else.
BTL: Do you feel like you’ve broken any new ground?
Rymer: The big Steadicam shot at the head of the show. I tried that on an earlier feature, but failed. I learned, if you’re not going to cut, you have to make sure the rhythm of the shot is extremely dynamic and every part of it moves the story forward. I told the producers, “Guys, this is a four-and-a-half-minute shot; we’re going to have to build a very elaborate set to keep this going.” They were very committed to doing it. As a result Richard was able to fill a whole stage with one set.
Hudolin: 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. I built the set like a figure eight with a central core. You could start the figure eight and loop as much as you want and by going through the hub you could change directions.
Rymer: We could shoot forever. This was easy in terms of being able to do a 360 and not worry about seeing something you don’t want to see.
BTL: Did that speed up the shooting process?
Rymer: Very much so. There was less fragmentation than normal. We could take a conversation through a hallway to a room. I was very unrestricted. Richard was one day ahead of us in turning the set around.
Hudolin: On stage we only had room for two sets at one time, so I built a common beam room. We flipped that for eight different sets. They’d shoot those rooms then go into the landing bay or the screen stage. Decorating would pull it out at night. Construction would reconfigure it during the day. Redecorate it at night and they’d be back in there the next day.
BTL: You had even more massive sets…
Hutzel: There are a large number of set extensions. The hanger bay was an 80-foot long set, but in the show, it’s 600 feet long. One of the unusual things is (set extensions) were done as full 3-D software solutions. Tracking points were set up on the set so that we could do a software track and match in our 3-D set without hampering the camera with motion control. No one will ever notice because they’ve been executed beautifully thanks to Zoic Studios.
Hudolin: The launch bay was 100×100. One end was bluescreen, the other had a huge door. We could actually bring in a Thomson Viper camera. Working closely with Gary, knowing the distances that he’d need or how much of the ship I’d have to build, was worked out ahead of time. We brought the Viper across the deck, put it into a launch tube we built, then started the move. Gary picked it up from there.
BTL: What was the most challenging aspect of the show?
Rymer: Post was intense. Gary came up with a director-friendly system of doing very elaborate animatics, so we could really design a sequence. I spent a few days down at Zoic, sitting behind the animators. They would put up a simple animation. I’d say, “Can we get closer. This doesn’t feel fast enough.” Pretty much how I would direct on a set. The fun part is you can change anything you wish.
BTL: It’s a blessing and a curse.
Rymer: Certainly a blessing for me. Maybe a curse for Gary. He was a very good sport.
BTL: What is the biggest success in the visual design?
Hudolin: If I showed you the illustrations from the original presentations, the ship looks just like what we pitched. As you go on in a project like this, everyone has an opinion, but sometimes those suggestions take it away from the original concept…you don’t mess with the concept.
Hutzel: I believe we have the longest continuous battle sequence ever done for television—over eight minutes. We covered every scene, every line and every piece of business with every (principal) actor in the cockpit in front of the bluescreen from three different angles.
Rymer: I had a great bunch of people working on the show. Normally there’s something that doesn’t work, but I can’t think of anything that wasn’t right.

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