The B5 Scrolls

Related: 3D, Babylon 5, CG

B5 Scrolls Website Provides Extensive Info on the Creativity Behind "Babylon 5"

Basically, as part of a learning exercise in putting a web page together, I ended up contacting a number of the FX artists who worked on the Babylon 5 television show. The reason for that was, there simply wasn’t a lot of information available on the web, and I wanted to include the name of the designer under some of the ship designs that appeared on the show. Thing is, the learning exercise took a bit of a right turn and went off in a direction I never originally intended.  Over the course of the next few years, as mutual workloads allowed, I ended up interviewing around a dozen artists and the range of subjects discussed grew – with more than one or two surprises. They also sent over a fair selection of concept art.

B5 Scrolls website

Back in 2005, as a newbie trying to find information on who designed the various ships on Babylon 5, I found next to nothing on various fan sites, blogs, discussion forums and reference sites. Expanding the search, I ended up finding that Star Trek reference sites acknowledged the work of, and held far more information on, people like Steve Burg, Tim Earls, Ron Thornton, Paul Bryant and John Teska than any B5 site. Considering their ground-breaking work on the show, this seemed more than a little strange.

It wasn’t limited to the visual effects, or fan sites either. For example, the various Wikipedia articles on the show didn’t mention things like the make-up, wardrobe, directing, set designs, etc., never mind the people responsible. The articles on the ships didn’t even hint they were computer generated!

After getting mightily confused, and a little frustrated, spending a couple of months trying to find who designed the Omega destroyer, I contacted Ron Thornton to congratulate him and Steve Burg on the design. Ron was a guess, but Joe Straczynski had mentioned Steve as a primary designer of the ship in one of his archived replies held over on JMSnews.com. Turns out neither he nor Steve were involved with the design and it was all Paul Bryant’s work. That was the first of many surprises.

Although I enjoyed the show, and was curious about a few things, I was still very much a newbie. So, a good deal of the questions I asked were based on what I’d read people discussing on forums. Problem with that was, I wasn’t the only person to have noticed the numerous gaps in the available information. After many years of valiantly trying to plug them up with best guesses and pet theories, much of what I was reading on those forums turned out to be little more than virtual urban legends.

For example, Foundation Imaging hadn’t abandoned the show to work on Star Trek, leaving them without an FX unit. There was never a plan to re-render the FX for widescreen, and you couldn’t make up the reasons why the widescreen conversion turned out so badly. Better still, the CGI could have been created on a widescreen format from day one, as there wasn’t any technical issues that meant it had to be rendered in 4:3. It was actually due to a short sighted decision to save what amounted to $75 an episode, and that’s why the CGI and composite scenes look so bad now, and ultimately why a blu-ray release will likely never happen.

As Ron kept mentioning people I’d never heard of in his replies, I tried contacting a few of them. Being able to drop his name came in handy. Somehow, I ended up talking with 15 artists (and one producer) who had enough emmys between them to start a couple of football teams. Though, due to mutual work commitments and other real life stuff, this happened over the course of something like 5 years. The learning exercise had turned into a bit of a hobby.

That’s when it also quickly became apparent the show was the sum of many very talented artists, ideas, and commitment to the project.  As John Copeland (the show's producer) put it: 

You have to give people the room and freedom to bring the best of their creative ideas to the table. There is no one place on a production where good ideas come from. We tried to instill that in everyone.  And once you do that you have to live up to it. The return is amazing, because people become invested in the show, it's no one single persons - not Joe's not WBs not mine not Doug's it is all of ours - and by ours I am speaking of the family of B5. I think that is another of the reasons that the show was so successful, it was made by people who loved their jobs and the show.

For example, although it might sound impressive when selling the show, NASA scientists or technical advisors were never consulted in things like the design of the Starfury, it’s launch system or the rotation speed of the station. In fact, the station wasn’t even designed to be 5 miles long, that was just the main habitable area. Things like the use of colourful nebula, non anthropomorphic shadows (jms had called them shadow men during the first couple of years of his replying to fan questions), the use of realistic physics and organic ships were among the many ideas proposed – and often developed in secret – by Foundation Imaging. Other departments did similar types of things as well.

The list of surprises revealed by talking with the contributors came thick and fast. Eric Chauvin, for example, who was moonlighting on B5, began using 3D models while creating multiple matte paintings for different views of the station’s central core to save time. He then introduced the technique to his day job at Industrial Light and Magic! While a lot of it had to do with being in the right place at the right time due to hardware and software developments, the number of technical innovations surrounding the show, more or less, revolutionised the CGI industry, at least as far as television is concerned. 

Anyway, although it contains far more than I could have ever originally imagined, yet still far less than I eventually hoped for, I decided enough is enough and wrapped the site up – I won’t list what it could have possibly contained if I’d persisted. ; )

For me, at least initially, the motivation behind creating the site was more to do with the process, rather than what it contained. It also wasn’t an exercise in making money or gaining a reputation as some kind of self appointed pundit. So, now that it’s finished, the decision to make it downloadable for anyone to keep, rather than letting the information disappear when the site inevitably goes down, was a bit of a no-brainer. 

The problem I had was how to let people know about the thing. Discussion threads fall off the front page of forums quite quickly and google will never return the B5Scrolls site in it’s first few screens of results when doing a search on Babylon 5. That’s why I created the B5Scrolls Facebook page. The theory being that if it gets enough likes, then anyone doing a Babylon 5 search on Facebook will find it six months from now. It’s far from ideal, as not everyone has a Facebook account – I only joined to put the page together. But it’s the best idea I could come up with.

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Tags: 3D, Babylon 5, CG
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