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 [Awards] #### PRODUCTION #### [Literary]

Contents: General - Scripts - Editing - Order

General production notes

Babylon 5 is filmed in widescreen (16:9) format, so that when HDTV arrives, the show can be remastered for full-screen video release. The extra picture space is just a bonus; directors compose scenes to fit entirely in the normal 4:3 aspect ratio of today's television, at the same time making sure that the edges of the picture can be included later on.

You can see the widescreen film in action during the title sequence, which is shown letterboxed.

Audio is produced in full surround sound. Background dialogue (known as "walla") was written by Larry DiTillio during seasons one and two.

Alien makeup and such for the series is done by Optic Nerve Studios (Everett Burrell and John Vulich.)

Babylon 5 is produced on a per-episode budget of roughly $800,000, quite low for a science-fiction series; "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," by comparison, has a budget of roughly $1.6 million per episode, and Fox's "Space: Above and Beyond" is rumored to cost $2 million.

The lifecycle of a script

from series creator J. Michael Straczynski, 22 September 1995

We don't generally do a lot of revisions. Once in a great while you'll get something that goes through 4 colors (drafts are color coded), but they're rare. And invariably *all* such drafts after the first are mainly revised to handle set changes or production requirements, not story, dialogue or other creative stuff. This season [2], in all but one case, I write the first draft, clean it up a bit for the second/final draft, it goes into production, we adjust for sets ("Can we make this the conference room instead of Sheridan's office so we can do it on the same stage and avoid a camera move to stage in the middle of the day?"), and it's filmed as written.

There's often a perception [...] that lots and lots of people have input into the writing of the script. Not so. I write it alone. Nobody sees nothin' until the first draft is finished. I then show it only to WB (which hasn't given me a single script note since episode 4, year 2), producer John Copeland (who looks at it for any possible production headaches, too many extras or sets, other physical elements), my partner Doug Netter (who doesn't generally give creative notes, as per our tradition), and if necessary, Ron at Foundation, Optic Nerve, and the director. A couple of cast members like to look at first drafts, just out of curiosity to know what's coming next, but don't give notes or suggestions.

Once I have in hand any production hiccups, I clean up the draft a bit, adjust the production, EFX or prosthetics elements, make my last minute personal revisions on the script (dialogue, structure, whatever), then it's published as a Final Draft which goes to everyone in the cast and crew. The various departments then begin work on realizing what's in the script. We have meetings to discuss it to make sure everyone's on the same page. I meet with the director to make the same assurances. Last minute production-oriented changes are made ("Do we have a Ranger in among the extras here? Do we need 12 Narns or will 8 do?").

And then the script hits the stage, and we shoot it. As written. If an actor has a problem with a particular word, it can be changed after checking with me to make sure that word isn't there for a very special reason (a clue, foreshadowing, whatever).

The scripts are extremely detailed, with inserts, camera angles, slow-mo indications if necessary, lighting notes, you name it.

Some scripts I tinker with a lot before issuing that first draft; others blow right out of the printer as though pre-written. Sometimes the most important ones are the ones that need or get the least revision, because I see them the most clearly; and often it's the more trivial episodes that seem to require lots of finessing.

The script never technically leaves my hands. Once the final draft is written, it's given to every department, which breaks it down in terms of set, extra, day-player, EFX, music, sound and other requirements. We have visual effects, art department and other meetings to go over what's in the script and make sure we all understand what's required. Any new designs for prosthetics, costumes, EFX, ships, or other episode-specific elements are drafted, and shown to me for approval.

The script department breaks down the script in terms of shooting schedule, timing of scenes, and arranges a production board indicating which scenes will be shot on which days (Based on which sets are being used; you don't shoot in sequence...you do all the C&C scenes done on day 1, then move into the Zocalo for all those scenes, and so on.)

The director and I have a tone meeting to go over the script page by page. At this time, the director sometimes suggests changes in locales for production purposes, though this often happens earlier in the process. I make sure we both understand what each scene is about, context and subtext. Then there's a production meeting of all departments, where we all go through one last time and break down each scene of the script by what's required.

The director then takes the script to the stage, and shoots what's written. Dailies arrive each day thereafter, and go to post production, where an editor does a preliminary assembly of the episode. If the episode appears to be coming in long, we have the option of trimming a scene here or there in shooting...or expanding if it's coming in short.

After 7 days of shooting, the raw film is complete, and the editor gives the director his assembly. The director then comes in and takes about 3-4 days making his or her cut. The director's cut then goes to me, and John Copeland and I go in to make the producer's cut, often re-editing every single frame, though sometimes less, depending on many different factors. This is done on computers, the Avid.

This final edit is then used to assemble the actual film (we take the Avid computer disk and turn it over to a supercomputer which assembles the film overnight). Using this online copy, I now sit down with the composer, and sound people, and watch it again, going through it and noting where sound effects and music are required, and what kind I have in mind. "In at 03:13:18 (three minutes, 13 seconds, 18 frames), out at 04:14:22. I'd like something soft, strings mainly, underscoring that doesn't get in the way...with a tone change at 04:05:13, into the action, and since we've got a lot of combat going on there, we need you to clear out the low-end for the battle stuff."

Composer and sound EFX people then do their thing, and a couple weeks later, we do the audio mix. (During this time, Ron and company have delivered the last of their CGI.) At the audio mix, all of the final elements are inserted/layered in, including any last-minute looping or dubbing. This done, the episode is delivered to PTEN about 5 days later.

Total time to complete an episode (after the last day of filming per se): 52 days.

What I do is this: I get a pad of legal-sized paper, and divide it into six quadrants, all on the same page, standing for teaser, four acts and tag. I drop the beats of the story into the relevant places where I think they'd logically fall (the big moments always go at act breaks). This way I can see the entire flow of the story at one glance, which is important for getting a feel for the episode. If one act gets over burdened, I just draw a line moving one beat to another act.

The shooting script for "The Coming of Shadows" as published in your scriptwriting book is different from what aired. Do you often rewrite lines and/or scenes while the episode is filming?

No, never. For starters, it's *vastly* unfair to the actors. They have to memorizes pages and pages of dialogue, and to hit them with new stuff on the stage, when they haven't had a chance to digest the material and dig out the subtext and themes, means the performance will not be as good regardless of the material.

There is *no* improvising allowed on the set, either. If an actor wants to change even a word, the first AD has to come find me and get approval first.

Where you make the revisions are in the stages prior to when the actors get to the stage. A first draft is published, which goes to all the department heads. Between the first and the final drafts (we only do about 2 drafts here), you have about a week to make any revisions you choose to make. Bearing in mind that I don't publish the first draft until I'm absolutely satisfied with it, there ain't much that gets changed, usually bits of dialogue and production related stuff. The cuts you see were done in post-production, as the show is edited for time. We slice lines and bits to fit in the available time.

The editing process

from series creator J. Michael Straczynski, 22 October 1995

Film is shot on the stage, then transferred to video, which is then digitized onto the Avid computer editing system, which holds every take of every scene. A scene is shot many times from various angles: wide master shot, three-shots (3 people), two-shots, singles, raking twos, close ups, medium shots, extreme closeups and sometimes downshots (as well as CGI and composite shots).

John Copeland and I then go in and work on the version of the episode edited by the director to do the producer's cut. We sit down with the editor, and go scene by scene. The usual construction is as follows: you get a wide master shot so we know the geography, where we are, and where everyone is in relation to that. Gradually you go closer, into threes or twos, then singles or closeups for dramatic emphasis, coming out into the master from time to time when someone has to move, or to break the sense of claustrophobia.

When you get in close, you have over-the-shoulder shots, meaning you're shooting past one character's shoulder to the other. Then you do the same thing in reverse, so you see both sides of the conversation. You do these one at a time, for lighting purposes; you light one side of the room for the scenes looking left-right, then move the camera and the lighting around for the scenes when you're on the right side looking left (or, phrased differently, you light for Susan looking at Talia, then Talia looking at Susan). The actors then do the scene again, with the camera on the other side.

The actor has to be very careful to always repeat each movement exactly; if he picks up a teacup on the word "quibble," he has to make absolutely sure he picks up the cup on exactly that same word, every time, in every take, in the same way, in the correct hand. If the actor slips (and this sometimes happens), when you go to show the other side of the scene, you suddenly find you have a matching problem; in the shot over Talia's shoulder to Susan, the actor raised a hand; in the shot over Susan's shoulder to Talia, the actor (generic term that includes women) *didn't* raise a hand. So when you edit the two, you have a matching problem. You can sometimes avoid this by just staying on one side of the shot, but then you can't get the other character's on-face reaction to what's being said. And in that scene in particular, we *needed* to see both sides.

Production Order vs. Airing Order

The production of episodes started far enough in advance that the airing order of the episodes could be arranged as the producers and network decided, allowing for additional post-production time and cost reduction. For example, the first-season finale was filmed 12th but aired 22nd.

Babylon 5 is able to do this more readily than many other shows because of its preplanned nature; JMS knows going into the season that, for instance, episodes 5 and 15 will require a certain set; those two can be scheduled one after the other and the set torn down to save space and time.

The approach isn't without its hazards: several foreign networks have ignored the episode order provided by Warner Bros. and aired the episodes in production order, probably confusing thousands of viewers with a scrambled storyline!

Such odd scheduling is much less prevalent after the first season for a few reasons. The first season started later in the year, giving the production more of a head-start than it had in subsequent seasons. Many standing sets had already been built during the first season, making the lead time less necessary. And there was a desire to avoid repeating the confusion in foreign airings.

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Last update: December 29, 1995