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An Interview with Ron Thornton

by Eric Reinholt <eric.reinholt@gmail.com>. Originally published in Babylon 5 - Online!. Reprinted in the Lurker's Guide by permission of the author.

Week after week, Visual Effects Artist Ron Thornton and his staff at Foundation Imaging create the eye popping, Emmy Award winning, CGI (Computer Generated Images) special effects for J. Michael Straczynski's television universe of Babylon 5.

Dissatisfied with working in an airport in England, Ron and a friend went to see the movie "Alien" where it occurred to him that someone got paid for making all those models out of plastic.

Thornton then left his airport job, took most of his remaining money and purchased plastics and other materials and began building and photographing models. He took the photographs and used them to get a job with BBC television.

Ron has since worked on the Peter Davidson Doctor Who series, then designed and built spaceships for final season of Blake's 7 (Ron built the Scorpio in his living room, in actuality he built about seven different versions of the Scorpio; different sized models, partial models etc.) and Tripods, all British television series. Thornton then moved to Los Angles where he worked on props and miniatures for Real Genius, Class of 1999, Robot-Jox, T2 (in which he created the battle rifles), The Addams Family, Highlander 2, Critters and Spaceballs. Prior to working on Babylon 5, Thornton worked on Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future television show where he first saw computer generated images for television special effects.

Television and computer screens are arrays of small dots or "pixels." Each pixel is assigned a color, contrast and intensity and when thousands of these pixels are combined, an image results. Computer paint programs allow artists to arrange pixels to form pictures. 3-D image programs allow artists to manipulate those pixels to simulate images of objects as if they actually existed in three dimensional space.

The pilot "The Gathering" was rendered by eight interconnected Amiga 2000 computers with Video Toaster boards which were connected to an IBM computer that stored the images in five gigabytes of memory. Foundation Imaging's computational power has increased tremendously with each work station now being equivalent to the original eight Amigas and Ron's being the equivalent to sixteen Amigas.

The computer generated effects industry is still in its infancy and with only one exception, all the effects for Babylon 5 have been created by Thornton and his team. The one exception was Jason Ironheart's god-like torso effect at the end of "Mind War" from Babylon 5's first season.

Eric: "Fans from the first season of Babylon 5 (like myself) have wanted to know if LightWave has a pre-packaged torso in it, because of the Jason Ironheart god-like creature in "Mind War."

Thornton: "No, That is an off-the-shelf-bought database that we modified."

Eric: "Have you had anything else that you've been able to use right off the shelf?"

Thornton: "I wish! Nobody's really got anything, we've got to build the stuff from scratch. This show's got a look and it's got to stay in line with that look."

Models are created in Lightwave's 3-D modeling program in an elaborate connect-the-dots fashion that places the dots in three dimensional space. The dots are used as references for surfaces (polygons) which form the actual exterior of the computer models.

To help create and improve that look, Thornton and his team have built physical models which were photographed and scanned into their computers.

Thornton: "We've built models and scanned them. Basically it's just a flat object, it's just a flat piece of plastic that we've scored and painted and panel lined."

"You can get more organic patterns. Anybody who paints with paint will tell you that it's totally different to paint on a computer. There are certain things that paint does; like for instance you can get very, very thin paint, brush it over something and then wipe it off and it will go into the grooves, there's no way you can synthesize that on the computer, that sort of 'capillary bleed' effect that only happens with thin washes of paint. And so you can get some really gorgeous organic textures which you can't get any other way and there's been a couple of times we've done it.

According to Thornton, this is done just for that special organic effect which is then "bit mapped" onto the surface of the electronically constructed ship.

Jason Ironheart's ship (Mind War) was the first ship Ron built via computer (and was also seen in the pilot "The Gathering") in tribute to some of his "teachers" and is reminiscent of the Zep One from the British television show Captain Zep.

Ron designed Babylon 5 (including the Cobra Bays) mostly by himself and "built it" in two weeks on the computer where a conventional model may have required six weeks or more and a larger team!

Some of the ships that are seen on the Babylon 5 series have actual physical counterparts. The blocky transport ships were among the models that Thornton created and photographed to land a job in Special Effects.

Steve Berg and Ron split the designing of the ships of Babylon 5 about 50/50.

Eric: "Ron, how did you get the idea of using computers for creating Special Effects?"

Thornton: "It just sort of happened. I ended up getting one of these machines, the Video Toaster, and I started playing with it and it was like 'give it a year or so and this could work.'

"This was way after Captain Power. Captain Power had turned me off it (Computer Generated Special Effects), 'cause the stuff didn't look very good and there was no texture mapping per se. It was all very blocky looking, the animation wasn't that hot and they had real problems delivering the stuff; it was just taking them forever to do it."

"I had an Amiga for a while and it had a number of 3D packages which I sort of toyed with, but the Toaster was the first decent one."

Eric: "How long did it take from realizing that the Toaster could be used for effects work until Foundation Imaging was up and running?"

Thornton: "It was probably about a year and a half, during which time I was working with Todd Rundgren in Northern California on one of his shows.

"But a lot of it was the wait. Once I convinced Joe [Straczynski] and John Copeland that this could be done this way it suddenly opened up a whole new venue and I did a bunch of tests; then we went in and pitched it once more to Peter [Ledger]. At least this time they could see that we could do it, that we could create some of this imagery."

Eric: "What is the cost of producing special effects with computers as opposed to those done with conventional means?"

Thornton: "I'd say that we're between a third and two thirds the cost."

Eric: "What are the basic steps in creating a CGI scene?"

Thornton: "Well, you build your model. You pull it into the layout. You light it. You shoot it. It's very similar to having a motion control stage except you've got no limitations."

The Starfury design is unique in science fiction and Thornton says that it is in no way based on that of the Star Wars X-Wing Fighters and are more of a tribute to Ron Cobbs' designs in "The Last Starfighter."

The Starfury is able to move more realistically in flight, can move in one vector, spin on it's axis to track and fight other ships and not engage in "Battle of Britain" style dog fights (that are favored in other films).

Thornton: "If you actually think about it, the Starfury is a totally impossible model to motion control. Unless you did it on wires, because of the way the engine deflector plates are at the back, you couldn't put a mounting rod up the middle of it because the mounting rod would eclipse the plates that were rolling behind it. The only way you could mount it is from the front. It's just one of those 'impossible models.'"

Foundation Imaging started out with five people and has grown to fifteen for the Babylon 5 series. Thornton, along with his partner Paul Beigle-Bryant (who created the software network that enables rendering and who also performs computer hardware repairs), senior animators, Mojo (from New York) and John Teska supervise other computer animators. Computer animator Mark Swain, Effects Coordinator Shannon Casey and Cherry Hitch (who does 2-D rotoscope work on the virtual sets and overlays such effects as laser fire) are the core of talented people who make the computer generated effects of Babylon 5 a reality.

Effects are designed on an accelerated Amiga 2000 with a Video Toaster board in it, using LightWave 3-D and Modeler 3-D.

Eric: "How is building computer models different from building physical models?"

Thornton: "You still have to build the models, only you use polygons and pixels instead of plastic and paintbrushes."

Another unique organic look to Babylon 5 is the shape of the Vorlon vessels such as Ambassador Kosh's ship. The inspiration for the squid-like vessel is as original as it is surprising:

Eric: "One of the really unique looking vessels right from the start was the Vorlon Cruiser. It's rather squid-like in look. Was that the inspiration for the ship?"

Thornton: "It's a clove of garlic, actually. I got the idea driving through the town of Gilroy which is kind of like the garlic capital of the world and has this absolutely delicious smell."

The clove of garlic grew into an organic ship which Thornton used to sell the idea of Organic Technology to Straczynski to be used by some of the alien races.

Thornton: "If you have space traveling ability and genetic manipulation, why can't you grow a ship suited to the environment of space? I had this idea of walking into a spaceship like stepping into the mouth of a whale and going for a ride."

Eric: "The Vorlon ship exterior is sort of mottled and is fractal generated. I know about that and Kosh's environment suit has a similar look. Was that intentional?"

Thornton: "They sort of evolved together."

Using computers for special effects also allows for some rather intricate and spectacular effects which might be impossible to create realistically using conventional means, such as the Starfury launches. J. Michael Straczynski had envisioned ships on platforms that would flip the ships over and out into space or to launch ships from the front of the rotating station but Thornton had other suggestions, including pointing out that the only way to launch ships from the front of the station would be through the central spinning bay because of the rotation of the station. As for the Starfury platform launch:

Thornton: "The easiest way to launch the ship and save energy is to literally just drop the ship out, you've dropped it out . . . it's already got momentum . . . and depending on where in the rotational cycle you drop the ship it decides what sort of direction it's going to go away from the station"

Eric: "You just have to be careful not to hit the non-rotating arm!"

Thornton: "Uh, yeah! [laughs] I think that would be kind of like one of those World War One cannons that fired through the propellers. The whole thing [launch cycle] would be disabled when that [non-rotating arm] came around."

Eric: "What was your most technically complex shot so far? I remember a shot from "The Gathering" of two hundred Vorlon vessels exiting Babylon 5's Jump Gate (which beat the record number of On Screen ships in "The Return of the Jedi")."

Thornton: "That was actually a piece of cake. It's just making up a bunch of them and layering them and layering them. It's just one of those things that's really easy to do on the computer but is really incredibly difficult to do anywhere else.

"I think actually, in terms of tweaking . . . I think one of (the technically) hardest shots that's paid off very well was John Teska'a shot of these little demons all clustered over Londo's back [The Geometry of Shadows] which was very interesting because we had to motion-match the demons and move them along with Londo. And we had to do it manually; there was no automatic tracking like there is in some of the more expensive packages so it was all done manually, by eye and it was very, very tasty. I was extremely pleased with that.

"Unfortunately it's a shame because John Flinn [Director of Photography John C. Flinn, III A.S.C.] lit the scene really dark and so you can't really see what's going on. They [the demons] were scrapping on his back and were hitting one another, it was kind of like having the Three Stooges strapped to his back and was incredibly funny!"

One major similarity between computer generating effects and that of conventional motion control effects for an ongoing series is a lack of production time. The time between being handed a completed script and generating the thirty or so effect shots needed for a complete episode is only a matter of weeks. Each computer generated frame for "The Gathering" took almost one hour to render but that time has been substantially reduced to approximately twenty minutes. Considering that there are about thirty frames generated per second, time is one of Foundation Imaging's most important factors.

Thornton: "There's an icon that you click [at each of the computer stations] before you leave your station and automatically that station becomes a slave and starts rendering images. By the time we leave at night, the whole system is rendering. We try not to waste a single minute!"

Much like enthusiastic Babylon 5 fans, Thornton wishes that he could know what will happen later down the closely guarded Straczynski story line but for reasons differing from fans. This would enable Thornton to plan more exciting visuals. Thornton believes that such incredible scenes such as the battle of "The Line" ["And the Sky Full of Stars"] could have been made even better with more time for planning.

Eric: "What shots from the series do you think could have been better, if you'd had more time?"

Thornton: "Oh, the battle of "The Line" is one I wish we'd had more time to prepare for. It was supposed to be really emotive but it wound up kind of ordinary."

"I'll tell you what I'd really like to do. I'd like to do a really decent scene with the Minbari Cruisers. I think the Minbari Cruisers are really cool looking and I'd really like to do a decent battle scene with them."

With Foundation Imaging's increased ability to create dynamic images in a short period of time, there are approximately thirty ship effects scenes in each episode but instead of visualizing more and more such shots in later episodes as computational speed increases, Thornton has asked that number of shots to remain a constant, giving him the ability to concentrate on quality instead of quantity.

However Foundation Imaging does more than just space ship scenes and these special effects sometimes are mixed with the live action plates shot for the series. This requires a supervisor on set to aid the director with the special needs for shooting background plates (for Virtual sets and "Blue Screen" shots) which are later given to Foundation Imaging.

Eric: "What's required for Virtual sets? Do you have to help directors with what's needed for Blue Screens and so on?"

Thornton: "Virtual sets are basically matte paintings; there's a supervisor that's on set who basically watches over all the 'On Set' stuff and that's Ted Rae this year. Virtual sets are a technique that's been around, as I said, for a long time."

Back at Foundation Imaging, Cherry Hitch is then responsible for 2-D rotoscoping, virtual sets and overlays such as laser fire and so on. She must take the background plates and introduce the computer generated effects onto them.

"Blue Screen" shots are live action plates that have a specific area which is color-coded that is capable of being digitally "removed" so that special effects can be "placed" into the shot.

Virtual sets are sets which do not exist in the real world. Actors perform (again) before a color-coded area, then later an entire set is painted in Foundation Imaging's computers and inserted around the actors. Examples of this sort of imaging include the Narn War Cruiser bridge set and the Babylon 5 Observation Deck where the Centauri Emperor met with Captain Sheridan (The Coming of Shadows).

Another, similar effect is Matte Painting which also can be done on Foundation Imaging's computers. The bi-level Zocalo visualized in the opening title sequence of each of Season Two's episodes are examples where one plate of the Zocalo was shot, then a second plate with actors walking along specifically defined areas was computer inserted over the first.

Eric: "I know you're busy right now creating effects for the third season of Babylon 5, but has Foundation Imaging produced effects for other shows or movies as well?"

Thornton: "Oh yeah. Right now we're working on a show of mine called "Hypernauts" a sort of kid's show."

"We did a show last year called 'Journey to Mars' which is . . . not great. And I don't know if they're ever going to show it on TV, it's that 'not great.' When you're asked to do rubbish, you have to do it. I mean the shots were good but they were very, very long, I mean we had shots flying over the Mars landscape that were like a minute and a half long so it's like 'go to sleep, go out and get yourself a cup of coffee and a sandwich' and come back and the shot's still running.

"There was this kind of strange director that they had that was coming up with all this stuff."

But with the talents of Ron Thornton and his team at Foundation Imaging, imaginative producer J. Michael Straczynski and the gifted directors of Babylon 5, computers are sure to keep producing attention-riveting special effects.

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Last update: October 16, 1995