Insights from Visual Effects Pro Doug Drexler

Reflects on workflows past, including “Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome”

Posted: Mon 19 Nov 2012

Doug Drexler, a television production veteran and longtime LightWave 3D artist, has won Emmy awards and accolades for his inventive visual effects work on myriad science-fiction (sci-fi) television programs, including multiple Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica series. Over the past three decades, he has been an integral part of various art and VFX departments and TV production workflows, some of which worked far better than others. It is the production pipeline on Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome that he credits as the most efficient, creative, fulfilling, and cost effective of his career.

How is the production of Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome unique?
It really is an amazing experience that’s unlike any other. It’s unprecedented for guys that we’ve brought onto the show; they don’t believe me at first when I tell them, ‘This is as close as you can get to get to making a show. You won't be some nameless guy across town in a cubicle.’ We cut our own shots in with the editor. If it doesn’t work, we do a new shot, run down the hall, put it in, and look at it together. If it doesn’t flow, if it doesn’t work... there’s no approval process... we just do it.

That’s how we are able to do so many amazing shots in so little time on Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome. In eight months, we did more than 2,000 shots with nine guys— that’s because we had unprecedented freedom.

How do other production workflows compare?
I was on all the various Star Trek television series for 17 years—including Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise—and there was a really strict approval process. You couldn’t just take a leap by putting together a sequence and saying, ‘This is what we might do here.’

The process on Battlestar Galactica was a stark contrast. We did a show called 'Razor' where the Scorpio Shipyard is attacked by the Cylons. In the script, it read: ‘A dot of light approaches the station and there’s a huge explosion’—and that’s the end of the sentence! [Digital Artist and CGI Sequence Designer] Kyle Toucher and I read that and we said, ‘No Way! This is our chance to do Pearl Harbor!’ So, Kyle laid the whole sequence out—it was awesome—and Gary sold it to Ron Moore.

How did it come about that Blood & Chrome would be done in greenscreen, with digital rather than physical sets?
Things are so messed up now for television because that pie has been sliced so thin. It used to be just three networks and some syndicated stuff. They don’t want to put a lot of money into big, extravagant sets because, for goodness’ sake, they are canceling shows after two episodes. With Star Trek on TV, during the golden era, they knew the show was going to go for years, so they threw money at it. But then, even just a few years ago, it was a totally different time.

[The producers] knew they wanted to do Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, but they didn’t want to pay for sets. [VFX Supervisor] Gary Hutzel said, ‘I think we ought to do the show greenscreen. We’ll do all the sets. We’ll design, build, light, and line up all the shots.’ That’s what we did, and the show just kicks ass. It’s bigger than ever and we did it for peanuts.

We were responsible for restyling all the sets. We were the art department. We respectfully restyled what we had in the last show instead of changing everything. That's like a disease these days in reboots: Change everything because we can. Not here. The hangar bay is still the hangar bay, but it’s expanded. And the place is cranking, too! There’s stuff everywhere you look. There are vipers on cranes and vipers coming down from the flight deck—it’s just incredible! You could never do that practical.

What are benefits of doing an all-greenscreen series?
You can give the show a better look. Even if you had the sets... look, the directors on stage are on a really tight schedule. Their job is all about go, go, go. They may have an idea how to shoot it, but they can’t take the time you’d like to. The clock is running, and they have to commit to a line up. The grips and the gaffers need to get up there and light it (the shot). So you have no time. It's do or die.

Say, for example, I’m doing a hangar deck shot in post. With greenscreen, I can set action up to work with every single shot so that no matter where you are looking, there’s something interesting going on... or the vanishing points of the set are working with the way the actors are lined up. It’s hard to do that on stage unless you’ve got a lot of time and a lot of money. On stage you can't easily ‘tear that wall out because it doesn’t work with my shot’, but we can do that easily in the computer. It's hard work, but it got to the point where I could knock out 12 shots in a day.

When I went to Vancouver to work for Gary on the second season of Battlestar Galactica, we were still using an outside CG studio. We were taking on more and more, and the vender sees a gold mine. It was clear to Gary that we couldn't expand the show that way. It was just dollar prohibitive. So we began doing our own shots in house, slowly at first. I remember Gary said, ‘Next show, we’re doing 14 shots on our own.” I said, “What?! No way. It’s impossible.’ Well, here we are, and we just did 2,000-plus shots on Blood & Chrome... no overtime!

It is the future of visual effects and the future for television in general. It’s cheaper now to build the sets in the computer than build them on stage. A few years ago it wasn’t so; now it’s totally true. Once you have a backlog of assets, you can put stuff together quickly. And, of course, it saved tons and tons of money. We did Blood & Chrome for so little.

Was all the effects work on Blood & Chrome done in-house?
Yes. How did we get to here? Gary is a hands-on guy. He can do it all. He's seen it all. He shoots his own footage, sets up the motion control, and does all the passes himself. A guy like Gary was destined to bring it in house, and here's why: In the beginning, when work started going to CG houses, the VFX supervisors were losing control. That would never stand with Gary.

The facilities were deviating from the shot list. The work would come back in a couple of weeks, and maybe it was what we wanted and maybe it wasn’t. The problem with facilities is if a shot doesn’t quite work, you go back to the facility—and changes cost more money. In-house, we don’t work that way; it’s unlimited revisions with no cha-ching. When I was in the art department of Star Trek, if I had to do 30 versions of something, I didn’t charge for every version; it was just part of my job. That’s the way Blood & Chrome VFX works.

Eventually, the VFX dept of a television series will become integrated such that it is part of the production. You’ll have the wardrobe department, the art department, and the VFX department under one roof.

Saying the visual effects department should be part of the production... well, that’s easier said than done. It takes a guy like Gary, who has been in the business from the production end for so long. He makes it work. He sets up the dynamic which integrates it into the production.

Battlestar Galactica producer Ron Moore was a writer and producer on Deep Space 9 and Next Generation, so we have history. There was a tremendous amount of trust before any of us ever got to Galactica. You’d be hard pressed right now to convince producers that the VFX department should be part of the show, but Ron knew us for so long that if Gary thought it was a good idea, he wanted to give it a try.

You won an Academy Award for makeup on Dick Tracy and also worked in the art department of several TV series. How did you get involved with VFX?
When I was in the art department of Deep Space Nine, Scenic Art Supervisor Michael Okuda had a copy of LightWave 3D in his office unopened. Every time I would go in his office, I’d look at the box and the cool stuff on it until I finally said, ‘Hey, Mike, are you ever going to open this up?” He said, ‘Nah, I don’t have the time’ and he gave it to me—that was the beginning of it. I started using it in the art department—a first in the industry.

When DS9-VFX used to run out of budget for building a physical model, Gary would come to the art department and say, ‘Can you guys kloodge together a Klingon Space Station for me?” We kept a room full of junk for such occasions, so we would glue it, paint it, put logos on it... and bang-zoom, Gary had his model.

Gary started noticing me tinkering with LightWave and one day he said, ‘How would you like to build a ship in the computer?’ I said, ‘Does the bear make big potty in the woods?’ We ended up doing a couple of LightWave models out of the art department. I’ll never forget after the first one, me saying, ‘Gee, Gary, that was really fun, I hope we get a chance to do that again.’ And he said, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ Gary has been dragging my bloody corpse behind him for the past six years, and now we're onto Defiance. Go, Gary! Go!"