The news has broken that Ron Thornton, a pioneer of visual effects in both the UK and USA, has passed away at the age of 59.
Ron Thornton was born in London, graduated from West Kent College and went to work at the BBC. He worked in the special effects teams on Doctor Who and Blake's 7 in the late 1970s, building spaceships and props and learning how on-screen visual effects were handled. Working for the famously underfunded BBC gave him a good grounding in how to get the maximum bang for the buck.
In the mid-1980s he moved to Los Angeles to work in the Hollywood visual effects industry. He worked on the movies Real Genius, Commando, Critters, Spaceballs and Robot Jox. However, Thornton was fascinated by the power of computers to achieve visual effects, and was inspired by the movie The Last Starfighter. In 1991 he worked with visual artist Todd Rundgren on a short computer-generated film. This attracted the attention of J. Michael Straczynski and Douglas Netter, who were putting together a proposal for their TV series Babylon 5. Thornton designed the titular space station and, using a Commodore Amiga with a Video Toaster plug-in, rendered a series of shots of the space station orbiting its host planet. Warner Brothers were completely blown away by the quality of the images. Their decision to pick up Babylon 5 in July 1992 was heavily influenced by Thornton's effects work.
Later that year Thornton set up his visual effects house Foundation Imaging and began producing shots for the Babylon 5 pilot, The Gathering, which aired in February 1993 to critical acclaim and commercial success. Thornton and his team at Foundation Imaging worked on the first three seasons of the show, producing hundreds of CGI shots and pushing the boundaries of what TV visual effects were considered capable of, particularly in episodes like The Coming of Shadows, The Long, Twilight Struggle, Messages from Earth and Shadow Dancing. The highlight of his team's work on the show was the third season episode Severed Dreams, which featured a full-scale, massive fleet engagement, hundreds of starfighters dogfighting, and the Mars colony being bombed. Thornton is also notable for having pushed heavily to include non-bipedal, fully-CGI aliens which could interact with the human actors.
Between the third and fourth seasons of the show, Foundation Imaging was forced off the show due to dubious backstage politics. Facing potential ruin, Thornton and his crew were saved by the Star Trek team, who hired them to do work on both Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Foundation Imaging helped out on the massive fleet battles in the sixth and seventh seasons of the former and soon became the primary provider of CG effects for the latter, starting in the third season cliffhanger episode Scorpion. Foundation Imaging would go on to work on the remainder of Voyager, the special director's cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the first season of Enterprise before closing down in 2001. Thornton also provided support and CG assistance on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Thornton later worked on Gerry Anderson's New Captain Scarlet, a purely CG show, which aired in the UK in 2005, the pilot for Nashville and several web projects. Some of Thornton's fellow CG experts at Foundation Imaging would go on to work on shows like Battlestar Galactica, Caprica and Lost.
Thornton also designed many of the spacecraft and space stations on Babylon 5. He designed the Babylon 4 and 5 stations, the White Star, the Vorlon transport and heavy cruiser, the Minbari warcruiser and the Shadow ships, as well as advising on many of the other designs.
Thornton was a vital pioneer in the development of CGI effects on the small screen, showing it was possible to create movie-quality effects on a much smaller budget and thus finally allowing science fiction to bring some of its epic grandeur to television.
He is survived by his wife Lada. Some of Thornton's friends and associates have set up a GoFundMe page to help with his outstanding medical expenses.