Wednesday, 29 July 2020

BABYLON 5 fan re-renders shots in HD using original models

A Babylon 5 fan has been conducting test-renders designed to show off what the show's CGI would look like in HD and  in a proper widescreen presentation.

A scene from Season 2, Episode 9, The Coming of Shadows

The television series Babylon 5 ran from 1993 to 1998 and won acclaim for its serialised storytelling, epic scope and its cutting-edge, computer-generated effects. Although well-received at the time, it’s clear this material has dated in the 25+ years since the show debuted, and fans have been clamouring for a HD remaster of the show for years.

The existing version of the show is problematic in that, although it presents all of the live-action footage in widescreen (Babylon 5 was one of the first TV shows specifically shot for widescreen presentation), the CG was not rendered in the same format due to a miscommunication between the effects team and the show’s producers. As a result, the existing DVD and streaming version of the show alternates between widescreen live-action and cropped CG and composite shots (where CG and live action is mixed), with the camera “zooming in” to the original 4:3 square image to make it appear in widescreen. This means that information is lost from the top and bottom of the screen, and is less than ideal. 

A scene from Season 2, Episode 15, And Now for a Word

Because the CG was natively rendered at 720x486, it also makes it impossible to have a proper HD (1920x1080) version of any CG material from the show without going back and re-rendering every single CG shot from the entire series, which is a lot of material; several episodes had more than 100 effects shots in 44 minutes, which is an absurd amount of material for the time (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring had 480 effects shots in three hours, by comparison). Any modern HD remaster would also likely want to have more detailed models and effects.

Babylon 5 fan Tom Smith, who runs the popular B5 Scrolls website, has taken an interesting approach. Although they strictly shouldn’t have done so, many of the CG modellers and animators working on Babylon 5 at CG companies Foundation Imaging and Netter Digital made personal copies of the shots and models they’d worked on for the show (in some cases because they feared they’d be lost, in others for personal showreels). Smith has used these to recreate some of the exact same shots using the exact same models and, in some cases, the exact same scene files (which contain details on how the ships are moving and where the lighting is coming from). Because the models were extremely over-engineered by the standards of the time, they stand up surprisingly well when displayed at more than twice the resolution they were originally rendered for.

Because modern computing hardware is slightly more powerful than in 1994-98, the average desktop PC with a modern graphics card can render these scenes in minutes or even real time, rather than the hours to days of the original series. 

A series of shots from Season 3, Episode 10, Severed Dreams

This suggests a much more modest way of remastering the show is possible. By using the original models and scene files where they still exist, or recreating them where they do not, it should be possible to remaster all of the CG in the original show at a very modest cost compared to the millions or tens of millions it would cost to remaster all the CG at modern, high-quality standards.

Although fans could theoretically re-render every single solo-CG shot of the entire series, Warner Brothers would still need to get involved to provide the original film stock for composite and greenscreen shots. Warner Brothers have so far shown little appetite for remastering Babylon 5, despite repeated fan demand, so this seems unlikely to happen.

Still, it's very entertaining seeing how well these quarter-century CG shots still hold up.

1 comment:

Scott said...

I am currently re-watching Babylon 5 on the sci fi channel Comet and having this as a comparison is very good. the HD format works well. The only thing I noticed and this might have something to do with this being test shots but the first clip had no sound and in the second and third clip the actors voices where a pitch higher than they normally are. overall the test shots are very nice.