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SFX Issue 10

March 1996

SFX historical notes: If you end up wondering whatever happened to this series, by the wonders of YouTube, we can show at – at the bottom of the page – what it looked like (obviously that wasn’t part of the original feature)

Feature:

Hypernauts Are Go

The brainchild of Babylon 5 effects supremo Ron Thornton, Hypernauts is an unashamed Thunderbirds -meets-anime CGI-fest. Dave Golder and Matt Bielby speak to its creators…

R on Thornton has a very simple philosophy about his new show: “Most of the stuff I’m putting in Hypernauts , I’m putting in just because I think it’s cool. Because I think it’s fun.” And what does Thornton reckon is “cool” and “fun”? Gerry Anderson and Japanese animation, that’s what.

“Yeah, I love Thunderbirds , and I’m totally influenced by anime,” he admits. “Hayao Miyazaki is just one of the best film-makers ever as far as I’m concerned. In one episode we do a definite tribute to Miyazaki – the heroes come to this planet where the entire civilisation lives on huge dirigibles, and they zip around hunting these flying 200-foot long manta ray things. And, of course, the politically correct side of it comes into play – it ends up a bit like ET meets Moby Dick .”

Hypernauts , the saga of three teenage space cadets battling robot monsters in a remote region of space, is Thornton’s new half-hour children’s SF series scheduled to air on Saturday mornings in the States. Up until now, Thornton’s been best known as the man who, as head of computer-generated effects company Foundation Imaging, is responsible for the groundbreaking effects on Babylon 5 ; a venture that proved, once and for all, that digitally-created effects could work on TV. While Hypernauts is a similar mix of live-action and CGI, Thornton feels it’s very different to J Michael Straczynski’s five-year epic.

“It’s nothing like as heavy as Babylon 5 . We don’t really take ourselves seriously too much. But it is well laden with effects and neat stuff. And we’ve just got some of the nicest spaceships – heavily Thunderbirds influenced. There are very few space battles per se , but we’re trying to capture the same sort of excitement and feel as Star Wars – thrilling, but with a heart.”

For the writing chores Thornton turned to a number of Babylon 5 stalwarts – including DC Fontana, Larry Di Tilio and Christy Marx (who helped devise the format). Another Babylon 5 connection come in the form of production designer Steve Burg, who worked on Terminator 2 and The Abyss , and who provided the conceptual designs for many of the aliens in Babylon 5 . Like Thornton, Burg is a huge Thunderbirds fan, and happily acknowledges the influence that show has had on Hypernauts , and on one craft in particular:

“The Flapjack’s a sort of weird, futuristic version of a Hercules transport; the intent was to come up with a modern version of Thunderbird 2, a classic design. Thunderbirds had a huge influence on me when I was growing up – that and Captain Scarlet , UFO , and Space: 1999 . They got us through the ’60s and ’70s!”

When Burg came on board, Thornton already had some basic designs worked out, having produced a short promo film to sell the show. The enemy’s Tripod-style machines remain pretty much as Thornton designed them, but Burg updated the Earth fighting machines.

“I kind of designed them as Ron was ‘building’ them. The finished versions are based on the fighting machines that appeared in the promo, but have been restyled to tie in with the look of the Flapjack, which was my design.”

And if you thought the computer graphics in Babylon 5 were impressive, Burg promises the visuals in Hypernauts are even better.

“The level of detail on the graphics is probably beyond Babylon 5 in some ways. Ron’s got better and better at making this stuff, adding detail and a sense of reality to them. I think the Flapjack, in particular, almost looks like a photographic image. Another ship I’m pleased with is the Star Ranger, which I designed as a deliberate homage to the ships in Silent Running . There are a lot of elements in the show that hark back to some of the old classic things that we like. It seems to me that there aren’t as many fun spaceship designs appearing as there used to be. People don’t want their space ships to look toy-like, so you get them making something that looks like a flying brick, and saying, ‘At least it doesn’t look like a toy.’ But you also have to say, ‘Yes, but it doesn’t look at all interesting either.’”

Despite being a “kids’” show, Thornton emphasises that Hypernauts doesn’t cut any corners when it comes to effects: “We’re averaging twice as many shots in a show as Babylon 5 . In episode one, for example, we ended up with 78 CGI shots in half an hour. That’s compared to 30 in an hour of Babylon 5 .”

He isn’t restricting the show to CGI effects, however. “We’ve got one episode with a huge tractor that drives around in the snow, and we did it with miniatures.”

Why?

“So that it’d look like Thunderbirds .”

Of course.

As with all American television, the decision on a second series will be down to the show’s ratings performance. And, as yet, there’s no news on any UK interest. “I don’t know whether a British TV station will buy it,” muses Thornton. “I hope they do, because it’s got the sort of sensibility the Century 21 shows had.”

Burg agrees: “It’s far beyond what people expect for Saturday morning. To be honest, I didn’t approach it like it was a Saturday morning show, I just pretended I was working on a large budget feature, and got as close as I could to that. People will be impressed.”

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