Why Babylon 5 on Blu-ray will Probably Never Happen

Why Babylon 5 on Blu-ray will Probably Never Happen

Why is Babylon 5 not available on Blu-ray?
The answer to this question requires a basic understanding of how television was made in the 1990s, how Babylon 5's producers tried to anticipate the future of television, and how their forward-thinking approach was undermined.

The Making of Babylon 5 (1993‒8)
An episode of Babylon 5 consists of three distinct types of video material: live-action footage of actors on the set filmed on Super 35 motion picture film, space-based scenes created via computer-generated imagery (CGI), and composite shots where live-action Super 35 film is combined with CGI.

Live-Action Footage
Babylon 5's live-action material was photographed on Super 35 film, a format introduced in 1984 which became increasingly popular in the 1990s.

One of the virtues of Super 35 film is its versatility. The exposed negative can be used to create either a 4x3 image—as was typical for standard-definition television broadcasts in the 1990s—or a 16x9 image—as is currently the standard for high-definition television broadcasts in the 2010s. By shooting on Super 35, the producers of Babylon 5 hoped to "future proof" the series. It could be exhibited in the 4x3 aspect ratio for its initial broadcasts on PTEN and TNT, but it would be possible to create a 16x9 version of the series later on, when high-definition television became the standard in the 2000s.

Computer-Generated Images
According to a budget prepared prior to season five entering production, one episode's worth of standard-definition 4x3 CGI for Babylon 5 cost $43,310.05 in personnel and facilities. All things being equal, to produce that same CGI in standard definition 16x9 would have cost 33% more: $57,602.37. The screen area of a 16x9 screen is 33% larger than that of a 4:3 screen, so 33% more CGI is required to fill it. In addition to this, visual effects supervisor Ron Thornton noted[1] that a 16x9 reference monitor (necessary for the effects team to check their work) would have cost $5,000, which he stated executive producer Douglas Netter and Warner Brothers were unwilling to pay in 1993 when the series commenced production.

Because the series was only being broadcast in 4x3, and since it was hypothesized at the time that ongoing improvements in computer technology would make re-creating the CGI in 16x9 more affordable in the future, Babylon 5's computer-generated images were designed, programmed, and rendered in 4x3. The final footage was then exported onto 35mm film via a film recorder. According to producer John Copeland[2], each season, an Exabyte backup tape containing all the CGI created for that year's episodes was delivered to Warner Brothers for future use in re-creating the episodes in the 16x9 format and later in high definition.

Composite Shots
The budget referenced previously specified $9,936.36 for the creation of composite shots for one episode of Babylon 5. These scenes were any in which live-action footage was combined with computer-generated imagery and included scenes where PPGs were fired by B5 security guards, any shot featuring a porthole with space visible outside the station, as well as any scenes set in a virtual environment like the Sanctuary, the Garden or an alien world.

The complexity of composite shots varied depending on their nature. If Commander Sinclair and Talia Winters road the core shuttle through Babylon 5's Garden, the computer-generated background appearing through the shuttle's windows would have to be synchronized to the on-set lighting effects used on actors Michael O'Hare and Andrea Thompson when the scene was filmed.

Similarly, the computer-generated blast of Mr. Garibaldi's PPG had to be animated onto the live-action footage so that it began where the barrel of the prop PPG flashed, proceeded across the picture, and reached the point of impact on the wall at precisely the moment when the on-set special effects supervisor detonated a small explosive affixed to the set.

As with the CGI, these composite shots were exported to 35mm via a film recorder.

As was typical of television in the 1990s, Babylon 5 was edited electronically. Editors working at desktop computers assembled episodes of the series as low-resolution digital files; there wasn't enough computer bandwidth to cut the show at full broadcast resolution. When the producers approved the edited episode, a list of editing decisions—every superimposition, cut, dissolve and fade—was generated by the desktop computer and sent to an off-site facility. There, a computer-controlled machine physically cut and spliced the Super 35 negative that had been exposed on set or exported from the film printer to the editor's detailed instructions.

The final product of this procedure would be several edited reels of 35mm negative for each episode. A 35mm positive print made from this conformed negative could be projected in a traditional movie theater. Technically speaking, the live-action portion of this presentation would look just as good as any theatrical movie made at the same time. However, the CGI and comp sections of the negative would, by comparison to the live-action elements, appear indistinct and blurry; these scenes would be limited by the fact that they were created to the specifications of standard-definition television.

The Re-Making of Babylon 5 (2000‒2004)

From 4x3 to Letterboxed 16x9
When Sci-Fi licensed Babylon 5 for airing in 2000, they financed 16x9 conversions of the episodes to create a promotable gimmick for their re-airing of the series.

Thanks to the versatility of Super 35 film, the live-action material was re-scanned in the 16x9 aspect ratio, revealing the previously unseen left and right sides of the images photographed during production.

The CGI and composite shots only existed as 4x3 images. Any plan to re-create them from the original materials was undermined by the fact that Warner Brothers "had literally lost all the CGI archives we gave them every season," according to Straczynski[3]. To create 16x9 elements from the 4x3 materials, a band one-eighth the vertical height of the picture was removed from the top and bottom of each frame. What remained was a 16x9 image with 75% of the picture information originally seen in the 4x3 broadcasts.

From Letterboxed 16x9 to Anamorphic 16x9
While the above procedure was adequate for a letterboxed, standard-definition broadcast on Sci-Fi, it became problematic when the series was released on DVD (beginning in 2002) and viewed on the emergent 16x9 televisions. The live-action footage made the transition with no compromises; its resolution remained intact since the negative had been re-scanned for the initial move to 16x9 in 2000.

The CGI and composite shots had lost 25% of the picture information to create the 16x9 version of the series. To create an anamorphic master for the DVD release, the CGI/comp footage (effectively 25% lower resolution due to the missing picture information at the top and bottom of the frame than the live-action content) had to be upscaled to match the dimensions of the live-action image; this means that the CGI/comp footage effectively boasted only 56% of the resolution inherent in the live-action material. Every shot featuring CGI was now 44% blurrier than adjacent live-action-only footage. (Not to mention any live action shot that faded to or from a CGI shot.)

On DVD, the sudden 44% drop in picture quality when an episode cuts from the interior of the observation dome to an establishing shot of the station could go unnoticed by the average viewer; the shift from live action inside the station to CGI in space is so radical that it might disguise the sudden blurriness; a viewer unfamiliar with this history of the show's visual components might assume that the mid-1990s CGI effects were simply below the standards of today's.

The same assumptions cannot be made for the composite scenes. If Captain Sheridan—at full resolution—walks down a corridor, and then enters the station's core shuttle—with a commensurate 44% drop in picture quality due to the computer-generated background outside the shuttle's windows, the effect is jarring.

The Blu-ray Problem
While Babylon 5's live-action footage could be re-scanned from the conformed negatives to create new high definition elements, the CGI and composite shots remain an obstacle. The historical compromises that led to a 44% resolution disparity between live-action and CGI/comp footage on DVD would result in an 89% quality differential if a Blu-ray release were attempted without re-creating all the CGI and comp material from scratch.

If the production of one episode's 4x3 standard-definition CGI in 1997 cost $43,310.05, as suggested by the aforementioned budget, an approximation of the cost could be attempted. Firstly, the additional 33% of screen area inherent in a 16x9 image would require 33% more picture to fill it: $14,292.32. That brings the 16x9 standard definition CGI total to $57,602.36. Theoretically, this would have been the cost of finishing Babylon 5's CGI in 16x9 when it was originally produced.

Using the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics's inflation calculator, the cost for doing $57,602.36 worth of CGI in 1997 would be $83,818.07 in 2013.

Since a high-definition image contains 225% more visual information than a standard-definition image, it might be fair to multiply that $83,818.07 by 2.25 for a figure of $188,590.66. It may also be fair to say that the cost of producing CGI has gone down in the fifteen years since Babylon 5 concluded, but no space-based science fiction television series has used CGI in a manner consistent with Babylon 5 in nearly half a decade. This makes it difficult to come up with a fair figure.

In the interest of expediency, let's assume that the 225% jump from SD to HD is mitigated by a hypothetical 225% reduction in the cost of producing CGI over the last fifteen years and stick with $83,818.07, the original 1997 figure increased to compensate for 33% more picture area and inflation. That figure is just the tip of the iceberg in re-creating Babylon 5 for high definition.

Digital matte painting was budgeted at $3,636.36 per episode. Digital effects animation at $1,818.18 per episode. Additional compositing at $1,363.63 per episode. That's $9,921.22 in 2013 dollars in addition to the $83,818.07 for a total of $93,739.29 to produce the new CGI and composite shots for one episode.

But the expense does not end with creating the new CGI and composite footage. Once it exists, it must be incorporated into the conformed negatives of the episode. Modestly accounting, that would require an editor and an editing suite as well as the cost of transporting the negative from secure storage, disassembling the splices, exporting the new high-definition CGI to 35mm film and finally splicing the new material into the extant live-action footage. Assuming it takes the editor one day to re-create an average episode with the new CGI, that cost would be in the neighborhood of $11,579.79.

With the creation of the computer-generated footage and its insertion combined, the figure stands at approximately $105,319.08 per episode. There are 110 episodes of Babylon 5. That's $11,585,098.80. That's 63% of the entire projected budget for season five in 1997. For that money, even adjusting for inflation, nine episodes of Babylon 5 could be produced. Keep in mind that the $11 million figure is the lowest conceivable estimate; the cost of re-creating and integrating the CGI and composite shots would almost certainly exceed $15 million if no corners were cut.

Below: diagram illustrating the state of Babylon 5's image quality, step by step, with different element types. Click image to enlarge.

1. http://www.themadgoner.com/B5/B5Scrolls/B5Scrolls.htm#Screen1_01_4
2. http://www.themadgoner.com/B5/B5Scrolls/B5Scrolls.htm#Screen1_07_4
3. Straczynski, rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated (21 January 2002)

For more background, visit http://www.modeemi.fi/~leopold/Babylon5/DVD/DVDTransfer.html, which provided technical background for this article.