Saturday, October 13, 2007

Visual Language of Battlestar Galactica

The Battlestar Galactica (BSG) that I’m talking about here is the 2004 reimagining of the original Battlestar Galactica and its subsequent retellings in the ‘80s.

The first thing that will strike a viewer as they begin watching BSG is the starkly unfamiliar visual language. I looked up articles on the net and the special effects company Zoic Studios seem to be very proud of the fact. Indeed, BSG offers a visual treat to a viewer that is distinctly different from what SFF viewer will normally be used to.

The lights are switched on and the sets are lit up. The primary locations in BSG are the ships, the huge Battlestar Galactica and other ships of the rag-tag fleet that are the last home and refuge of humanity. We have seen a lot of spaceships. Ships in Star Trek or Stargate Atlantis or Andromeda or Star Wars are sleek. They are clean and posh. There are no jutting edges, no scattered equipment. The paint is not peeling off and, in the case of Star Trek, the corridors are actually carpeted!

On the other hand we have ships in films like the Matrix which are cramped and cluttered, having a very ‘submarine’ look to them. There is equipment scattered around everywhere, wires and conduits jutting out and the ship exteriors are not sleek or shiny.

BSG ships are somewhere in between. They are not glossy but they are spacious. They are not carpeted but the crew quarters have their share of decorations. They are cluttered but only like any real workplace. The ships exteriors are also in-between jobs. They are relatively sleek yet there is a certain crudeness about them.

The fighter planes (Mark II Vipers) are most interesting. They are planes that are old. Unlike Star Trek or Stargate SG1/SGA they are not made of some unidentified super-strong metal which don’t even scratch. These are made of metals that we very much know and see. There is rust on the surface, the paint is peeling off and the hull is dented from the last flight. Plus they don’t fly in the elegant, sweeping curves. They fly like real aircrafts and follow Newtonian mechanics in space. And the sounds that they (and other ships) make in space is muted out to make it appear that the action is actually taking place in vacuum.

On one hand, the paints and the designs used place the fighters clearly into the Star Wards tradition, emphasizing that there are going to be a lot of dog-fights and space opera action-adventure in the show. However, on the other hand the realistic leaning also place the fighters into a more contemporary universe where airplanes have become a chief weapon of war, especially the weapon of war on terrorism.

The most obvious visual element in BSG is the ‘shaky camera’. The shaky camera is the effect that you get when the camera is used without a tripod/stand. The resulting footage has shakes and jerks. Conventionally this kind of shot was considered to be sacrilege in the industry. Later, these shots were used to depict character point-of-views. For example, if a homicidal maniac is following a voluptuous damsel in distress then the shot will be filmed from the POV of the homicidal maniac with the camera shaking and jerking as he walks menacingly around the house.

Then recently this style was popularized by news channels especially by ‘embedded reporters’.

Thus in recent times, the shaky camera is quintessentially seen to depict ‘reality’. The technique was subsequently picked up by reality TV shows where, once again, the camera shake becomes the hallmark of realism.

BSG uses the shaky camera to the same effect. The camera not only jerks and shakes, it also goes in and out of focus, zooms erratically and changes points of view for no particular reason at all. In fact, a lot of this shaking is actually added at the special effects desktop.

The result – a footage that has been unanimously seen to be gritty realism.

The BSG saga is unfolding several years into the future. In fact, we are so much into the future that Earth is not lost and no more known. However, the actors of BSG behave very contemporaneously. Their attire (except for the high-ranking military uniforms) are very contemporary with minimal or no change. The accessories that they use are also very contemporary. There is minimal or no dependence on computers in daily life despite the fact that a computer virus caused the initial defeat of humanity. People still used pen and paper. The communication equipment looks like wired telephones. There are hardly any ‘mobile’ comm units. The actors smoke cigars and drink whiskey. They dine and drink in cutlery that is routinely familiar. The military uses projectile weapons for offensive. No energy weapons. No shields. Nuclear warheads are the deadliest they (or the enemy has got). No fancy equipment is used by the crew. Everyone uses 20th century stuff.

All of this places BSG, despite its far-future apocalyptic premise, into contemporary reality. And this is very intentional. Because BSG, perhaps for the first time on television, is daring to discuss contemporary American political questions. They deal with issues like insurgency, mistreatment of prisoners of war, war on terrorism and war on Iraq with historical references to the Nazis and Vietnam war; and also domestic issues like abortion and civil-liberties. The whole realistic vocabulary gels in wonderfully with these themes.

Note: While I have merely analyzed how the special effects are functioning within the show, I cannot but appreciate how well the special effects have been done technically. The efforts of the entire SFX team have to be lauded. They make this who eminently watchable.


  1. You seem to be under the common misconception that Battlestar: Galactica represents the future of humanity. Unlike Star Trek, Babylon 5, Andromeda, or most other science-fiction on television, BSG does not depict a far-future scenario where Terrans have expanded beyond Earth and are exploring the galaxy; the setting is actually closer to "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," and (like Star Wars) depicts a human species that are not -- and never were -- native to Earth. The humans of BSG are a species native to the planet Kobol, who from there established twelve colonies throughout their galaxy (representing the twelve signs of the zodiac, including Caprica, Geminon, Sagittarius, etc.), with Earth a legendary thirteenth colony so distant that its very existence is a matter of conjecture. The re-imagined series has yet to establish a solid timeframe relative to Earth history, although the original Battlestar: Galactica series was actually set during the 1950s (as revealed in the short-lived sequel series, Galactica 1980).

  2. @ Ted - I would beg to differ. "Earth" is a key plot element and the characters are clearly human. And like I said, they're so far into the future that Earth is merely a legend for them. However, there are significant departures from a Star Wars like "long time ago in a galaxy far away". One, they are definitely in Earth's future. Two, they're are definitely in the Milky Way galaxy. Three, much of the dress up and culture is contemporary unlike Star Wars where everything is necessarily alien.

  3. Well, it's still conjecture at this point. We'll have to wait a few more weeks (at least) before "Earth" is clearly established within the BSG setting. Are you suggesting Earth was the original home of mankind, rather than Kobol? That would contradict everything in the Galactica mythos...

    You're right about the deliberate lack of Star Wars-like "alien" influences, though. Apart from Red Dwarf, the new BSG series is unique among television space operas for its lack of alien species of any kind.