Sunday, May 16, 2010

Babylon 5: The Gathering

You may think you recognize this image from the cover of the National Inquirer. Or maybe you think you saw it as a grainy 8mm film recovered from a lost Area 51 scouting party. Or perhaps you just dismiss it as a snapshot of Big Foot’s bald cousin. The reality is, believe it or not, it’s none of those things! This photo is actually me, on my one day off, during the making of the original pilot for the WB sci-fi series BABYLON 5.

In my previous blog entry, I mentioned that my last production, “How to Make Love to a Woman”, screened at the Los Angeles United Film Festival. Thank you to all who attended! We had a great audience, and it was an awesome festival. Last weekend I went to the closing night’s ceremony, where they screened “The Shark is Still Working”, a documentary on the making of Jaws. Seeing all the hardship that Spielberg and crew went through to make that amazing film inspired me to do the second entry on Labou. I could never compare my film to the majesty that is JAWS, but I can say that my little green guy will give Steven’s mechanical shark a run for his money in terms of being plagued with problems!

So why is this entry not entitled “LABOU BLOG PART 2”? Well, that would be because after the screening, I ran into an old friend, Joe Fordham. I hadn’t actually seen Joe in probably 15 years or more. But I have seen a lot of his work, as I am sure many of you have, in the pages of CINEFEX. Still the best behind the scenes magazine out there. Joe has been writing articles for them for years, and his knowledge of the filmmaking process and the art of effects warranted him an appearance in the Jaws documentary sighting the still present influence of Steven’s masterpiece on audiences and filmmakers alike.

We exchanged emails, having not been in touch for years, and within a few days, Joe forwarded me a link to the past, one I would like to share with you below:

Seeing this really brought back some memories! It was so long ago. To be honest, I don’t think I had ever seen the end result of our day out in Vasquez Rocks until I received this link!

As Joe explains in the video, the concept was that there would be monitors all around the B5 space station (and by monitors I mean heavy-ass tube televisions mounted behind holes cut in the set walls to simulate the flat screens of the future. Kind of like the LCD I am typing on now. Hello, future!) and the monitors would constantly be playing newsreels, product commercials and station updates. Sounds like a good plan. But even after all the monitors were installed in the central hub set, and all the VCRs (Yeah, VCRs. Ask you parents) were synced to 24P, no one scheduled filming any of the content. I’m not really sure how the producers came to this conclusion, but it was decided that my creature FX team would join up with Ron Thornton’s VFX team and head out to the desert to film hours worth of content on our one and only free day of the entire 3 month filming process!

So there I am, fully made up as an alien. Rob Sherwood did the application. I was wearing an old “space suit” left over from ROBOJOX or some such 80’s Empire film. Snow boots and winter gloves. In the desert. In August. Did I mention full head prosthetic, snow boots, gloves and padded jumpsuit in the middle of the hottest August in California history? Now that’s how you spend your day off! And to make it even more interesting, I was wearing full scleral contact lenses that I could barely see out off. And there’s my buddy Joe, in a Next Gen uniform, asking, “Can you see that really treacherous rocky peak up there?” Me: “No, I can’t see anything!” Joe: “Okay, go climb up on I and run around!” And I still live to tell the tale!

The on-the-scene reporter was played by Edwin Rosell. Edwin and I would later go on to create the Image comic “BLUE”, with Jason Johnson and Drew Struzan. But that future was not even a thought in his head while standing in front of the famous landscape where Captain Kirk fought the Gorn so many years ago. Edwin toughed out a few hours of shooting in that polyfoam suit and fish head sculpted by Aso Gotto.

Why a few hours shooting if the clip was only 2 minutes long, you ask? Well, for one thing, it always takes longer to film something than you would think. Every action has to be filmed several times to get the perfect one, and lots of little changes are made between each take. But in this case, it was mostly because we filmed other clips, too. We did a few more bits in the desert, then we drove to Foundation Imaging in Valencia to do some of the product commercials on stage. I’m not really sure where any of that footage is, but hopefully it will turn up one day, just as Joe so kindly brought this clip to my attention.

This photo is one of the few I have from that day, as we were all to busy to be taking pictures. But it is from one of my favorite gags: Sherwood and I puppeteered this alien as it brushed its teeth with a 3 pronged toothbrush attached to a cordless drill. We kept it going until its mouth got so sudsy you couldn’t even see its face! I don’t think any of the commercials they had us do ever got used in the show.

The same can be said for so many of the 60-some-odd aliens we created for “The Gathering”. Many of them were puppets, since JMS was adamant about the “Not Star Trek” clause, which stated that not all beings in the universe resembled human form. As ground breaking as Ron’s Foundation Imaging CGI was, the Amiga Video Toasters did not have the capability to create convincing living organisms yet. The show runners wanted aliens that were obviously not people in makeup or suits. So we took what little budget we had and made some crazy alien puppets. This photo shows a handful of them in our make-up trailer at Santa Clarita Studios. That’s Edwin working lower center. But my favorite part of this pic is Criswell, to the left, talking on the MASSIVE cell phone. That thing weight like 10 pounds, and probably cost $20 a minute! Cool t-shirt, though…

Years before we had access to “cellular phone” tech, Criz and I started doing concept designs to help JMS sell the show to a network. It was a very different show then. For one thing, Delenn was a MAN! He was supposed to be a mystic from a peaceful race, with giant black eyes and an elongated body. We were going to do a mechanized makeup, with the actor looking through vacuum formed lenses and servo controlled eyelids. It was going to require someone who was fully prepared to deal with such a contraption glued to his face all day. At some point early on, I was volunteered! So for the early stages of B5, I was destined to be a Minbari ambassador. This was one of the first maquettes I did with that in mind. I still have it in storage somewhere…

As we got closer to actually making the pilot, JMS decided he wanted Delenn to have a major story arc. Physically as well as character wise. HE would become a SHE! Suddenly the execs became uncomfortable with a guy playing a character that ultimately would be a woman. They felt it should be the other way around. So over the span of one short phone call to my giant wireless brick, I was no longer a mystical alien lead in a revolutionary sci-fi drama.

Trust me, in the end, that was a good thing for both me and YOU! I am NOT an actor! I was just young and eager, and somehow everyone felt my ability to endure the torture of servos buzzing around my head all day to equal the ability to deliver a captivating performance. Luckily, within the scramble to change the direction of the character, WB brought in a pro: Mira Furlan. Mira was a famous theatre actor from Yugoslavia, and she came over to do her first American production. I think I ended up doing her head cast just hours after she arrived in the country! She looked at the maquettes and sketches, and was shocked to find that she would be wearing so much make-up! This freaked the producers out, and they instantly retracted their approval on the mechanical eyes. So the designing process started all over again, just weeks from the beginning of principal photography!

Some of you may recognize Mira from her most recent sci-fi series,LOST. She was a French scientist on that show, which was probably much more to her satisfaction than full head prosthetics!

Drawings were done. Color tests approved. Very expensive full sclera black contacts were custom made. The make-up “tests” were scheduled for 5am the first day of shooting. Sherwood helmed G’Kar in the creature trailer, and I handled Delenn in the make-up trailer. Over the course of the next two hours, Babylon 5 was changed forever.

And I’m not making that as a statement to show how I feel our work cemented itself into sci-fi history. I wish I could be so proud of that test. I actually mean that B5 was literally changed. The suits from WB made an appearance to see what was actually going to be filmed, and suddenly realized that they had committed to a sci-fi show! They were appalled at the fact that the aliens really looked…well…alien! They panicked. This photo is what Delenn looked like at 6:30am on the first day of application. Just like the drawings, just like the approved color tests. I was going for an underwater feel. Years later, Jim Henson productions would use a very similar paint scheme on a fan favorite series called FARSCAPE, but for the bigwigs at WB, my design was “To alien”. That’s an exact quote. I know, I STILL don ‘t understand it, either. Then they said, “Make him more human, flesh color.” Two very important things evolved from that statement. The first was that I ended up having to surrender weeks of design to a makeup sponge full of Patricia Tallman’s foundation, covering up as much of my blue paint job as possible and still getting Mira to set on time.

But it was the second result of that statement that really changed things. Mira suddenly shot up and said,” HIM!?! Did you say make HIM more human?” For the first time, Mira discovered that Delenn was supposed to be a man. I guess all of the descriptions in the script stated “frail alien” and “wise mystic”, but never really called out a sex. The gender change was something JMS was going to keep secret till the series needed the curve, but I guess it was kept TOO secret!

So as I’m trying to sponge BK-5 tone all over her head, Mira is having furious words with the executives, getting angrier as she learns more and more of the plan for her character, such as the fact that she was going to be overdubbed with a man’s voice! Needless to say, by the time I got to the last step, putting in the large black contacts, Mira wasn’t having it. She could not believe that the production would fly her all the way to America, completely cover her face in an androgynous make-up, give her a male voice, and hide her eyes behind black lenses. We were asked to leave the trailer, and when they let us back in, Delenn was to be a flesh colored female alien with eyes that looked like Mira Furlan’s!

I have to give her credit, there are very few actors that can take a stand like that and have so much be changed to accommodate their view of the character! True fans of the show will recognize Mira’s continuous push to have Delenn be more human, as with each passing season, there was less make up, more hair, and my alien antler design merely became a tiara!

I didn’t get completely left out in the Minbari cold, though! There were several test make-ups done on me when I was still the contender for Delenn, and I guess I proved myself worthy enough to land the role of the Minbari assassin, of whom the entire pilot plot revolves around. Which lead to a whopping one line! But I got my trading card out of it, and lots of good stories, so I can’t complain. And there are some good stories! But they might be too gossipy for my art blog. Ask me at a convention some time!

Of course, just because I got to be an actor for a day didn’t mean I was allowed to shun my FX duties. I still had to spend 8 hours painting the G’Kar appliance, and a few more prepping the next day’s Delenn. If you are curious as to why I am still painting him, er, her, blue, it’s because MJS and I decided we couldn’t completely bail on the alien factor. So pay close attention next time you watch “Babylon 5: The Gathering”. Delenn has pale undertones of blue under her fleshy skin, getting subtly brighter as they reach her antlers.

The assassin wasn’t my only on-screen appearance for B5. I also played the assassin’s first victim! How’s that for a mind bender. Again, not sure who made this decision, but it came to be that instead of us making a dummy for the dead body found in a fish tank, I would be a dummy! I had a pruned face make up, and my lame long hair was pinned up to make me look more like the actor I was doubling. Then I had to squeeze through the small openings in the top of a saltwater fish tank and hold my breath as the 1st AD held me under. The water was freezing, and the fish wouldn’t go near me. But somehow I ended up making more money for that hour of work than I did for the entire rest of the show combined! Plus, for no real reason I can pinpoint, I got to keep the giant fish tank at the end of the show! It’s still in my house to this day…

The assassin was on B5 to eliminate Ambassador Kosh and cause another great war. I love all of the B5 aliens we created, but I think Kosh will always be my favorite.

One of these days I will do a step by step on how I created the Vorlon, along with my buddy Ron Mendell. This photo shows my WED clay sculpture of the collar, with the Bondo original of the helmet. Sadly, the finished Kosh no longer exists. But the original hard casts are tucked safely away, so fans may get a chance to see him again someday!

I have endless hours of stories to tell about making Babylon 5, and so many center around my dear friend Andreas Katsulas. He brought so much life to G’Kar, and he is missed dearly. I will definitely take the time to talk about him and our adventures on board the B5 in the near future…

I would love to get some questions about the show from fans, so ask below and I will tell you what I can about this sci-fi milestone! And thanks, Joe, for bringing back some great memories!


  1. As a thank you for all the time spent documenting this, if you ever want some free poker lessons, get in touch ;-)

  2. Hey Greg! It was awesome meeting you on the set of The Guild today! So funny that you and Brian know each other. I'm always around and ready to work if you ever need any help around your own shop. Your blog is great, and I'd love to work with you sometime!
    Cici Andersen

  3. Thanks for the info! Can you tell us some of the thought process behind the design of Kosh's encounter suit?

  4. Ah, sorry I misidentified Edwin as Rob in the credits on that YouTube link, Greg. Great to see you had pictures of the event.

    How that came about: Ron knew I had made some short films, and he asked me to come up with some ideas for B-roll video. I knew there was some rivalry at the time between "Deep Space 9" and "B5", so I thought it would be fun to do a franchise cross-over gag, filmed (as you noted) on the Gorn planet (Cestus III?) at Vasquez Rocks, just down the freeway from the Thornton Ranch.

    I remember drawing up a page of really crude storyboards the night before, and then driving out there with you in full makeup scaring passersby by leering out the window, and making Karen giggle. We only had a few hours to shoot before the sun went down, but we got the last shot of Edwin doing his summation by lighting up the scene with our car headlamps. Real movie magic!

    Ron never added the crashed spaceship. I did that myself years later, messing around in Final Cut, using an element of burning newspaper for the Thunderbirds-over-scaled flames, and I added all the crappy screen displays and sound effects. If memory serves correct, I think they used a quick flash of your angry alien head in the B5 pilot, seen on a bank of monitors on the main atrium set. For obvious copyright reasons Captain Buck Starlight, fortunately, never made it on screen!

    Great running into you again.

  5. Hey, Joe,

    Wow! Thanks for the additional info! I wish everyone I blogged about would jump on and fill in the gaps. So much goes on during every show, each person only gets a glimps of the whole picture. And B5 had so much going on!

    I forgot about lighting Edwin with headlights! And rolling down the tinted windows so kids driving next to us could see me in the make-up, then rolling the window back up quickly when they told their parents there was an alien driving next to them! That was pretty fun. Ah, the memories!

    Oh,and you you weren't wrong to name Rob as a reporter, he actually puppetteered the Anchor Alien.

    Definitely keep in touch. It's been too long. We should share stories again and blog about them. I'm sure the B5 fans would love to get some more of your exclusive memories of the chaos that became "The Gathering!"

    Thankks again, Joe!


  6. I was curious if the B5 pilot was on YouTube, and sure enough it didn't take me long to find our angry alien scene. Here you are, Greg, from the opening montage of the pilot episode, about 30 seconds in:

    B5 Pilot Frame Grab

  7. B5 remains one of my favorite series to this day. I remember eagerly awaiting its release on DVD (for *ages* it felt like) and I still watch the entire thing every few years.

    I didn't mind the "alien" look of your creations so much as that both Delenn and G'Kar had virtually the same look at the start with the ultra-pointy chin and the bald head. I liked when she lost the chin but mourned the change to hair... I could never figure out how she was supposed to be able to wear it in some of the styles she sported with the crest attached to her head. It disturbed my suspension of disbelief and I was always oddly pleased when her hair was styled so that it didn't run under the crest.

    Andreas' portrayal of G'Kar was always compelling. I always felt that he must have been an extraordinary person with a tremendous depth of understanding to carry off that role in all its changes believably.

    Now I am feeling I should go re-watch at least the pilot and the first season... and that bit in season 4 where the Black Star fleet shows up at the station.

  8. Wow. Nice background information there. I’ve been speaking with a few of your old associates connected with the B5 pilot, such as Ron Thornton & Paul Bryant (and a few others who worked on the series). Putting a site together based on (some of ; ) what’s been said. This is a link to an *old* version (the current version had a little mishap). Steve Burg, for example, is among some of the more recent additions to the thing.

    I’ve been wanting to contact you for a while, and discovered your blog by a happy accident. I think your potential contributions to the site could be both valuable and . . . . . . interesting. ; )

    Too much background to post up here, so if your curious about what’s being put together and/or fancy contributing to the site you can contact me at


  9. Found this article while trying to track down a copy of the original version of The Gathering. A great read, which adds so much to the enjoyment the show continues to give me.

  10. I just rewatched The Gathering and there on the screen you're credited as the Shop Foreman - its really cool to watch one of your favourite shows and then remember that someone who's work you admire worked on it. (I read this post MONTHS ago)

    I actually scanned and paused the credits to catch your name.

  11. You have the loveliest most obviously non-accidental mullet ever, sir.

  12. Wow, some really cool behind-the-scenes pictures here. I knew about Delenn originally being male but I must have missed the blueness. I need to watch The Gathering again.

    I'm vaguely thinking about making a Kosh of my own so production information on him would be most welcome (by many, I would guess). Still, just these pictures show much of the scale of the thing.

  13. I am a Babylon 5 fan for many years and this post is so much interesting! Write some more please

  14. Hi Greg, I have some fantastic memories of sitting down with you and Rob nearly two decades ago to talk about the B5 pilot. It was an incredibly difficult project to promote, mainly because there were virtually no photos available at the time, but you guys were great about providing some stunning visual material, which really helped a lot. The result was a nice piece in a Starburst Special, which really helped the pilot get a bit of attention. I'm not sure I ever really thanked you and Rob for all your time and consideration- and for telling me about the cast and crew screening of 'The Gathering' that was taking place while I was in LA. It really helped as far as getting to know some of the cast and crew members, which in turn helped a lot when B5 went to series.

  15. Oh man, I had no idea! I've watched The Guild and the Google Hangouts for it, and somehow missed that you have such a rich history with shows that have meant a lot to me. I just started watching Babylon 5, again, having never watched it without some turmoil going on in my life, and having my own, shall we say, hole in my mind. So many details get lost and memories are Swiss-cheesed, so in rewatching the series from beginning to end for the second time, in order, completely, after 3.5 years, I went to IMDb to look up who played the Minbari "Wind Sword" assassin, since that clip is referred to more than once in more than one episode, and to realize it was you, Greg, and to see you have this blog, I'm thrilled! Thanks for your incredible, indelible (when it's allowed on-screen), and memorable work, and for sharing behind-the-scenes info. I love this. The many fantastic people you are associated with is causing a geek nostalgia explosion, here. Thank you. (Hope that arm is healing up well, too.)

  16. Thank you for such an awesome show. I've loved B5 for many years, and a big part of that was the way the characters looked.
    I'm wondering if it would be possible to use the blue effect for a Shadowsouled Minbari.
    Cheers guys!

  17. Hello again. I've been going through Babylon 5 again; almost finished now. Do you know who played the Keepers' opening eye in the close-ups? I'm surprised this kind of geeky info's not online somewhere. Is there a good source I've probably missed for appreciating the various talents who worked to create the world: makeup, special effects, props, costumes, carpenters, stunts, and so on? I thank you again. ~Jason

  18. I just want to say I love all work done on Babylon 5. I have made myself two cosplays. Not nearly as exacting and awesome as on the show, but I love them none the less. Thank you for all you contributed.