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Article from Starlog November 1979

Battlestar Galactica reportedly cost Universal Studios a million dollars per hour to film for television. Now Universal has spent closer to a million per minute adding a Galactica show to is famous studio tour on the Universel lot (near Hollywood), a tram loaded with 120 courists is hijacked by Cylons manning a laser cannon, taken aboard an immense spaceship which is only moments away liftoff, and threatened by a reptilian Imperious Leader who intends to feed them to the insect-like Ovions. Just before a Sensurround rumble indicates departure, a rescuing Colonial Warrior, brandishing a Iaser pistol and a photon bazooka, blasts his way through a wall.

A backlot Tram enters the spaceship

A dizzying laser battle begins. leaving three cylons split in half and spewing smoke, the Ovions going up in flames and a gaping hole in the side of the ship-through which the tour guide directs a hasty escape.

A dizzying laser battle begins. leaving three cylons split in half and spewing smoke, the Ovions going up in flames and a gaping hole in the side of the ship-through which the tour guide directs a hasty escape. From abduction to escape. The show lasts only two minutes and 45 seconds. Five seconds after the tram has gone on toward the collapsing bridge. The next attraction in the tour, all Cylon and Ovions and 'BTA Uglies' are again im their place and in perfect order. The smoke has cleared as the next tram-load enters and hears actor Patrick McNee's voioe once again coming from the Imperious leader, gloating over the extermination of the human race.

The mechanics involved in the reatistic Presenation of this type of exhibit-the only one like it anywhere-are phenomenally complicaicd. They require much more time, work and expenise than similar eftects seen in television and movies, Working robots (all figures are robotic except the Colonial Warrior) real laser beams, realistic explosions, smoke and haze- these things operate 'live' and must be totally safe for the smallest child or oldest tourist among the estimated 24,000 daily visitors.

Working around the clock for nine months preparing the exhibit was a crew of special. effects people. costumer, designers, computer technicians, robot-animators, sound enginners amd construction workers.

A cylon has some finishing touches

Private Motivation

Bob Zraick, onc of the chief developers of the exhibit, says, 'When I saw Cloase Encounters, I wished I could have gone aboard the spacecraft, and I wanted to participate in the excitement of one of the battles in Star Wars; not just watch it, but experiance it. Now I think we have succeeded in Providing people with this kind of experience.'

It wasn't easy, according to Zraick-and he should know-he was involved with writing the script. developing the special effects, art direction, costuming and even choreography. Thc enthusiastic Zraick (dressed in jeans and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt) says with pride that he and members of his team had 'worked 121 hours the week before the ex-hibit opened' to whip the multi-media SF experience into shape.

Tho initial idea for Ihe exhihit came from Jay Stein, chief executive ef MCA (Univasal's parent company) Recreational Services. Stein's first idea, even before Galactica arrived. says Zraick, 'was so fly a tram full of tourists into outer space-or at least give the illusion.' Thinking back, Zraick laughs. 'It would have cost a small fortune!' Then Baslestar Galactica came along. Zraick was brought in to annlyze the problem and was shown the three-hour Galactic pilot, only a week or so before its air date. 'Then we knew what we wanted to do.' 'The first major problem: how to do it all in just over two minutes. The timc limit is imposed by thec frequency with which trams are dispatched from the gate area.

From the moment he previewed the Galactice Pilot. Zraick envisioned the abduction and laser battle. His initial two-minute draft script convinced him that 'you can't do a show totally with robots. There's just no way to animate a humanoid hero realistically. So we decided to use a live Colonial Warrior, There was one other problem: 'How on Earth were we going to do the lasers?' In a film, says Zraicak. 'you can animate the laser beams, but here we had to deal with a real-life setting. We first considered using hidden strips of Iight in the walls. You know, a Warrior Cylon would raise his gun and touch it to the wall, and out would come a beam, apparently. But that just wouldn't have been covincing. Then we started asking ourselves if we really had to have a laser battle.'

Realistic Effects

Terry Winnick. director of architectual services at Universal, then arranged for a demonatration of real lasers through Dr. Sandor Holly of Interscience Technology Corportaion. 'Terry was instrumetal in pulling the project together.' says Zraick. 'He was also responsable for the use of Disco-vision (Universals videodisk system) to provide the video monitor readouts and images from the TV show that are used in the exhibit.'

Zraick was amazed by the laser demonstration and resolved to use real lasers, somehow. In order to get the movie-type effect, it was obvious that upwards of five wattsper beam would be required. That's enought to blind or burn a person, and about five times the wattege of the entire laseriun planetarium show-but five watts it had to be.

In order to conform to the standards of the U.S. Bureau of Radiological Health, which governs the public use of lasers, a system was devised using photoelectric devices that automatically shut down should stray toward the danger area.

There are actually only two laser generators employed, and these are situated underground. The beams travel through a trench, where they are split with prisms into 22 watts of blue and green beams and five watts of red. The prism-split beams are further directed by computer-controlled mirrors, until the resulting effect is that of lasers blasting from everywhere.

The audio portion of the explosion-illusion was accomplished by Bruce davy, accoustical engineer with Long-Davy & Associates. 'There was just no way to solve the first problem.' says Zraick. 'The first explosion occurs outside the Cylon ship, as the Cylons fire the laser cannon.

In the end, Davy included a track fro Universal's theater-rattling Sensurround low-frequency generator, in the 16-track directional soundtrack recorded for the tour show. Sensurround is now used to augment explosions and to create a rumble as the ship prepares for takeoff.

Smoke effects turned out to be another problem, Zraick admits. 'Finally, after investigating other possibilites, we decieded that CO2 was the way to go. Universal was reluctanttant to use CO2 beacuse they had had some bad experiences with it. But I told them it was better to go with something we're familiar with rather than to start with some entirely new process.' Carbon dioxide gas is harmless and dissipates rapidly. Backstage, one can see stretches of steamy frozen pipes that carry the explosive puffs. So far, engineers have had no problems with moisture condensation; and their $I50,000 'smoke' system is running smoothly. CO2 is not real smoke, though, and has no lingering effect. An atmospheric haze was desirable-for several reasons. The haze obscures details and makes the spaceship interior seem more vast; it augments the CO2 smoke effect; and, most importantly, it makes the laser beams glow much more brilliantly.

'We consulted one pyrotechnical advisor after another,' Zraick explains. 'We were directed to a mad scientist with frizzy wispy, hair who assured us he had just what we needed. We went to his shop to see what turned out to be a rig on a wooden plank, held together with staples and bailing wire, that had a spoon wired to dip into a container, scoop out somc powder and drop it onto a hotplate. Pure Rube Goldberg stuff.' The gadget was not just a mock-up; this was it. 'I thought maybe we could use the powder, though, if it was certified safe.' The scientist assured the Universal engineers that it was certified for use in toys-but he could not find the certification papers. 'We had it checked by an independant~ lab, and it turned ouc to be toxic as hell.' The testing lab suggested an alternative powder-one that passed with flying colors and produces a haze that is odorless and nontoxic.

The most complex feature of the exhibic-more expensive and time-consuming to produce than even the building and its spaceship faced (made of plastic, wood, sheet steel and polyurethane, fire-resistant finish)-are the robot actors for the action drama.

Sophisticated Robots

'Humans have played robots, and robots have played humans.' say Zraick. 'but so far as I know, this is the first time in the history of theatrical events that robots have played robots-unless you want to count R2-D2.' Zraick enlisted the services of the foremost robot-maker, Alvaro Villa, to engineer the Cylons and aliens of the exhibit. Villa worked on the 'Audioanimatronic' figures at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. (Villa also assisted Zraick with special effects and in interfacing the robot circuitry with the computers.)

There are 20 mechanical actors in the shot-two Cylons manning the cannon outside, and 18 more characters in the ship itself. Zraick explains, 'In an alcove is the navigational equipment manned by two Cylons. These two are blown up by a blast from the hero's Bazooka. They have only three movements; sitting erect with their heads oscillating, leaning back in surprise and falling forward in death.

Cylon Alcove

Cylon Alcove

'In the opposite alcove are three Ovions which have only up-and-down movement, plus they can wiggle when they laugh or scream. The Ovions appear and laugh when the Imperious Leader say, 'The Captives will make tasty morsels for our Ovion allies.' They disappear in flames-made with Mylar, fans and CO2 smoke-at the end of the gun battle.

'Then there are the BTA Uglies. You know how it is, even things without names get names in aproject like this. Everybody around here knows just what a BTA Ugly is.

They're in the alcoves behind the tram. BTA-behind the tram alcoves. These are aliens mainly there for decoration and distraction. They laugh when the Ovions do.' The BTA Uglies were designed by Gary Meyer and sculpted by Zraick.

The major animated figures stand on the floor directing their attention to the most highly articulated figure of all, the Imperious Leader. These are three Cylons - two silver, one gold - and an alien referred to as 'the Tall Ugly'. The Cylon shells were taken from the moulds used for the TV Cylons. The Tall Ugly is a Zraick cretion which provides a moment of comic relief - for any tourist.

Imperious Leader

Behind the Tram Alcove Uglies

Fun For All

The final ingredient to be added to the show was the actor for the Colonial Warrior scene. His actions had to be choreographed to coincide wiht alien movements and laser blasts. It could hardly be expected that one actor give a strenuous performance every two minutes for 16 hours a day; so Universal hired 10 actors, with at least three of them on duty at any given time. 'The performers really get into it,' says Zraick. 'It's really exciting for them to dress up and play hero.'

Bob Zraick is a perfectionist. 'I'm still not pleased with the Imperious Leader. He has one syllable out of sync.'

At the time of this interview, Zraick and his crew had one more week of fine-tuning to do - setting audio levels, refining robot movements, resetting lights and bringing the lasers up to full power - after which he planned 'to just disappear, take a well-earned vacation where nobody can mind me!'

Zraick can be confident that he and his team, and the creative planners at Universal, have provided a spectacular and perpetual monument to television's most ambitious science-fiction series.

Starlog/November 1979 - Thanks to Scott Wilkerson for supplying this.