Interview with Lee Stringer
CG Supervisor at Zoic Studios for Sci-Fi Channel’s Mini Series and first
Friday, 15 November 2019
In the last few years I’ve been building the Mk II Colonial Viper, (Life size) from the 2003 reimagined series of Battlestar Galactica. During that time I have made many wonderful friends with people in the film industry.
Researching everything there is to know about one particular prop from a TV show can be gruelling, frustrating and sometimes seemingly pointless, but when you start to see how all the detective work is forming a comprehensive knowledge base, you feel like you are responsible for preserving a special corner of fan history for generations to come.
Enter Lee Stringer, who befriended me during my persistent hounding of all the Battlestar fan groups on Facebook, for information on the Viper. Lee, among others, provided me with accurate reference surrounding the design and building of the Viper itself, pilot uniform details and all kinds of other helpful information to help me build. As with a handful of others like him, I thought all my Christmases had come at once.
Earlier this week, I asked Lee if he would be interested in a live video chat with me online to which he was only too happy to launch alert Vipers. Most of it was just a lovely chat – two fans of sci-fi and model building, merrily waffling about make-believe spaceships and to be quite honest, an interview was as good an excuse as I could think of to get to know him. I wasn’t disappointed. I did have a few specific questions and points to discuss and Lee was only too happy to answer.
Lee’s fascination with sci-fi and spaceships started when he was around 5 to 7 years old, living in New Zealand and seeing Thunderbirds, first showing there in 1974. After that it was back to the UK and catching the series Space 1999. Lee was impressed by how colourful, imaginative and explosive these shows were in their effects and noted the high quality of the miniatures used.
With the release of Star Wars in 1977, everything changed. Lee was fascinated with, “The making of Star Wars” a documentary revealing concepts of motion control, bluescreens and more. Sci-fi became a hit with the public and was now popular, though budgets for television sci-fi were struggling.
Enter Glen A Larson with his pitch and substantial budget, to Universal. Battlestar Galactica became a family favourite with its colourful characters, space battles and cool story of a war between robots and humans.
Fast forward 20 years, Richard Hatch, (RIP), who played Apollo in the original series, was actively pushing for a remake/continuation series. He did a heck of a lot of work himself, even taking out a second mortgage on his house to boost the budget. He pitched, “Battlestar Galactica – The second Coming” to Universal. Lee contacted Richard and jumped in to lend a helping hand. In lee’s opinion, our favourite reimagining in 2003 happened largely because of Richard.
In 2001, producer Tom Desanto and Director Bryan Singer began work on a new series with Glen A Larson on board as a creative consultant. Lee was now working VFX house Foundation Imaging in LA and eager to be involved. Production was building sets and Vipers in Canada, along with pre-production work on costumes and casting etc. Much was unclear about where the series would pick up and if Galactica 1980 would have any bearing on it.
BOOM!! 911 attacks in New York happened. That put an abrupt end to a lot of violent productions. Fox studios withdrew their support and the project fell in a heap.
A year later, Ronald D Moore and David Eick hit Universal running and decided to reimagine the story entirely! Lee was now working on Firefly at Zoic. They showed VFX supervisor Gary Hutzel their reel, who then showed it to Ron and David. Zoic was chosen to work on BSG right as they were finishing Firefly. Thus basically the same crew moved to the new show.
Lee was the primary asset supervisor, overseeing the building of all the digital assets including ships, props and environments. Lee tried to get as much of the classic BSG work included in the show and there are scenes where you can see some of them in the background. I think I remember seeing a statue of a Cylon centurion in one scene, as well as the old version of a Cylon Basestar. Lee took designer Eric Chu’s concepts for the new Battlestar into 3D, keeping faithful to the original shape as much as possible. He used a lot of kit parts for details, converted to digital and merged, as digital has the tendency to look too smooth and sharp. These details added realism and more of that old-style feel.
The MkII Colonial Viper had influences from a number of places including much from Pierre Drolet. Pierre was working on the cut scenes for the upcoming Battlestar Galactica Xbox/PS2 game at Eden FX and asked to design the Viper Mk II for it. He wanted to be respectful to Ralph McQuarrie’s original design by not straying too far from it and had it done in a week. The client liked it and used a low resolution version for gameplay. Later on, Pierre revisited the design and the MK II B was used for Blood and Chrome.
Images: Pierre Drolet design – SciFi Museum
A year later, Gary Hutzel approached Pierre for pictures of his MK II and liked it enough to buy it from Eden FX. From that design, they built two real props for filming, reducing its size by around 25 percent, which made the canopy look much larger. They also made the front of the two side-engine intakes rounder. It is no coincidence that the back engine exhausts on the Viper are almost identical to the exhaust on the back of the Firefly from Serenity, as Lee also built the Serenity. To save some time, he just copy/pasted the Geometry.
Images: Firefly and Viper Mk II exhausts
As for the life size MkII Colonial Viper that I am building, it is modelled off the CG version that was in turn, made from measurements and photos of the two life sized Viper props from the show by Gabriel Koerner. The RCS ports you see in the CG version were introduced by Lee, after an automated expressions rig he built for Serenity was converted for use on BSG. The RCS ports and the employment of Newtonian physics for spaceflight is one very strong reason that I love this show and spacecraft. No aerodynamic flight like Star Wars! Anyway, there’s why there are so many very slight differences in all the vipers you see. Ports, no ports, different details on the rear panels, engine panels and shape of intakes.
Image: 3 Foot model by me, showing the RCS ports in the nose and on sides of engines
Images: Set pictures of Viper Mk II construction
For a little bit of trivia, I asked Lee if the tail numbers meant anything. Well let me tell you, they do! Take the tail number on my Viper for instance, 0223NC. 02 is February, 23 is the date of Lee’s birthday. In fact, he did a stack of tail numbers and callsigns for all of his crew. How cool is that?
I’ve used some artistic licence to build my own life sized Viper, adding things that I thing are cool or just make sense to me. One of the controversial things I’ve done is to make moving fans in the front intakes, instead of radial louvres, which is what they appear to be on the props. You will notice on the set props that the fans are not round, which is the giveaway.
Images: Life size Mk II Colonial Viper – Builds By Baz – Showing fans instead of louvres.
I theorised that the Tyllium fuelled propulsion was the primary propulsion, but the fans were in fact radial louvres that opened when the aircraft entered an atmosphere, to enable a secondary propulsion system able to handle atmospheric flight. Otherwise they made no sense in space.
Thank you Lee, for confirming that I was right!! (Doesn’t happen often, just ask my wife.) That gave me a real buzz. Apparently there is a deleted scene in the miniseries, showing the louvres opening just as Apollo hits an atmosphere.
Image GIF: Lee has been very kind and worked hard to provide this GIF, showing the radial louvres in operation
I asked Lee about his favorite episode and any actors of note that he got on well with. He talked about the first episode of season one, right after the miniseries pilot, titled, “33” In this episode the Cylon pursuers repeatedly FTL jump into the fleeing Colonial fleet every 33 minutes. Lee reckons it’s an awesome episode and an incredibly strong start for the series. I would have to agree.
Lee got spend a bit of time with Katee Sackhoff on set, taking shots in and around the Viper for CG reference for later scenes, uniform details, cockpit environments etc.
Images: Katee Sackhoff, (Starbuck) in the cockpit of the Colonial Viper Mk II
He also got on well with James Callis and Aaron Douglas.
Lee is living in Asia now and working for production companies, providing for Netflix. Just finished on a show called, “The Stranded”, which is Thai acted, directed and shot. He is currently working a Malaysian/Chinese produced 6 part series called “The Ghost Bride”. There is more in the wind for Lee with projects in Asia. Lee feels that TV is more interesting than blockbuster movies because he can get more involved. There are thousands of people working on big screen movies, but the TV shows with their smaller budget and staff, allow for more, “Hands on”. Lee is keeping lots of options open as he doesn’t want to pigeonhole himself.
So, now I’ve had a three hour video chat with the man himself, I have found that he’s a very talented, approachable, charming and down-to earth sort of bloke. I’m not one to get star struck at all, but it was personally exciting to chat with Lee, giving me an opportunity to talk first-hand about a show I very much enjoyed with one of its creators and to gain some inside insights into my favourite spacecraft. With all the information I have gleaned over the years from internet sites like Galactiguise, Battlestar Wiki and many associated fan groups, forums and social media, chatting with Lee helped me put many of the jigsaw puzzle pieces in place. He’s gone above and beyond my wildest expectations to help me put this article together.
Thank you Lee.
Hopefully he will be visiting Australia in 2020 and have a couple or few beers with old Baz here!
*All other photo credits: Lee Stringer