Meet LightWave Legend Ron Thornton

Ron Thornton broke new ground for visual effects in the 90s with LightWave and his innovation with the software continues today

Posted: Tue 12 Nov 2013

The 1990s were sort of the Wild West period in visual effects. In the early part of the decade, computer graphics were novel, making headlines and turning heads for their groundbreaking use in feature film sequences, such as the liquid-metal shape-shifting T-1000 in Terminator 2 and the VR sequence in The Lawnmower Man. Many had grand visions but lacked the blueprints and tools to help them in their quest using this new medium. To succeed required these pioneers to blaze new paths, to turn the industry on its head, to start a revolution.

Ron Thornton is one of those visionaries who embraced CGI at its infancy in the entertainment industry and devised workflows where none existed to introduce computer graphics to the broadcast world, starting with the sci-fi series Babylon 5.


Image courtesy Babylon 5 © PTEN/Warner Bros.

"It all began with an Alien encounter. “On my way home after watching Alien with a friend, I realized that someone actually makes money building spaceships,” he says. So, Thornton, who recently had left his job in the airline industry, bought various materials and starting building miniature practical models. He assembled a portfolio and quickly landed a job at the BBC, which led to credits on some television series and films, such as Spaceballs (1987) and Star Trek (1979).

Some years later, around 1990, Thornton discovered the Commodore Amiga personal computer – not for gameplay, music sequencing, or personal computing, but for creating digital models. “Suddenly I had a lot more control. Before, I would build models and paint them, then I had to hand them over to someone else to light and do the motion-control work,” he says. “[The practical models] never really looked the way I wanted them to look. So, being able to do that in the computer was liberating in a sense. Just like that, a lot of the limitations we had with traditional models disappeared.”

As did the high cost of the equipment. “We no longer needed tens of thousands of dollars worth of motion-control equipment to do shots, or expensive cameras, film, and all the other things that go with it,” says Thornton. “At the time, it was costing thousands of dollars to do a typical spaceship shot. Suddenly I was doing it inside the computer for far, far less.”

Then, another game changer occurred that would have a big impact on Thornton and his work: NewTek introduced the Video Toaster as a companion to the Amiga, and included was LightWave, a 3D modeling, rendering, and animation package. Thornton and his longtime friend and neighbor, Paul Beigle-Bryant, both bought one. “It was full 24-bit. Whereas Sculpt 4D could only render in something like 4,096 colors, LightWave was rendering in millions of colors. So, you could do much more realistic renders. I challenged myself to see if I could build a spaceship in the computer like I was building in miniature.” Using LightWave and Sculpt 4D, he did his first test.

Image courtesy Babylon 5 © PTEN/Warner Bros.

Thornton was excited with the process and his results, and began sharing his models with NewTek. A relationship began to grow, and one day a person from the company called Thornton and asked if he had ever heard of someone named Todd Rundgren – “He’s only my favorite rock star of all time!” Thornton says. “They asked if I would like to work with him on one of his videos (“Nutopia”) and had me on a plane the next morning.”

Around the same time, Thornton and Beigle-Bryant formed their own company, Foundation Imaging, and did some tests for a television show that a producer friend was trying to get off the ground called Babylon 5. “He told me they were struggling with their budget. If they had to do the show with miniatures, they could only get 10 to 12 shots in the pilot. But, we came up with a methodology that used computer graphics for the visual effects. The rest is history, as they say.”

The Babylon 5 pilot aired in the US on February 22, 1993, and indeed, Thornton and the crew made history with that project, as it was one of the first times (maybe the first time) that CG was used entirely to do visual effects for a TV series. “We signed the contract with the production company, and as Paul and I walked out of the building, we both said, ‘How are we going to do this?’ We had no idea but knew it would be a learning process.” Indeed it was. At the time, they had no means of recording the images. They could produce individual frames but couldn’t get them onto videotape. The crew did use a Laserdisc for recording previews for the dailies, but there were no tools per se beyond that.

Back then, you had to know a guy if you needed help forging a solution to a novel problem. Or, a guy who knew a guy. In this case, that guy had written a batch-processing program called Art Department Professional, and Thornton had him write a module for the program that put the individual frames onto digital disc recorder backup tape. Foundation Imaging then took the exobyte tape to a postproduction facility to reinstate the frames back onto the digital disc recorder and then put it all on videotape. “We were able to deliver digitally at that point, so the quality was right on,” Thornton says. And that was the medium we used until at least the late 1990s, until bandwidth on the Internet became large enough to upload frames.

Fueled by technology from NewTek, Thornton’s digital work for Babylon 5 transformed the way visual effects were created for television, and in the process earned four Emmys and six other nominations at the time.

Image courtesy Babylon 5 © PTEN/Warner Bros.

VFX for All 

The work on Babylon 5 caused a revolution, and people began to take notice that the work was being done on “amateur” desktop machines rather than expensive SGIs. “I was on SGI’s most-wanted list because I bad-mouthed them every chance I had. I thought it was ridiculous that here we were using a few hundred dollars worth of software on a computer that cost less than $1,500, and [big facilities] were using software that cost $1,000 a seat for scenes that were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. That was criminal.”

Thornton proved that access was there for just about anyone, and artists “began coming out of the woodwork,” he says. “People who never had the opportunity before to work on something like this was suddenly able to, and the fact that all the work we were doing was getting published in magazines and being shown off suddenly made them realize that, yes, this kind of work can be done on a desktop machine.”

For the first season of the series, the team was running the Video Toaster with LightWave on the Amiga. Then NewTek ported it to the PC, and another revolution occurred, as the PC began to nudge out the big blue and purple machines from SGI. Meanwhile, Video Toaster development began moving at a much faster rate on the PC, and by the third season of Babylon 5, the group was running the Video Toaster with LightWave solely on PCs, and what used to take two hours to process on the Amiga was now rendering in minutes.

Without question, Thornton’s work has evolved since that time, after years of honing his skills – and better equipment. “The video equipment we were using was less powerful than the telephone that’s in my hand now,” says Thornton. “We had 2MB of RAM and a 60,000-polygon limit on any object, so building models to fit into that small memory, including the application, was tough.” The artists were also limited by 24-bit image maps, a combination of 16- and 32-bit color images. But as the hardware became more powerful, the artists were able to make their images more sophisticated, so by the time they were working on Star Trek: Voyager a few years later, they had far more capabilities. Nevertheless, there were so many hurdles to overcome.

Image courtesy Babylon 5 © PTEN/Warner Bros.

“They say that art without limitations is not art.... We had many limitations at first,” says Thornton about building those initial CG spaceships on the Amiga. “For example, we cheated by using the smoothing algorithm. Most of the pipes, tubes, and antennas on ‘nurnies’ for the ships were hexagonal, but the smoothing made them look acceptable.” Thornton is believed to have coined the term “nurnies” referring to CGI fine detailing added to the surface of an object to make it appear more complex.)

Thornton notes that he and his team were fighting the point poly limit all the time. “Remember, we only had 2MB, for the program and the data,” he says. The original “B5” was 250,000 polygons in size. To put that into perspective, the “Prometheus” from last year’s feature film of the same name was two million polys before subdivision. “So, it was likely eight million to 12 million rendered. It was all about cheating!” 

According to Thornton, the biggest changes were occurring in the processing power, and when enough people realized that this was going to be a burgeoning industry, they started developing more sophisticated tools. “Now there are some amazing tools that we never had the opportunity to play with. And the more tools you have, the more you can do,” he adds. Nevertheless, Thornton is still an avid LightWave user, though he has expanded his tool kit to include some other software. “There is certain software that is quite obtuse and requires you to write code, which I still cannot do. Some people can, and they do remarkable work with it. People have different skill sets, and mine are more on the artistic side.” And LightWave, he says, is more artist-friendly than other packages, getting the user 95 percent of the way to a really good shot.

Trade Secrets

Over the years, Thornton has built an impressive resume. In addition to Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Voyager, Foundation Imaging’s credits include Contact, The Jackal, Roughnecks, Max Steel, and Viper. During the past decade, Thornton has worked at various facilities and on a number of projects, including Jerry Anderson’s The New Captain Scarlet; he has also taught at the DAVE School.

Image courtesy Babylon 5 © PTEN/Warner Bros.

So, what is the secret to Thornton’s success over the years? “That’s difficult to answer. I am quite an open book, and if I come across something, I immediately share it with people,” he says. “Realistically, I was in the right place at the right time. I made the conversion over to CG at a time when friends wanted to do a television series, so it was a perfect storm of events all coming together.”

Visual effects then and now require a continual learning process, as the industry changes constantly. So what is his advice to effects artists today? “Always be open-minded. I always look at what new technology is coming around the corner and try to see how it will benefit us and what we can do with it. You got to ask, what can we do to make our jobs easier? Or more efficient? How can I make this look better?”

Presently, Thornton is working on a new sci-fi adventure series for teens called Tribe of the Wild from the creators of Power Rangers, for which they are using Lightcraft Previzion to do real-time rendering of CGI and compositing the live actors onto those digital sets. “I can’t say much more than that [about the project] right now,” he says.

Looking back, Thornton has witnessed firsthand a plethora of technical revolutions in visual effects for both film and television. Which affected him the most? “The pocket calculator because I was dreadful at math, the Amiga because of its capabilities, the Video Toaster for all it could do, the Wacom tablet because it revolutionized painting, modern tracking software like Boujou and SynthEyes, which simplified the process, and 3D printing,” he says. “I love it. I recently built an entire motion-control system using one.”

Thornton also recognizes the quantum leap in compositing software. “When we started, compositing was very difficult. We began with COSA After Effects, which was just about the only game in town. Now you have Fusion, Nuke, and After Effects is still going strong,” he says. “3D-wise, the old stalwarts have been great, and that includes LightWave. It has been good to me. We have managed to do some great things with it. The ability to do photoreal rendering and having the processing power to do things like ambient occlusion was not something we could do back in the Babylon 5 days, and it makes a big difference.”

Image courtesy Babylon 5 © PTEN/Warner Bros.

While so much has changed, one thing that has not is Thornton’s reliance on LightWave. “I have tried to learn other packages but end up giving up because I don’t have the time to learn them,” he says. “Besides, I always seem to get the job done in LightWave.” Thornton is working in LightWave 11.6, and is especially drawn to the renderer, which is fast, and the node-based texturing system. He also favors the software’s “generalist” pipeline. “With LightWave, I know the keystrokes and commands, and how everything is structured.”

Looking back, Thornton adds: “LightWave was the trigger that set everything off. I would have been an out-of-work model maker by now if it wasn’t for LightWave.”

Ron Thornton on IMDb: