The following is Bruce Goatly's personal account of his visit to the Babylon 5 stage in April 1996, towards the end of the filming of season 3. This version has been spoiler protected for the start of season 3 - there's also a full version of this page for those who want to know all! The editing involves the substitution of '???' for limited spoilers, or removal of longer sections...
You might find some paragraphs a bit meaningless in this edited form!
Links in the text lead to photos on the thumbnail pictures page - there are more pictures on that page though than are linked into this text. (The pictures are spoiler protected too).
It might have been just a freak of timing or something, but (somewhat to my surprise) jms was receptive to the idea of a visit while we were in the area, so on 26 March we approached an undistinguished pseudonymous building in an industrialized part of Los Angeles, introduced ourselves to the receptionist and were met by jms's aide, the charming Joanne, who immediately dispelled any fears that we might find aloofness or resentment towards visitors. People, this is a friendly place. I'd read that this is so, but had thought it an exaggeration - it isn't.
First we were taken on a tour of the sets not currently in use - the Zocalo/main corridor (the one that curves upwards at the end), the ??? and C&C. Of these, the Zocalo was the only one not to seem somehow smaller than it appears on screen. In fact, all I can recollect of the White Star set was that it was tiny. But the detail in the Zocalo and C&C is impressive - instrument panels, shop contents, backgrounds - even though neither set was 'dressed' (for shooting) at the time, so they weren't properly lit.
As Brian Cooney explained a while back, the upward-curving corridor is a masterpiece of false perspective: as the floor rises, the scale diminishes, so any extras placed in the distance have to be smaller (i.e. children), too! And at the end of the real corridor is, I think, the traditional perspective painting (though I could be wrong about that - it was pretty dim in there).
From time to time we passed areas in use for storing bits of scenery and props, such as two White Star crew seats (looking for all the world like giant ballet shoes) and a 'Universe Today' display. The work that has gone into the displays is impressive - they're beautiful (even though many of them are in alien scripts and therefore totally incomprehensible!).
(I've been asked whether the sets looked 'lame' compared with their appearance on screen. Of course, when you get really close you can make out the painted plywood, but aside from that it's only their overall smallness that's surprising, and the lack of lighting gave the sets not in use a rather forlorn look.)
Then we went on to the Medlab set. This was where filming was going on that morning, on the penultimate episode of the third series: "Shadow Dancing". ??? and ??? were in the first scene, and ??? and ??? were in the second.
The Medlab set was to my mind the most interesting - at least as it appeared while in use. There was a central area (where extras with gurneys were to scurry around) and two side rooms, one with a bed and one apparently in use as a lab. And because it was ready for shooting, all the panels and desks were illuminated, all the props were in place, and it looked pretty much 'real' (until you looked closely, of course...).
We were standing quietly, watching a scene being set up, when I noticed someone next to Alice. It was jms, just dropping down to the set to see what was going on. No fuss, just taking a personal interest, hanging out. He came and went a few times; at one point the script supervisor, Haley McLane, went up to him and asked whether he was happy with a certain line (the phrase in question was "... like I've been stabbed in the back", as I recall). He was. (Incidentally, Haley is also the voice behind B5's computers.)
The director, Kim Friedman, a dynamic lady if ever there was one, seemed to be everywhere but never appeared rushed or hurried. She was evidently very much in command but didn't need to push or cajole - just said what she wanted and everyone else knew what was expected of them. I think it's called being professional. I don't know whether there had already been rehearsals of the scenes we saw, but there was no discussion of how they should be played: maybe the actors, being regulars, know by now how their characters work.
I'd been told, before we left the UK, to remember that the crew are just doing their job, that it's a day's work for them (okay, that's a remark taken out of context - sorry, Sarah). It's true that there's no feeling of "ooh, this is exciting" on the set, but equally it seemed to me that there was more than just a routine, "let's get this done", attitude: I got the impression that people were enjoying what they were doing. We were watching a well-oiled machine at work, and the lubrication was a shared objective.
Perhaps the best illustration of this was the off-set corridor where the snack bar was situated, where all and sundry could take a break and grab a bite. The wall opposite was festooned with pictures of outings and get-togethers - the crew evidently enjoy playing together as well as working together. I'm full of admiration at the team spirit that jms has built up. One of the extras who played a security guard confirmed it - he said he works regularly on ER as well, and the B5 crew is exceptional in this respect. (As an aside, I took a close look at the 'rifle sight' emblem on his jacket. I suggest you do the same sometime: picture it not as a rifle sight but as four objects superimposed on a circle, and tell us what you see.)
Another piece of studio trivia that you may have heard about is the "net wall", where selected items from the newsgroups and other forums are posted for all to see. It's there, all right - alongside the snack bar. I didn't have time to read them, unfortunately.
This was where we encountered someone in make-up and costume from a species I didn't recognize. He explained that he plays a Brakiri; his species are the pimps of the galaxy. Hmm - must look out for that.
Back on set. Technical stuff. It's really amazing how much work goes into setting up a single take of a scene: much of it is in deciding the camera angles, getting the lighting right and establishing the movements. By comparison, hardly any time is spent actually shooting - I could never be an actor, having to keep it all together calmly while I waited until it was time to go into action. And there are so many different takes of the same scene, each with an opportunity to muff it or do something subtly different so that editing becomes a problem. (Remember the infamous 'did they kiss or didn't they?' scene in "Divided Loyalties"? Suddenly it was easy to see how the slight mismatch happened.)
Everybody there knows exactly what they're doing (no doubt a prerequisite for working in the industry). For example, at one point there were two chaps retaping a wall panel (just the other side of the porthole through which we were watching) at a different angle so it wouldn't reflect light into the camera. They were nearly finished as the camera started to roll, and were clear just in time. Smooth.
I was surprised at how quietly the lines were spoken during performance - at times they were practically inaudible a mere four or five yards away, even in the quiet of the set. ???...
I have a hunch that there is quite a lot of ??? in ??? - between takes he was constantly putting on a comedy routine (one involved ??? in a bit of business with breath freshener spray). But he showed a practical streak too: when there was a problem with getting ??? position right for the camera, he was the one who went away and found a prop that solved it. (Can't say more without uttering a mild spoiler.)
A word on ???. Totally calm and focused yet personable. Needing a refresher on dialogue, he strode up to Haley McLane and addressed her as "Hayleymills" - all one word - in a manner I found quite disarming. Alice was completely smitten ("gorgeous", she breathed), and I'll admit that the screen doesn't do him full justice (given my proclivities I'll go as far as "dashingly handsome").
And ???? You know, to me he has this knack of not being obtrusive. He seemed a quiet, unassuming person from the interactions I saw. He had some awkward conditions to work under in both scenes, and handled them all with good grace.
In all we must have been on the set for three and a half hours, during which time we saw perhaps two minutes of programme being shot, if finally edited as written. (Think about that.) Several takes had to be redone because the extras rushing around in the background were making too much noise (in the end they had to take their shoes off), and it took a few attempts to get the gurney into shot fast enough. Talk about patience...
(Thinking about extras, I'm reminded that on the day we were there, one of the extras was the competition winner from the UK. Neither Alice nor I could recall which competition - does anyone here know about this?)
Back in the 'snack' corridor, Joanne was approached by a slight, elfin creature to discuss some voice-overs she had done that morning. The double-take interva l was a few moments - it was ??? ("gorgeous", I breathed), in mufti and sans make-up. I'd have loved to take a photo, but hey, we were guests, not gawpers.
Lunchtime. Three o'clock? Yipes. In fact, production that day had been put back by two hours to allow for voting in presidential primaries.
This being California, the dining area is out of doors, consisting of tables and benches under an awning, just past the make-up trailers. And yes, it's true: everybody eats together. On the table behind us sat jms and, among others, ??? (by this time in curlers - still gorgeous) and ??? (wearing partial make-up and, incongruously, sunglasses).
We had the dubious pleasure of sitting opposite two extras made up with serious facial wounds. Just a tad off-putting. Meanwhile, as Joanne hadn't heard the story about Peter David's bear (and the pole and the bluescreen), we were happy to give her the gory details.
After lunch... let's see... Oh yes, we met jms in his office. 8-)
You want details?
Well, he said some nice things about how much he valued the support of fans in the UK, and that Mike O'Hare and ??? had brought back good reports of fan meetings (you know who you are). He also showed us, atop a display case, the engraved vase that MO'H had brought back from London last December. (So my fears about its not surviving the trip were groundless.)
I handed over a few small items: a few cards (one of them Hywel Williams's
"It's the wrong encounter suit, Gromit!", which you can find at:
a couple of tapes and - no doubt completely perplexing - a Wallace and Gromit cake construction kit consisting of a box, cake base, cake band and plaque. Just add one cake. (Look, how would you have transported a cake across the Atlantic with the certainty that it would be (i) intact and (ii) allowed in by the US Department of Agriculture?) There was also a can of Hooch, representing solidarity with UK net fandom.
I expressed the good wishes and enormous respect of UK net fans in general and also passed on a few individual messages (again, you know who you are). Then jms kindly signed three autographs, all of which have now reached their intended destinations, and that was all there was time for, alas.
It was, for us, a rare privilege and a joy to have had this opportunity: many, many thanks are due to jms for allowing it and for seeing us; to Joanne for sparing so much of her time and for being so delightful and accommodating; and to everyone else for making it such a memorable and fun experience (and of course for making such a terrific programme).
Oh, yes - there's a chance that Joanne will be at Wolf. Be nice to her.
What else did we get up to while in the States? Oh, the usual: hot-air ballooning in New Mexico; attending a medicine man's class in Navajo country for would- be singers of healing songs; cross-country skiing in Yosemite.... And, just for the experience, drinking a bottle of the drink that Babylon 5 has made famous: Zima (which I confirm as being easily the least palatable form of alcohol I've ever encountered). All part of the American experience. But it was only real life.
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