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Space, 2258, in the Year 1994 : 'BABYLON 5' PRODUCERS SAY THEY GET MORE BANG FOR THEIR BUCKS WITH DESKTOP TECHNOLOGY

January 23, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Producing the newly syndicated sci-fi series "Babylon 5" has practically been a sci-fi adventure in itself.

"We are on the cusp of being completely revolutionized," says producer John Copeland. The elaborate special effects are created by desktop computers. The series' Hollywood-based composer conducts his European-based orchestra on an interactive video feed. And the entire show is shot in a huge warehouse in the San Fernando Valley, far from any studio's watchful eye.

Most of the action in the one-hour adventure show, set in the year 2258, is on a vast United Nations-like space station, Babylon 5, which serves as neutral territory for humans and aliens alike. The series premieres Wednesday on PTEN (the Prime Time Entertainment Network), a consortium of 177 stations covering 93% of the country. It will be carried in Los Angeles on KCOP. PTEN series, which also include "Time Trax" and "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues," are supplied by Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution.

Sci-fi fans got their first taste of "Bab 5" almost a year ago as a two-hour TV movie. The ratings were good enough for Warner Bros. to give it the go-ahead for the weekly series.

Having several months from the completion of the movie to starting up the series gave the creative team an opportunity "to do a soul-searching postmortem on the movie," says Copeland.

"We all made a pact that we would do everything we could to make the series better than the movie and to make every episode better than the previous one," Copeland says.

They did a bit of recasting and fleshed out the cast. Tamlyn Tamito ("'The Joy Luck Club") played the station's Lt. Commander in the pilot movie. 'She didn't come off as a commanding presence," Copeland acknowledges. "So we recast that role with a different character played by Claudia Christian. We added Richard Biggs as a new doctor, and each one of our ambassadors has a diplomatic attache."

Also discarded were the puppet-type alien creatures. "We felt they were more like very surreal-looking Muppets," Copeland says. "We wanted to move away from that. We wanted to have aliens who were performers. We also wanted to have a larger representation of (aliens). We broadened the kind of United Nations aspect of the station."

Co-executive producer Doug Netter, creator and co-executive producer J. Michael Straczynski and Copeland began working on the series six years ago. "We almost had (a deal) together with Warners, United Television, a Japanese group and a German group," Netter recalls. "It was about to either happen or not happen when along came the Prime Time Network."

Producers who are taking advantage of current technology say it costs them less to produce "Bab 5" than the Paramount syndicated sci-fi series "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine," which are in the per-episode range of $1 million to $1.5 million. Netter says the production saves money by not shooting at Warners.

"We built these stages in nine weeks," Netter says. "We speak to one creative person, one lawyer and one business affairs person. We don't have many people coming over here."

From the very outset, "Bab 5" has been designed for the TV screen. "We haven't let that be a limitation," Copeland says. "We don't have to approach things--like the way we do our effects--how they do it in movies. We can look at doing them different ways."

For example, composer Christopher Franke of Tangerine Dream writes the original music in his studio in the Hollywood Hills. "His orchestra is in Berlin," Copeland explains. "He creates a score, faxes that over to Berlin and he conducts the orchestra on an interactive video feed. They're sitting on a recording stage in Berlin and the music is coming back to him on fiber-optic cable. This stuff is pretty much immune to power shortage."

Foundation Imaging, the company that received an Emmy for visual effects on the "Babylon 5" pilot, consists of just seven people. "Our effects' animator, the guy who does all of our guns blasts, works on a Macintosh," Copeland says.

"Babylon 5" premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. and repeats Sunday at midnight on KCOP.

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