Designing for Babylon 5
by Leslie Erganian | Lurker’s Guide 2.0 | July 2010
I was a prop designer for the first season of Babylon 5, and although I went on to become an art director, television correspondent, and writer, I still count my B5 experience as one of the most creative unleashings of my professional life. Nothing frees up the imagination more than evocative words combined with the opportunity to realize them in multiple dimensions, and J. Michael Straczynski, the series originator, knew how to write evocative words. Words on the page are the seeds for the imagination of every designer for film and television, and Babylon 5 was filled with words that lit up the outer reaches of my mind. In designing for the present or the past, pictures come into focus nearly immediately from the words in the script, pictures that arise from knowledge and experience. The broader and deeper your knowledge and experience are, the more fleshed out your designs will be. In a world yet to come, however, everything and anything is possible. Your designs may have one foot in the world of what you know, but the other is clearly on another planet.In one of the earliest Babylon 5 episodes to which I contributed, the script “Born to the Purple” called for the Centauri Adira, to be given “star laces”. Those two words created the outline for the design beginning to form in my mind’s eye. From star, I imagined something bright and shining. From lace, I imagined something lacey, meaning an open network of curvilinear forms, with that strange wavering quality that Queen Anne’s lace (a flower from the present world) has. I wanted Adira’s star laces to have characteristics not unlike the flowers we know, but with a look and a movement all their own. The script also described the flowers as “exotic” as well as “Centauri”.
Once I had an idea in mind of where the words were taking me, I had to go out into the world and see what building materials might be used that could help manifest my inspiration, and bring it into final form. This is the exploration part of the design process. For Babylon 5, this part of the process often involved long serious walks down the aisles of stores looking for unusual inspiration, and the component parts of what would become props. Electronics stores, plumbing stores, hardware stores, floral designer shops, discount stores, and sporting goods stores were studied aisle by aisle with mental notes made in all cases, and certain bits bought from time to time simply to have on hand for future building such as wires, knobs, metal screen and the like.
The star laces began to become clear to me at the Sports Chalet in Burbank, in the fishing supplies section where rubber twin tail fishing lures caught my eye because they had a translucency that seemed other-worldly, and their movement on camera would be strange and bouncy. They also had a bit of embedded glitter. Additionally, they mimicked a form of nature and yet were not of a natural material. I bought lures in a number of colors with which to experiment, then rounded up some florist’s wire, tape, and a variety of strange leaves from Stat’s floral supplies in Pasadena and headed back to the B5 soundstage in North Hollywood next to the Orange Bang building.
I wound up using clear rubber lures for the star laces, and red rubber lures for the “marine bouquet”, also called for in the script. There was always a hierarchy for the props, depending upon their importance to the scene that determined how fleshed out they would be. Barbara Cole, the prop master, had the idea to implant small grain of wheat bulbs inside the lures to take advantage of the inherent quality of the material and walked me through the process of “how to”. They came prepackaged in sets of three from a model store, and were easily wired next to the floral wire and bounded with floral tape, then powered with one small battery per flower nestled at the base. In keeping with the feeling of the future, I decided to wrap the flowers in metal door screen mesh instead of paper to create the ultimate in Science fiction luxury.
“Adira’s star laces” were only one of the approximately thirty props that played on average in each episode of Babylon 5. The prop budget per episode was $3000 with a little give and take potential, which allotted an average of $100 per prop. These items were all to be fleshed out, explored, and formed within a week. One episode’s designs were being crafted at the same time that another episode’s designs were being filmed. Not all objects were made, some were simply found in a prop shop, or found and sexed up slightly. Others required intensive research and design. Still others required the collaborative input of other individuals, the graphic designer, the special effects department etcetera.
The star laces I designed for “Born to the Purple” went on to play in another episode. That’s the ultimate compliment to the designer, to have their designs continue on with a life of their own by having taken the writer’s words into another dimension. It’s also a symbol for the great collaborative potential that all filmmaking brings to life, the possibilities of worlds as yet unseen where images and words work together to claim their untapped potential.
photograph courtesy of Leslie Erganian ©1994, used by special permission