“Fill it back up, everybody dry off, and we’re going to try it again!”
The crew of Stargate SG-1 faced no shortage of adversity when production first started early in 1997.
It was only two and a half years since Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s Stargate feature film made a big splash at the box office, with its sprawling story and ambitious visual effects. But while the TV series did air on the premium cable channel Showtime in the United States, it had a lot to accomplish with its more modest television budget.
One of the people facing that challenge was John Gajdecki, a visual effects supervisor in the early years of Stargate SG-1 (which premiered in 1997). He also worked on the pilot and first few episodes of Stargate Atlantis when the spin-off was launching in 2004.
Now he’s sharing some never-before-seen photos and anecdotes from SG-1‘s early days.
Gajdecki’s inside view here is just a piece of his 2-hour conversation with The Companion, a brand new content platform devoted to science fiction television and film. The project is wrapping up its Kickstarter campaign this week, with fans around the world already chipping in to cover The Companion’s initial start-up costs of $45,190.
In their conversation Gajdecki reveals many of the challenges that the crew faced in producing a television show that would match the quality and scale of the 1994 feature film.
In addition to sitting down for an extended interview with The Companion, Gajdecki is also digging through his Stargate archives to find photos and anecdotes from his years on the show. Here are a few of the highlights and never-before-seen pictures, courtesy of John and The Companion:
When the team started work on Stargate SG-1, MGM opened their archives for the crew and found one or two impressive artifacts from Roland Emmerich’s movie to hand over.
Gajdecki recalls: “When we started, one of the things they brought us — and God I don’t know how they found it — was one of the original pyramid models from the movie! It was amazing.”
So how do you get a giant pyramid model across a studio parking lot?
DEATH GLIDER (ON A TV BUDGET)
Some of the show’s biggest and best effects sequences were shot in Gajdecki’s own studio, with some amazing model work and a do-it-yourself attitude.
The enemy death glider fighter craft were of course adapted from the “udajeet” craft seen in the feature film. But the television production had to build their own models for filming against a green screen.
“Here we are shooting models,” Gajdecki says of the photo. “There’s the death glider. There’s the movie camera. You can see some sandbags to counterweight the whole thing, which is kludged together. We had this rig that we assembled: we would do it and then unzip everything and put it away.”
Gajdecki tells The Companion that it was important to keep the locations for each episode fresh and surprising for the viewers. But nearby opportunities in and around Vancouver, British Columbia came with their own problems.
“Episode 1, episode 2, we’re always outside,” he remembers. “It’s always in the rain because that was the weather at the time. So we really started struggling to create locations that were not just in the forest.”
To add a bit of alien variety to the B.C. landscape, one early episode — “Cold Lazarus” — took the SG-1 team to the yellow dunes of P3X-562. Production accomplished this look by filming at nearby sulfur pits.
“There was one episode where they were on this planet and everything was yellow,” Gajdecki remembers. “It was sulfur — it was this bizarre yellow planet. And we were filming in these huge sulfur pits that they have down by the docks. It was such a sunny day that everybody was sweating, and the sulfur … you’d walk through it and it would kick up and get on your face, and your beads of sweat would just drop it into your eyes. And they had lots of people there to take care of us!”
Here’s a handy gate that you can take on the road! When the production headed out on location they couldn’t leave everything behind. While one Stargate stayed at its permanent home on the S.G.C. set on Stage 5 at The Bridge Studios, a second gate was built to be dismantled and reassembled on location.
“This was a set piece that traveled,” Gajdecki said. “You can see there’s some power going into it. There’s a door in the back where you’d crawl in to wire everything up. The art department would have to go in the day before and set this up, and we’d go in and we’d film.”
The location Stargate was wired so that the chevrons light up during the dialing sequence. But of course the inner ring did not spin like Earth’s gate — a concession to the practical needs of filming on location around the greater Vancouver area.
Arguably the biggest task for Gajdecki and his team was to recreate the movie’s amazing kawoosh effect on a TV budget and schedule. That iconic shot of the Stargate connecting a wormhole to a distant world has to look right.
For Gajdecki and his team, the answer turned out to be trial and error. “We ordered a special [tank] for the show, and it was one meter by one meter by one meter,” he said.
“We set up an air cannon above [but] we didn’t know how much air pressure to use,” he recalled. “We set the camera up, we set the lights up, we shot some tests, then we set the pressure at 50 pounds. So, we roll the camera at 120 frames per second, the water is as flat as we can make it, you push the button and it lets the air go down the tube right into the water. Well, as it turns out, [the movie] used about 5 pounds, or 10 pounds. So 50 pounds just emptied the tank everywhere!
“It was spectacularly cool! But OK … fill it back up, everybody dry off, and we’re going to try it again!”
Described as “one part magazine, one part ‘making of’ companion book, and one part DVD extras,” The Companion is created by The Narrative, a London-based studio that specializes in digital content. They were contracted by MGM to create original pieces for the newly relaunched Stargate Command platform starting in 2019. (You may have seen their video on the life-sized Stargate built by a team of fans in Europe — a project we also featured here on GateWorld.)
Late in 2019 MGM decided to close the Stargate Command platform. The Narrative has now taken the opportunity to expand their efforts to many different movies and shows, planning for their own multi-device service covering all manner of science fiction television and film.
The Companion will launch as a subscription-based service, with a membership fee of a few dollars per month for full access to the content that the studio is producing. (As of press time, the “Early Bird Annual Membership” is being offered for 50% off — $35, or £28, for the first year.) Kickstarter supporters can also get other goodies for pledging at a higher level.
With only a few days left before the Kickstarter ends, organizers are focused on stretch goals — which will help to fund even more original content on the new platform.
One project, “Re-Memorabilia,” would feature cast members unboxing props and other relics from their shows on camera. Props will then be autographed and auctioned off to fans for charity.
Content on The Companion will be organized around 3-month “seasons,” with Season 1 focused on the genre films and TV of the 1990s. That includes 50 pieces of content, from articles and interviews to info-graphics, artwork, and podcasts. The team tells GateWorld that this first season will be particularly Stargate-heavy, as The Narrative rolls off of working on Stargate Command.
“We want to tell stories that take fans deeper into the franchises they love most, and we’re starting with Stargate,” co-founded Lawrence Kao said.
Take a look at the Kickstarter and consider signing up to be a supporter! The funding campaign runs through this weekend. We’ll have more from The Companion here at GateWorld in the weeks ahead.
On Twitter: @TheCompanionApp