Making the Replicators … With 1999 Technology

Replicator survivor ("Nemesis")

Stargate SG-1: “Nemesis”

The third season of Stargate SG-1 proved that the show had plenty more tricks up its sleeve than just the Goa’uld. Even the powerful Asgard were under siege by a grave threat in their own galaxy. The Replicators were spider-like techno-bugs, made up of small blocks programmed to assemble themselves, self-replicate, and consume everything in their path. They would go on to become a major recurring antagonist on the show.

One of the creators of the Replicators was Craig Van Den Biggelaar, visual effects supervisor on Stargate SG-1 at Image Engine (which he joined in 1996). Along with the rest of Stargate VFX team he has been nominated for a whopping eight Emmy Awards (plus a ninth for Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital) – including one for “Nemesis,” the Season Three finale in which the bugs were first introduced.

“It was a really fun show to work on,” Van Den Biggelaar said. “I remember sitting there and assembling 225 Replicator blocks per Replicator. That’s the exact number! And building the animation rig for it. It’s all hand-done. When you see groups of those Replicators, every single one of them at that time was animated by hand.”

Jack and Teal'c defend the Stargate ("Nemesis")

Jack and Teal’c defend the Stargate from a horde of Replicators on board Thor’s ship. From “Nemesis”

In a brand new interview with “Dial the Gate” Van Den Biggelaar reveals the daunting task of building and animating computer-generated Replicators with 1999 computer effects technology – and the painstaking process of blowing them apart.

“And every single time they explode from gunfire was hand-animated, as far as an explosion,” he revealed. “We would create four different explosion simulations, and we would run a dynamic simulation on it and tweak them — because the software, the computing power, couldn’t handle everything. So we had to hand-keyframe where they are going to land. And there were certain scenarios where it worked on the ground but not around, and coming on the ceiling and the walls … and honestly there’s a couple where they just disappear. And we just literally switched them out with a bunch of pieces exploding, just to make it easier and faster.”

Check out this exclusive preview from the conversation, which premieres this Saturday, July 6, at 12 p.m. (PT) on “Dial the Gate”:

“Nemesis” would be nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects For A Series — the first of several for the Stargate team. In 2006 Van Den Biggelaar left Image Engine to start his own studio, Darkroom Digital Effects. He worked on every Stargate TV season except the first seasons of SG-1 and Atlantis, and Stargate’s VFX lead James Tichenor has called him “the secret talent of all the Stargate VFX.”

He also talks about tackling the fully animated Asgard character Heimdall in the fifth season finale, “Revelations.”

“I remember doing motion capture with Teryl [Rothery],” who played the show’s first fully computer-generated guest star character. “It was the first one we had done motion capture with, which was a lot of fun. And … that was our first use of high dynamic range lighting, which became standard in the industry afterwards. We had been reading white papers, ‘This is what those guys are doing,’ and ‘Let’s try it.’ It was pretty groundbreaking for a TV series.”

Replicator swarm on board the Beliskner ("Nemesis")

The Replicator swarm on board the Beliskner. From “Nemesis”

Of course the Replicators evolved significantly over the years, from the introduction of human-form Replicators built of nanites to the blocks’ body-horror takeover of James Merrick in Stargate: The Ark of Truth. Craig talks about that sequence as well in the full interview. Don’t miss the streaming premiere this Saturday on “Dial the Gate,” and also follow GateWorld on YouTube for clips, previews, original Stargate content.

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