The issue with Babylon 5, however, isn’t with its live-action scenes, but with any moment in the show that requires special effects. These days, no TV show is made without a lot of cosmetic enhancement from a small legion of CGI experts. But the early ’90s were a different time, and most effects-heavy TV shows relied on expensive and time-consuming practical effects.
Babylon 5 used CGI a lot because it was the only way to make the show with its very tiny budget. And it was the early days of CGI, so early that the pilot episode’s visual effects were produced on a network of Amiga computers. For the first three series, effects house Foundation Imaging used 12 Pentium PCs and 5 DEC Alpha workstations running Lightwave 3D.
Now, according to some sources, Foundation Imaging lacked the time, or the resources, to produce widescreen CGI effects. But that was okay, because the production process for Babylon 5 was to shoot 1.78:1 footage, crop it to 4:3, and then edit it with the CGI footage and composites for a completed edition of the show, ready for broadcast.
“Halfway through the third season, Portugal and Belgium bought the show,” explains producer John Copeland, “and they wanted it letterbox, because they knew we had shot it that way.” He says that the Warner Bros. Advanced Tech Center had hurriedly “played with the visual effects” to get it to match the widescreen footage. Later, when the show’s second-run rights to the Sci-Fi channel, “[Warner Bros.] transferred all of the PAL masters back to standard def, but shown in the 16:9 letterbox.”
Unfortunately, the CGI and composite elements only existed in 4:3,…