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Ray Lai GALACTICA.TV interview
Written by Marcel Damen   
Saturday, 21 November 2009

Long time Battlestar Galactica fan, concept artist and illustrator Ray Lai was thrilled when not only Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer re-imagined the Battlestar Galactica series, but also he could a part of it this time. Sadly this version never came about, but luckily he was hired for the Ron Moore and David Eick version too. He worked on the development of the Colonial symbols and flags, the currency, ranks pins, the viper and the landing bay.

When did you know when you really wanted to start drawing and make this your career?

Drawing is something that I have always done for as long as I can remember.. I am curious and constantly doodling.... If am not at work I am doodling or sketching.... So it's great that I get to do that for a living.

What kind of education did you follow? Who were your examples at that time or who did you look up to? What was the most important thing they thought you at during that period? How did you roll into the movie business? What was your first real professional project?

I am interested in everything, but I've always been interested in sci-fi and film design and how films are made. I have a huge collection of books and magazines with a lot of behind the scene stories, drawings and pictures. Art by Ron Cobb, Joe Johnston, Ralph McQuarrie, Chris Foss, H.R. Giger, Dan O'Bannon and of course Syd Mead. The Heavy Metal magazine and other graphic novels were also inspirational for me.

I first got into film when I joined an independent filmmakers cooperative and started volunteering at the local community cable station and on independent film projects that eventually led to paid work on TV and Film sets.

I started to combine what I was learning and began drawing storyboards and sets for a few low/no budget independent scripts all deferred, meaning for free. Tony Devenyi, an emerging production designer I knew, approached me to do some paid set illustrations for a movie of the week he just got. He called later saying that the job was bigger than what he had first thought and if I was interested in working full time for at least six weeks.

I wasn't sure at first if I wanted to commit to that much time since I was used to the jobs being only a few days at most. But it was paid work and I eventually said what the heck sure why not. I had never worked in the art department before and it was really an eye opening experience.

It was exciting, intense, hard work, creative, and all the designs had to exist in the real world... It was like everything that I had been reading and studying, all my work experiences on set and in the production office had been leading me to this... I had found my calling... and to think I almost said no.

Did you watch Battlestar Galactica as a kid? Were you a fan of the show then already?

I did watch Battlestar Galactica and I even had models of the Galactica, Vipers and a Cylon Raider.

One time my partner went back east to visit her family and it was one of the first times that we were apart for any length of time... I bought the original BSG pilot DVD movie and I watched it every night till she got back... she was away for about a month.

You worked on the Tom DeSanto/Bryan Singer version of Battlestar Galactica in 2001. How did you get involved and can you explain what you did on that?

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge Science Fiction nerd or geek or fanatic... the art director I had worked for on Thirt13n Ghosts called me up to see if I was available for a TV series he was starting called Glory Days. As we were talking he mentioned the BSG show in town and wondered why I was not on that.

He didn't have that much info on it but I eventually found the BSG art director's number and called him to see if they were still hiring.. He had never met me before and I can imagine what he was thinking listening to me babble on about how huge a fan I was and blah blah blahing how I would even serve coffee to be on that show... Anyways, after emailing him my resume with a few images, he called me to meet him at his house (it was a weekend) with my portfolio... After the meeting he said that he would be in touch. I have never called anybody for a job cold like that as I am kinda quiet and shy but it did pay off.

I started a few weeks later designing graphics for the new Viper. The production designer Guy Dyas really wanted these ships to be grounded in the real world as much as possible. The Vipers had already been designed pretty much and my task was to add detailing, panel lines, decals, panel names etc. and all the nuts and bolts you would find on a real fighter jet.

 

Concept art for the Colonial Viper by Ray Lai

Concept art for the Colonial Viper by Ray Lai

 

That of course segued to symbols, fonts and crests for the Colonial Fleet as well as for the Twelve Colonies of Man.

 

Concept art for the Twelve Colonies of Man by Ray Lai

Concept art for the Twelve Colonies of Man by Ray Lai

 

How did you get involved in Ron Moore's version of Battlestar Galactica?

I heard a rumor that there would be another kick at the can for a BSG series. After a ton of phone calls I found out that the producer was in town shooting a western. I actually got his number and like before... I called him up and was blah blah blahing about how huge a fan I was that he agreed to meet me.... So on a cold rainy November evening I drove way out of town to meet Michael Joyce on the location of his western. I had no idea what I was doing. At the time the show had not been given the go ahead and I wasn't sure what we were going to talk about but I was determined to at least get a foot in the door at the beginning.

Michael explained the new direction they had planned for Battlestar Galactica... Basically no lasers or aliens or force fields etc. Of course I was a big fan of Firefly so I knew where he might be going with this. I showed him what I did for the Tom DeSanto BSG and a few BSG themed images I did on my own. He liked what I was showing him and we talked enthusiastically about BSG in general... and he seemed very excited about a new Battlestar Galactica direction.

A bunch of weeks later I got a call from Richard Hudolin about the new Miniseries.... I was on Jiminy Glick in La La Wood with Tony Devenyi and I knew I could not pass this up so I talked to Tony about it and he said it was ok for me to leave and join Richard's team on Battlestar Galactica...

For the Miniseries you worked on the design of the viper MK VII that was originally designed by Guy Dyas for the Tom DeSanto/Bryan Singer version of Battlestar Galactica. Can you tell us a bit about that?

I basically worked on the Scorpion (as it was referred to then...) Fighter's surface details and panel lines when it was the DeSanto/Singer BSG... To give it a more high tech feel when compared to the MK II's. But none of that work migrated to the new show and the design was revised to fit a different budget. I think Eric Chu had a hand in redefining it for the mini series.

Not sure if this was known... the cockpit itself was an escape pod/mini fighter too. I think at one point our hero's Scorpion becomes too damaged and he ejects, the pod sprouts wings and guns and he continues the space battle. Would've been cool to see.

 

Concept art for the Colonial Scorpion (Viper) by Ray Lai

Concept art for the Colonial Scorpion (Viper) by Ray Lai

 

You made some rendering studies for the hanger bays and Caprica City. Can you tell us a bit about that work?

The original Galactica had force fields at the mouth of the landing bay for coming and going... But because there were no force fields in our world... it was agreed that the pods would consist of two main levels... the Landing Deck that would be opened to space and a lower pressurized level called the Hanger Deck where the ships would be stored, maintained and launched. At the time we were still heavily influenced by the designs from the old show... So I made up a drawing showing how this two level setup could work still within the basic classic pod shapes.

The Classic BSG had the ships coming and going at the back end of the pod... I always thought that this was a bit weird so I suggested that the pods be opened on both ends to allow a more seamless flow of traffic.

 

Concept art for the battlestar landing bay by Ray Lai


Concept art for the battlestar landing bay by Ray Lai


Concept art for the battlestar landing bay by Ray Lai


Concept art for the battlestar landing bay by Ray Lai

Concept art for the battlestar landing bay by Ray Lai

 

The landing bay would always exist in the CGI world, however the hanger deck would be a partial full-scale set. The stage it would be built in was not really that big but it had a lot of height, so I envisioned the hanger bay to take advantage of that height combined with CGI set extensions that would give the hanger deck the sense of scale you would feel from being on a ship the size the Galactica.

 

Concept art for the battlestar hanger deck by Ray Lai


Concept art for the battlestar hanger deck by Ray Lai

Concept art for the battlestar hanger deck by Ray Lai

 

I gave a lot of thought about how the hanger deck was divided and how the different areas should function... Here will be the maintenance/parking bays for the Vipers with an upper gallery over looking from behind where the briefing rooms and flight offices would be.

 

Concept art for the battlestar hanger deck by Ray Lai


Concept art for the battlestar hanger deck by Ray Lai

Concept art for the battlestar hanger deck by Ray Lai

 

Across the bays were the launch tubes... I had figured that the launch tubes came in two parts. The first section would be an airlock like chamber where the Viper would be loaded and sealed. A second set of doors in front of the Viper would release letting the pressure difference blow the Viper down the launch tube accelerating to attack speed before exiting into space. Below is a view with the first launch door opened.

The Hanger Deck would also be divided into sections with groups of 4 bays and launch tubes separated by huge airlock doors between them in case of a hull breach in battle.... these concepts of the hanger bays basically carried over to the new design direction intact.

When the Sci Fi Channel wanted us to rethink all of our design directions away from the original BSG... Richard had decided to change the shape of the pod openings from a rectangle to a triangle. This really opened up the landing deck so that it could accommodate ships larger than a shuttle and it did take it further away from the feel of the original BSG. I did a couple of illustrations showing:

 

Concept art by Ray Lai for the portside pod with a pair of Vipers landing

Concept art by Ray Lai for the portside pod with a pair of Vipers landing

 

Concept art by Ray Lai for the starboard pod where the museum was

Concept art by Ray Lai for the starboard pod where the museum was

 

Caprica City was basically a visual effects study based on the Simon Fraser University location. It is already a pretty neat looking space and all I did was to help suggest a look that would evoke the character of the people of Kobol... The twelve columns in the pond were to represent each colony of man.

 

Concept art of Caprica City by Ray Lai

Concept art of Caprica City by Ray Lai

 

I've read the "Emblem of Kobol" was homage to the original Battlestar Galactica series in which the phoenix represents the resurrection of the series. I also noticed the circle with ears and tails pays homage to the symbolism of the original Battlestar Galactica as well. Is this true and did you expect it to have such a central role in the visual look of the series?

Yes it is true... The final design was inspired to symbolise the rebirth of Battlestar Galactica and I tried to add more stuff from the original series like the Galactica triangle pattern... But none of that was iconic enough for what I was doing.

When one designs a crest or symbol the most one could hope for is that it gets some screen time and that it doesn't get lost in the background.

I did not have any idea that it would play such a central role. ...it's pretty cool.

When you were commissioned to design the "Emblem of Kobol", were you given any backstory that the design needed to consistent with or told there were any design elements that had to be included. Or were you basically given free rein?

The only back story was that the society of Kobol would be military in nature. I tried a lot of different options... From a sword and then a bird of prey and then to something else, but always thinking about keeping something from the original series in play... The bird of prey was one of the last concepts to be considered.

 

Concept art of the Colonial Crest by Ray Lai

Concept art of the Colonial Crest by Ray Lai

 

Later the nature of this society would be revised and so therefore a revision of the crest was called for. Again there would be more design studies but it seemed bring us back to the idea of a bird so on a whim I thought why not make it a phoenix since the bird of prey looked close enough already and I liked the idea that it symbolised the rebirth of the Battlestar Galactica series.

 

Concept art of the Colonial Crest by Ray Lai

Concept art of the Colonial Crest by Ray Lai

 

And if you'd notice there are twelve points on the wings representing the Twelve Colonies of Man.

Was the phoenix motif created as the visual accompaniment to the central verbal 'theme' of "all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again...." or was this imported later and is this just coincidence?

Coincidence maybe, maybe not... I thought it was pure genius when I first read those lines. As with most artistic endeavours, the results always seem to come from a collection of chaotic events that individually mean nothing and go nowhere yet all seem to lead to this one magic moment of complete meaning. Whatever or however it works... For this it worked brilliantly.

Did you also do the verbiage around the symbol for the seals, i.e., "Battlestar Galactica --- BSG 75"? If so, was it the case that the "old" (original series) Battlestar Galactica font was used for that in the Miniseries... and later changed to the newer, filled-in, non-connected letters?

Yes I did come up with that verbiage ...I tried quite a few before settling on the one that is there now....BSG for Battle Star Group and 75 as the fleet number... Actually, BSG 75 was the very first thing I had thought of but it seemed too contrived so I ignored my instincts and tried a bunch of different things... Richard Hudolin ended up liking BSG75 so I guess I should have listened to that first instinct... BSG75 is also the folder name for the show on my computer ;)....

Sorry I don't have an answer to the font change. In the concept I handed in had another font type that I made up for the DeSanto BSG.

The names of the colonies are loosely based on the astrological signs. Some of the colony symbols look like the astrological symbols we know, while others completely differ from them. How did you come up with the symbols and the colors of the flags of each colony?

The Colony symbols were carried over from the stuff I did for the DeSanto/Singer BSG. To me, the zodiac symbols were behavior traits based on creatures both real and myth. So I figured that the basic traits for each zodiac would've been originally associated with creatures from their world and then translated to comparable Earth creatures later when they got there... or here. Therefore the symbols should be similar since they would've retained the same traits from the original creatures.

The flag colours were chosen because they look good within the colour palette of the flag maker. Actually it wasn't really that easy... I think I agonized quite a bit picking colours and composing them for each colony.

 

Concept art of the Colonial Flags by Ray Lai

Concept art of the Colonial Flags by Ray Lai

 

There is a lot of Masonic symbolism used in the series and there are plenty of references that point that direction too (the use of "33", the Pentagon symbol on the Cylons and Temple of Five on the Algae planet, the collars and sashes of the Quorum of Twelve). Did you also use this symbolism in the design of the rank insignia (see image below) or is this just coincidence? (See also the article we published on the Masonic Connection in Battlestar Galactica)

 

Masonic connection in the rank insignia?

Masonic connection in the rank insignia?

 

Yes I did notice the similarity... but no I did not use any Masonic reference... Pure coincidence... I designed the pins and ranks based on research on military service insignia... I felt the upside down diamond shape and it's variants would feel futuristic as well as immediately be recognizable as type of military rank designation. By the way, very good article that... very interesting observation.

When designing the rank pins, were you told you needed a specified number of rank levels or did the number of rank levels flow from the designs you created?

The props master, Dan Sissons did the research and gave me a list of ranks that he required. I just designed them all to fulfil his list. I designed them to have a logical and natural progression as the ranks got higher or lower.

Was it a conscious decision to limit the Colonial phoenix to ranks of Colonel and above?

Yes the phoenix was meant to be on higher-ranking officers... and I thought they looked good like that.

Have you worked on any other symbolism or pins used on the Battlestar Galactica series? If so, which did you also work on?

Most of my work was on the Miniseries though I did do one or two things during the series. I did create the font used in the Elosha's Sacred Scroll of Kobol as well as pages for the Book of Pythia... There were a bunch of miscellaneous crests like the Presidential Seal and the Ministry of Education. And I designed the paper money which I refer to as Colonial Bucks... Which I think is still being used for the new Caprica series... I helped out the costume department with fleshing out the Adama's uniform.

 

Concept art for the Colonial Bucks by Ray Lai

Concept art for Colonial Bucks by Ray Lai

 

Concept art for Bill Adama's costume by Ray Lai

Concept art for Bill Adama's costume by Ray Lai

 

I also contributed a schematic of the Galactica in the CIC and a mass and shape study of the Galactica when the design direction changed.

 

Mass and shape study for the Galactica by Ray Lai

Mass and shape study for the Galactica by Ray Lai

 

I did a few studies of the CIC to help Richard sell the design concept to the producers... I work a lot 3D so I could play with different angles to get the right view with the right camera lense.

 

Galactica CIC studies by Ray Lai


Galactica CIC studies by Ray Lai

Galactica CIC studies by Ray Lai

 

In the Miniseries Starbuck takes a Viper Mark II from the museum to counter attack the Cylons. She flies the Viper of Cpt. Raymond "Raygun" Lai. Were you informed of this honorific use of your name in the series or did you only found out later?

I found out much later... In fact I was on another project when a picture of Starbuck in a Viper was emailed to me by a work associate... He had found it on the internet... I was stunned. Very cool. It did explain a phone call I got a while before asking me what my call sign was...

I saw a lot of your personal work are sci-fi orientated images. Do you sometimes try to use or promote your personal work in new projects?

I am very interested in science fiction so I do try to convey that with the personal work on my website.

That personal work in fact came about as I was choosing images for my website. When I was recovering from a broken ankle and I was off work for three months, I decided to learn how to make a Flash website for myself. I found that I did not have that many illustrations that I liked to post in it so I made a few specifically for the site... The website has been instrumental in helping me land a couple of gigs.

You worked on some big feature movies like Thirt13n Ghosts, X-Men 3, I Robot, Fantastic Four, Watchmen, etc. Which project were you most proud of working on and why?

I can't really say I which of the work I am most proud of... Battlestar Galactica for sure because I am a huge fan of both Classic and Re-Imagined series...... I Robot for another since a lot of me is sprinkled about in there and Patrick Tatopoulos is such a cool guy for trusting in me to go beyond my job description... TRON: Legacy since I had the best creative time there with the designer Darren Gilford and the rest of the art department.... Repo Men because I got a lot of design challenges... way more than I had at that time and I learned a lot from the designer David Sandefur ...And of course Elegy, Suspicious River and Here's to Life because they were good projects without a huge budget and were not scifi.

I really am happy and proud of all of them so I can't say ...I am a geek and a nerd of sorts and I can't help but get a little giddy every time I realize where I am sitting and what I am a part of. Unfortunately I was never available for the BSG series .....but I did visit whenever I got a chance to... Just to wonder around the CIC or hanger deck when no one was looking. It may sound cliché, but I never would have dreamt that I would get a chance to work on Battlestar Galactica...

What are you currently working on? What are your future plans?

I am just coming off a feature film project based on the old TV show the A-TEAM, which was a lot of fun. However after that I have no plans so I can't really say... Wish I could tell you that I am working on some super secret project that I have signed a ND contract for but no... not yet.

I am just going to play and have fun drawing and there are a couple of 3D programs that I would like to learn and I am always trying to refine my technique... sketching out concepts and stuff for myself. However if I had any plans it would be safe to say that it will include a coffee shop and some sketching and doodling.

 
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