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Foundation Imaging

Foundation Imaging – set up in 1992 in Valencia, California, and headed by founders Ron Thornton and Paul Beigle-Bryant – produced computer-generated, or digital, visual effects (VFX), commonly abbreviated to CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery), for several Star Trek productions. The organization also worked on other genre productions, most notably Babylon 5, for which they provided groundbreaking CGI.

General history[]

Foundation Imaging founders

Founders and CEOs Thornton (l) and Bryant

In the process of working on Babylon 5, Foundation Imaging was partly responsible for the fact that the software the company used, LightWave 3D (then called Video Toaster Suite, a hardware-software combination) became an industry standard for the next two decades. For that show, which was the first to be exclusively done in CGI, Foundation had to come up with both believable and cost-effective CGI. Babylon 5 was widely regarded as the definitive breakthrough for CGI in television productions and heralded the end of the predominance of the traditional methods of producing VFX, among others, model miniature construction, motion control photography and matte painting.

According to CEO Ron Thornton, Warner Brothers decided not to renew Foundation for Babylon 5 and instead decided to go in-house for the VFX, to which end Executive Producer Douglas Netter formed the new effects house Netter Digital Entertainment (NDE), which (from 1995 onward) became the sole supplier of CGI for the Babylon 5 franchise. This left Foundation in a precarious situation, as Thornton recalled; "It was only after Babylon 5 decided not to renew us that I turned around to them [meaning Star Trek: Voyager's producers] and basically begged for work. We were in such dire straits; I had to lay everybody off – and I never thought that was going to happen – but Voyager was really wonderful and started coming in with stuff." It was former Foundation employee Mitch Suskin, now working for Voyager, who introduced the company to the producers of the show, which led to the association of the company with the Star Trek franchise. A grateful Thornton has stated in this respect, "When Babylon 5 decided they were going to do it on their own, it was absolutely devastating, but it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me." (The Official Star Trek: Voyager Magazine issue 16, pp. 35, 37) The move over to Star Trek in 1996 prompted some of the original employees to split off from Foundation and join Netter's company.

Outside Star Trek and Babylon 5, the company worked as digital effects supplier on the movies The Jackal (1997), SubZero (1998), Today's Life, Max Steel, They Crawl, Shu shan zheng zhuan, and Twisted Metal: Black (the latter five all in 2001). Television productions the company worked on, in the same capacity, included the animated series Skeleton Warriors (1994–1995) and Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles (1999), as well as the television movies Project Viper, Superfire (both 2002) and The Extreme Team (2003).

In later years, the company operated its own instructional facility, the Foundation Institute, to hone and further the skills of new and existing employees alike. One of its instructors at that time was Randy Sharp, who, while not during his time at Foundation Imaging, was yet to work on Star Trek later on. [1]

Foundation Imaging closed its doors in the summer of 2002, shortly after the end of season one of Star Trek: Enterprise and had its assets sold in an auction on 12 December 2002 (as may be seen at Brian Testo Associates, LLC(X) website). Their website,, is no longer functional, and visitors to the site are redirected to a domain name holding company. Former Visual Effects Supervisor Adam Lebowitz has later reported that the entirety of Foundation's work was left on the servers when they were auctioned off, and that no formal back-ups were preserved by the copyright holding entities, including CBS Studios Inc./Paramount Pictures. [2] Upon closure of Foundation, a number of employees moved over to then-recently-formed Eden FX.

Despite its relatively short, eleven year, lifespan, Foundation Imaging has been a signature innovative and influential contributor to the way visual effects are produced for television productions, as was evidenced by the slew of visual effects Emmy Award wins and nominations Foundation employees garnered during the Babylon 5 and Star Trek years. The vast majority of persons who each served as a member of Foundation's staff has, at the very least, one nomination credited to his or her name, stemming from that period in time.

Star Trek association[]

An opportune lucky circumstance aided Thornton, as the Voyager show had just found itself without CGI vendor due to Amblin Imaging closing its doors at the start of its second season, but, upon introduction by Mitch Suskin, contracting his company was not automatic, as the show's producers were wary of Foundation's visual style being so completely associated with that of Babylon 5 (interestingly, some Babylon 5 influences did creep up in the later productions of Voyager, most notably the by Steve Burg designed Species 8472 bio-ship and Krenim weapon ship, which harkened back to the Vorlon ships of the former series, also by conceived by Burg). The company had to prove their mettle, and to this end, they received Amblin's CGI USS Voyager database in order to generate establishing shots for the producers to evaluate. (The Official Star Trek: Voyager Magazine issue 16, p. 35) Foundation passed the test and its first production commission was for the Voyager second season episode "Basics, Part I", when Dan Curry charged the company with creating the Hanonian land eel. John Teska's creation was such that Curry became definitively convinced that Foundation was up to the task. From "The Swarm" onward, Foundation became the regular CGI supplier for Star Trek: Voyager. (Star Trek: The Magazine Volume 1, Issue 6, p. 46) Foundation's probation piece, the CGI USS Voyager, was later greatly improved upon by the company for it to become virtually the sole model used in the later four seasons of the series, replacing the physical studio model.

Originally, the intention was that the CGI workload for televised Star Trek was to be divided between Foundation for Voyager and Digital Muse for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In practice, however, the workload became such, especially in later seasons, that both companies were called upon to help each other out for specifically tasking episodes, resulting that both did CGI work for either series, the 1997 Deep Space Nine episode "Sacrifice of Angels" being both the pivotal as well as the prime example. (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, p. 501; Star Trek: The Magazine Volume 1, Issue 10, p. 67; et al.)

Though Rick Sternbach was, and remained the main production illustrator for Voyager, confidence in, and ease of cooperation with Foundation grew to such an extent, that some of its CGI artists were on occasion allowed to design the "ship-of-the-week". The first episode they were entrusted with this task on a more regular basis, was the season four two-parter "Year of Hell", where Steve Burg, responsible for the design of the earlier Species 8472 bio-ship, designed the Krenim weapon ship (built by Thornton) and Brandon MacDougall designed and built the ships of Voyager's allies, the Nihydron warship and Mawasi cruiser, while Sternbach himself remained responsible for the smaller Krenim ships. (Sci-Fi & Fantasy Models, issue 32, September 1998, pp. 51-52) MacDougall went on to design several more ships for the series, as Lebowitz has proudly stated, "One of our model builders [Brandon MacDougall] gets to design ships on a regular basis – the ship of the week, when it's a throwaway. That's pretty cool. You don't get a lot of that with other shows." (Star Trek: The Magazine Volume 1, Issue 6, p. 51)

One of the studio's final projects was the late Robert Wise's director's cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, released in 2001. The company was brought in on recommendation of Visual Effects Supervisor Daren Dochterman, who, upon approval, subsequently served as the primary liaison between production company Robert Wise Productions and the team of digital modelers at Foundation. (Star Trek: The Magazine Volume 2, Issue 8, p. 25) The drawback of the studios' short-sightedness of not willing to pay for the upkeep of the computer files, once the original production was in-the-can, became already quite obvious in 2009, when Paramount Pictures released the remastered DVD and Blu-ray editions of that movie. Only the original theatrical release could be remastered, as the computer files used by Foundation Imaging for the Director's Edition were no longer available, and the franchise's failure to maintain ownership might not have bode well, cost-wise speaking, for possible remastered versions of Deep Space Nine, and Voyager in particular (it having been Foundation's primary assignment), as Lebowitz explained; "When Foundation closed down, the servers – along with the content – were auctioned off. Much of the content may have been saved by artists who worked on the series, but it would have to be tracked down. No matter how you slice it, it would be a considerable amount of work to re-integrate the entire Voyager visual effects server and re-render the FX in HD. In addition, although the series was shot on film, the entire post-production process was finished on NTSC video; to create an HD episode of Voyager, Paramount would have to go back to the vaults, re-transfer the film and [re-build] the episodes from scratch using the original editing data – if THOSE files still existed." [3]

However, in 2013, former Foundation staffer Robert Bonchune came forward as one of these artists who did save all of Foundation's Star Trek CGI files, elaborating, "If they ask one of us – and if they use a team that uses LightWave – it’ll be much easier for them to redo... because the guys who worked on it, like me, have the assets. We have the original ships; we have most of everything that was used [in the making of the series]. That would eliminate a ton of the cost of rebuilding." [4] In 2017, it was one of the co-producers of the Director's Edition, David C. Fein, who has confirmed Bonchune's assessment, by stating it was he who still had all the original digital effects elements available for remastering to Blu-ray standards. [5]


Foundation Imaging employees

The team of Foundation Imaging, ca. 1998


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