Who is to blame?
It has been pretty hard, 25 years after the show was made, to track down those responsible for the show's digital second life. Several key figures from its history have passed away, retired, left Hollywood or we simply couldn't track down. Warner Bros., too, did not respond to our request for comment, and so cannot rebut anything that is said below.
Foundation Imaging, which produced the CGI for the pilot through to season three, was apparently willing, and able, to produce widescreen effects. Co-founder Ron Thornton, who passed away in 2016, said that his company "offered to do all of Babylon 5 in widescreen." Quotes attributed to Thornton on the JMSNews forum point the finger over a fight regarding a $5,000 HD "reference monitor so we could check our output."
That request was apparently denied, either by Ken Parks, WB's then-business affairs chief, or the show's co-executive producer Douglas Netter. Thornton went on to say that "each blamed the other," but the decision meant that "for $75 an episode, they could have had awesome, near hi-def." Unfortunately, it is difficult to verify his account, and Parks died in 2014 while Netter passed away last year.
"There was not a breakdown over a monitor," John Copeland, who produced Babylon 5 and its sequel, Crusade, told Engadget. Copeland, now the owner of Rancho Olivos olive oils, says that "Ron [Thornton] wanted to get paid for re-rendering everything." And render time was the issue that forced every compromise when it came to making the show's visual effects. But Copeland feels Warner Bros. itself was the problem, rather than visual effects.
"We had set up the show to make the transition to what was, at the time, called Advanced Television Technology," he said. "Everybody knew that [HD] was coming, and that the preferred format would be 16:9," and Copeland toured how other Warner shows were planning for the future. On Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, the team "were doing a 'video hack' to retransfer the negative, stretched in such a way that it would unfold in a 16:9 frame." Unfortunately, the results, while meeting the requirements for widescreen TV, "looked absolutely awful."
So Copeland approached the studio and said that they would "shoot in a 1:78 (widescreen) format, and we'll compose for 4:3, but frame for 16:9." And at the end, the production team "gave them everything in two formats [4:3 and 16:9] with the exception of the visual effects." But, that wasn't a problem, because Warners' Advanced Technology Center had a plan to remedy the problem.
"This company in Sweden, called Teranex, were way ahead of the curve in knowing people would need to upconvert standard def to high definition." Warners owned a Teranex box, and the idea was that, eventually, the 4:3 CGI sequences would be upconverted and integrated into the 16:9 footage. It wouldn't be perfect, but it would look pretty good. But rather than doing it, in the end WB simply reconverted the futzed Portuguese and Belgium footage to NTSC and sold it.
The reason that the show was never given the proper Teranex treatment was, according to Copeland, "because they didn't wanna spend the money." He explained that in the days before DVDs were expected to be lavished with extras, home video departments just took existing material, slapped it in a box and reaped the rewards of doing so.
Copeland believes that the two things that killed Babylon 5's second life were the fact that the show wasn't produced in-house by Warner Bros. "We were like the poor stepchild of Warner Bros," he said, "and the studio looked at us a little askance." In addition, archivists would "lose stuff all the time," including crucial film reels and resources needed before the episodes were broadcast.
The other issue was Warren Lieberfarb, then the head of Warner Home Video, described by the Washington Post as the "father of the DVD." Copeland believes that "in 2002, when they started working on the DVD sets, it would have cost $1,200 to convert every episode and movie to high definition." But Lieberfarb "didn't wanna spend that," and so to save $132,000, the show was dumped out at low-resolution and forgotten about. That cash would have potentially been recouped simply through more DVD sales or potentially even a Blu-ray release.
Copeland added that the relationship between the production team and Foundation Imaging broke down over an incident halfway through the third season. "We were doing Severed Dreams," that year's Hugo-winning blockbuster episode, "and Ron wouldn't deliver the shots for the show unless we gave him another $100,000 ...That was the point where we -- at Babylonian [Productions] -- sat down and thought 'if he does this once...'" Consequently the show walked away from Foundation at the end of the year. Netter's account is, however, disputed by those who knew Thornton.
What, if anything can be done?
Well, there's a Change.org petition (because there's always a Change.org petition).
Otherwise, not a lot, because restoring a TV show is a pricey process that won't happen unless there's some guarantee of a return. Shows like Star Trek and The Next Generation were considered big enough properties to justify expensive restoration process. With streaming services destroying the physical media market, second-tier shows aren't likely to be seen as a good investment these days.
The TNG remaster, for instance, cost millions of dollars that it was hoped would be recouped for the Blu-ray release. But since the show is already available on Netflix, it's hard for folks to justify dropping hundreds of dollars on yet another physical media release. And the failure of the TNG project was enough to mean that we'll never see restorations of Deep Space Nine or Voyager.
Some back-of-the-envelope math suggests that remastering Babylon 5 with brand-new CGI effects would cost at least $10 million. Since the original data has -- apparently -- been lost, it would take some time to recreate the images, although fan projects do exist that could speed that up. When (straight-to-DVD revival) Babylon 5: The Lost Tales was made, some fan-made models were used in the show. Even so, it's not likely that Amazon or Netflix would be willing to drop that sort of cash to fix Babylon 5's quality issues.
There have, however, been attempts by fans to try and fix the problems that Warner Bros. introduced with the DVD releases. Hunt around on UseNet long enough and you can find people still sharing fan-made HD versions of Babylon 5 that have tried to fix the issues with the DVDs. They're hard to download these days, but some lucky people may be able to help you out.
The show's creator, J. Michael Straczynski, asks not to be contacted in private but does answer questions on his public Twitter. His pinned tweet says that he has had no contact or involvement with the show's arrival on Prime Video, saying "I know only as much as any of you do." Attempts to speak to a representative from Amazon were denied, but the company did say that we should "check out the customer reviews" and activity on Twitter, both of which "speak for themselves." In that spirit, here are some that we found:
On May 17th, Straczynski did offer a message of hope for fans of the series would require little to no effort on both Warner's and Amazon's part. In a five-tweet thread, he said that part of the production's deal with the studio required finished episodes of the show to be delivered on film. That means that there is a 4:3, theoretically pristine -- or at least better-quality than we currently have available -- version of the show sitting in a warehouse. The transfer would still not be pure high-definition, but it would have far fewer jarring transitions than what's currently available.
John Copeland confirmed this, saying "They [Warner Bros.] have everything they would need, except for the pilot." (That's because the warehouse where the materials for the 1993 pilot movie The Gathering were stored were damaged by the Northridge earthquake.) "They could go back to the negative and, assemble the negative and re-transfer it in HD, and all they would have to do is upconvert the VFX footage and drop it into the holes."
Sadly, despite Straczynski offering to oversee the transfer pro-bono, it doesn't appear that either the studio or Amazon got back to him. When I asked him on an update for the story, he simply said:
Of course, nobody should be watching Babylon 5 for the fidelity of its CGI, even if the cropping and blurring is a problem. As John Copeland said, "You're not really tuning in to watch the visual effects," instead, people are watching a two-decades-old show because "the storytelling does hold up." He added, "In TV, what makes you go back week after week, episode after episode, is that you wanna spend more time with the characters." And no amount of cropping and stretching can dim their shine.
Images: Warner Bros. Home Video / Babylonian Productions Inc. ('Babylon 5'); CBS Home Video / Paramount Pictures ('Star Trek')