Created after Warner Brothers began production of the television series, the initial design of the Starfury was a collaboration between Steve Burg (a freelance designer on the show) who created a number of possible concepts and Ron Thornton (co-founder of Foundation Imaging) who refined and detailed the Lightwave models. Due to the high number expected to appear on screen, this refining of the potential and final designs was necessary in order to keep the models polygon count as small as possible due to the limited processing power (and memory) of the Amiga computers used for rendering animation sequences during the first season of Babylon 5.
Located at the end of each of the four struts (the space-only craft's "wings"), are two large thrusters, one facing forward and one back. Attached to the housing assembly for these are two additional smaller attitude control thrusters. While creating the design it was envisaged that the engines would work in a similar way to those of the Harrier, in that the output could be sent to any one of the four nozzles. The smaller manoeuvring ones have about 15 to 20% of the thrust of the larger Because of the positioning of these 16 thrusters and the use of computer animation, as opposed to using miniatures and more established animation techniques such as motion control, the Starfury was able to be depicted as an incredibly agile fighter.
Unbeknownst to the producers of the show at the time it was an intentional homage to what Thornton and Burg felt was the excellent and under-utilised design ideas seen in the Gunstar from the 1984 movie, The Last Starfighter, which was created by their close friend Ron Cobb. The final shape of the Starfury was also influenced by an earlier (unused) design created by Steve Burg for the movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
There was a design I had done for Terminator 2. It was a machine/weapon/robot with 4 legs, like a crab, and it had a very distinct head shape. That design had not survived budget cuts, so it was never in the film (which had come out a few years before). Ron and I both liked that shape, and as you can see there is a distinct resemblance there to the final Starfury design. It was a case of “Can we take the essence of that shape – which has a cool and aggressive look – and merge it with a vectored thrust multi-engine configuration?” As it turned out, the answer was “Yes!” We tried a trilateral symmetry, but there’s a reason quadrilateral symmetry is preferable.
The design was also ideal for demonstrating to the executive producers an idea which Thornton wished to introduce. Namely, the closer adherence to real physics with regards to how human (not alien) vessels manoeuvred in space, and that it could be depicted in an interesting and exciting way. An example of how he demonstrated this can be found in the season one episode "Soul Hunter". Before deploying its grappling claw a Starfury pilot carries out a complex set of subtle manoeuvres, with careful attention being made to the firing of the thrusters to match the rotation of a damaged alien vessel tumbling towards the Babylon 5 space station.
I was really pleased with the whole grapple scene in the episode. Joe’s original idea was to give B5 tractor beams and use them to guide the ship into the station. I wanted to try something more interesting that hadn’t been seen before. It was also a good opportunity to help me solidify to Joe and John Copeland how we could make the real physics exciting and make the pilots of the Starfuries seem like Top Guns. But not like "Star Wars", as we could have our own distinctive and very different look.
Another example of the more scientifically grounded approach which Foundation Imaging introduced to the series was the weaponry of the Starfury and other Earth vessels. Ejecting ball bearings into the flight paths of enemy vessels or using regular gunfire was considered, and subsequently rejected, on the grounds of it not being visually compelling. It was supervising animator Adam “Mojo” Lebowitz who theorised that plasma fire would have a similar appearance to the laser fire used in various movies and other television shows, but as it would not travel at the speed of light (as would be the case with lasers), it would lend credulity to the idea of the viewer seeing a burst of light move across the screen The inclusion of nose art on many of the vessels was an idea put forward by series producer John Copeland who had a keen interest in WWII and other military subjects. It also had the advantage of identifying which character was in which fighter. The early designs were created by Ron Thornton and Mark Kotchinski.
Over the course of Babylon 5, the subsequent movies, the Crusade series and more recently with the 2007 version created by Jose Perez (a freelance designer working for Atmosphere Visual Effects) that appears in The Lost Tales, the level of detail in the design has increased as computer technology has developed. Some minor variants were also created to meet the requirements of episode scripts, such as those used to escort the presidential vessel known as EarthForce One, as well as more substantial departures from the original design.
Located at the rear of the four main engines are thrust vectoring baffles. Their purpose was to indicate the fine tuning of the direction of the exhaust during animated sequences. However, this idea was never realised due to the processing limitations of the early desktop computers used, and the added time necessary to accurately represent the movements.
Ron wanted the ship to be rigged so those things would automatically pivot in response to the overall motion of the ship – kind of an IK (Inverse Kinematics) solution. I think it would have been extremely cool, since with those big fins pivoting and banking in harmony with what the ship was doing, it would have had an effect like the fins on a shark. The ship would have been extremely articulate, and it would have further reinforced the whole vectored thrust concept. But I think at the time, this was a bit beyond the technology, so it never really achieved its potential.
While developing the computer model for this, the original Starfury design which was also called the SA-23E Mitchell-Hyundyne Starfury in the Babylon 5 Security Manual, the issue of launching was also being discussed. One early idea put forward by Straczynski had them attached to rotating doors that would swing a ship outside the station before it detached and moved off.
Thornton wanted something more dramatic, similar to the catapult used on aircraft carriers to launch fighters, etc. But as that had already been used in the Battlestar Galactica television series, and the Starfuries would be launched from a rotating station he developed the idea of Cobra Bays, which also had the advantage of fitting in with his idea of using more realistic physics within the CGI sequences. The vessels were held in a tilt and release mechanism; centrifugal force created by the rotation of the station (or of the midsection of the Omega class destroyers from which they could also launch) would essentially throw the fighters out of the launch bays, although they were only ever seen launching from the destroyers using the recovery bay located at the front of the ship. This was due to Foundation Imaging being replaced by Netter Digital in Season 4, whose animators were not aware of this functionality included in the Omega design.
Described as a stealth version of the Starfury by Straczynski, the Black Omega fighters, attached to Psi Corps, first appeared in the season one episode, "Mind War", which originally aired in the United States in March 1994.
This is a minor variant of the Lightwave computer model as the main differences from the original revolve around the texture map being used. For example, the nozzle heads on the front and rear of the main thrusters appear dark and smooth. On others such as the heavy fighter they appear striated. In fact, they too are also smooth. To create the impression of model detailing, Thornton would use a palette of only 128 colours to draw surface details, such as panelling, onto the texture map rather than build it. Lightwave would then dither the maps, and with the rendering software they looked as good as 24 bit colour images. This is one of the techniques Foundation Imaging used to keep things like the polygon count to a minimum in order to produce the ground breaking animations with the limited amount of RAM that the Amiga Computers held.
In June 1994, on the rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated forum, J. Michael Straczynski described the standard Starfury as a light fighter and mentioned a two-man heavy fighter variant would appear in an upcoming episode. This two-man fighter, with second rear-facing cockpit for a gunner and unusually large forward gun emplacement, only appeared in the season one episode, "A Voice in the Wilderness II", which first aired in the United States in August that year.
Like the Nova class dreadnought (based on the Omega class destroyer), this is the result of another technique which those at Foundation Imaging transferred from their earlier careers in visual effects (before the use of computers), called Kitbashing. Using a library of standard parts to quickly build a new model, sometimes based on an existing design, is occasionally referred to as a cut and paste job or, depending how happy they were with it, a Kludge. Although the computer model had been altered, this too was regarded as a minor variant. As a result, no one from Foundation Imaging remembers who created it. It is also widely, and incorrectly, called the Badger heavy fighter amongst fans of the show.
The Thunderbolt first appeared in the season 3 episode, "Severed Dreams", which initially aired in the United States in April 1996. With the addition of rotating airfoils, that when deployed essentially extend the length of the ‘wings’, located beside the 4 main thruster assemblies, this was depicted as the first atmospheric-capable production model of a Starfury.
Created at the request of series producer John Copeland, who wanted to expand what was seen of the Earthforce fleet as the earlier space bound Starfury was an obviously limited design, both for dramatic story telling purposes and as the only fighter apparently being used by a space based military force. Steve Burg was the designer and while trying to retain elements of the Starfury, yet have its own identity, he described this variant as being more difficult to create than the original, an early version having an elongated tail with the fins attached there, separate from the engines. At the request of John Copeland it took some inspiration from the American F-15E Strike Eagle, which made it a two-seater. With the second pilot sitting behind the first, the pilots in other Starfuries remain standing. The design also features an extended fuselage compared to the Starfuries and the computer model was built by Larry Bowman.
This unarmed utility vehicle was first seen in the television movie, Thirdspace, which initially aired in the United States in July 1998. Created at the request of J. Michael Straczynski, it also replaced the Zero-G cargo lifters, which could be seen flying around the Babylon 5 space station during the first few seasons of the show.
Designed by Tim Earls, who joined Babylon 5 in season four and built by Larry Bowman, this was the only Starfury variant to be seen that did not have the distinctive X configuration of the struts holding the thruster assemblies. Though it did retain the single standing pilot. Earls would reference real world objects and incorporate those ideas into a design as he approached them as if they were real. This can be seen with the texture map, the hydraulic and articulated lifting claws, and the more industrial appearance of the two struts holding the thrusters. Referred to as a forklift by Earls, it was never named in the show though it is often referred to as a construction or maintenance Fury by fans.
In April 1997 co-producer George Johnsen, while replying to a question on the rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated forum, indicated three new ship designs would be seen in the upcoming TNT movie, In the Beginning. Named as the Olympus class corvette, the Cotten class deep penetration tender and the two man Badger heavy fighter, only the Olympus actually appeared in the final version of the movie.
In November 1997 Chameleon Eclectic Entertainment released the The Babylon Project, a role playing game based in the Babylon 5 fictional universe. It included a list of many of the vessels seen in the show and created many of the names for the ship models now widely used by fans. It also attached the 1997 Badger name, released by George Johnsen, to the only two man heavy fighter variant known at that time (other than the named Thunderbolt) - the heavy fighter that appeared the season one episode "A Voice in the Wilderness II" in 1994. As later gaming companies such as Agents of Gaming and Mongoose Publishing based their desktop and role playing games on much of the early work carried out by Chameleon Eclectic, the assumption was repeated by them as well as a number of fan sites which quoted from the various publications they produced. The Badger was, in fact, an unseen design created by Tim Earls at the behest of George Johnsen in 1997.
I still have the drawings of the Cotten Class and the Badger which I also designed for the television movie. It was George Johnsen, the Co-producer who requested them. The Badger is more like an F-111 with pilot and co-pilot sitting side-by-side in a lengthened fuselage with the wings swept slightly forward … I also designed a "shadow-fury" and a special stealth ship for Crusade but the series was cancelled before they got past preliminary design.
In episodes such as Season Two's "A Distant Star", the standard light Starfury is seen to have a complex computer system that responds to voice commands. It can travel in Hyperspace (the method used in Babylon 5 to cover great distances) but is limited to using jump gates rather than forming jump points. Based on dialogue from the episode it would appear that at least one fighter in a squadron is outfitted with superior sensors to the others. The cockpit (or possibly the pilots pressure suit) contains sensors which monitor their condition, and warning messages can be generated by the ship's computer. In the Season Two episode, "All Alone in the Night", the viewer is shown that the cockpit can be jettisoned as a life pod and that they are powered by an unspecified fusion reactor system. In various episodes it is seen that in the forward centre of the cross hatched design of the cockpit contains a display that relays sensor information. The interior surface of the cockpit is also covered with various control switches, though the main method of piloting the vessel is implied to be small joysticks that are built into the section which the pilot remains standing in. In the TNT movie Thirdspace it is shown that the Starfury can carry 8 unspecified missiles, though it is possible it could carry significantly more due to its design.
In episodes such as Season Three's, "Severed Dreams", the viewer is shown that the Thunderbolt is capable of deploying air to ground missiles and can fly in a planetary atmosphere. Later in the same season during the "Ship of Tears" episode, the viewer is told that it carries 4 uni-directional pulse cannons, contains two pilots, is the first production model of Starfury capable of flying in atmospheres, and that this is due to the rotating airfoils which are seen being deployed during the episode. In the Season 5 episode "A View from the Gallery", it is also shown that they can be housed and launched from Cobra Bays. Like the light fighter it has a main viewing screen containing sensor information, though the computer AI is never heard speaking.
Both vessels are portrayed as being highly manoeuvrable. Their maximum acceleration and top speed is never specified.
Even less is known from the television series about the usage or specifications of the other variants. It is indicated that the Forklift-variant has an interface that allow its operator to control the small unmanned utility vehicles that are often seen around the station called Maintenance Bots. According to dialogue in "Ship of Tears", the Black Omega Squadron was created by Alfred Bester (played by Walter Koenig). It’s regarded as an elite group and each of its telepathic members sign out every model of new fighter and spend time alone with it to become familiar with the design.
This lack of onscreen technical information for the Starfury and other designs can be a source of frustration and some debate for a portion of the shows fans. Displaying more information was not so much an oversight on the part of those responsible for the making of the show, rather it was not considered necessary.
Concerning the lack of technical details on the ships. Well, they aren't the kind of details that we deal with in making the show. It's not important to the show, it's important to some of the fans...but that is something else again. What you have to realize is that in the case of Trek or even Star Wars - which have legions of books on this stuff - it was all figured out after the fact and not by the folks who made the show. If folks are looking for that kind of info then the books that support the role playing game would be the place to look - someone sat down and figured it all out.
J. M. Straczynski, in one of the commentaries, said that fans always want to know how fast ships travel in hyperspace. His comment was that ships travel "at the speed of plot." They arrive just in the nick of time (the cavalry to the rescue), or arrive late (because it took too long to get there). All depending on the requirements of the story being told.
During an online conversation with fans on AOL in December 1995, Straczyski reported that “we've received a number of inquiries from folks associated with NASA about the prospect of perhaps someday actually building working Starfuries, mainly as the space industry equivilent [sic] to fork lifts and heavy loaders”. When asked if there was still interest in doing that, during an interview in 2009, he indicated that he had not “heard anything new about this in several years”.