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Stargate | Sulfur & SFX: John Gajdecki on Defining SG-1

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If you’ve watched a North American genre TV show made in the last 30 years, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the ingenious work of John Gajdecki. His work as a visual effect supervisor has been seen most recently in shows like Operation Blue Book, Six, and Van Helsing. However, he’s worked in the business for so long he actually helped invent it. 

Gajdecki was one of the first visual effects supervisors for what would become a decades-long wave of genre show shooting in Canada. He’s both worked on a ton of them and defined a lot of the visual grammar for modern genre TV. John’s work is defined by his enthusiasm and his attention to detail and there’s no better example of that than in the challenges he faced helping transfer 1994’s visually striking Stargate movie from the big screen to the small for its first two seasons.

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KAWOOSH! Is the Word

When you think of Stargate you think of James Spader’s fantastic mop of hair and Kurt Russell’s first real experimentation with being grim, dutiful, and tragic, but then your mind goes to that simpler place: Space! Pyramids! – and of course – KAWOOSH! KAWOOSH! This being the noise the Stargate’s unique, liquid effect made as it activated. It’s iconic, it’s weird and John and his crew had to not only recreate it on a TV budget but do so weekly, at the same time as not contradicting the movie or alienating an element of the still-nascent Stargate SG-1 fandom.

No pressure. Well, actually yes, a lot of pressure. And a LOT of weight.

How do you film the liquid nature of the universe? Well, you start with water. A very precise amount of it. “We actually ordered a special [tank] for the show and it was one meter by one meter by one meter,” explains John. “So, we built this thing and we had to reinforce the floor because it’s one metric tonne. And then we got ready for the first shot. And we set the pressure to, uh, probably like 50 pounds. So, we roll the camera at 120 frames per second, the water is as flat as we can make it, you push the button and it just lets the air go down a tube right into the water. Well, as it turns out they used about five pounds or 10 pounds [in the film] so 50 pounds just emptied the tank everywhere!”’

Special effects. It’s a full-contact sport, folks. Gajdecki’s eyes still light up when he talks about this glorious piece of over-enthusiasm though. “It was spectacularly cool. But ‘OK – fill it back up, everybody dry off, and we’re going to try it again!’.” Get the shot, adjust the shot, move on.

But as Gajdecki makes clear, there was even more of a challenge still to come: “After the water went back [in the movie kawoosh], there was that swirly thing on the other side. And it was decided between [co-creators] Brad [Wright] and Jonathan [Glassner] and us, that we weren’t going to do that. It was just a whole ‘nother complexity that we really couldn’t afford. So we got the kawoosh part coming out and then it would sort of settle down and then turn into the water ripples.

“The water ripples we did in [the 3D design software] Maya, which was called Alias at the time. Then, as people passed through [the Stargate] we’d need ripples to come out from that point where they disappear and the way the software worked at the time, is that you could only have three ripples. That’s all you could have. So when you watch the early episodes they go through and these three ripples would come out, and then you’d either have to cut away, or we have to find a way to then render that, go back and then add more ripples on top of it. It was so difficult. My company was on [the show] but there were also other vendors working on it [and] they all had to be able to do this and one of the other companies had a very hard time figuring it out.

“So we were ‘encouraged’, very strongly by the studio, to do a phone call and explain to them how to do this stuff. My guys were pissed, but we did it because I was supervisor for the show, not just for my company, and I was perfectly fair. But it’s very unusual to have one company explain to another, how to create something.”

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The movie kawoosh and its SG-1 counterpart, note the lack of whirlpool effect on the TV Stargate. Not bad for a small screen budget, eh? | Roland Emmerich, 1994/MGM, 1997

Planet Canada

Canonically, the Ancients established the Gate network across countless worlds so whilst those would all be different the gates would not. There are a couple of challenges in there, both of which Gajdecki was instrumental in helping the show solve.

The good news first. The uniform aesthetic of both the Ancients’ equipment and the Goa’uld’s brazen stealing of it gave the show a strong visual foundation to build on. As long as there was a gate that went kawoosh it was Stargate. Plus that gave writers a chance to play with different ways to use that setup, both as a means of saving money and of telling different stories. You can see that used to especially great effect in ‘A Hundred Days’ (S3, Ep17) where Teal’C has to climb vertically out of an activated but buried Stargate. Similarly, in the first season episode – which Gajdecki worked on – ‘The First Commandment’ (S1, Ep6) a horizontal gate is used as the memorable backdrop to a riff on the classic ‘walk the plank’ sequence. 

That being said, there was also the small problem of getting the Gate itself to these other locations. A ‘main’ Gate remained on set while a modular ‘traveling Gate’ was perfected that could be set up anywhere. As Gajdecki says, taking us through his photos, there was one important difference:

“It didn’t spin. This was a set-piece that traveled, and it couldn’t spin. I don’t even know if it lit up. I’m sure it did because you’ve got power going to it. In fact, you can see there’s a little door in the back where you crawl into wire everything up. The art department would have to go in the day before.”

John Gajdecki
The electric ‘static’ Stargate on set for Need (S2, Ep5), it lit up but alas it didn’t spin. | Courtesy of John Gajdecki

So, that’s the Gate in place (or perhaps…encoded! I’m sorry). The next question was where that place was and what it was going to look like. As Gajdecki explains it was very apparent, early on, that the show would have to work hard to make each world look visually distinctive and not just a Canada many light-years from our own. “[Producer Hudson Hickman] had a really interesting observation. He said that the way people would read it is, ‘Can we not go to the rainy forest planet?’ Fundamentally, he was right. Episode 1 and Episode 2 were always outside, always in the rain because that was the weather at the time and so we really started struggling to create locations that were not just in the forest.”

‘Cold Lazarus’, the seventh episode of season 1, gave them the opportunity to do just that.

“Everything was yellow,” recalls John. “It was this bizarre yellow planet, and we were filming in these huge sulfur pits that they have down by the docks. It was such a sunny day that everybody was sweating and the sulfur you’d walk in would kick up and get on your face and then your beads of sweat would just drop it into your eyes… they had lots of people there to take care of us.”

John Gajdecki

The episode remains an early highlight in terms of both production and style, but as you see, everyone involved had to suffer for it. As Gajdecki sums it up: “That was a hard day, but it looked really good.”

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The hazardous sulfur planet set for ‘Cold Lazarus’ (S1, Ep7). Not a day to be wearing white. | Courtesy of John Gajdecki.

Get Your Head in the Game

The challenges of VFX on a show like Stargate SG-1 were constant. Gajdecki’s work, and attention to detail, extended all through his time on the show and his willingness to go the extra mile is everywhere in this period, most notably the reveal on Teal’C, when his helmet first retracts.

“If you look at it,” – John pulls up footage of Teal’c without his helmet – “So that’s what we shot on set and he was just going to be talking like that. And then they said why, well, don’t we put a helmet on him? I think they were going to cut away from the helmet because the prosthetic guys built a rubber helmet that could open but it didn’t have any of this articulation. I said, ‘Well let us try’. If you look at this [scene], every single piece is flat. In other words, everyone’s moving straight down, or they’re moving to the side. Because we didn’t have the budget to do a full 3D helmet – in those days that was a big deal – we did it as 2D elements, based on what we had seen in the movie. All we did is we took the artwork of the helmet, we cut it up, and then slid the pieces.… 

“I remember very clearly Matthew Calvit Kelly was the artist, and it was one of those nights where: ‘Hey they’ve made up this shot and I think they need it tomorrow and I think you and I are staying all night.’ I don’t think he was totally happy about that. But he did. And we stayed really, really late and we cut it up into pieces and animated it. We had it in the morning and for the time it was really successful.”

Even now, in the era of TV shows that often cost as much as movies used to, there’s a need to be as efficient and save as much money as possible. In SG-1’s case, John pointed out this is why there are almost no shots of the gate opening in the ninth season. The kawoosh has another name, he points out wryly: “We call it the ka-ching.” 

The expense of the effect, joking aside, was something John was aware of during his time on the show and did his best to offer solutions. “I remember staking the Gate room and saying, ‘Okay, you guys need to choose where you’re going to do these Gate shots because we’re going to shoot models. Back in those days, you couldn’t do a lot of perspective-shifting with it. So, we chose four angles and we shot the gates in those four angles and the plan was that you would, you know you would be able to line them up and in post[-production] just whistle them through and there’d be nothing to it didn’t really work out that way it was a little more difficult than we thought.” Still, they tried.

John remains intensely active to this day and his style of VFX continues to define a new generation of TV shows. His willingness to experiment, his fondness for the practical, and his pragmatic eye have shaped a generation of genre shows and defined the look of the Stargate franchise since its TV inception. Thanks to John and his staff, the SGC always knew where they were. 

And it almost never looked like the woods around Vancouver.

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Alasdair Stuart is a professional enthusiast, pop culture analyst, and writer behind the award-nominated weekly newsletter, The Full Lid. He is a Hugo finalist, and co-owns the Escape Artists Podcast Network. 

Follow him on Twitter @alasdairstuart

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