OBITUARY: RON THORNTON
Ron Thornton, who passed away on 21 November, was an incredibly influential figure in the visual effects industry. From Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who, to Babylon 5 and Star Trek, he created some of the most iconic visual effects in small screen science-fiction.
Ron Thornton was born in London in 1957 and studied at West Kent College, Tonbridge. When he was 22, he quit his job as a flight dispatcher at Gatwick Airport because ‘it stopped being fun’. After a short period out of work, Ron found inspiration for a new career path after a trip to the cinema.
RON THORNTON: Someone took me to see Alien in London, and it dawned on me partway through the movie that somebody could actually make money building plastic spaceships! That was quite amusing to me, and I thought, “Well, I’ve got nothing else to do at the moment, so I might as well give it a try.”
Ron decided to build a few spaceships ‘on spec’ and showed them to Mat Irvine at the BBC Visual Effects Workshop. One of Ron’s ‘audition-piece’ models was later used as the shuttle in Orbit.
RON THORNTON: That’s the third model I ever made, in 1980. It was a fun, simple design project. It shows that I was just starting off - some of the detail is a bit ropey! That was the first time I used the Martin Bower ‘dirtying down’ technique. I needed to refine it a bit before moving on to Scorpio.
Impressed by his skill and enthusiasm, Mat Irvine offered Ron some freelance work creating prop guns for a Doctor Who story, Warrior’s Gate, starring Tom Baker.
RON THORNTON: Obviously I was very green at the time, and Mat had asked me to make the guns out of cold-cast aluminium. So I cast them out of aluminium – they were actually solid metal guns! The poor actors were carrying around these things that really weighed a ton. What Mat actually wanted me to do was cast them out of fibre-glass resin with aluminium powder in it, but I didn’t know that at the time.
Despite this amusing mishap, Mat Irvine recommended Ron Thornton to his colleagues Jim Francis and Andy Lazell who were in the process of designing a new spaceship for Series D of Blake’s 7. Scorpio was conceived as a run-down mining ship that would provide a striking contrast to the majestic Liberator. The designers were influenced by the grimy technology from the Star Wars and Alien movies. The build of the Scorpio models was assigned to Ron, working from Jim Francis’ design sketch. This was a high profile job and a massive responsibility for the 23 year old freelancer. Ron built the Scorpio in several different sizes, working from his front room at home.
RON THORNTON: The actual bridge (windows) were scratch built with sheet styrene. There was some kitbash stuff around the structure, but a lot of it was custom cut panels and styrene strips. Behind the bridge was a section of Millennium Falcon that went aft from the big 2001-like antenna on the top.
ANDY LAZELL: There were seven different versions of the Scorpio - different sized models, partial models etc. When Ron delivered the models, every one of them was perfectly in scale and proportion and the paintwork was superb.
The photograph below show Ron Thornton in the BBC Visual Effects workshop with the finished Scorpio model, which is sitting on the Xenon Base hangar platform.
Ron also built the instrument panels on the Scorpio set including the periscope-type viewing device used by Dorian in Rescue.
On the strength of his work on the Scorpio models, Ron became a staff member at the BBC VFX workshop. Alongside Bill Pearson and Martin Bower, he was part of a team responsible for building all the ships in the final season of Blake’s 7. Ron was delighted to be working alongside Pearson and Bower as they’d worked on Alien, the film that got him interested in model making in the first place. They all shared a passion for their craft and they worked wonders despite the series’ tiny budget. This enthusiasm wasn’t always matched by their colleagues at the BBC.
RON THORNTON: I was very much a fan, and I really enjoyed that stuff a lot. That doesn’t mingle too well with the BBC mentality. One of the guys there told me once, “It’s only television. It’s visual chewing gum for the masses.” I didn’t agree with that, and that’s a prime recipe for burn-out when the people that you’re working under have got that attitude about it. I really enjoyed doing it and I really wanted to do it.
Ron was responsible for building Cancer’s black spaceship that was seen in Assassin. He was often frustrated by the attitudes of the BBC cameramen who didn’t always know how to shoot the models.
RON THORNTON: I suggested it would be very easy to set up a motion control system there, and they said, “No, no, no, we want to do it the old way.” They didn’t want to put in a motion control system or anything like that. They didn’t even want to have cameras there full-time! One of the major problems is they’d bring in news cameramen to shoot effects footage. Effects cameramen know how to shoot anything. Ordinary cameramen can never quite make the jump to doing effects because they don’t understand how it works. That’s how a lot of the stuff would end up looking cheesy.
For the final episode of the series, Blake, Ron Thornton designed the Gauda Prime Orbital Gunships that shoot down Scorpio. Ron was also involved in the Scorpio crash sequence which saw the model meet a very final fate.
RON THORNTON: It was an accident. You can see as it comes to a halt after the crash, it starts to tilt off the edge of the table. I’d made it out of clear styrene sheet, which was very brittle, so it went off the table and shattered!
Ron also worked on a number of Peter Davison Doctor Who stories including Castrovalva. One of his main jobs was patching up the TARDIS console, which was in a poor state of repair. After a few years Ron decided to leave the VFX Workshop but he continued to work for the BBC as a freelancer. During this time he created flexible tentacles for The Tripods and a number of props for the Doctor Who story, The Two Doctors. This included Shockeye’s surgical chainsaw and the Sontaran weapons.
When work dried up at the BBC, Ron decided to try his luck in America and soon began working with David Stipes Productions. Ron was so impressed by the work ethic of his new colleagues and the opportunities on offer that he decided to prolong his stay overseas indefinitely. He soon found himself working on Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future in Canada. The series merged live action with animation based on computer-generated images. A lot of miniature work was required and Ron ended up running the effects department. He began to experiment with computer hardware to create 3D computer graphics for pre-visualizing FX shots.
It was during this time that Ron first heard of plans for a major new science fiction series called Babylon 5, and he found himself involved in a bidding process that went on for a number of years. Initially the pitches involved traditional model work but Ron was becoming increasingly interested in the possibilities of computer generated imagery. He created a one-minute video of proposed CGI effects for Babylon 5, which was instrumental in selling the series to Warner Bros.
RON THORNTON: Originally I’d been approached by John Copeland to bid on Babylon 5 using miniatures and motion control as well. But it would have been prohibitively expensive to do, and they had very little money. Once a model for the station had been built and set up there would have been enough left to perhaps do 8 to 10 shots. That’s why I suggested using CGI, though I wasn’t exactly sure if it could be done. Nothing had been attempted for television on that scale before.
Ron set up Foundation Imaging with his friend and neighbor Paul Beigle-Bryant in 1992 - initially operating out of Ron’s garage! They continued creating the visuals for Babylon 5 for the first three seasons and Ron received an Emmy for his work on the pilot episode, The Gathering. Remembering his time on Blake’s 7, the shuttle design from Orbit was computer generated into an Earth Alliance shuttle and the Liberator was the inspiration for the Drazi Sunhawk.
RON THORNTON: I’d always liked the Liberator (hated by all at the BBC) and the Drazi Sunhawk was my attempt to update it. I was fascinated by the idea of doing a Blake’s 7: The Motion Picture version. It was because I was a fan, that simple. When they did a reimagining of the Enterprise for the movie – streamlining and generally making it look sexier - it got me thinking about what the Liberator would look like if you did that. Though I did only have two days to design and build it.
Babylon 5 was the first series where the effects were done exclusively in CGI. This heralded the end of model miniature work as the predominant method of producing VFX. The software used by Ron at Foundation Imaging (Lightwave 3D) became the industry standard for the next two decades.
Unfortunately Warner Brothers decided not to renew Foundation Imaging for Babylon 5’s fourth season and instead decided to go in-house for the VFX. Fortunately, one of Ron’s former employees was working on Star Trek: Voyager at this time and he introduced Foundation Imaging to the producers of that series.
RON THORNTON: 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.
Ron’s work on Star Trek: Voyager included the spectacular crash landing sequence in the 100th episode, Timeless, which earned him another Emmy nomination. He also created the recurring alien race Species 8472, the first fully CGI creatures to appear in Star Trek.
Ron’s company also worked on Robert Wise’s director's cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which ended up being one of their last projects. Foundation Imaging closed its doors in the summer of 2002, shortly after the end of season one of Star Trek: Enterprise. Ron’s later work included Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Nashville, and he also produced the web series Talking Tom and Friends.
Sadly Ron died on 21 November, 2016, leaving behind his beloved wife, Lada. He was only 59. A GoFundMe page created in September to help cover Ron’s costly medical expenses is still open for donations. https://www.gofundme.com/2pbngrnc
Ron will always be remembered as a true pioneer in the Visual Effects industry for his groundbreaking CGI work. For some of us, his work on the final series of Blake’s 7, in a pre-digital age, is what he’ll be most fondly remembered for.
RIP RON THORNTON
We would like to thank Andy Spencer, Andy Lazell and Mat Irvine for their help with our tribute to Ron.