Few people can recall a world where CGI magic wasn’t around to give life to some of the most critically acclaimed and fan loved works in television. This practice began as little as twenty years ago, and can be credited to one man: London born special effects guru Ron Thornton, who passed away today at his home in Albuquerque after a short illness. He was 59.
The Emmy award winning Thornton began his career doing more conventional model work in his native England for the likes of Doctor Who and Blakes 7 before emigrating to America, where his work in the late 80’s included films like Spaceballs, Commando, and Critters. While working primarily with models during the early 90’s, Thornton also began to experiment with the use of digital effects on the Commodore Amiga home computer. With the aid of systems like Video Toaster, which included the Lightwave 3D software that would have a huge impact both on the rest of Thornton’s career and on the industry at large, he began experimenting with computer modeling.
Sharing these new techniques with colleagues, Thornton co-founded Foundation Imaging with neighbor, friend, and fellow software user Paul Beigle-Bryant, and under the Foundation banner presented their methodology to a struggling sci-fi opera that didn’t have the budget for traditional models. The project, a TV movie that became the pilot episode of Babylon 5, not only garnered Thornton his first Emmy win, but revolutionized special effects in television. Through the use of Lightwave Thornton pioneered a low cost means of utilizing CGI effects that were only ever previously available using more expensive mainframes.
Thornton’s techniques soon became standards in the industry, and his influence continued to spread as he went on to work with shows such as multiple Star Trek series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and even recent series like Undercovers and Nashville. As a special effects master, his influence broadened the reach of television as an entertainment medium and as an art form, and as a mentor he has educated an entire generation of future SPFX masters that will keep the spirit of his ingenuity and creativity alive for countless years to come.
Thornton is survived by his wife, Lada, and there is an existing GoFundMe page to help with covering his medical expenses.