Interviews: Gordon Smuder

Wandering about the internet as I do, it’s very rare that I come across anything unique or have not seen before when it comes to the classic Battlestar Galactica, but finding a prop re-creation forum I had not visited before one evening, I stumbled on the work of one Gordon Smuder.

What made Gordon’s work unique was that while there are people interested in the props of Galactica, they usually concentrate on the blasters, the helmets or the costumes, and these are usually available ready-made more or less.

Gordon makes his props from scratch and the props he chooses to create are not the usual suspects already listed!

Feeling that here was an individual who truly embraced our goal of remembering classic science fiction, I asked the gentleman for an interview and below you can read the results.

I had the easy part, what follows are the thoughts of a talented individual who was very accommodating and more than generous with his time.

Gordon Smuder: I was named after L. Gordon Cooper the kick-ass-tronaut! I’m turning 39 on July 22, 2005. Only 12 more months ’til 40!!! Ugh.

I could be trite and say I was from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of… but I’m actually from a small town just north of Minneapolis, Minnesota called Elk River. It was a terrific place to grow up in the 1970’s.

For the past 15 years I have been the studio manager for Minnefex, Inc. We produce props and special effects for television, still photography, movies, and trade show applications. If you’d like to see some of our still-photo work, go to We build strange stuff.

GS: I am an obsessive-compulsive builder. That’s why I work so well at a prop shop. Galactica is one of my childhood loves. Still love that show to this day. I just recently got on a kick of making obscure props from the old show. It’s out on DVD now, so getting screen captures for reference is easy. Plus I have an entire shop at my disposal to make them with. The funny thing is that I am a rabid liberal. What makes that funny is that Galactica is basically a show about a bunch of people who live in a theocracy (I’m opposed to that… even a benevolent one) and under forced martial law. It couldn’t be further from my personal beliefs unless it was a show about fascists in space. But anyhow, making props is what I do for pay and for hobby. I just happen to love Galactica so there’s a good impetus there.

GS: I’ll watch an old episode and look for handy things to re-create. There are prop replicators all over fandom. They do good work, but very few of them stray beyond making lighsabers or stormtrooper blasters or classic phasers. I mean, come on! How many phaser twos does a guy need? I know guys who just crank out lightsabers over and over again. Like they’re never satisfied with just one. They’ve got racks of these things hanging on their walls. They do nice work, but I like to stretch a little and make different stuff. It also helps when you intend to sell copies or kits. If you offer something that isn’t “out there” already, you get better interest. I’m also all about “artifacts”… things that look like they came right out of another time or place. That’s why I made a copy of the Kobolian 9th Lord tomb seal. Painted up it looks like a scavenged artifact from the planet Kobol. I think that’s cool. There are so many other neat things to make out there. Every sci-fi show is a goldmine if you just look past the flashy stuff. A lot of people have made copies of Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver, but not too many have made the 500 year diary or some of the other pieces of the Tardis repair kit. Galactica has a great smattering of odd bits and pieces that could be replicated, but folks just haven’t bothered.

I probably won’t ever make a replica of the colonial blaster. No point. They exist out there. All you have to do is look on Ebay and you’ll find a kit or a complete one for sale. Now, the “belt pens” (also referred to as grenades or recharge cylinders) are tough to find. That type of felt pen hasn’t been made in a while. So making a mold and casting copies is one of the few ways to actually fill out your Colonial Warrior costume for cheap. The same goes for the two types of commercially available calculators they used for the viper pilot’s leg mounted flight computers. They just aren’t that easy to find, so I’ve made molds of both types and supply copies to people looking to “build their own” flight gear.

One of the things I am currently working on is a replica prototype for Baltar’s flight helmet as seen in the episode “Living Legend”. It’s taking a while because I want it to be just right. But when I get it finished, I’ll hopefully be able to cast copies in fiberglass and make a limited (VERY LIMITED) number available. Once again, its one of those things that people see in the show but don’t really think about replicating. I happen to be built a little like John Colicos (read: portly tummy), so doing a Baltar costume isn’t out of line for me. And having a really nice flight helmet to go with it will make it that much more “complete”.

I’ve made a bunch of stuff in the past few years including a full-scale static-posed daggit. In a fit of idiocy, I sold him off for a little extra cash. I’ll probably get back to building a newer, better version sometime in the next year or two.

My wife keeps saying this is all part of my mid-life crisis. She doesn’t know the half of it.
Wait until she finds out I’m planning to build a full scale Colonial Viper in the back yard! 😉

GS: It’s really just a process of breaking down whet you see into easily done steps. I admit, I have my tricks, but in the case of, say, the council seal, I was able to determine the size of the piece by comparing the back plate (which is identical to that behind the crest on Adama’s brooch) to the size of the checked braid at his collar. I got some amazing screen captures from a friend and was able to get a much better look at the piece than just straight off a TV monitor. After figuring out how big it was, I checked the other details like “how many concentric rings are there?” and “how many “rays” emanate from the center under the diamond-shaped piece?” I take notes, and then I go to work in my shop. The first step for this particular piece was making that back plate. I looked for months to try to identify it as an existing object – looking through military and police gear catalogs to see if it was an existing bit of insignia. I found plenty of similar pieces, but none that matched exactly, so I decided that it was worth spending the time to just make one. I started by using the lathe to turn a slightly convex disk as the real thing is slightly domed. I used a material called RENSHAPE. It’s a urethane product used for prototyping. While the piece was still on the machine, I scribed the concentric rings in it. I took it off the lathe and cleaned it up. After that, I got out the handy dandy protractor and determined where the rays would land over the surface. I marked them with a pencil and got down to simply cutting them in with a small hand-file.

Next step was “riffling” the edge. The piece isn’t round… it’s octagonal. So cutting in the scallops and then dressing out the edge to look like the original was necessary.

After that, I determined from my screen captures how big the diamond piece at the center would be. I created the part from RENSHAPE and then traced it’s outline onto the base. I went to work with small chisels and an Exacto knife to remove the material on the base and create a flat-bottomed pocket for the diamond to rest in. I glued it in place, made a silicone mold of this original shape, and painted my prototype with aluminum silver “buffing metalizer” paint. Lacking the ability to actually chrome the part, I settled for a paint finish instead.

I make the raw castings available to the good participants over at the prop collector’s forum.

GS: Yes I have. I have a large vacuum-forming machine that would do the job nicely, but I haven’t invested the time making the original molds. I’ll get there eventually. The other big trouble with that project is that there’s only ONE Felix Silla to occupy the finished suit… we’d all have to share him!

GS: I’ve only seen about four hours of the new show. I must say I don’t care for it at all. It looks too much like West Wing in outer space. What’s with the Colonials’ races developing business suits and ties? But seriously, it’s just not my cup of tea. It’s probably a fine show and everyone on it seems to be doing a good job. It’s just not MY Galactica. That’s a personal failing that I accept and will just have to bear. Really. 😉 People keep talking about what episodes they should re-make for the new show and I say “NONE!!!” I think this new show should divorce itself from the old one as quickly as possible and stop trying to “re-imagine” or somehow legitimize it for today’s audience. They should take their new show in whatever direction they think it should go to make it a good show and stop worrying about all us old fuddy-duddies who like the old one. We really don’t matter in the long run. As for me, I’ll be pleased as punch to watch the episodes I have on DVD and leave it at that. I was very into Galactica fandom back in the 1980s. I even wrote a bunch of fan fiction and drew numerous Galactica cartoons for a fanzine called “What You Fancy”. I even co-wrote a “Galactica Finds Earth” story with Sharon Monroe called “The Race For Earth”. I believe that you can actually find the text online if you Google search it out. It was great fun, but I knew what we wrote wasn’t “canon” and never viewed it as such. It’s good to exercise your imagination like that, but you just have to remember who owns the rights!

GS: Of course I’d love to be involved. The best possible position would be as an “advisor”. They get to express their opinions, be ignored, and get paid for doing it. But I’m a multi-talented guy. I could settle in for being a designer or property master or what-have-you as well. But that’s complete fantasy, of course. When they DO get down to making a classic-Galactica movie, the modern Hollywood machine will run it and everyone on it will be union. They’ll do their jobs and do them well, but most of them won’t care that it’s Galactica. It’ll be a well-deserved paycheck and not childhood nostalgia that drives them.

I always had the thought that if they brought back the original, they should consider making it an animated show or movie. That way, all of the original cast that desired so, could come back and voice their own characters again without having to slide into skin-tight ultra-suede uniforms again. Not that any of the old cast would do themselves an injustice if they did. I’ve seen most of the remaining cast and they all have held themselves together QUITE WELL. If it is indeed possible, I think Laurette Spang is more attractive today than she was back then! But an animated show would allow everyone a lot of breathing space with getting together (or not) and getting the show done. I’d really be up for that. Plus, the budget would be a fraction of doing it live, and with a good creative mind at the helm it would be just as entertaining and enjoyable as a live show.

GS: Galactica 1980 was unfortunate all the way around. I really didn’t groove on most of the stuff they came up with for that. However, someday I might try to create a “daggit Squadron” helmet. you know, the more streamlined colonial helmet type. The wrist computers really don’t excite me, either. Considering that the flying motorcycles (also called Land Probes) were originally conceived and made for the second season of Galactica, I might try to research those and make a replica over a proper motorcycle model kit. They were cool looking. The flying thing was hokey, but they managed to capture the look and feel of the Viper in a motorcycle. I don’t recall what the helmets the humanoid Cylons wore looked like, but I probably wouldn’t go that direction simply because I thought the whole humanoid Cylon thing was bunk. I still don’t think it makes sense, even in as fantastical a show as Galactica. Cylons hate humans. Period. You’d think they’d be trying to move as far away from humanoid as possible. There are so many more adaptable and efficient forms of life out there… wouldn’t you think they’d emulate them instead? Imagine the Cylons modeling themselves after arachnids or gadflies…EEK! Now THAT’S scary!

GS: In fact, a couple of things! First off, I have parts available for those brave at heart that wish to “build up” a kit of some of the props in the article. So folks can feel free to contact me about that. Second, I am also a puppeteer and have my own website at where folks can view Quicktime movies of my puppet work. There are three video pieces there that are mine. The rest are submissions by other puppeteers. BUT NOTE: My puppetry is NOT for children. The puppets use adult language on occasion; so don’t just send your kids to my site! Third, I have a new comic book series I’m working on called Deep Salvage. It’s a medieval fantasy series. If you take Dungeons & Dragons, Mission: Impossible, and The Antiques Roadshow and jumble them up, you’ll get the gist of the story. It’s about as UN-epic as it gets. It’s all about a team of treasure hunters pulling stuff out of wicked old dungeons. Hopefully I’ll have it in comic shops by mid 2006.

Did I mention that I tend to not only burn the candle at both ends but in the middle too?

– written by Peter Noble