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STARSHIP TROOPERS CHRONICLES: Pushing the 3D Animation Envelope.
Syndicated series resumes airing on Sci Fi Channel next Monday.
By Frank Garcia
February 14, 2000
On February 21, 2000 devoted fans of ROUGHNECKS: STARSHIP TROOPERS CHRONICLES will finally have a renewed opportunity to catch the series on the Sci-Fi Channel at 7:30 a.m. from Monday to Thursdays. The series is spin-off of the live-action feature directed by Paul Verhoeven, which in turn was based on the controversial 1959 novel by Robert A. Heinlein. Now, in a showcase of the next stage in computer generated animation technology, this groundbreaking 3-D animated has futuristic soldiers jumping into Power Suits and fighting alien bugs and wasps in a variety of planetary and hostile environments.
This 30-minute series follows the brutally intense adventures of 'Mobile Infantry' squad soldiers known as Razak's Roughnecks: Johnny Rico, Dizzy Flores, fighter pilot Carmen Ibanez, squad leader Lt. Razak, his second in command Corporal Brutto, telepath Carl Jenkins, and Higgins, the series' narrator, who tags along as a journalist with a video camera. ROUGHNECKS also restores an element from Heinlein's novel not seen in the feature: The 'Power Suits,' which give soldiers enhanced strength and maneuverability plus the ability to launch a variety of weapons. What the series does not have from the feature is the adult language and graphically explicit violence which television broadcast standards does not allow.
R:STC first hit the airwaves in syndicated BHK Network affiliates and the Sci-Fi Channel in late August 1999. Initially, because of the enormous technical requirements, it was very difficult for new product to be released quickly and consistently. A by-product of this hasty release was that in the first few episodes the show aired without main titles and reruns were persistent. When BHK sold distribution of the series to Sci-Fi Channel without Sony's permission, the show was pulled at the end of September after the first nine episodes had aired on Sci-Fi. Meanwhile, episodes continued to be aired on BHK network affiliates and by the end of December, only 19 new episodes were broadcast. Because of the production companies' difficulties in completing all the episodes, it won't be until May 2000 that episodes will broadcast in true continuity order, even though new episodes will now be seen on Sci-Fi. The first 20 episodes are also airing in Canada on the Teletoon network, and will run through March with the final 20 episodes to be aired in the fall.
The birth of STARSHIP TROOPERS was a direct outgrowth of the feature's development. Sony Pictures, which made the film, also owns Columbia/Tri-Star and has a television production arm. An animated series was under consideration at the time, but when box office returns were not encouraging as hoped, the idea was shelved until popular videotape and DVD sales resurrected the project. Initially, series executive producer Richard Raynis was hunting for production companies to create a traditional '2-D' animated series, but when he saw an in-house film titled 'Vortex' created by Foundation Imaging, he was sold on making STARSHIP TROOPERS a cutting-edge '3-D' series. Foundation Imaging, the Valencia, California-based visual effects company was formed in 1992 to create the Emmy-winning CGI special visual effects for BABYLON 5. Later, they also contributed to STAR TREK: VOYAGER.
To help shoulder FI's enormous workload, Flat Earth Productions (who did HERCULES and XENA visual effects) was brought in. But after only two episodes, they fell out of the project because of a disagreement over how to continue future episodes. Two other companies were then pulled in to assist: Hyper Image (three episodes) and Rainbow Studios (three episodes).
Ron Thornton, Foundation Imaging's co-founder (with Paul Bryant) and CGI Producer on RSTC, says the series came to life when 'the 3-D animation environment was getting more cost-effective.' Other well-known 3-D animated series already on the air include REBOOT, VOLTRON THE THIRD DIMENSION and BEAST MACHINES.
The nuts n' bolts driving the CGI animation is so cutting edge that Thornton estimates that, just two years ago, this show would not have been possible. 'Really, it was right on the crest of the wave of the leading edge of getting this technology working,' says Thornton, who explains that ROUGHNECKS began production in February 1999, giving the production team about six months of prep time before the first episode aired. 'Taking it to the level that we've done is very much a first.'
Unlike the other fantasy-tinged animated series mentioned, Thornton feels that ROUGHNECKS 'is more like a hybrid between a cartoon and live-action. It's a lot more live-action styles in terms of the look and action of the show.' The series' realistic and detailed animation owes a great deal to the skills and long hours poured into the project by about 120 staffers. That includes 75 animators, 5 directors, seven coordinators, two editors, 10 modelers, six character modelers, seven 'motion capture' personnel, and four system engineers. One episode is completed every five weeks.
Using the famed Lightwave 3D software from NewTek, one of the major tools used to convey convincing physical motion is a process called Motion Capture. Three 'motion capture performers' on a large soundstage have an array of sensors placed all over their bodies. While they are playing all the roles, 14 cameras will 'watch' their movements and record them into the software. The roughest or subtlest motions will be 'mapped' into computer models of the characters. With this process, an artist will literally pull that information from a live-action figure and later 'draw on' the costumes, character designs and all the other details.
'Motion Capture is the best way we have found to create the look of realistic interaction of actors, but at a reasonable speed,' says Thornton. 'We can get a finer image. When people stand still, they don't just freeze, they're still just moving a little bit just like you or I would. It makes an unreal object look real.' Motion capture is used for up to 95% of the human figures' movements.
In another technical challenge, achieving realism in facial expressions, or human skin tones in 3-D animation is quickly becoming the Holy Grail in the computer animation business. But Thornton feels optimistic, given the proper effort, and one day it will become a reality. 'We are quite limited in terms of the amount of time we can put into an episode of TROOPERS just because of the schedule,' he says. 'We're not able to put in as much as I'd like into the animation. What I'd like to be able to do is do things like when you think of a pleasant memory, you'll unconsciously look somewhere. You'll usually look up to the right when you're accessing that memory. It's part of human nature. When you watch people, they do that. Like when people get embarrassed, they flush red. There are all these things that happen on an unconscious level, that I would love to be able to put into the animation. They're quite do-able. You just need to be able to have more time to get there. We're working on some tests where we can put all of these things in place. And I have a fear it's going to be very freaky. Because it's suddenly going to stop this animation looking like moving cadavers.'
When Thornton is asked what he felt was the greatest challenge in making this series, he's silent for a moment, and then he laughs, 'Gosh, that's a question I can answer on so many levels,' he says. 'The greatest challenge is balancing the quality, budget and schedule. You don't want to make the quality so high that it is unaffordable and then it takes too long. At the same time, you don't want to cheap out on it, to the point that it affects the quality. It's that constant balancing act between speed, economy and quality that you have to dare.'
Beyond the technological innovations, ROUGHNECKS is also stretching the boundaries of television animation storytelling. With brutal skirmishes in each episode between soldiers and alien bugs, will any of the humans perish? In animation, killing characters is not allowed (not even in BATMAN ANIMATED), until now. 'Killing bugs, that's not a problem,' says Thornton. 'It seems that's okay.' But he steps out and declares, 'There are actually instances where we kill people in this show, which is very, very unusual for a syndicated, Saturday-morning type of show where major characters die. In fact, two of the major characters will die. Also, one of the major characters gets turned into a bug.' (The identity of this character has already been spoiled on R:STC fan websites!)
A total of 40 episodes consisting of seven distinct 'story arcs' was initially ordered, but now, according to Foundation Imaging sources, episode #33 titled 'Homefront' has been cancelled because the animation requirements were too intensive for CGI rendering. The season finale is episode #37 titled 'Spirits of the Departed.' What was previously planned as two episodes of 'clips' shows (a story featuring scenes from previous episodes) is now four episodes containing 'clips' elements. The episodes are: 'Pluto and Beyond,' 'Propaganda Machine,' 'Marooned,' and 'The Court Martial of Lt. Razak.'
Once these 41 episodes are fully rendered 'in the hard drive,' Thornton believes it is unlikely that more will be produced. That's a quantity that's enough to syndicate and without additional merchandising revenues to drive additional product. However, if the series is a success, it has been suggested that a second season could be ordered or a movie to wrap up the storyline beginning with #38, 'The Gates of Hell,' the first of the cancelled final three episodes.
When you consider the quality of the animation, the realistic action and stark characterizations, what we have been given is a series that would surely have made its creator, Robert A. Heinlein, proud.