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Mr. Hook's Report From 3D Con

written by Joel Hoekstra
May 14, 2000

First Things First

For those of you who are unfamiliar with 3D Con, 3D Design magazine hosts a Convention and Expo for everyone involved in the 3D graphics industry every year at the Santa Clara Convention Center in California. This was the first year Mr. Hook was able to attend. This year's keynote speaker was John Dykstra (the VFX supervisor of the original Star Wars, among many other things). The highlight of Mr. Hook's week, however, was the presentation called "The Making of Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles" which billed Ron Thornton (President of Foundation Imaging) and Paul Bryant (co-founder and self proclaimed "Head Computer Geek" of FI ) as the key speakers. Unfortunately, Ron Thornton couldn't make it :-( I've never heard him speak publicly so I don't know how much difference his presence would have made at the presentation. What we did get was the uncensored "politically incorrect" version of the presentation in a slightly British accent from Paul Bryant, which was pretty darn entertaining in its own right. All of the quotes below which are attributed to Mr. Bryant are paraphrases as best Mr. Hook can remember them.

Roughnecks a Huge Undertaking for Foundation Imaging

The first words out of Bryant's mouth were something to the effect of "Hi there, I'm not Ron," and then he requested that the first five minutes of Roughnecks footage play for those who may have been unfamiliar with the show. After watching the first half of Roughnecks episode 118 ("Marauder"), Bryant then launched into an in-depth explanation of how FI had to restructure itself in order to take on the tremendous workload that was Roughnecks. Bryant claimed that Sony had approached Mainframe and every other animation / effects house in town and had been turned down. "So when Sony approached us, Ron [Thornton] and I had a drink, er, discussion, and Ronny said sure, why not...because...well...because Ron is insane." Bryant went on to explain that FI did 32 episodes, 22 min. each, in less than 12 months, which is probably something of a record in the animation industry. Their animation dept. was divided into teams of 13, and each team leader essentially became the director or coordinator of the episode to which they were assigned. Each animator directed their own Motion-Capture footage just so there would be no confusion as to who was animating what. It took each team about a month to complete one episode, with all the teams working in parallel on different episodes.

Then Sony came to them and said, hey, how about helping us meet our production schedule with this new show called Max Steel, "and we [FI] said...NO. OK, who am I trying to kid, we're all whores here, we said sure, no problem." (I'm not kidding either, this guy had a wonderfully blunt sense of humor). Bryant said that for one episode of Max Steel, there were 19 animators who finished 22 minutes of footage in only two and a half weeks, "and they still bitched at us for being late." Out of all the Roughnecks episodes FI did, Bryant claimed only one was handed in two days late, and that the rest were handed in on budget on time. Bryant was extremely proud of the Foundation crew who had worked on Roughnecks and said the animators had every reason to be proud of what they had accomplished in so short an amount of time.

Roughnecks: Good News / Bad News

OK, the bad news first: When asked if there would be a second season of Roughnecks, Bryant said in no uncertain terms, "There will be no second season of Roughnecks." The most positive spin one could put on this is that Sony has no intention or desire to do a second series "at this time." Now the good news! When asked if there would be a wrap up of season one, possibly in a direct-to-video format, Bryant smiled and said, "That's still in negotiation."

Bryant said that the day before the presentation Sony had handed them several more episodes of Max Steel, which is why Thornton couldn't make it to the Con, because he was still "talking with Hasbro" (whatever that means).

Then Bryant had them roll "tape 2" which was basically a demo reel for FI with some extra goodies thrown in. There was a lengthy trailer for Heavy Gear, several pieced-together scenes of prep-work done for a fully CGI animated X-Men series, FX clips from Contact and The Jackal, and several shots of the Borg effects done for Voyager. The very last scene was a repeated shot of a close close-up of Spock's face, but after you did a double take you realized that it was a totally CGI Spock complete with facial textures, mannerisms and even heavy 60's makeup (with no sound).

Bryant explained that (to everyone's surprise, including his) Foundation had lost Heavy Gear to another studio (Mainframe) and that the WB had decided to go with a 2D look for the X-men cartoon. When asked whether or not all that prep-work had been a worthwhile investment even though FI lost the opportunity to actually do the shows, Bryant said, "yes," without hesitation. Sure it hurt that Heavy Gear went to someone else and it was too bad the WB didn't agree with FI's vision of what the X-Men animated series could be (if I remember correctly, I think he said FI's numbers dwindled from 150 to 60 or more after the lay-offs, ouch!) But he also said that you never knew what was going to help you get other work. The Vortex show FI worked on years ago is all wrapped up and ready to ship but the distributor still hasn't sold the show. And yet Sony's impression of FI's work on Vortex is what helped them land the the Roughnecks series. So even if Vortex never gets released (which would be a bummer for the people who worked on it, obviously) it still helped the company get work they might not have gotten otherwise.

Currently FI is slated to work on a kids show for Nickelodeon which Bryant indicated will probably be a welcome relief to some animators who are sick and tired of blowing up bugs. When pressed about the Spock image Bryant hesitated for the first time during his speech and looked thoughtful for a moment. "I'm trying to figure out how to say this without getting myself in deep s**t," he said and went on to explain that the Spock face was another one of those R & D projects you do just to show people what your staff is capable of when given the chance. But who knows, if you show enough people that a fully CGI Star Trek series is possible (with all of the original characters) maybe some one will say, hey that's a great idea, let's go for it! (Wink wink, nudge nudge.)

Warning: Technical Jargon Ahead!

One of my technical questions was how the water splashing and explosion effects were done. It almost looked to me like some of the splash effects were done separately and composited in video post, but Bryant assured us that all of the splash effects and fireball explosions were done with particle systems inside the Lightwave software package itself. After hanging out at the Lightwave booth at the Expo for a good long while, I have no reason to doubt that this is possible. If you've ever seen the Oreo commercial where blobs of white frosting swamp the city, you've seen Lightwave's particle systems in action. For explosions they use particle scatter thingies called "voxels." Voxels are worth mentioning here because I saw some effects reels done for commercial films at the Con which portrayed explosions so real-looking you could have sworn they were pyrotechnics - but they were all voxels rendered in Lightwave 6. BTW: all of the video compositing FI has done for feature film (including The Jackal) was composited using Adobe After Effects, a relatively inexpensive program.

Bryant claimed that aside from some of the hardware used for their render farms, FI uses NO proprietary computer equipment, software or hardware. Bryant declared that he was against the very idea of proprietary software in principle, as it could easily become a "crutch" for animators, as well as make it more difficult for animators to transfer their skills to other studios. Every effect you've seen in the Roughnecks series from lens flares to nuclear mushroom clouds can be done with out-of-the-box Lightwave or off-the-shelf plug-ins for said program. Bryant did another "politically incorrect" thing by publicly thanking Bill Gates for Windows NT as the most stable operating system FI could afford. Bryant said he obviously wasn't "friends" with Silicon Graphics or the makers of Maya (a popular 3D program made for SG workstations). But one should bear in mind that this is a man who considers himself to be "friends" with Sony (at least he was that day :-)

FI is a "Contract For Hire" studio which means that FI never owns the copyrights to any of the material they work on. This means that Sony always had editorial control of the final cut of every episode of Roughnecks, though it was certainly possible from a technical standpoint for FI to ship the final edited product.

Bryant said he initially came up against a "cultural" barrier (in the corporate sense) when trying to explain to the Sony execs who were familiar only with 2D work the sort of commitment a 3D show entailed. Stories of character designers getting Sony staff to take photos of fellow staff members as character sketches are all true. It was this photographic approach which helped the FI people explain to the Sony execs how character design worked in 3D.

Bryant also remarked that he had run across a sort of snobbery amongst rival animation houses that looked down on Motion-Capture footage as an inferior animation technique (which caught me by surprise, I say Mo-Cap all the way!). Apparently character animators tend to pride themselves on being able to animate the human figure without the use of Mo-Cap. To this criticism, Bryant replied that when you're facing the kind of deadlines FI did every week, you did Mo-Cap or no-cap.

Bryant also had nothing but admiration for Rainbow Studios and Hyper Image's work on the series. He said they shared a lot of model work with Rainbow, but didn't actually interface with Rainbow's staff very much. He was very impressed by Hyper Image's work as they are a 3D Studio Max house which had to convert all of FI's model and texture work from Lightwave to 3DS Max (Hyper Image did the first two Ice Asteroid episodes and the first Earth episode - and it shows, but it's still an impressive feat modeling-wise. At least in the first Earth ep. you don't get the impression that you're watching a whole different show altogether, unlike the contrast between FI and Netter Digital's work on Max Steel.)

Bryant also expressed nothing but respect for Flat Earth Productions which was originally slated to do 15 episodes. For whatever reason, FEP and Sony had a falling out, but I hadn't realized before that FI and FEP were brought on the project at the same time, I had always assumed that FEP was first in line (their two eps, 12 & 13, were done before anybody else's), but Bryant made it sound like Sony brought FEP and FI on board the Roughnecks project simultaneously.

Paul Bryant's Vision of Things to Come

Bryant also announced his plans to start an new, fully accredited "university" to teach people how to animate with Lightwave software which he jokingly called Foundation University or "F.U." (or better yet, "F.U.U.K." since Bryant was born in the U.K. - the flyer I picked up at the expo actually said "Foundation Institute" on it). He wants to start a school in order to help set an industry standard for the skill level of available candidates for employment. He insisted that he was most definitely NOT interested in standardizing the style or content of 3D animation, but that he was very interested in creating a stable work ethic or "culture" of 3D work which would make it easier for companies to hire reliable people. In some of his more controversial comments (which can be difficult to detect in a "politically incorrect" presentation), Bryant voiced his frustration with U.S. companies shipping animation projects overseas which he felt ultimately sacrificed the quality of the product. He hoped that, with Roughnecks, FI had finally demonstrated to the world that it was economically feasible to do a completely CGI show in the U.S. without farming out the animation work to foreign countries where it's difficult to compete with art studios which are "subsidized by the government" (a little dig at Canadian Mainframe no doubt).

Bryant envisions a future where Lightwave 6 is the industry standard for broadcast 3D work. While he admitted that he would expect that the "cream of the crop" from "F.U." would ultimately come to work for FI, the school would really be aimed at making any animator's skill a more marketable commodity. Bryant repeatedly claimed that there is much more animation work out there just begging to be done, but that all the studios have extreme difficulty finding qualified people. He also said that he and Thornton both agreed that it was much easier to teach an artist how to use a computer than to teach a computer geek how to be artist.

Other Cool Stuff at 3D Con

Well, that about wraps it up for the Roughnecks presentation, but there were plenty of other cool sights and sounds to be seen and heard at 3D Con. John Dykstra's keynote address was mostly about the work he did for Stuart Little and how they had to write a proprietary Maya plug-in to get the millions of individual hairs on the mouse's body to look realistic. I can report that Dykstra is currently working on animatics (CGI storyboards) for a live action Spiderman film. I got to meet Iain McCaig, one of the storyboard artists for Phantom Menace who currently works at Skywalker Ranch. Siggraph hosted " A Night With ILM: the making of Mission to Mars," which was much more interesting than it probably sounds. On top of that you had the Spike and Mike's short film festival. One of the reels shown there, "Bowling For Souls," went on to win the Great Big Kahuna award at the Big Kahuna awards ceremony. If you can find it, try to see "Hello Dolly," a delightfully twisted film which won the Big Kahuna award in the Best Storytelling category. I got to see some of Trooper Bish's music videos on a Sony HDTV (Walk Like an Egyptian / Max Steel & Welcome to the Jungle / Roughnecks) as well as the Roughnecks "GAP" commercial. But by far the coolest thing Mr. Hook saw at the expo was a 5 minute trailer for a live action / CGI project called G-Savior. There was no dialogue in the teaser, but it looked like a fully CG rendered Gundam / Mecha anime with footage of live actors interspersed throughout. The guy at the Lightwave booth said it was for an upcoming T.V. movie done by a company called Digital Muse for Polestar. I don't know much about DM, except that they were listed in the credits for digital effects in the new Battlefield Earth movie.

Mr. Hook could go on and on about 3D Con, like how stinkin' expensive it was for people trying to attend at their own expense :-) But we won't go there. If you have any info to offer about when and where the G-Savior project will be shown or would like some details regarding "F.U." Mr. Hook can be reached at: