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Is it Real, or is it Lightwave?

written by Dick De Jong and Molly Dinkins
NewTekniques Magazine

In Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles, grizzled veterans lead a brave company of raw recruits into battle against alien insect hordes. --War is hell. In a case of life imitating art, veteran LightWave animators are leading a sleep deprived company of talented recruits into battle against vicious virtual bugs and blood thirsty deadlines--- CG war is hell.

"It's intense. I've never been involved with a project like this," admitted Everett Burrell, the Roughnecks Project Leader for Flat Earth Productions. "It's incredible the amount of detail that went into this. We had animators dropping like flies, because they couldn't take the pressure."

This killer project masquerades as a children's cartoon show. But, Roughnecks is also one of the most ambitious 3d animated television series and audacious LightWave assignments ever attempted. "We are really kicking up the look and level of excitement," described Jeff Scheetz, Foundation Imaging's Animation Producer on Roughnecks.

"I came from Netter Digital where I worked on Voltron," said Chris Zapora, a Roughnecks CGI director at Flat Earth. "This show is orders of magnitude more complex. The quality of the models and the art direction are approaching a movie quality look. It has a much more cinematic feel to it - especially in the texture and the lighting."

In fact, Roughnecks is a spin-off of the 1997 Paul Verhoeven live action movie, Starship Troopers, which was based on Robert A. Heinlein's novel of the same name. Roughnecks is developed by Sony Pictures Entertainment and is headed by Richard Raynis, the Executive Producer and creative visionary.

Join the Mobile Infantry

Originally, Sony envisioned producing Roughnecks as a traditional for Sony, was familiar with Ron Thornton and Foundation Imaging's LightWave work (In the mid-80's, Skeel co-founded Aegis Development, the publisher of VideoScape 3D, Allen Hasting's precursor to LightWave). Skeel brought Raynis out to Foundation's studio to meet Thornton and to view Vortex, an all CG in-house project about Earthlings battling an alien force. Raynis was impressed and Roughnecks became a 3d production.

The first season called for 40-hour shows. The problem was that the programs were slated to debut in early September. To meet the daunting deadline, Thornton suggested that Sony enlist his old friend, Kevin Kutchavera and FlatEarth Productions to share the burden. The initial agreement was for Foundation to produce twenty-five episodes and for Flat Earth to create the other fifteen.

To meet the challenge, Foundation recruited almost 100 LightWave animators and Flat Earth added 45. But, by the time the new teams had finished modeling all the characters and bugs and started animating the first few shows, it became painfully apparent that the original deadlines would be impossible to reach.

"The show, because they wanted it photoreal, was a huge undertaking," Burrell explained. "I'm amazed 0 it looks great - but that's a lot of shots - 450 to 500 shots a show. It's just a giant beast. It's a massive undertaking. We're talking hundreds of gigabytes of data - thousands of gigabytes - it's just intense."

"Richard Raynis has certainly pushed the show into being the most amazing thing that anyone has ever seen, " Kutchaver added. "On the other hand, the price you pay is that you can't work on everything forever. At a certain point you say, 'Isn't that rock texture good enough?' " "The computer is the spoiler - a blessing and a curse," Kutchaver continued. "Because the computer is doing it, it seems like, 'can't you just tweedle a dial?' Yeah, but it still takes time. The next thing you know, you've spent a week trying to fix things and you haven't done the next show. It's a balancing act - it gives you the capability of doing a lot of great things, but you can only do that if you are very smart with your time."

After completing two episodes, Flat Earth stepped out of the project. "We couldn't come to an agreement in terms of how to proceed to do the future episodes," Kutchaver commented. "There didn't seem to be an answer to satisfy all the parties." Perhaps, as some sardonic omen, the Flat Earth episodes took place on a planet called Tophet. Tophet in Judaism, is the word for the underworld where souls suffer torment.

(As the magazine goes to press, Sony has enlisted two other facilities to take up some of the slack, Rainbow Studios in Phoenix, and Hyper Image in Los Angeles.)

Preparing for the Battle

Even though Starship Troopers had been a full length movie, Raynis wanted the television show to have its own look. Nothing was used from the movie. Every bug, every soldier, every spaceship, and every planet had to be modeled and textured from scratch. "At the very start, Foundation and Flat Earth build a model pack," said Ron Herbst, a CGI Director at Flat Earth. "Our original contractual obligation to Sony was to put together a bunch of working parts for the entire series. It had every single character in their fatigue costume and in their power suit. The pack also contained the Valley Forge spaceship, the one man fighters, and all of the bugs that are standard issue bugs - the warrior bug, the tanker bug, the plasma bug, the blister bug."

"We met up with Foundation and basically divided up the model pack", added Bryan J. Blevins, Flat Earth's 3D Modeling Supervisor. "We took various spaceships and robot creatures, and battle mechs. Foundation was going to build all the troopers, the human characters, and we took all the bugs. It kind of worked that way, because we have a lot of experience building the creatures of Herc and Xena (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: The Warrior Princess). To make something really organic, is harder than it looks. We've got tons of experience doing it."


"We were the first department to get rolling on this," said Foundation's 3d Modeling supervisor, Dave Adams. "At the peak of the first month, I had 25 people modeling. We did a lot of overbuilding initially." "Fil Barlow, he's an Aussie, (Sony's Creature and Character Designer) did all the initial designs for the first set of characters for the first five episodes. After that, we started to contribute - designing extra, incidental characters from the ground up." Barlow's initial designs reflected that Roughnecks originally was planned to be cel animated. "They were very cartoony, 2D designs," Adams continued. "In some ways, they were not unlike characters from Dick Tracy, where you had guys with very wide flat heads and wide spaced eyes. Sony did not want photorealistic human faces."

"Fil came from a really stylized approach and we all gravitated to the middle. We built the closest 3d equivalent to the 2d designs was we could, and he tried to accommodate us by adding profiles and 3Ú4 drawings. In some cases, Fil came in and we made tweaks onsite."

"The first series of models that we did, we started from scratch. In the beginning, we loaded up the sketch in Modeler and modeled from the sketch by hand with splines and patches," Adams explained. "We kept it stylized by keeping the level of detail low. For example, the ears are anatomically correct but they're not sharply defined - a little gummy."

"We also kept the surfacing slightly stylized, where no one really has age wrinkles or liver sots. We made the hair out of geometry in most cases and we would add a clip map."

To handle the demands of dialogue, a series of morph targets was created for each head. Using Morph Gizmo to control the targets, the animators were able to lip sync to the script. This is also the method used to control features of the face that indicate mood.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in modeling the troopers was keeping all the pads and flaps on the trooper's uniforms moving in sync with their bodies, without cutting into each other and causing rendering errors. Foundation employed a method of exploding the model.

"All the characters have heads separate from their bodies," Adams explained. "Aside form the base body, all the armor they're wearing is pulled way out, so their bones and the area of influence couldn't possibly affect anything else. Then all the geometry for all the various flaps and parts of the armor were pulled back in Layout and repositioned. We used Relativity (Prem Subrahmanyam's LightWave plug-in) to let flaps get out of the way of legs, and shoulder pads get out of the way of arms."

Even though they were deep into the production schedule, Adams said, "We're still getting new designs daily. We've done over twenty characters. Generally, it takes two to three days to get the character built, textured and approved." A new character really means a new head. Foundation has developed three sizes of female bodies and four sizes of male. "The heads pop onto the bodies like Pez dispensers," described Adams. "Fil has taken to sending us photos of his fellow employees as designs. We have drifted away from the whole stylized look to make everybody anatomically believable."


While Foundation was creating the troopers, Flat Earth was assembling the opposing forces. Again, Barlow supplied the 2D designs and the Blevings led team at Flat Earth, translated them into 3d hordes.

"Fil would come over and look at the models," Blevins explained. "There were certain contours, certain jaw lines, that her really liked; and we would try to keep those in 3D. It's challenge, because artists can draw something in 2d that cannot be built in three dimensions. So it was pretty cool to have Fil over so that we could sow him certain little problems that we were having. We would sit down at the computer and, almost like modeling on the fly, we could make little tweaks."

"After we got everything modeled, we would make a scene hierarchy out of them," Blevins added. "We had a number of hierarchies. We built a straight inverse kinematic (IK) hierarchy, that could be completely animated by our character animators. I would send some of my preliminary setups over to our lead animator, Spencer Cook, and he would do a quick animation and see how things were working. We would fine tune the IK limits and then spend three days to a week experimenting with different bug setups that would render right, but would also update quickly in the computer."

"We rented a lot of documentaries about insects and studied how they move," added Chris Zapora, Flat Earth's CGI Director. "A bug can be a beetle but when it's 40 feet high, it's more like a rhino or an elephant. We would think about those creatures, and put that into our animations. Then we would do a test, and wonder if he needs to drag his rear end more because his legs wouldn't support his weight. Or, maybe his legs need to be back more to give him a better center of gravity. Or, he needs to sway more because he's top heavy. We would take all those things into consideration and put them into our control setups."

"We have basic behaviors baked into the assembly of the model and ten we control those through Relativity and nulls," Zapora described. "For example, the tanker bug, which is the big flame thrower bug, you can just move a null form left to right and the bug will actually walk from left to right, drag its feet, and lumber around. If you rear him up, all the plates will move kind of like an armadillo or potato bug."

"In the very beginning, they wanted to see - I think the number was - 'billions' of bugs. In our case, billions might mean hundreds. Though there were a couple of scenes where we had thousands," Zapora explained.

"We had our animators hand animated some nice walk cycles and then add some variations on those," continued Zapora. "We could do 15 or 20 moves and reuse them. We would have someone write a script that would allow us to duplicate them out and have different controls for different actions. So we can have ten bugs - they can all be walking - thought they all look like they're moving differently. By moving nulls around we can have them screech or rear up at different times. So it looks like we hand-did all this, though really we only hand-did one instance of each of them. For the larger groups, we would have lower polygons or even non-polygons on these bugs and use Particle Storm to pull them around. For the extreme close-ups, we would often do those by hand."

Blevins added, "We even have setups where one bug is an object, and his walk is two or three morph targets. We used those for the distant warrior bugs. It's much less overhead as far as LightWave is concerned; and it doesn't bog down the system; so, we can get the shot out a little faster."

Planet of the Week

"We go to a different planet every five episodes and we design extensive, intensive set pieces for each planet," Adams said. "We've gone from Pluto to a totally water planet. Next up is the jungle planet - and we'll have an ice asteroid."

The Sony designers "draw up the terrain in black and white and they give us a lot of color and sky references that they've culled from various sources," Adams continued. "We start with a very high resolution subdivided terrain and then use polygon reductions programs to bring it back into line. One of the hardest things was building photoreal vehicles and terrains a low poly as possible, while keeping it from looking low poly. The scenes have to be as efficient as possible, because we set an in-house render limit of about ten minutes per frame."

"The water planet was particularly tough because they wanted a constant overcast, threatening sky look. We created 'environballs'. They're high res images mapped on the inside of a sphere that create a kind of virtual set in the background that's used for sky and water."

Mobilizing the Troopers

"The key to this show absolutely was motion capture, and I didn't realize that until about half way through," admitted Burrell. "Richard Raynis, the producer, would turn stuff away if it was keyframed. The motion capture stuff was the most complicated stuff that I've ever seen in my life. The power suits are just incredibly complicated. I'm amazed it all worked. Sometimes it didn't , most of the time it did."

"All the models wee built in such a way that they matched bone for bone our mocap (motion capture) data," Adams said. "Initially, we built a set of IK characters, until we had our mocap fully up and running . As soon as we were getting mocap data, we started abandoning those. They get used for inside of vehicles when they are driving things or waist up shots - things that are too subtle to mocap." Indeed, motion capture is used for 90 to 95 % of all the trooper's movements. For more than a year, Foundation has been using motion capture equipment in their projects. Until recently, they were employing an Ascension magnetic system. Last summer they added a fourteen camera Vicon 8 optical system.

Doing stunt work in the magnetic is hard because in our system, the actors are tethered with a wire," explained Dave West, Foundation's Motion Capture Supervisor. "In the optical, there is no tether so you are free to do stunt work. Also, with fourteen camera system, we have a much larger active area - about four times the size."

West uses three motion capture performers (Derek Morton, Robing Huber, and Scott Altizer) who play all the characters. "The animators decide, by way of the storyboards, the actors' blocking," West described. "They know basically how big the stage is and if we have to do a movement that's bigger than the stage, we'll do motion blending. We break it up into scenes and blend them together with the Kaydara FiLMBOX system. We export a LightWave scene file out of FiLMBOX. As far as cleaning up any jittery data, we do that in FiLMBOX, too."

"A lot of people who have seen the footage can't believe it's motion capture or that it's LightWave," West said. Expect to see even more amazing motion capture in the future. "We're looking at buying crash mats, wrestling mats and flying harnesses for zero-g stuff," West revealed.

The Spoils of War

"Our teams now have 10 animators and 4 technical directors," explained Dave Morton, one of Foundation's Directors of CGI. "Each team is responsible for an episode. The animators handle the character animation and setting up the initial scene. Then the technical directors will go in and do a 'sweetening' and add the lighting, the atmospherics and some of the additional surfacing."

"We treat this more like a film or an actual television show, rather than a cartoon," Morton continued. "We do specific lighting setups for a character where you have a back light , key light, and fill light rather than a cartoon where you just drop a light in and that's your only light source in the scene. It's something that we've had to teach our animators."

"We use three image filter plug-ins that we render on everyone one of our scenes to get a more film-look quality," Blevins described Flat Earth's method of image processing. "One of those is Lightwave's built in blur, just to soften the image slightly and to take the hard, CG edge off everything. Blevin's Light Diffusion mimics the slight diffused bloom effect that you get when you expose something to film. The third plug-in that we put on top of that is Worley's film Grain, to just add a little bit of noise."

"Once we saw the first episode actually put together with the sound, sound effects, and music - it is a much more sophisticated show - not only visually," Kutchaver concluded. "It is being handled like a live action film. How often do you actually see early morning kid shows introduce any kind of film language? A lot more sophisticated camera work is going on as well. I think kids are capable of grasping more than 'Here is the monster, we'll be back.' "

"In terms of the quality of animation - the look and feel - it's the best CG show on the market," Skeel added. "I think we surprised him (Raynis) because we have surpassed his original vision."

"I'm convinced that this is the way that kid's action oriented programs will be done from now on," Scheetz predicted. "In terms of the LightWave community, this trend will provide thousands of jobs in the years to come. There will be huge needs for artists with facial and character animation skills, and with lighting and effects backgrounds." But Scheetz added, "The process has so much more to do with virtual film making - not just animation."

"I've done film production and I know how many people are on the set. We had to be all of them." Herbst confirmed.

No Guts, No Glory

"My kids loved it," commented Kutchaver about his two young daughter' reaction to Roughnecks. But critics of the show, question targeting youngsters (the program is being scheduled in the before and after school time slot). One of the concerns with Roughnecks, is the level of violence infused into the fabric of the show. Without a doubt, the bug body count in every episode is astronomical.

Animators at Flat Earth acknowledged that they were given some limits and guidelines. Even though our Roughneck heroes are constantly in Triple D (really deep doo-doo), we only hear about human casualties - no trooper ever dies on camera. Even though, in a flashback, Razak's hand is severed by a nasty bug bite, no blood is spilled. As a matter of conscience, the kiddies will never see human blood lost in battle. Of course, the green gut goo from the battered bugs, is exploded and splattered across the screen in almost every scene. The roughnecks also bear an assortment of armaments that would stir an NRA member to pistol envy. But the policy is that the weapons have to be futuristic, with no bullets and no shell casings. (Whew!)

Whatever the thinking by adult critics, Kutchaver trusts his children to know better. "When the marines were shooting the bugs, my seven year old turned to me and the only comment she said was, 'Those are the bad bugs, right?' She's already learned a valuable lesson - some bugs have to be eliminated. This is actually an educational show - we should get a grant. I would like to se the troopers attack the Teletubbies."

Check Your Local Listings

"We were hoping that Richard Raynis would actually be able to go and say 'look, this is such a unique special thing. Are you sure this is the way you want to have this out there?' " mused Kutchaver. "I was hoping for the HBO/Spawn slightly older audience approach."

But for now, it's still a kid's show with a kid's time slot. Since September, Roughnecks has been broadcast weekdays on UPN stations as part of the Bohbot Kids Network (BKN). Depending on your station, the show could be playing early in the morning or perhaps in the afternoon. The sci-fi Channel has also picked up Roughnecks. Ironically, the network also scheduled the program for the early morning.

"The show is more sophisticated than anything else in that time slot," so Kutchaver advises adults: "Watch the farm report, and then Troopers."