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A Ballet In Space
Choreographing the massive starships in an interplanetary ballet was senior visual effects supervisor Scott E. Anderson. Tapped to handle the Fleet sequences battle sequences was the respected visual effects house Sony Pictures Imageworks, under the supervision of Dan Radford.

Anderson, an Academy Award winner for his work on 1995's BABE, understood from reading the script that STARSHIP TROOPERS would contain many ambitious spaceship

"We really worked hard on getting the feeling of 'epic claustrophobia'... where you can enjoy the beauty of the outer space, yet feel the danger."

Scott Anderson

sequences. A decision would have to be made if model ships or computer generated ships would be used to depict the space shots. Anderson told me, "Pretty much from the beginning, I figured we would primarily model ships, due to the size and detail required for these huge ships, and due to my belief that still, in this day and age, real-life models are still a step above digital models." Smaller attack ships would, however, be created as CG models, for flexibility and maneuverability reasons.

With this plan, possibly the largest model shoot in film history commenced, with the bulk of the ships to be produced by Thunderstone, Sony's model shop. Dave Chamberlain, Thunderstone's stage supervisor, remarked at the number of ships produced: "In terms of the large, Rodger Young-class ships, 13 were created all together. That includes one 18 foot model that had removable sections for the big destrution sequence, 6 nine foot models, and 6 eighteen inch models for long distance Fleet shots." He continued, "We made 4 four and a half foot dropship models, as well as a 30" dropship, and the launch bay in the same scale. We made a 1/5 scale retrieval boat, a 1/24 scale fighter, an 8 foot tall Ticonderoga station that was finished at ILM, as well as a number of Rodger Young ships in the same scale."

Other houses also contributed to the model effort, Chamberlain added, "For Boss'

A nine foot model of the Rodger Young was shot motion control for this particular shot--model by Thunderstone, compositing and animation by Imageworks.
shots, they built another 18 foot model of the Rodger Young. ILM, in addition to the Ticonderoga station, built a number of 4 foot ships, with damaged hulls. Thunderstone built Rodger Young docking arms that was used in ILM's lunar ring shots. ILM also built the lunar ring model."

Chamberlain, almost out of breath, said, "We were building models for fourteen months straight. Between the three companies, ILM, Boss and Thunderstone, it must certainly be one of the biggest model shoots in history, not just in number but in the size of the models as well."

Photographing the ships on motion control stages was also a monumental task. Sony built the two largest model movers any production has ever seen before. Chamberlain said, "The larger one was nicknamed Gigantor, and the second was Triax--it was a three axis mover, pretty much like most model movers are, but about 4 times the size. When shooting the 18' model, usually the model was static and the camera did all the motion, except for the destruction sequences, where Gigantor moved half of a ship, and Triax moved the other half, for the sequence where a Rodger Young ship gets sliced in half."

The destruction sequences are where Sony truly shined, and the place where they focused a great deal of talent and effort. Anderson said, "In my early discussions with Paul Verhoeven, he made it very clear that he wanted an epic war feeling to the effects shots. For that reason, I really wanted to focus on the big battle scenes." He went on to say, "the challenge of these dramatic battle sequences led us to create the most detailed shots that Imageworks has ever done. At any one point, there could be hundreds of elements within a shot."

Those elements, including model photography, backgrounds of starfields and planets, plasma fire, pyrotechnics, interactive lighting effects, and the starships

"The enormity of the size and scope of the shots pushed our machines to the breaking point. In a number of the shots I worked on... there were more than 200 elements in the frame."

Jay Cooper

themselves, were all put together by Sony's team of compositors. Imageworks' lead compositor, Jay Cooper remarked, "The enormity of the size and scope of the shots pushed our machines to the breaking point. In a number of the shots I worked on, especially the Rodger Young destruction sequence, there were more than 200 elements in the frame. Most comp programs break or become significantly unwieldy after about 50 elements or so." Wavefront Composer and Cineon systems were used to complete Sony's compositing tasks.

One of the highlights of the destruction sequence is the dramatic collision between two Fleet starships. Chamberlain described the complexity of shooting the models for this sequence: "The two ships that ram into each other wasn't done as two separate elements--we decided to actually, physically run them into each other." One ship was mounted on Giantor, and the other on Trilax. "We shot the first ship doing its move by itself, then we removed a segment of its head, so that there was a huge gaping hole dressed as damaged, and then rammed the two of them together. We programmed it so that the second ship's nose would fly right into that hole... we didn't allow the two ships to actually touch, so that we wouldn't have any registration problems. The CG department animated from the solid nose to the destruction as the second ship flies into that. Getting the timing and programming right on that move," Chamberlain said, "was probably the toughest thing we had to do."

Anderson remarked, "The choreography was intended to live up to Paul's desire to see a 'car chase with supertankers' as he called it. We were constantly looking for a flow of events that would make for an interesting sequence."

Sony shot hundreds of pyrotechnic explosions to eventually composite into these sequences. At any one point, an effects shot could include anywhere between 50 to 100 pyrotechnic elements. Cooper noted, "There was something like two hours of pyro elements online at any one time during the compositing. None of the pyro on the ships is CG. It was all painstakingly tracked. The most complex shots took an average of about a month and a half with a team of about four."

Scott Anderson summed up the overall challenge of the space project: "We really worked hard on getting the feeling of 'epic claustrophobia,'" Anderson said, "where you have these epic scenes but you're always blocked in by the action... where you can enjoy the beauty of the outer space, yet feel the danger that is present at all times during these scenes."

Anderson remarked how Sony's shot count is deceptive. "We completed about 125 shots, 75 of those are the hardest shots I've ever been associated with in my career. Each shot we did was richly dense and populated with many dozens of elements, sometimes hundreds."

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