Erik Holsinger's article from Digital Animators.
The Making of Starship Troopers Chronicles
How Foundation Imaging creates a 30 minute
live-action show, all in 3D, every week.
by Erik Holsinger
It's hard to imagine the next great filmmaking breakthrough occurring on Saturday morning cartoons. Yet "Starship Troopers: Roughneck Chronicles," a new cartoon show from Columbia/Tristar, is just that; a totally 3D-generated show that is pushing the boundaries on what you can expect from a "3D" show.
"Starship Troopers" is a "prequel" to the Starship Troopers movie, following the exploits of Lt. Razack's crew as they try to defeat the Bug Menace. However, unlike its predecessor, "Starship Troopers" the cartoon show can't rely on excessive gore or titillation to keep the audience interested (hey, this is for kids, after all). Instead, "Starship Troopers" relies on good old-fashioned storytelling, and creating characters that are complex enough to make you forget that they're 3D models.
Leading the animation and special effects production is Foundation Imaging, an Emmy Award-winning special effects and animation house based in Valencia, Calif. Two other facilities, Rainbow Studios of Phoenix, and Hyper Image of Glendale, Calif., also produce some of the episodes. Each production house works in tandem with Sony, yet creates all the animation and special effects for each episode totally in-house. So every week, these companies put out a new show -- which means 19 minutes of completed, broadcast-quality animation. By any standard this is an amazing feat; for these seasoned experts it's just another day at the job.
To get the low-down on the project, I met with Foundation co-founder Paul Bryant and Animation Producer Jeff Scheetz at Foundation Imaging's studios. Their non-traditional approaches to working under intense broadcast deadlines, maintaining quality and still getting a devastating amount of work done is both inspiring and enlightening. If "Starship Troopers" is any marker for things to come, future television programming is in for some interesting times.
3D in a 2D World
One of the greatest challenges facing the project right at the beginning was bringing a 3D animation way of thinking to what was traditionally a 2D cel-animated show. "The communication that we've had with Richard [Raynis] has been phenomenal -- he was really key in helping along the maturing process to get [Sony] to stop thinking in a 2D world and start thinking in a 3D world," said Paul Bryant, Foundation Imaging's co-founder and Executive Producer.
"Ultimately it was very cause-and-effect: the more [Troopers] was treated as a 2D show, the more it ground to a halt. The more we said "Trust us" -- and they did -- the faster the process became, to the point where [Sony] would give us the design style or theme, and we'd actually do the hard design work. You'll notice in later shows that Sony designers are actually credited as "Design Consultants." Because you can't make a drawing of a sculpture. Once [the Sony team] got their head around this concept, then the process just literally took off."
Foundation's approach to the facial design mirrored this reality versus 2D stylized approach. "We said, 'Look, I'll tell you what. Why don't you go around your office, right, and take photographs of people that are what you imagined the characters would look like,' " said Bryant. "Then we basically use that as the source for the character design."
One of the great breakthroughs in doing this kind of animation program is the clean interaction between the producers [Sony] and the production house [Foundation]. "Sony gives us storyboards and scripts, as well as some model design," said Jeff Scheetz, the animation producer for "Starship Troopers," who runs the day-to-day operations for the project. "Once completed, we send our model designs back to Sony for approvals and feedback. And then we produce a show and send it back to them. Ultimately [Sony] gives us quite a bit of room to add touches to the show to make it better."
Scheetz oversees five teams; each team has 10 animators, five Technical Directors, a Director and a project coordinator. Each team works slightly out of sync, so that each group delivers one completed episode every four weeks. The pace can get hectic, even with five teams, but while I was there, it appeared that the morale was really high among the animation crew. "Even though it's been a [difficult project], Richard [Raynis, the Executive producer of the show for Sony] wants it to be everything that we want to be," said Scheetz. "It's really cool to have someone care enough to do whatever they can to make the show everything it can be. This leaves us free to create thekind of shows that we both want to do."
Creating New Worlds
Clearly "Starship Troopers" is the richest, most film-like of any animated series that has been produced to date. Creating a show like "Troopers" requires a lot of horsepower. "I believe right now we are running about 300 processors in parallel, with about 1.5 terrabytes of storage allocated to just this project," said Bryant. "Also, it requires a network system that's not going to bog when data starts to pass around."
Even Foundation's network system reflects its off-the-shelf technology philosophy. Instead of using a custom Fibre channel network system, Foundation uses four Ethernet ports on a single card, with all the ports working in parallel on each machine using a switching hub that can recognize this output stream; according to Bryant the actual throughput is pretty close to fibre channel. Ultimately, Foundation takes a very hands-off approach to new technology. "We are extremely conservative when it comes to technology," said Bryant. "We'd rather work with lots of extremely low-cost technology [hardware] than a few pieces of high-performance technology that is extremely delicate."
Adding to the production arsenal are two video edit bays and a sound editing department. Basically all the animations are constructed as animatic reels on an in-sync Speed Razor system. This enables the team to slug in shots as they go, and give quick comps to Sony at all stages of the production.
Most of the camera moves and [virtual cinematography] are done by the individual animators, usually in phase with the storyboard. According to Scheetz, much of the Foundation "look" is attributable to John Allardice, who did a trailer for an in-house project called "Vortex."
"He in a lot of ways set the standard for the way that Foundation handles shows like 'Starship Troopers,' " Scheetz said. "John is now working on our HDTV pilot 'The Universe and Harry Morgan,' but the style that he set has trickled down to all the animators working on the 'Troopers' project."
Manic Motion Capture
Due to the sheer volume of animation that each team must produce, the animators at Foundation rely heavily on motion capture systems. According to Scheetz, Foundation uses two systems on two separate stages; the Ascension system on a 10 X 10 foot stage for closeup work, and a Vicon system on a huge warehouse space for group shots. The Vicon system is impressive; according to Bryant, Foundation has the largest Vicon stage in the world. With 14 cameras that cover over a 40 X 40 foot space, it is easy to believe. Both the Vicon and the Acension system are fed into a Kaydara FilmBox, and then ported over to LightWave for final animation.
Motion control typically has had problems with extraneous data, but Bryant says that cleanup is minimal. "We do very, very little clean-up with [the Vicon data]," said Bryant. "The beauty of the system is that we can do multi-capture, so we can do a lot more stunt work with this. This gives you much, much more detailed motion data than the magnetic system. But the magnetic system is so easy and so quick to set up now that it's hard to walk away from it." Just how fast is fast when it comes to their motion capture? "We can literally create motion data here at 9 o'clock in the morning, and at 11 o'clock it can be on the [Foundation Imaging server] stack rendering."
That Fabulous Face
While realistic character movement is good, according to Scheetz creating great facial animation is the companies main priority in the series. "The trick to making the character work is the facial animation - that's the part that everyone is looking at, so that's the part [of the animation] that has to be perfect." The character lip sync and facial expressions are all key framed in Lightwave using Morph Gizmo."Using Morph Gizmo and other tools with Lightwave allows us to use about a hundred morph targets per character," said Scheetz. "We can select which expression to use on which frame, and then enter that information in by hand."
The decisions on what keyframe to use and when to use that morph target can come from a number of different sources, from timing sheets, or a utitlity program for Lightwave called Magpie Pro. The animators at Foundation also have more traditional analog approach to working out the lip sync - video. "We have a system setup where we can video tape ourselves lip syncing with the dialog and use that as a visual reference for the animation," said Scheetz. This low tech solution comes after extensive research showed that the latest technology wasn't the best production solution. "We found that all of the cool dots on the face, interpolating algorithms that can supposedly track your emotions don't work for us," said Bryant." You spend so much time cleaning it up and so much time correcting it, that you might as well have just done it by hand in the first place - and usually the hand cranked approach gives you better results."
Challenges, and a Bright Future
So what is the biggest challenge in working on Starship Troopers? "Just the size, the sheer unadulterated size of the project," said Bryant. "It is a massive undertaking at every level - from finding all the crew to building the technology to render the show." For Scheetz, the challenge is more immediate. "Trying to get the animation done on time is our biggest challenge," said a tired Scheetz. "Time is definitely our biggest enemy."
Part of this time crunch is due to the standards that Bryant, Scheetz and all the crew at Foundation Imaging set for themselves. "Foundation Imaging is not about to produce crap," said Bryant. "We don't have multiple quality levels - it's actually a limitation of the company in that we only have one quality level. So we knew that it was not going to be easy, because we weren't going to make it easy on ourselves."
What will the future hold - can one team create a full show in just a week? "That's just blindingly fast," Scheetz says with a weary sigh. "We have four teams doing four shows in four weeks, but to have a single team create a show in just a week is too much. We've even talked about what if we rolled the entire company into one big Mega-team, but then quality control and continuity would suffer." For Bryant, the challenges are well worth the effort, as Foundation is breaking new ground with the show. "[Troopers] is not a cartoon show - it's virtual film making. It's a live action show that is just entirely computer generated - or rather animator generated, said Bryant. "After all, the computers are just the machines that generate motion between keyframes. Its the animators that make the difference."
Erik Holsinger has been writing about digital media production so long he remembers a time when 1 Mbyte of RAM was an impressive thing. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org