Bill Desowitz chatted with vfx legend Phil Tippett about his move to the director's chair for Starship Troopers 2.
Vfx legend Phil Tippett (Starship Troopers, Star Wars, RoboCop, Jurassic Park and Dragonheart) gets his first crack at directing with the direct-to-DVD Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation. Limited to a 26-day schedule, $6 million budget and miniscule amount for vfx (courtesy of his Tippett Studio), he definitely had his hands full with those pesky alien bugs. Part Alien, part Sam Fuller-style war picture, Starship Troopers 2 couldnt come out at a better time, what with the war in Iraq. Tippett discusses his directorial debut with VFXWorld editor Bill Desowitz.
Bill Desowitz: Starship Troopers 2 is guerilla filmmaking in more ways than one.
Phil Tippett: Yeah I know. It certainly was done on a shoestring, so we ended up having to pull out as many stops as we could.
BD: Is $6 million accurate?
PT: Yeah, thats accurate.
BD: And what about the budget for effects?
PT: Oh, my god! Thats almost incalculable. I mean I was able to beg, borrow, steal and cajole and plead for help. It certainly helps having my own studio. I was able to get a number of folks to pitch in and help get it done.
BD: Were you able to do much previs?
PT: Well, kind of. I mean every filmmaker uses pre-visualization in a different way and you can do it and use it if youve got the budget, and in my case I had time because it took about a year to get the script completely together. And during that period I used that time and whatever resources I could to cobble together. With a hot glue gun or a pencil and paper, I tried to come up with as much stuff as I could. Primarily as an assistant and an aide to work with the writer [Ed Neumeier] so we would build sets and little sets and miniatures and figure out exactly or more precisely what we were intending on doing because we every decision we made was a financial one.
BD: How are the bugs different this time around?
PT: Well, we used the generic stand-by warrior bug from the first film. Theyre the equivalent of the infantry, so in the first act and in the third act when the bugs are attacking the human beings we just recycled the warrior bugs from Starship I, and then the new bugs that we brought on were the parasite bugs and the spy bugs. They were integral to the story and the idea of people being hijacked by the enemy. So those there were two new kinds of bugs that were designed. I was lucky to get my buddy, Craig Hayes, who designed all the creatures in the first Starship Troopers to design the new bugs just to keep everything in the same world.
BD: And what software did you use?
PT: Oh, our studio animation packages: Maya, Shake, RenderMan, and then theres a lot of plug-ins that the guys at the studio write and make work better with our system.
BD: And what about other effects besides the bugs?
PT: Certainly there were a number of shots that did require atmosphere or a spaceship here or there some kind of an effect enhancement. A great deal of the effects were done actually onstage, like all the blowing of smoke and debris and that kind of thing by [supervisor] Michael Lantieri, who is quite well known in the business for doing that kind of floor effects stuff. He was able to come on and I had worked with him quite a bit on Spielberg and Lucas film projects, and we were really lucky to get him on this film. He did it as a favor. Thats how you can make these kinds of things for that amount.
BD: Overall was it more helpful shooting in high-definition?
PT: No, its got some pluses and minuses. I think with any type of emerging technology is it has a tendency to be in the hands of the rocket scientists for its trial period, and theres a tendency for everybody to want everything to be perfect, and, as a filmmaker, thats not really what you want. And many times, particularly for a war or horror picture, you want things to not be pretty. So it took a great deal of work for a person to involve the director of photography and myself to get the kind of [gritty] look we were looking for in high definition with the contrast range and the color palette. And it really necessitated working in quite a bit of smoke, which was very uncomfortable, but we needed that to get the kind of images that we wanted. Plus I wanted to do everything hand held and the cameras are huge! Theyre just gigantic so that makes it kind of difficult for the camera operators on a day-to-day basis. It really helped me out in a number of situations where I might not have been able to get the coverage that I really needed. Well, you can really blow the digital images up significantly and they really dont fall apart that bad, so thats a huge asset.
BD: What was it like directing?
PT: It was not a huge surprise. I mean, Ive been doing this stuff for the last 30 years and my previous incarnation as a visual effects supervisor gave me the opportunity to work on everything. You know, from the cradle to the grave on any production. Youre there right in the beginning with the producers, directors and writers figuring out how youre going to do this stuff, and then youre there shooting the whole thing and then youre there all the way through post-production and the delivery of the final release print. You just deal with every single department.
BD: Do you see any interesting visual effects trends taking place these days?
PT: Not yet. I hope to at some point in the future, but it seems as though the insatiable need for summer spectacle kind of continues to be the driving drug of choice. At least in my milieu thats kind of what side our bread is buttered on.
BD: Lately, it seems with many of the comic book and superhero movies that the blending of live action and CG creates more and more proportional problems.
PT: Yeah, theres a number of tricks that you need to apply to hand massage them into being in the same world so you know just getting the weight and the mass and the lighting is pretty darn tricky. And a lot of places you see these days that by the sheer volume of shots that its harder and harder to apply the craft as rigorously as one needs to get all that stuff working together, and some of it falls a little bit short.
Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation. DVD. Columbia TriStar Home Ent., $24.96.
Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.com.