Building the Perfect Beast

Special-effects wizard Phil Tippett--creator of Starship Troopers' murderous bugs--envisions the digital future.

They based the different types of bugs on military functions. For armchair troopers, here's Hayes's rundown of the film's insect forces: "The Warrior Bugs are just dangerous. They can attack not only from jaws and claws, but from any part of the body; their legs are all pointy, and thousands of them pour out in waves across the surface. The Hopper Bugs are Zeroes, like an air force, attacking from the sky, swooping down and scooping people up. The Tanker Bugs are like tanks or half-tracks that move along with the infantry. The Plasma Bugs are super-heavy artillery, 85 feet tall, our Guns of Navarone bugs; they're able to launch their plasma into space and shoot down ships and knock asteroids out of orbit. The Brain Bug is the central-intelligence bug, and its entourage are chariot bugs who join to form a vehicle for the Brain Bug." Tippett screened insect documentaries (including The Hellstrom Chronicle) and World War II movies and, for inspirational mayhem, The Wild Bunch. "A lot of the color patterns," says Hayes, "came from spiders and wasps, natural history. You flesh one creature out, then go back and forth and fine-tune them to match. And Phil is always thinking of what a thing can do, how fast it can buck and spin around."

Tippett was on the set for the filming of the battle scenes, where the actors had to imagine their enemies. He tried to embody the insects to help Verhoeven pitch the tone for the actors and--most important--signal where they should look during one-on-one or one-on-swarm combat with arachnids. He rigged two poles with a length of rope, like a surveyor's tool, to show the actors both the length and position of the insects. And, Verhoeven says, "Phil always took the front pole, stretching the pole forward and impressing the actors with the threat. He went into attack mode."

The attack mode is a good one for an effects specialist to be in these days, when frustration and anxiety temper the exhilaration of being in demand. The typical request for effects shots per picture has skyrocketed from the dozens to the hundreds. The chaos has sent the small but burgeoning industry into a tizzy. Special-effects houses can go under from not winning big contracts or underbidding for them, by failing to meet deadlines or producing less-than-brilliant results. The cost of software, computers and animators has shot up as quickly and fatally as a Plasma Bug's spume. For its investment to pay off, a company must generate a stream of assignments. But sometimes it's hard to snag new business when you're swamped by a single huge project--like Titanic. ILM's chief competitor in the live-action field, L.A.-based Digital Domain, got the contract for Titanic, but industry talk has it that the company underestimated the project and lost money. Digital Domain laid off 31 workers when the company couldn't segue into another jumbo production.

Jon Davison admits to feeling worried for Tippett, who expanded his west Berkeley base and increased his staff to 100 while laboring on Starship Troopers. "One of the things that happens is you end up acquiring more people, more machines, more software, more space--more overhead. And as the overhead expands, so does the risk that you won't be able to support it." Davison takes the collapse of the ninety-strong Boss Studios in L.A. last August as a cautionary tale. The studio's founder, Richard Edlund, achieved industry-wide fame at ILM for his effects work on the Star Wars trilogy; later, Boss won its own acclaim for films like Ghostbusters and Die Hard. But, Davison says, "the profit margin in the effects business is very small, and because every time out of the box you're trying to create something new and different, it's a risky financial venture. You can get a director who changes his mind and sinks you; software problems can sink you."

In this crazy all-or-nothing period, even studio-backed companies like Warner Digital (Batman and Robin) can go belly-up. And undeniable special-effects bonanzas like Starship Troopers hit the screen with blocks of credits that are patchwork quilts. Sony Pictures' ImageWorks did just as eye-opening a job on the outer-space flak fights as Tippett did on giant bugs. But completing the film required a half-dozen other effects sources, including ILM and the late, lamented Boss. Despite the competition, at moments like that, an all-hands-on-deck feeling permeates the field. As Jim Morris told me in August, "The studio came to us and asked us to help them get the picture done, and of course we [did]. For a number of reasons: It doesn't do anyone in the effects business any good if effects pictures don't come out on schedule looking good, and the director, Paul Verhoeven, is somebody with whom we've worked before and hope to work with again."

Since the effects realm has become an ever-fragmenting environment, it's no wonder that breakthrough digital work often gets done at places that are less like factories and more like artists' guilds. As Morris explained to the New York Times, "The effects industry grew up with owner-operators; they paid their bills and they broke even because they got to do what they loved."

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