Celebrating 25 years of ‘Starship Troopers’

“The only good bug is a dead bug.”

Holey moley. It’s 25 years since Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers was released. I still remember having the most joyous time in the cinema watching this film, only later diving into the extensive creature, ship and space visual effects work.

For my book, Masters of FX, I spoke to creature visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett largely about his Tippett Studio CG creature animation. Of course, the film was the VFX supe’s new calling card after his now-famous Jurassic Park experience. I thought I would reproduce here the section from Masters about Starship Troopers.

(It’s worth pointing out there were significant VFX contributions to the show from Sony Pictures Imageworks, including via its Thunderstone miniatures shop, ILM, Boss Film Studios, Banned From The Ranch, and VCE, plus several other studios and a number of special and practical effects contributors).

Enjoy this excerpt, below, from Masters of FX.

Warrior bugs, know as “Arachnids,” attack a military outpost. “Paul Verhoeven really wanted the bugs to have strong staccato and chaotic movements,” says Tippett. To help animate the bugs, Tippett Studio built on the digital input devices first used on Jurassic Park to create the bug animation, and then used a swarming system to show thousands of bugs in the same scene.

It was Tippett’s re-teaming with Paul Verhoeven for Starship Troopers (1997) that pushed the visual effects supervisor and his company fully into the world of complex computer-generated imagery and animation for the distinctive bug enemies of this film.

Starship Troopers’ complex work was helped by a further incarnation of the digital input device used in Jurassic Park, along with advancements in other animation tools. However, the film still presented many challenges, including thousands of bugs on screen at a time, explosions, and direct interaction with actors.

Creature visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett blocks action on the set of Starship Troopers.

The show required bug enemies to be split into distinctive war groupings—ground attack warriors, aerial creatures, and even a flame-throwing tank-like bug—all of which had to be designed from the ground up.

Jurassic Park in some ways was actually easier to do than Starship Troopers because for the movements you have a paleontological record,” admits Tippett. “All the design work’s been done for you. But when you’re doing a fantasy character you have to back up and say, ‘How does it actually work?’”

A Tippett Studio Softimage|3D screenshot.

“The Brain Bug in particular was this gigantic technological hurdle that was labyrinthian,” adds Tippett. “It had this quasi-translucent skin and it was moving all the time, plus it had a net on top of that. Nobody had really done anything like that before. We weren’t quite sure we could either. But Craig Hayes engineered that.”

Luckily, Verhoeven’s satirical take on the subject matter and the copious head decapitations, impalements, and general blood and gore also suited Tippett’s own sensibilities. “I actually heard that when George Lucas saw the movie he said to somebody, ‘That was the job Phil was born to do.’ I was always trying to get directors to chop people’s heads off and squish people—George didn’t like to do that kind of stuff, but Paul did.”

Tippett would go on to become synonymous with the creatures of Starship Troopers; the visual effects supervisor directed a sequel to the film, 2004’s Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation.

Masters of FX.

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