BEWARE: Hell Has Frozen Over!
Three years before Final Fantasy threw down the CGI gauntlet, another sci-fi story of man against alien was being rendered in full CGI. That story was Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles, a cartoon about man versus bug based on the novel by Robert Heinlein. Final Fantasy made a lot of noise about state-of-the-art computer animation, but Roughnecks is perhaps more impressive. If you know computers, you know that three years is a huge time span. The creators of Roughnecks were dealing with the bleeding edge of motion capture and doing it within the time constraints of a series. They managed to imbue life into their 3D models while cranking out watchable CGI effects. Given the relatively small scale, smaller budget, cramped time frame, and experimentation factor with motion capture, Roughnecks acquits itself nicely.
Facts of the Case
Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles was a kid-friendly series on the Sci-Fi network that lasted 40 episodes. The series was broken into five-episode blocks that formed "campaigns." The Zephyr Campaign comprises episodes 21-25, yet is the last campaign to be released on DVD.
This standalone segment finds the roughnecks stranded on an ice asteroid infested with bugs. They must stave off bug attacks while finding a way out of their ice prison. Eventually, they discover that the asteroid is no ordinary bit of space junk, and the stakes are elevated. While the crew wrestles with the logistics of survival, emotional relationships between them begin to manifest.
Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles closely followed the story of Robert Heinlein. This is the same story that Verhoeven used as the basis for Starship Troopers, but the series has more time to explore the characters and remains truer to the original vision.
The first thing most people notice about Roughnecks is the animation. It is unusual even today to see a series rendered completely in three-dimensional CGI. To have tackled a 100% CGI series in 1997 was ambitious, and the makers are justifiably proud of the result. In the commentary, they joke that this DVD represents a milestone of cinematic history, but I think they are right.
The animation is not flawless, not by a long shot. In fact, the reason why The Zephyr Campaign is so long in coming to DVD is that the series creators were displeased with the inconsistencies in the animation. There are shimmers galore, aliasing, stutters, and other digital artifacts. Some of the models and effects seem incomplete or not properly integrated, as though the shadows or transparency is not quite right. However, these imperfections only serve to highlight the bleeding edge of the technology they were working with. That the animators produced episode-length animations of watchable quality is a testament to their professionalism. I've tried my hand at 3D animation, and I assure you the tweaking could literally go on forever if you let it. The team focused on the story and characters, leaving eye candy as a secondary consideration. Even so, there are plenty of neat effects. Lighting is particularly nice; when soldiers fire weapons, the bursts reflect off their faces. I was impressed by the detail of the faces (though they were liberal with the smoothing algorithms). This series delivers a remarkably high level of visual quality within its constraints.
The audio is not as successful. This mix is in 5.1, but I doubt the series originally aired in digital surround sound. The 5.1 mix is tepid, with insufficient bass and anemic surround effects. It would have fared better in a 2.0 mix. The score is smooth and varied, which is a nice touch.
The real heart of Roughnecks is the characters. Considering that they are computer-rendered polygons inhabiting a kid-friendly series, the amount of adult nuance is surprising. Love triangles, mental instability, teen angst, despair, and frustration all manifest themselves with complex results. Each character is distinct, with separate agendas and personality. The voice actors shine through the CGI, giving the series an organic feel and a human touch. The subtlety of the facial expressions is complemented by pitch-perfect voice acting.
For a niche series with a limited run, the amount of extras on the DVD is impressive. The full-length commentary track is rich and engaging. It covers widespread aspects of the production. The animators share their triumphs and frustrations, while the producers and actors discuss characterization. Everyone seems to have a fond spot for the series. The commentators joke with each other in the easy manner that comes with long hours spent together.
The production artwork was more interesting than galleries tend to be, with actual blueprints and models depicted. The second-best extra isn't even listed on the back: the Starship Troopers Animated Series Guide is an entertaining blob of text that explains the story, production, and characters in detail. Frequent references to ADRENALINE, THRILLS, and the RUSH of ADVENTURE pepper the text in echo of the propaganda theme of the novel.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The story is hit or miss. At times it feels like a sophisticated interpretation of Heinlein's outlandish sci-fi fascism. But the video game roots of the animators showed frequently. Most of the time the story devolves into soldiers shooting at whatever moves. The battles are sometimes awkward with the jerky bugs stopping in place before being blasted into squiggles of DNA.
In addition to static video game syndrome, the series suffers from one too many "influences." It is a shame to see writers fall back on what has been done before.
I have to be honest, the first viewing of Roughnecks left me lukewarm. It was only after processing some of the subtler elements that I began to appreciate the series.
This DVD is the last of the series and lacks some features that were in the other campaigns. If you require subtitles or foreign language tracks, they are missing here.
Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles won an Emmy, so calling it overlooked is perhaps unwarranted. But I'll bet that most people are not acquainted with the series. If you enjoyed the movie Starship Troopers, this series is a worthy exploration of the same universe. The DVD offers five episodes and healthy extras for the modest price. Furthermore, the care and work that went into the series is evident in the notes and commentary. This DVD is worth a look for those who can get past the dated style of the CGI.
This court martial is unwarranted: send the roughnecks back into active duty.
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