Interstellar Exterminators

By Robley, Les Paul | American Cinematographer, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Interstellar Exterminators


Robley, Les Paul, American Cinematographer


Cinematographer Jost Vacano, ASC, BVK and a team of effects experts conjure up marauding swarms of immense insects for Starship Troopers.

In 1959, science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein published Starship Troopers, an award-winning novel detailing Earth's battles against mammoth insectoids, as well as the lives of the soldiers who fought in the war. But adapting the epic scope of Heinlein's classic tome for the cinema necessitated nearly 40 years' worth of special effects innovations. The enormous amount of effects work entailed by such a project, however, is nothing new for director Paul Verhoeven and cinematographer Jost Vacano, ASC, BVK, who had previously collaborated on the future-flung films RoboCop and Total Recall (see AC July '90).

"What's unexpected in this film are primarily the bugs they're the main actors," explains Vacano. "And they're coming out of the computer, which meant that we had to shoot things without having the main actors in frame they were only in our minds.

"Whether you're doing opticals or using computer-generated images, the procedures [for the cinematographer] are very similar," Vacano continues. "The main artistic problem is that you have to frame objects which are not there. You always have to keep in mind the size of the bugs - even the eyelines are important. You start working with cutouts, or long poles with flags on top, so you can determine the height of the bugs. This made it difficult for me, the actors, and especially A-camera operators Billy O'Drobinak and Mark Emery Moore."

Vacano is one of two cameramen employed by Verhoeven throughout his feature-film career in both Holland and America - the other being cinematographer/ director Jan DeBont, ASC. In the past, the Dutch director staggered his relationship with each cameraman: he would work with one on a pair of movies, and then switch to the other for his next two cinematic endeavors.

Born in Munich, Vacano began shooting for Verhoeven on the World War !!-resistance drama Soldier of Orange, followed by the controversial coming-of-age film Spetters. Since their pair of aforementioned science-fiction epics, Vacano and Verhoeven have worked together on Showgirls (AC Nov. '95). The cinematographer's other credits include his Oscar-nominated imagery on Das Boot (AC May '97), The Neverending Story, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, The 21 Hours of Munich, 52 Pick-Up, Rocket Gibraltar and Untamed Heart.

With DeBont concentrating on his directorial career, Vacano may find himself shooting even more of Verhoeven's films, although the cinematographer says that he has found their existing arrangement to be quite satisfying. "Alternating every two years has kept our working relationship very fresh," notes Vacano. "Back in Germany, I had an experience where I worked for a director on maybe 10 to 15 films in a row. Working together too many times can be dangerous, because you start to develop a routine and you don't have to talk anymore. The cameraman knows exactly how the director will stage the action, and the director knows exactly how the director of photography will shoot the whole film. That can become a bit sterile. The way Jan and I alternated with Paul over the course of a two-film period always resulted in a fresh perspective and a new energy."

Location shooting for Starship Troopers in Hell's Half Acre (a county park west of Casper, Wyoming) and the Badlands of South Dakota began in March 1996 and lasted four long months. Hell's Half Acre is a remote canyon with strange rock formations - wellsuited to depict Tango Urilla, an alien world where Earth's troopers make their last stand against the rampaging insects. The crew built roads which navigated to the bottom of the crevices so that the art department could erect the humans' command center; equipment not transportable by four-wheeldrive vehicles had to be lowered into the pit by helicopter. "That was the biggest set I've ever lit in my life! …

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