AN INSIDER INTERVIEW WITH PHIL TIPPETT
by Jamie Painter - Star Wars Insider issue #33 1997 and Star Wars #10 1997
Special effects expert Phil Tippett has witnessed a profound evolution in the way films have been made over the past four decades. Tippett, who began his career as a stop-motion animator in the late 1960s, has successfully managed to ride the technological wave that has swept his field. While the demand for stop-motion animation has nearly become obsolete, this industry veteran and his company, Tippett Studio, have remained on the forefront of effects work.
Tippett – whose credits include the Star Wars trilogy, Jurassic Park, Dragonslayer, Indiana Jones and the Temple of doom, RoboCop (1 through 3), Willow, Howard the Duck, Ghostbusters 2, Coneheads, Honey, I shrunk the kids, and Dragonheart – was first drawn to stop-motion animation as a kid growing up in Berkeley and San Diego, California in the 1950s.
As a child, he recalls being greatly affected by two films, in particular: Willis O’Brien’s King Kong (which he saw on TV) and The 7th voyage of Sinbad, the latter which displayed the stop-motion achievements of effects maestro Ray Harryhausen.
“I couldn’t figure out how these effects were done, but I knew I had to try to find out. From that moment on, it was a matter of figuring out how to construct, design, and find out the nuances of stop-motion photography,” recalled Tippett from his Berkeley-based studio, where he is currently overseeing special effects for the upcoming Paul Verhoeven sci-fi thriller Starship Troopers.
Unlike most kids, he carried his fascination for these classic films further and began experimenting with stop-motion photography using 8mm film. In fact, most of his early education in the effects field was self-taught.
“I got my training in the garage,” he said. “There were no effects periodicals at the time. Ray was very secretive and nobody else cared about this stuff – although there was one publication, Famous Monsters of Filmland, that would occasionally print photographs about this, but that was about is.
“The rest was figuring it out on my own until I was in high school and was able to contact a few practitioners of the craft – Jim Danforth and Dave Allen, who were working at a commercial facility in Hollywood at the time called Cascade Pictures. I connected with them and, through them, learned the craft of stop-motion animation and effects photography.”
By the age of 17, Tippett had become a professional animator for television commercials. Setting aside his career for a few years to attend the University of California at Irvine, he returned to Cascade, where he met future Star Wars alumni Jon Berg and Dennis Muren During his time at Cascade, Tippett helped animate Poppin’ Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy.
As fate had it, Muren – who was hired to shoot the stop-motion scenes of the starships in Star Wars – would soon alter Tippett’s course forever.
Recalled Tippett, “George Lucas had mentioned that he needed to do some insert shots for the Cantina sequence, so [upon Muren’s suggestion] he hired a group of us that worked under the auspices of make-up artist Rick Baker at ILM. As it turned out, all of the people hired were part of this group at Cascade Pictures and we were all stop-motion animators. As George was coming by to see the Cantina creatures that we were working on, he saw some of my stop-motion work.”
Impressed, Lucas hired Tippett and Berg to create the famous chess match between Chewbacca and R2-D2. According to Tippett, Lucas had initially planned to shoot the chess figures using live-action footage, but was later swayed to utilize the magic of stop-motion animation.
“I think George had another version of this chess sequence in Star Wars that was going to be done with people in outfits or masks,” said the effects expert. “Futureworld (1976) had a hologram scene that had people in outfits, so George was wondering whether or not he should try to do it with stop-motion animation.”
Luckily for Tippett, Lucas opted to go with stop-motion.
After a brief departure from ILM – during which time Tippett and Berg created effects for the low-budget Roger Corman film, Piranha – the two artists returned to ILM to work on The Empire strikes back. Among his contributions to the second installment in the trilogy, Tippett helped design the wampa ice creature and the animated Imperial walkers and the tauntaun.
Setting a new standard in stop-motion, Tippett and Berg also developed a technique to reduce the problem of strobing, a common problem inherent in stop-motion animation. By using computer-controlled motors to blur the motion of the manually-animated models during photography of individual frames of film, the team brought stop-motion animation to a new level of realism.
By 1983, Tippett was head of the Lucasfilm “creature shop,” designing, developing, and constructing a wide variety of aliens for Return of the Jedi, including Jabba the Hutt and the rancor. For his work on the final chapter of the Star Wars trilogy, Tippett was awarded the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, having been nominated the previous year for his creation of Vermathrax Perjorative, the mythological winged serpent in the medieval adventure Dragonslayer. For Jedi, Tippett also animated the bipedal Imperial scout walkers.
In 1983, Tippett left Industrial Light & Magic to launch his own studio, which has flourished over the past 15 years. Of his association with ILM and Star Wars, he had only words of praise.
“I look back very fondly on that period. It was a very unusual, groundbreaking time,” said Tippett. “George Lucas was so gutsy in starting up something like this. Dennis Muren and the others who were employed at Cascade Pictures – we found ourselves as department heads or in supervisory capacities after the first Star Wars film. It couldn’t have been a better time.”
His relationship with Lucas was equally pleasant. “George was always benevolent and a really good leader. He was pretty much bankrolling the shows [on Empire and Jedi] so there wasn’t any studio interference, “ added Tippett.
In addition to his contribution to the Star Wars legacy, Tippett’s other crowning achievement was his effects work for Jurassic Park, which earned him his second Academy Award in 1994. His success on Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster represented the culmination of his lifelong fascination with dinosaurs and paleontology.
In fact, Jurassic Park was not Tippett’s first time creating dinosaurs. In 1984, he originated his own project, an experimental short film entitled, Prehistoric Beast. Shot entirely in his garage, the 10-minute action drama depicts the now-extinct Cretaceous Epoch, which occurred 65-70 million years ago. Nearly two years in the making, Prehistoric Beast represented Tippett’s first attempt at creating cinematic dinosaurs. The film aired as part of the 1985 CBS TV special Dinosaur, for which Tippett was bestowed with an Emmy.
While Tippett was an integral part of the dinosaur design team on Jurassic Park, his role as a stop-motion animator was about to be altered. With the growing popularity of computer graphics imagery, stop-motion was on the verge of near-extinction. He needed to adapt to this new technology if he was going to remain a part of the film community.
Said Tippett of this dramatic change in the special effects world, “Emotionally it was very difficult because any time there’s a technological change, when the new comes in, it has a tendency to suggest that all the practitioners of the previous craft are obsolete. There was certainly a contingency if the ‘New Age techno gurus’ that wanted to try to sell themselves as geniuses and the rest of us as fools. That made things very emotionally awkward, but it didn’t take much more than six or eight months to turn it around.”
For Jurassic Park, Tippett spent two years collaborating with Stan Winston, Michael Lantieri, and ILM’s Muren. The end results were some of the most stunning special effects ever seen on film. While the dinosaurs on view in the film are either Winston’s live-action, full-scale props or ILM’s digital imagery, Tippett provided a key tool for creating realistic movement, particularly in bringing to life the giant Tyrannosaurus Rex and the terrifying velociraptors.
“Steven was very concerned about getting the dinosaurs sanctioned by the paleontological community,” claimed Tippett, who for years had studied the behavioral aspects of dinosaurs. “He knew that he had a monster movie on his hands but he wanted to try to give it some background and depth. So there was a great deal of techniques that we employed to try and make the behavioural background of the creatures more realistic.”
In addition to working with Spielberg and Winston on the set to help choreograph the action, Tippett’s studio designed a “dinosaur direct input device,” which he describes as a “motion-capture device that allows stop-motion animators to manipulate a skeleton that’s in the configuration of a dinosaur.” Simply put, he found a way for stop-motion animators to communicate via the computer.
Having made a successful transition into the digital age, Tippett has mixed feelings about the technological advancement of special effects. On one hand, computers open up more possibilities for animators. However, what was once accomplished by a few good men, now requires a virtual army of technicians.
Said the special effects veteran, “Computer animation is extremely labor intensive and requires more people and a larger community of folks. It’s technically oriented to the degree that for a large production it requires a complete studio setup. When I broke away from ILM to start my company all I needed was a camera and 1,500 feet of warehouse space. Now I’ve got many thousands of feet and 100 employees. So it’s a very different setup. Stop-motion work was a very viable, relatively low-budget technique, while the computer graphics stuff is inordinately expensive.”
One of his fears is that high-tech special effects are over-saturating the film market and what was once mind-blowing entertainment is now becoming common-place.
“I think the danger is that the proliferation of all these theatrical features create a climate that’s like television or magazine culture where there’s so much stuff and nothing is special, “he commented. “The week after a $100 million release comes out, another $100 million release comes out. It’s not memorable. Whereas with something like Star Wars, it stuck in your mind for weeks, months, or years after you saw it the first time.”
While stop-motion animation is no longer a popular tool for the creation of motion picture effects, this art form still retains a place in the film industry. Such filmmakers as Tim Burton (Nightmare before Christmas) and Oscar recipient Nick Park (Close Shave) continue to use stop-motion in their projects. For those interested in becoming stop-motion artists, Tippett stressed the understanding of photography, lightning, construction, continuous motion, and above all else, concentration.
“Sometimes a shot can take days and you can be animating for 15 hours at a stretch. If you make one mistake, you have to do it all over again,” said Tippett, adding that modern technology has aided animators with such helpful tools as video recorders.
As for the theatrical release of the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition this year, Tippett said that he was not involved with any of the updates that were made, nor is he planning to work on the new Star Wars films. However, he is looking forward to experiencing the magic of these films as an audience member, and not as a special effects artist.
“It’s really hard when you’re working on these things to enjoy them,” he said. “At the time, I was just worried about the work. Now that I have kids and looking back 20 years later, I can sit back and enjoy them. So I’m looking forward to seeing the Star Wars pictures and not working on them.”