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December 13
2018

ISSUE

Winter 2019

Phil Tippett: Following his Imagination to the Stars and Beyond

By CHRIS McGOWAN

Phil Tippett, VES (Image courtesy of Tippett Studio)

“I asked [George Lucas], ‘If you were going to cast an actor to play Jabba [the Hutt in Return of the Jedi], who would that be?’ And he thought for a moment and said, ‘Sydney Greenstreet’ [a corpulent English actor]. At that moment I got a flash and came up with the design.”

—Phil Tippett

Tippett; Dennis Muren ASC, VES; Ken Ralston and Richard Edlund ASC, VES shared an Academy Award for Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi – a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects. (Image courtesy of Tippett Studio)

Throughout his career, Phil Tippett, VES has shown that imagination “will find a way.” He has brought all sorts of memorable creatures to life in movies like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Starship Troopers and the Twilight Saga, while expanding the possibilities of special effects with his creative and technical skills. His dreams have become our dreams and left their mark on global culture. His firm, Tippett Studio, has provided VFX for many notable films and branched into the growing art form of fixed-location entertainment incorporating digital imagery. Along the way, Tippett has garnered two Academy Awards and an Emmy, the George Méliès Award for Artistic Excellence from the Visual Effects Society (VES), and numerous Oscar nominations with Tippett Studio.

“Phil Tippett has functioned as one of the major engines pushing the visual effects industry further than it was ever thought possible,” said VES Executive Director Eric Roth, when Tippett received the George Méliès Award in 2009. “Phil has become one of the giants of our industry by pioneering new ways to make the fantastical a practical reality.”

The seeds for Tippett’s career were planted early. Born in 1951 in Berkeley, California, he was seven years old when he saw The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, which featured Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation technique called Dynamation. The movie’s monsters and special effects were like “a lightning bolt” for Tippett. He started teaching himself how to make rudimentary stop-motion films with clay sculptures, articulated G.I. Joe dolls, and an 8mm movie camera that could film frame by frame. His parents worried that his pursuit was obsessive and a complete waste of time. They talked to a psychologist.

They weren’t any happier when he started reading Forrest J. Ackerman’s magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, which had articles about Harryhausen that made his work more palpable to the young Tippett. Later, he would meet Ackerman and attend gatherings at his Hollywood home, including when Harryhausen was in attendance. Tippett was often there with other aspiring filmmakers: Dennis Muren ASC, VES; Tom St. Amand; Jon Berg; and Rick Baker among them – all of whom went on to work on Star Wars. Tippett recalls that Harryhausen wouldn’t give away his trade secrets, but was always encouraging the young artists.

After obtaining a fine arts degree from UC Irvine in 1974, Tippett found work at Cascade Pictures in Hollywood. “That was kind of our school where we were mentored. There wasn’t anybody doing any stop motion in the United States really, except at Cascade. I knew that Jim Danforth was working there, so I arranged a tour and met with Danforth, Dave Allen and Dennis Muren, and we worked for Phil Kellison, who was our mentor. I was brought in initially as a model maker and then eventually a sculptor-animator. That was our graduate work. Most of the stuff we’d previously just done at home.”

Then, thanks to Tippett’s close connections to his animator peers, he became involved with the first Star Wars movie. A friend told Tippett that he knew a guy “who’s making a science fiction movie and he’s looking for people, so you should give him a call.” Tippett continues, “So I called Richard Edlund [ASC, VES] and he was looking for camera people. It was not my forte, but I gave him Dennis [Muren]’s number, and so Richard hired Dennis.

“George [Lucas] wanted to do some insert shots for the cantina scene [the dingy Tatooine dive bar],” says Tippett, “and Dennis hooked George up with Rick Baker, and Rick Baker hired me and three other out-of-work stop-motion animators.” Tippett worked on the cantina creatures.

“During that period George saw some stop-motion puppets that I had, and that gave him the idea for the [holo]chess set with stop-motion. This was right at the end of the schedule, two weeks to go before everything had to be done,” relates Tippett. “So George said, ‘Make me 10 alien monsters.’” Tippett, Baker and others spent about a week working on new creatures (as well as recycling some puppets Tippett had previously made) and shot them over a few days.

Tippett was head of ILM’s “creature shop” for Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and worked with Jon Berg and Muren to animate the AT-AT Imperial Walkers and Tauntaun animals with a pioneering stop-motion technique (“go motion”) with “motion blur” to make model movement more realistic and less jerky.

For Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983), Tippett designed the inimitable Jabba the Hutt. “Ralph McQuarrie, Joe Johnston, Nilo Rodis-Jamero and I all contributed designs, and George eventually picked the design that I came up with.” Initially, Lucas wasn’t finding what he wanted. “So I asked him, ‘If you were going to cast an actor to play Jabba, who would that be?’ And he thought for a moment and said, ‘Sydney Greenstreet’ [a corpulent English actor]. At that moment I got a flash and came up with the design.”

Tippett and a Tauntaun maquette for Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. (Image courtesy of Tippett Studio)

The Imperial Walkers. (Image courtesy of Tippett Studio and Walt Disney)

Tippett and a “go motion” set-up for The Empire Strikes Back. (Image courtesy of Tippett Studio)

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a Tauntaun. (Image courtesy of Tippett Studio and Walt Disney)

Tippett and an Imperial Walker in The Empire Strikes Back. (Image courtesy of Tippett Studio)

The Rancor beast of The Return of the Jedi and its creator, Phil Tippett. (Image courtesy of Tippett Studio)

Tippett’s work on his own “Prehistoric Beast” short film led to the documentary Dinosaur! His dinosaur knowledge came in handy several years later on Jurassic Park. (Image courtesy of Tippett Studio)

Tippett works on RoboCop. (Image courtesy of Tippett Studio)

RoboCop was another example of Tippett’s “go motion.” (Image courtesy of Tippett Studio and Orion Pictures)

Tippett also developed the fearsome Rancor dungeon-dwelling creature. He, Muren, Richard Edlund and Ken Ralston received an Academy Award for Return of the Jedi – a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects.

Tippett subsequently set up Tippett Studio in Berkeley with his wife, Jules Roman, in 1984 (she is the company president) and directed the short dinosaur film Prehistoric Beast, utilizing his “go motion” animation technique. The film depicts a Tyrannosaurus’s pursuit of a Monoclonius. Tippett hoped to sell it to the educational market. “I knew a lot of stuff. I’d been working with paleontologists from UC Berkeley.” Ultimately, some television producers became interested, and it was turned into the full-length documentary Dinosaur!, with Tippett providing the dinosaur sequences. It won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in 1986.

Tippett and/or his studio worked on such projects as Dragonslayer (1981), RoboCop (1987) and Willow (1988), all noteworthy for their special effects. And then came Jurassic Park (1993), a life-changing event for Tippett.

There is an oft-told story that Tippett was at the ILM test screening where Dennis Muren showed off the possibilities of photorealistic animation to Steven Spielberg and others, and when Phil saw the CGI dinosaurs he said, “I think I’m extinct.”

“That’s true,” says Tippett. “But it came as no surprise. I’d been working with Dennis, and we’d been prepping Jurassic Park for quite a while. I was very aware of the work they had been doing with computer graphics. So when they got to the stage of Spielberg committing to go with computer graphics, yeah, everything changed for me.”

Tippett saw it as a “shot to the head” of stop-motion animation, but Spielberg called him and urged him to participate in Jurassic Park, for both his filmmaking skills and his in-depth knowledge of dinosaurs. “Steven didn’t want them portrayed as monsters. He wanted them portrayed as the animals they were, behaviorally. I was tasked with keeping everything on track. We’d go through the script. Michael Crichton, because he was writing, didn’t worry about things like scale. [In his writing] the T-Rex picks up a car and shakes it in his jaws, like in a Godzilla movie, but it wouldn’t do that. The car was too heavy for a Tyrannosaurus to lift. I was just keeping things on track.”

Velociraptors on the loose in Jurassic Park. (Image copyright © Universal Pictures)

“I’d been working with Dennis [Muren], and we’d been prepping Jurassic Park for quite a while. I was very aware of the work they had been doing with computer graphics. So when they got to the stage of Spielberg committing to go with computer graphics, yeah, everything changed for me.”

—Phil Tippett

 

Conceptualizing the T-Rex of Jurassic Park. (Image courtesy of Tippett Studio)

Tippett adds, “In the end, I got kicked upstairs, so I ended up having more of a supervisory capacity.” He was, in fact, credited as “Dinosaur Supervisor” for the film and oversaw both ILM and Tippett Studio animators, and made sure the animals seemed realistic and alive. It all turned out rather well for him: Tippett, Dennis Muren, Stan Wilson and Michael Lantieri shared an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Tippett Studio animators began their transition to computer-generated animation on Jurassic Park by developing the DID (Digital-Input-Device) system that linked a computer animation program to sensors in the joints of stop-motion armature. This later earned Craig Hayes (Tippett Studio co-founder/VFX Supervisor) and others an Academy Award for Scientific and Technical Achievement.

Chewbacca enjoys holographic chess with Woody Harrelson as Beckett in Solo: A Star Wars Story. (Image © Walt Disney)

Holochess in Solo: A Star Wars Story. (Image © Walt Disney)

Scenery from Dream of Anhui. (Image courtesy of Tippett Studio and Wanda)

Landscapes from Dream of Anhui. (Image courtesy of Tippett Studio and Wanda)

Mad God is Tippett’s epic stop-motion work in progress. (Image courtesy of Phil Tippett)

A scene from Phil Tippett’s Mad God. (Image courtesy of Phil Tippett)

Tippett’s studio has supplied VFX for more than 70 films, including Dragonheart, Ghostbusters II, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Starship Troopers, Armageddon, The Haunting, Mission to Mars, The Matrix Revolutions, Cloverfield, The Spiderwick Chronicles, the Twilight series, Ted, Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Tippett also worked on the holochess scene for Solo: A Star Wars Story. Tippett Studio reconstructed pieces that had eroded over time and utilized stop motion in-house for the new version.

Tippett Studio is now also involved in producing fixed-location immersive entertainment. Its first effort was the Dream of Anhui “flying theater” ride with CGI and sensory effects for a Wanda theme park in Anhui, China. “Now we’re doing a bunch of other ones, mostly Chinese.”

Tippett has also been finishing his own feature-length stopmotion epic called Mad God, which he says is impossible to describe. “It’s like everything but the kitchen sink that I’ve been thinking about for the last 60 years kind of rolled into one.” He screened the film-in-progress last year at New York’s MOMA (Museum of Modern Art).

In terms of advice for aspiring VFX artists, Tippett says, “One thing is to assess your own level of skill and talent. And you just need to be somewhat obsessed with wanting to do this stuff.”


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