Master of Creatures
A special-effects legend makes an old-school monster movie by hand.
Phil Tippet lowers a stage light and clips a filter over it with clothespins, wincing as the hot metal singes his fingertips. He’s red-faced and sweaty, and the glare from the bulb transforms his beard and shaggy mane of hair into a glowing white nimbus. He raises the light back into position and aims it at his miniature film set, a rusted-out industrial wasteland that’s just a few feet wide.
It’s the middle of a Saturday afternoon, and the 63-year-old Tippett is doing what he typically does on Saturday afternoons: working on his animated film Mad God in his Berkeley studio, using the venerable stop-motion animation technique popularized by Gumby and the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer holiday special.
Two members of Tippett’s crew are arranging scores of characters on the miniature set as he fine-tunes the lighting. The naked, faceless puppets are about 5 inches tall, and each has screws in its heels allowing it to be anchored in place. Their elongated humanoid bodies are coarse, lumpy, and brown. There’s no getting around it — they look like they’ve been molded out of excrement. They’re supposed to look that way. Tippett calls them “Shit Men.”
These days, people associate stop motion with multiplex fare like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and ParaNorman, films that may have a macabre streak but still manage to earn a PG rating. Tippett is dismissive of such “cutesy, little kids’ movies.” His project is wordless, free-form, scatological, graphically violent, and aggressively experimental. It will never play in multiplexes, although the first ten-minute installment has screened for genre aficionados at events such as the Sci-Fi X-Fest in the Bay Area and the Telluride Horror Show in Colorado.
The story involves a character called the Assassin who travels to a subterranean realm with the intent of destroying it. Instead, the Assassin is waylaid by the land’s denizens and transmogrified in hideous, unspeakable ways. But the story isn’t the point. The point of Mad God is to use a classic form of animation to create disturbing creatures and unsettling images that have the eerie clarity of a nightmare. “It’s Samuel Beckett meets Tex Avery meets Bosch and Brecht and Buster Keaton,” Tippett says. “And it’s the antithesis of my day job.”
Phil Tippett is one of the most esteemed visual-effects gurus in the American film industry. His namesake company, Tippett Studio, employs around 100 artists and technicians who use cutting-edge computer-generated animation (C.G.) to create the werewolves in the Twilight films, the amphibious demons in Hellboy, and the giant bugs in Starship Troopers. Tippett’s studio can earn millions or even tens of millions of dollars from a single film project. When we met, he was about to fly to Hawaii to the set of the $150 million-plus film Jurassic World to make sure that the live-action footage is shot so it will best accommodate the later addition of digital dinosaurs.
But for Mad God, Tippett relies on a small group of volunteers willing to sacrifice their Saturdays in exchange for a sense of artistic accomplishment and a free lunch. Tippett has run Kickstarter campaigns to cover the cost of supplies and meals. “The first one brought in more than we asked for and allowed us to be a little more ambitious,” he says, gesturing at his miniature set. “Initially, there weren’t going to be as many Shit Men in this scene.”
Tippett’s studio workspace is littered with props and miniature models of the cinematic icons that he helped to create. Over in the corner is an Imperial Walker, the quadrupedal troop transporter from The Empire Strikes Back. Hanging on the wall by the coffee machine is a life-size bust of the Reaper vampire from Blade II, with its hideous, gaping maw. Up in the rafters is the gigantic ED-209 kill droid from RoboCop.
The man who helps make photorealistic digital T. rexes come to life in Jurassic World derives a different satisfaction from manipulating his creepy little Shit Men. The side project is his way of playing hooky from the massive animation-industrial complex that he helped create. It’s a way of becoming a bit of a mad god himself, bringing inanimate objects to life with his bare hands, like he used to do before computers took over. “If I’d have had to sit in a room and work at a keyboard all day long, I don’t even think I would’ve gotten into the whole commercial visual-effects racket in the first place,” he has written. Four decades ago, visual effects were created by a small team of skilled craftspeople. These days, they’re often created digitally by thousands of technicians working at a dozen different effects houses around the world.
Tippett’s work on films like Starship Troopers and the original Jurassic Park helped to usher in this new era. But he concedes that the modern production process can be “commodified and homogenized.” In his Berkeley studio on this Saturday afternoon, Tippett is getting back to basics. “Mad God hearkens back to a time when special effects were handmade,” he says. “That forces you to slow down, and it changes how you think. There’s a huge difference when you’re working with real things.”
Before the industry switched to C.G., most movie monsters were handcrafted. Back then, Ray Harryhausen was the master of the form, fashioning memorable creatures like the gargantuan octopus that wraps its tentacles around the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1955 film It Came From Beneath the Sea. The creature was actually an articulated puppet; Harryhausen created the illusion of movement by painstakingly repositioning each body part in tiny increments and shooting a single frame at a time.
When Tippett was 7 years old, he begged his parents to take him to see Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad at the Oaks Theater in Berkeley. The 1958 movie had a cast of flesh-and-blood actors, but the real stars were the stop-motion monsters. “I sat there in the dark just mesmerized by the magic of it,” he says. It was impossible for him to fathom exactly how the giant cyclops lumbered around on its cloven hoofs or how the sword-wielding skeleton was able to match every thrust and parry of his human opponents with pinpoint precision. He resolved to find out.
Tippett confesses that, wild with curiosity, he shoplifted 8 mm film highlight reels, sold in those days at department stores, so he could scrutinize stop-motion classics like Sinbad and Mighty Joe Young frame by frame. Mostly, though, he learned the secrets of animation by making it himself. Once he had mowed enough lawns to buy his own camera, he began shooting footage as he manipulated pipe cleaners, bits of clay, and G.I. Joes. “At first, you carefully plan it all out and time the beats with a stopwatch,” he says. “But then your approach becomes more improvisational, like you’re interjecting yourself into this inanimate object.”
Tippett’s break came when he got a job on Star Wars designing aliens’ costumes and animating the brutal game pieces for a holographic chessboard on the Millennium Falcon. By Return of the Jedi, he was head of the creature shop at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Lucasfilm’s visual-effects division. While at ILM, he helped develop “go motion,” a stop-motion technique that eliminated the jitteriness that had plagued its predecessors. He used it on the 1981 film Dragonslayer, creating what Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin called “the best dragon ever put on film.” (Guillermo del Toro, who created nightmarish beasts for his films Pacific Rim and Pan’s Labyrinth, has said that the character was “one of the most perfect creature designs ever made.”) Tippett’s dragon was convincing in every detail, and it moved with a fluid, slinking menace. But it also seemed to have an inner life: It looked like it was scheming, and it was able to express surprise and sorrow and vengeful wrath.
“There’s a tendency to think of animators as technicians,” he says. “But I adamantly insist that the great animators are all actors. I do a lot of research about reptile behaviors, gait, footfall patterns. I get a vibe for what the character should be, what it wants to do. And at that point, it’s pretty much just improvising with the character through the laborious process.”
“Phil is a true artist,” says Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm. “He has this uncanny ability to instantly recognize what breathes life into creatures and aliens of all sizes and shapes.”
By the 1980s, Tippett had inherited Harryhausen’s mantle as the preeminent stop-motion visual-effects wizard in Hollywood. It was a role he maintained until 1993, when Jurassic Park effectively killed the form.
The movie nearly killed Tippett as well. He was initially hired to create all of the film’s dinosaurs, and he shot a test version of the climactic raptors-in-the-kitchen sequence using go motion. But when Steven Spielberg saw the realism that modern C.G. could render, he decided to go all digital. “I think I’m extinct,” Tippett said at the time — a line that Spielberg supposedly liked so much, he adapted it for Jeff Goldblum’s character in the film. Tippett believed that the skills he’d spent a lifetime developing were suddenly obsolete. “I totally imploded,” he says. “I thought that my whole world had evaporated.”
But it turned out he was wrong. Computers could make a dinosaur look real, but they couldn’t make it feel real. Only people could do that — people who had spent decades bringing monsters to life. So Tippett taught the computer animators how gravity would affect the mobility of a 15-ton creature. Using a miniature skeleton that functioned as an input device, they were able to manipulate a dinosaur while watching the virtual version make identical movements on their monitors. Occasionally, Tippett would even draw on their screens to show them precisely how the dinosaurs should hit their marks. He was eventually credited as Dinosaur Supervisor on the film.
Jurassic Park broke box-office records, and the entire film industry, including Tippett Studio, soon followed Spielberg’s move to digital. Now, Tippett’s work largely happens during preproduction. Before a single frame is shot, he helps to plan out the effects sequence down to the height of the camera and the type of lens used. He’s also on set to make sure that the live-action footage will integrate well with the C.G. and that the human actors are reacting realistically to the still-invisible monsters. But the effects themselves are created by dozens of modelers, compositors, animators, and other technicians.
The demand for digital-effects work is exploding. Fifteen years ago, it was unprecedented when Tippett Studio created more than 200 separate film shots with C.G. effects for the movie Starship Troopers. Today, it’s not uncommon for a big-budget movie to have ten times as many shots. Tippett is not necessarily overjoyed by this development. “You ideally want to leave your audience wanting more,” he says. “But sometimes there’s so much that it’s like drinking from a fire hose: just spectacle piled on spectacle piled on spectacle.”
The increased demand for C.G., which comes with increased expenses, has thrown the American special-effects industry into crisis. Work has been steadily migrating to places like China and India, where wages are lower, or Canada and New Zealand, where tax incentives are higher. Rounds of layoffs at California effects houses have become commonplace, and several have closed or been bought out by overseas outfits. For the past two years, visual-effects professionals have picketed the Academy Awards, beseeching movie moguls and the state government to do something to save their jobs.
Tippett says that his studio has been shielded from the worst of the crisis because of its relatively small size and narrow focus on creatures and bad guys. Still, the staff is about half what it was in 2012. “For me, it was always just about skill and craftsmanship,” says Tippett. “More a way of life than a business. I figured that you just try to be as good as you can, and the business will take care of itself. But nowadays, if you lose one contract or go over budget just once, it’s over for you.”
Back in the studio, the volunteers have finished affixing the feet of the Shit Men to the set and are now running strands of tiny monofilament between their featureless heads. When they’re all in place, a series of gentle tugs on these invisible strands will make the characters appear to sway back and forth rhythmically. As the volunteers work, they talk shop, discussing a four-armed villain from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith that was inspired by a stop-motion creation from a classic Harryhausen movie.
One volunteer is a recent graduate from the California College of the Arts, but most are younger members of the Tippett Studio staff whose careers started after the special-effects industry had moved to C.G. “They missed out on using cameras and lights and wooden sticks and glue,” Tippett says. They have helped him craft the menagerie of odd characters that will appear in the film: crucified mummies, a giant grub, a hand clutching an eyeball, a monkey chained to an operating table, a creature with a set of human-size teeth crammed into a misshapen head the size of a potato.
“With C.G., everything is developed with intention,” says Tippett. “When you’re working with objects, they talk to you. You’re listening to what they want to be, and you find stuff that you weren’t looking for.”
There’s no formal shooting script for Mad God — just an eight-page outline and a lot of drawings. Tippett can add a scene or extend a moment on a whim. Stray props from his past projects are often shanghaied into use. (The villain from the 1990 film RoboCop 2 — a disembodied brain and pair of eyeballs — makes a surprise cameo.)
He opens a cupboard that he calls “the bone pile,” which is full of the remnants of old animated characters. There are rows of tiny metal skeletons that used to be dinosaurs, monsters, and robots. If any of these skeletons match the body type of a character he’s creating for his new film, he’ll press them into service, wrapping new foam-rubber flesh around them.
On the other side of the studio, two volunteers are shooting a separate scene. It’s an ambitious setup with row upon row of gleaming obsidian pyramids, which are separated by scrims to create the impression that they are receding into the hazy distance. The camera is mounted on a lathe bed, and one member of Tippett’s volunteer crew turns the lathe so that the camera advances a few millimeters. Another volunteer jiggles a scrim in the foreground so that the camera reads it as a blur and doesn’t attempt to autofocus on it. They fire off a frame of footage. Then they carefully reposition the Shit Men, move the camera a few millimeters more, jiggle the scrim again, and shoot another frame.
“Ninety-nine percent of Mad God is done with tools that were developed 100 years ago,” Tippett says. “But the whole landscape has changed in terms of allowing me to do this.” A digital camera is hooked to a MacBook, and Tippett is able to see exactly what the finished frame will look like in real time. He can also shuffle back through previous frames to make sure that movements are smooth. It’s a sea change from when he was first experimenting with animation, and he had to mail his 8 mm footage to a developer in upstate New York. “It was like trying to learn the piano when you didn’t hear the notes until three weeks after you’d hit the keys,” he says.
The volunteers will shoot 340 frames today, which results in a total of 14 seconds of raw material. In the finished footage, the landscape looks appropriately bleak and foreboding, and the pyramids give the illusion of going on for miles and miles. The screen is full of Shit Men who toil wordlessly when the camera glides past them as if it were mounted on an automobile. Tippett surveys the footage and signs off.
Tippett plans to keep laboring away on Mad God indefinitely. “I put together the end titles, so if I get hit by a bus, they can just declare ‘The End,’” he says. Then he gestures around his studio. “But if anybody else wants to take it on, I have all of the equipment here.”