“In those days very few people were doing visual effects and it was difficult to find work,” recalls American Visual Effects Supervisor Phil Tippett. “Ray Harryhausen [The Golden Voyage of Sinbad] would do his kind of shows, and every once and a while somebody would do a fantasy or space movie. But generally, studios had disbanded a lot of their visual effects departments. There weren’t that many stop-motion animators so they didn’t do it.” The attitude changed with the arrival of filmmakers George Lucas (American Graffiti) and Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). “George and Steven were big fans of the same kinds of movies that we liked and embraced the technology; they had the resources that allowed us to pushed things farther.”
After joining Industrial Light & Magic, Phil Tippett contributed to the scene in the original Star Wars (1977) where Chewbacca plays a game of chess against R2-D2. “Dennis Muren and I built all of the chess figures and animated them.” Stop-motion evolved into go-motion with the sequel The Empire Strikes Back (1980). “Stop-motion is a static puppet which is usually attached to the table or other kind of device that you can adjust with a blue screen incrementally. You basically sculpt the performance by hand. In Empire we attached the Tauntauns to some of the motion-control equipment to achieve a motion blur. It helped the stop-motion artifacts blend into the live-action scene.” The technique was also employed during the attack sequences on the ice planet Hoth with the Imperial Walkers. “By the time of Return of the Jedi , the third Star Wars, everybody was like, ‘Okay, it’s time to graduate from high school now.’ But there were enough different things we could throw in. Dennis Muren wanted to do the Rancor as a big hand puppet which we did. Initially, George wanted the Rancor to be a man in a suit. They built a big suit and it didn’t look good.” The creative effort paid off as the final installment of the original trilogy won a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects at the Oscars.
Reflecting on his Academy Award-nominated work in Dragonslayer (1981), Phil Tippett states, “The director Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, the producer, were friends of George’s. We had a lot of fun working on that. They allowed us to take what we had learned on Empire with the Tauntauns and take it to the next level.” Williow (1988) resulted in another Academy Award nomination. “Ron Howard is an even keel guy and gives good directions. There’s plenty of new and weird stuff in Willow. It was fun. Working with good directors is very rewarding.” Tippett was co-honoured with the Best Visual Effects Oscar for a dinosaur resurrection tale. “Jurassic Park  was a hard one for me in that it was the big transition from stop-motion go-motion to computer graphics. At some point I was obsolete but it turned out that a lot of the computer guys didn’t understand all of the stuff you need to do to bring these creatures to life. We developed a bunch of technology to bridge the gap between computer graphics and stop-motion go-motion.”
DragonHeart (1996) contended for Best Visual Effects at the Academy Awards. “I’ve worked with Rob Cohen in developing the design for the dragon and did not work on the production itself. We did a whole bunch of animatics for scenes to play out the action and gave that to ILM.” Tippett is proud of the picture which brought his Oscar nomination tally to five. “Starship Troopers  was the big one for me. There were so many moving parts. It was a cool war movie. It was visceral and R-rated. I like Paul Verhoeven a lot; our approaches were in sync with each other. That was Tippett Studio's first big foray.” When asked about the infamous comic book adaptation Howard the Duck (1986), Tippett chuckles, “I got to design a wacky thing with a lot of moving parts; it was a fun and different kind of character to do.”
“The good thing about the Twilight series for us is that we could really develop the characters not only in their look but also in their behavior,” states Phil Tippett who has been involved in creating the wolves since they first appeared in The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009). With The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (2011), a new director meant a different approach for the shape-shifting creatures. “Bill Condon [Gods and Monsters] wanted them lived in, and running through the woods with muddy paws and scraggily hair.” 186 wolf shots had to be produced. “We had about four months when we were prepping all the stuff. There is always this thing between the studios and the directors. The directors want more and the studios don’t want to have to pay for it. There is always a conflict there. We pretty much knew by the time we were starting, what type of shots there were going to be.” Assessing the current contribution by Tippett Studio to the vampire love story, Tippett reveals, “The adjustments we made to do the show are pretty significant in terms of efficiency and resources. These wolves are heavy duty rendering hogs and in the stories there are more and more wolves. We had to be careful about the technology. We would have to revamp as a director wanted different kinds of looks. The animators are really up on wolf behavior. On Breaking Dawn my co-supervisor Matt Jacobs took the art and the technical people to Wolf Mountain; they got into a big pen with some wolves. It was good because you can get a visceral sense of the wolves and we looked a lot up in documentaries.”
“It’s certainly influenced by George in terms of his direction style because like all good directors he’s very inclusive,” remarks Phil Tippett when discussing how his time spent at ILM influenced the way he operates Tippett Studio. “George would say, ‘Here is what we need out of the shot. Now go do it.’ He pretty much took what we gave him. There weren’t any real big issues. In Return of the Jedi there is a scene where the Ewoks roll logs down a hill and one of the Walkers trips over them and falls down. I remember working out that pantomime with George. Generally, he was good about it. He would visit us and we would ask him questions.” The VFX industry has become revolutionized by technology. “The big change has been computer graphics. Up until that point there were only a handful of people who could do what I do and now there are legions of animators.” There is a critical factor required if a VFX facility is to survive. “The key is doing high quality work. It is so competitive. It’s not a level playing field. Countries like India, Korea, China, England, and Australia are more expensive than we are but because of the tax incentives the studios go there.”
There are certain elements required to be a successful visual effects supervisor. “Knowing the moviemaking process, having ideas and not being afraid to speak your mind are the main things,” advises Phil Tippett who has ventured behind the camera. “I’m a lot more sympathetic to the directors. Everybody should be made to direct a movie.” Tippett states, “I would encourage people to go to the Tippett Studio website and checkout Mutantland  which is a little short that we made which was fun. If anybody is interested, I’m posting a bunch of stuff from a film I’m working on my own.” The cinematic project has been in development for the past 20 years. “It could keep going on. In fact I tell some of the guys there’s a title card that says, ‘The End.’ So if I was to have a heart attack in three minutes and they can just slap ‘The End’ on it and we’ll be done.” Contemplating his own ability to survive in VFX industry, Tippett says, “I’m hoping its skill and the attention to detail.” He adds, “Everybody’s creative process is different; it’s a matter of figuring out their take on things.”
Twilight stills © 2011 Summit Entertainment.
Many thanks to Phil Tippett for taking the time out of his schedule for this interview.
For more information, be sure to visit the Tippett Studio website here.
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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.