James Clarke chats with animation legend Phil Tippett…
If you know your modern visual effects maestros, and if you know your stop- motion tauntaun from your stop-motion ED209, then you’ll know that Phil Tippett has been at the forefront of the visual effects and animation industries for the past forty years. His visual effects outfit, Tippett Studio, can count the recent movies Twilight, Ted and the forthcoming Jurassic World amongst its feature film credits. Outside of the feature film world, Phil has also recently completed work on a stop-motion, independently funded short entitled Mad God.
I had the chance recently for a quick catch up with Phil to chat with him about his studio’s new digital monster app that is a collaboration between his studio and Efexio to create the Tippett Creature Shop. In essence, the app allows users to purchase that ‘off the peg’, ready to use, ‘Tippett’-quality monster they’ve always wanted for their own projects by uploading their own stills or video footage, choosing an effect from the studio and from there creating a fully rendered short film or photo that can then be shared. With the Efexio app, users can rotate and adjust the scale of each effect, change the lighting and the camera angle and make a range of other adjustment using a set of intuitive tools.
My conversation with Phil started with him recalling his work during Rob0Cop and how he come full circle on Jurassic World. For this new movie (released in June 2015) Phil is re-teaming with Pat Crowley, an animator from their stop-motion days on the original RoboCop film, and who is now co-producing this fourth dino-movie. “On RoboCop we’d greet each other with a Roman salute: ‘Animator’! We say each other again on Jurassic World in our first meeting and we didn’t say ‘Hello’ we just did our animator salute.” It’s this very committed and heartfelt sense of an animation and visual effects community that seems key to Phil’s creative sensibility. His ongoing fascination with how the traditions of animation can work in the ‘brave new world’ of digital effects underpin the way that the Efexio app has been designed.
“Efexio came to us with the idea. “ Phil explains. “They were big fans of our work and they had the engineering chops that could allow an amateur, geek, VFX enthusiast to put together little movies that we much closer to theatrical level creatures. I stayed on the conceptual performance side and said ‘ Let’s start with a bunch of dinosaurs. So, we began building assets. I was starting to get my head around what Efexio meant for me.” Phil likens Efexio to being a digital version of the playsets he enjoyed as a kid. “You’d combine knights and dinosaur.” He adds with a laugh: “I’d play with this stuff until long after I should have. It became a very imaginative narrative with those set pieces.”
Of the Efexio app, Phil explains that “With our selection of Tippett Studio dinosaurs we had enough to combine. The plan with Efexio was to build a choreography that would be user friendly and allow users to get the perspective right to block out action. We’ve tried to be generic enough so that a raptor jumps in and roars. Once in Efexio, you can rough in source of light and control the density. After we did dinosaurs I decided to open up to a broader demographic.” Of the creatures that the studio have made available through Efexio, Phil describes them as “the kind of things out there in the zeitgeist. They’re photographically representational. We also came up with the idea of an alien zoo. We’ve gone real Tex Avery with that stuff. It’s a bit more complicated, with more moving parts. I can analogize it to being a VFX artist.”
Given his wealth of moviemaking experience, Phil offers a succinct comparison of digital and optical effects: “The interesting thing about CG and the photographic age was summed up really well by [film critics] Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel: stop motion looks fake but feels real, CG looks real, but feels fake. With CG, you’re not absolutely working with intention. In theatrical [feature films] effects everything is budgeted; and interpreting the script, working with the director and cinematographer, is a community of creativity. What emerges is this playful, fun thing. When I worked at Cascade Pictures I got to know Tex Avery really well. These guys were gag men. It’s a philosophical thing: you are entirely into a dialogue in a playful way.”
Of this creative spirit, Phil recounts a moment from preproduction on Jurassic Park (1993) “When I work with a director I have to build a mental construction. I was talking to Spielberg and he was asking about Jurassic Park and reading the script. When we were showing the T-Rex paddock and T-Rex killing lawyer, the storyboard just steamrolls the lawyer out. I said ‘Steve, what if we just tilt the camera up and he just eats the guy.’ Spielberg laughed and said ‘Yeah!’.”
“I don’t look at stuff in terms of ‘best’.” Phil says as he reflects on the early and mid-1970s which saw such a renaissance in visual effects movies in American cinema. “There was a period when we were lucky. We got to work with these terrific young directors. Everyone was serious and working hard. I was talking to [former visual effects colleague] Dennis Muren a few weeks back. We were saying that the computer is such an editorial tool. You can do 500 iterations of a shot in a day.”
Recently, Phil received the Annie Awards Winsor McCay Award for lifetime achievement. During his acceptance speech Phil talked about the idea of subversion and happily elaborates for me, saying that “Theatrical feature production is full of animators and filmmakers who work for corporations and they’re very skilled. I wanted to remind them of a past when Eisenstein and Chaplin and Keaton were like inventors because nobody tells them that. “
James Clarke is the writer of the forthcoming book ‘Bodies in Heroic Motion: The Cinema of James Cameron’ due out on August 8th 2014 from Columbia University Press / Wallflower Press