Ellen Wolff sat down with Phil Tippett to discuss creatures, the state of the industry and his desire to play down his title as "pioneer."
The awards shelf at Phil Tippett's place is pretty full already: two Oscars -- for the visual effects in Jurassic Park and Star Wars: Episode VI -- Return of the Jedi; four other Oscar nominations -- for Dragonheart, Willow, Starship Troopers and Dragonslayer and an Emmy for the CBS Documentary Dinosaur!. But the award that Tippett received Saturday night from the Visual Effects Society is one that reflects the overarching influence of his stellar career: the George Méliès Award for Artistic Excellence. In choosing Tippett, the VES board of directors recognized Tippett's pioneering efforts in advancing the art of visual effects through his own work as a creature designer, animator, visual effects supervisor and director, and as head of his 25-year-old shop, Tippett Studio. Previous recipients of the Méliès Award have included the seminal vfx producer/director Robert Abel, and Pixar/Disney producer/director John Lasseter.
The occasion has provided the opportunity for Tippett to reflect on the state of the art, and the milestone productions he worked on along the way. First and foremost, he considers himself lucky to be doing something that he loves to do, and despite his latest award, he prefers to tone down the accolade 'pioneer' with respect to his own career. "That's a funny blurb to get stuck with," Tippett muses. "Visual effects people are either 'gurus' or 'magicians' or 'pioneers.' But Willis O'Brien was the pioneer. He was the guy who took technologies from the 1800s, and figured out how to turn them into King Kong. The rest of us are craftsmen and practitioners."
The Jedi Master
Tippett was a stop motion animator who'd been inspired by O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen when George Lucas tapped him to work on Star Wars in the mid-1970s. "I was really lucky because I was able to be part of the classical renaissance in visual effects that George exhumed. It was really what people had been working on in the '20s and '30s. Except for the motion control camera, everything else was pretty much the same."
During Tippett's tenure at ILM that followed, he became head of the studio's creature shop, and earned an enduring place in the Star Wars galaxy by animating the Imperial Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back. In fact, when Tippett's Méliès award was announced by the VES, it was touted proudly by many Star Wars fan-sites worldwide.
While at ILM, Tippett's technical ingenuity was evident in his contributions to the invention of the 'Go-Motion' animation technique in 1982. He earned his first Academy Award nomination for Dragonslayer, and by 1983 was working on Return of the Jedi, for which he received his first Oscar.
The Dinosaur Decade
In 1984, Tippett left ILM and opened Tippett Studio in his garage to create a 10-minute experimental film featuring dinosaurs called Prehistoric Beast. That effort led to his Emmy Award-winning work on 1985 CBS animated documentary Dinosaur!. Now known for his ability to make these long-extinct creatures appear real, Tippett was asked by director Steven Spielberg in 1991 to supervise the dinosaur animation for Jurassic Park.
Working with his longtime ILM friend Dennis Muren, Tippett realized that the stop-motion dinosaurs he'd created in the past would give way to computer-generated creatures in Jurassic Park. (His initial reaction -- 'I think I'm extinct' -- reportedly inspired a line in the film itself.) Tippett realized that a different kind of thinking would be required, and set about adapting his expertise as a creature animator to the new realities of 3D-CG. The result was the development of a Digital Input Device (DID) to animate Spielberg's dinosaurs. The technology, which earned Tippett a Scientific & Technical Achievement Award from the Motion Picture Academy, involved placing computer-linked sensors into the moving joints of three-dimensional, articulated character models so that animators could create CG dinosaurs for the first time. The results earned Tippett his second Oscar, and he reflects on this watershed project by saying, "Jurassic Park was the big linch-pin. Although ILM had been slowly been developing its digital character thing, it came a lot faster than people thought it would."
It's a measure of Tippett's identification with animated dinosaurs that an actual dinosaur species is named after him: Elaphrosaurus philtippettorum, which, fittingly for a moviemaker, means 'light lizard.' But Tippett thinks the lessons of Jurassic Park have something even broader to tell us about the process of making what he calls 'spectacle' visual effects films. "Jurassic Park came on the heels of Hook, where Steven had gone over budget. So the amount of preparation that went into Jurassic Park -- whittling down those dinosaur shots down so they had some meaning and impact -- took a lot of figuring out."
Tippett observes that Stan Winston's animatronic dinosaurs carried a lot of the load, and that the film contains no more than 55 animated dinosaur shots. That people think there were many more is a testament to how well-planned the animation truly was. Still, laughs Tippett, "Nobody really knew how to get all that stuff going, so there were a lot of things that people were trying for the first time and were jury-rigged. There was a lot wobbling dinosaur flesh that curls my toes now!"
Then and Now
Tippett can't help notice the contrast between Jurassic Park and many of today's tentpole vfx extravaganzas. "Many movies are being sold by their spectacle quotient. The way that people turn up the heat is to add more stuff. So all of these shows have so much material that has to get done. The productions are so stressed that the actual shooting is done sometimes in a very inefficient way -- which requires a tremendous amount of invisible work later on. Hundreds of man-hours to go into fixing things that nobody wanted to deal with on set. Sometimes I get very frustrated that more planning and intention -- and attention -- is not going into mounting shows. People say, 'We'll add the flames later on…' The processes are becoming more like what you would use making commercials, with a lot of decisions being made after the film's production. Multiple people give you their opinions, and then you go out and do re-shoots. It's hard to find stuff that feels like it was crafted by intention by a small group of people."
At Tippett Studio, which has a tight-knit group of about 175 animators, sculptors, painters and technicians, the digital age is nonetheless in full swing. (And it has grown from his garage to five buildings in Berkeley, California.) Tippett notes, "We have a few stop-motion animators now who are digital artists, but we don't produce any work that way." So no longer do physical factors like gravity and mass get in the way of character animation, but now animators face the challenge of fashioning pixels into creatures that hopefully will convey a sense of mass and weight. "What resonates for me about the divide between the photographic age and the digital age is that back then, we worked with materials," Tippett observes. "When you work with things that you can touch and you can see, they're looking at you. They're not behind a blank screen. You can't avoid them. With digital, you're required to approach the work with complete intention. You have to know where you're going and why you're going there because everything is broken up into mosaic pieces that have to be managed. It's a big deal because you're dealing with scales that are so huge, and so many artists and technicians are working on it that it becomes a different kind of a thing."
At Tippett Studio these days, characters rule, of course. Tippett's work with director Paul Verhoeven on the RoboCop movies and Starship Troopers, and with Guillermo del Toro on Hellboy, put the shop at the forefront of character work. More recently, they created Templeton the talking rat for Charlotte's Web, Pip the talking chipmunk for Enchanted, and fantastical creatures for The Spiderwick Chronicles, which garnered a VES Award nomination for Outstanding Animated Character. "Talking animals seem to be the flavor of the day," cracks Tippett. "We're living in a gulag of talking animals and superheroes."
Meeting that challenge has propelled Tippett Studio to create a digital pipeline that enables them to handle multiple shows simultaneously -- including their popular series of Blockbuster commercials starring furry critters, and the movie Cats & Dogs 2. The studio employs a mix of commodity software, including Maya, Shake and RenderMan, with proprietary plug-ins like their Furrocious fur tool. "We're building a whole new fur tool now," notes Tippett. "Managing R&D and computer systems is like running a small city." He adds, resignedly, "And there's always something that somebody wants to try that will be a 'magic bullet' but which ends up becoming complicated and cumbersome. Things are always getting faster and you're always having to update and buy new stuff. The problem with buying this stuff is that you know in 20 minutes there will be something better and cheaper! It's pretty much never-ending. But every once in awhile we'll drag out a high-speed Mitchell camera from 1925 that still works great. Everything else that we have probably doesn't even have dust on it yet!"
But it was the digital savvy of Tippett Studio -- combined with an ability to employ judicious use of character animation to create a scary monster -- that led to one of Phil's favorite projects in recent years, J.J. Abrams' Cloverfield. "Cloverfield didn't have more than 50 or 60 shots of the creature, and it left the audience wanting more. It was a $25 million picture and it was really exciting. I hail from back in the Roger Corman days, when John Davidson from Piranha would come up to me and he wouldn't say: 'How much is it going to cost to do this?' He'd say: 'I have a show and this stuff has to happen in it and I've got $150,000 to do it." And you worked towards that. As an artist, that frees you up immediately. You just take and all your skills and you go for it. With today's multi-hundred-million-dollar projects everybody is so terrified that it has to be perfect." Not that Cloverfield suffered from its modest budget -- it earned a VES Award nomination this year for Outstanding Visual Effects.
Tippett confesses that what interests him these days is figuring out how to do great effects without spending tons of money. "That's where I have the most fun," he admits. "We've been having a good time working with Sam Raimi on Drag Me to Hell, which is a low-budget horror picture that he's doing between Spider-Man episodes. I've also been trying to develop a project that costs between $10 and 25 million. Like a good boy, I got a bunch of art work and treatments together and waited until Cloverfield came out, because that was going to prove to the world that a $25 million monster picture could be made. I did the pitch rounds at the studios and the basic consensus was 'So what?'"
Which is not to say that Tippett is giving up -- far from it. After all, back in 2004 he directed the video project Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation on a $6 million budget. (Of course, it helped that he could build upon the creature models he'd created for the original feature film.) Now, even as Tippett Studio works on such big name features as Bedtime Stories and Wolverine, Tippett is devoting time to what he calls 'an extracurricular project.' "It's with Alex Cox, who did Repo Man. Alex has become this ex-patriot who makes low budget pictures all over the world. Now we're making Repo Chick -- basically on weekends, because it's a no-budget project. It's less like a movie production and more like an Our Gang comedy where you say, 'Hey guys, let's get together and do a show.'" Tippett believes that such projects can be instructive for some of his younger employees who didn't rise through the ranks by working on low budget pictures the way he did. "I want them to see that you can approach shooting like sketching. It's like a lab, and it shows you that there are lots of ways to be creative."
The Role of the Mentor
Getting the Méliès Award from the VES has prompted Tippett to consider his responsibility as a mentor the next generation of artists. "That's something that I have been mulling over lately," he says. "I was really lucky in my education to have a lot of mentors, people who actually gave of themselves and allowed me to be their friend." Tippett cites the influence of Dave Allen (a stop-motion artist on Willow and Honey, I Shrunk The Kids) as well as Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury. But he notes that it was a lot easier to meet people when he was getting started in the film industry. "We'd go to the bakeoffs at the Academy, and sitting in a virtually empty theater would be a bunch of codgers as old as I am now [he was born in 1951]. You could approach folks who'd been in the business for years and talk to them. It used to be like a pokey, Midwestern town where you could do your thing and get good at it. Now you go to the bakeoff and it's so crowded that you can't see people you know, even though they're there. There aren't many opportunities now to be intimate, and I don't know if the sense of mentorship is there."
Tippett also notes that there may not be the time available, either. "It's the pace that we're going at. The screening room at ILM when we were doing The Empire Strikes Back is so different from screening rooms at studios today -- including mine. We have to burn through so much material. You get these young kids coming in, and sometimes it's their first jobs and you sit down and look at their shots and say: 'Fix that, fix that, fix that…OK, Next!' I don't think I could take that. You try to give some encouragement, but in the throes of production you're burning really fast." And he does worry that a sense of film history might be getting lost along the way. "I'll be sitting in the back of the theater during dailies and I'll say, 'We have to approach this scene with the feeling of the third act from The Wild Bunch.' And I can see heads turning in front of me, and people saying, 'What's The Wild Bunch?' There are a lot of folks whose film history begins with Star Wars."
So Tippett wonders how one can foster a sense of tradition under these circumstances. "I don't know that you can. You try to encourage people to become aware of film history and we do run film festivals. But everything is so production-driven. And we operate so close to our margins that we don't have a lot of leftover time." He explains that the business side of Tippett Studio is run by his wife, Jules Roman, and that his main involvement is with 'crisis management' and making higher-level hiring decisions. "In the meantime, I'm developing projects and having fun working with writers and trying to see if I can talk people out of money to make things."
A Backward Glance
As Tippett prepared to accept the Méliès Award, he reflected on the interesting path he's taken to get to this point. In thinking about an early job at Cascade Studios, he talks about the impact that meeting Tex Avery had upon him. "Tex was a mentor. In fact, when I was working there in my early twenties, I remember pulling out a dummy sheet and plopping down into a chair next to where Tex was sitting. I asked him, 'Can you show me how this works?' As an example, he drew a little sketch of Bugs Bunny and then drew all the little vowel sounds and showed me how to check off the frames on the dummy sheet. At the end of it, I said, 'Would you sign this for me?' He wrote, 'To my good friend Phil.' I have that framed on my wall at work."
Ellen Wolff is a southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in other publications, including Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the website CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.