Phil Tippett’s world in (stop) motion
By Carlos Aguilar
A maverick of stop-motion animation and a restless Renaissance man, Phil Tippett is the visual effects alchemist responsible for emblematic sequences in some of the most popular American film productions of the 1980s and ’90s.
Tippett’s indelible gifts to cinema include animating the AT-AT walkers in “The Empire Strikes Back,” lending his deep knowledge of dinosaurs to visualize the velociraptor kitchen scene in “Jurassic Park,” and building and animating the imposing ED-209 robot seen in the “RoboCop” franchise.
The director of “RoboCob,” Paul Verhoeven, has long been impressed with Tippett’s handcrafted style.
“Personally, with a lot of digital stuff, I often don’t believe it, but with Phil, I believe it,” Verhoeven said in a phone interview. “He can make characters move in a way that you don’t doubt for a second that they are there. And he can integrate these stop-motion creatures with the rest of the shots, which is very difficult to do.”
Tippett, 70, also worked on sequences for Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers.” The filmmaker emphasized the value of Tippett’s contributions.
“In my eyes, his participation was as important as my own,” Verhoeven said. “I really thank him for what he did for my movies.”
For Tippett, a prosperous profession began as a childhood fascination with the tactile magic of the monsters in “King Kong” (1933) and “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958). After pursuing a conceptual art education at the University of California, Irvine, he honed his unique skill set experimenting with stop-motion and then making commercials at the Cascade Pictures studio in Los Angeles.
As a part of the teams that helped realize the imaginative worlds of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Tippett earned two Academy Awards.
“I always thought of myself as a choreographer working on movies, and that was my relationship with directors,” Tippett said. “Everything that I did was performance-based.”
During a recent video interview, Tippett wore a comfortable sleeveless black shirt and sat caressing his long white beard, like a biblical figure lost in our current era. He was at his workspace at Tippett Studio in Berkeley, California, where his ventures are born.
Of all of the feats to his name, “Mad God,” a stop-motion feature now in theaters and streaming on Shudder, proved the most taxing. Thirty-three years in the making — from his earliest sketches and storyboards in 1987 to its completion in 2020 — this macabre magnum opus tracks an enigmatic character as he descends into the bowels of a Dante-like realm plagued with death, violence and grotesque creatures.
“‘Mad God’ was motivated by the unconscious and not by intention,” Tippett said. “It was a religious experience for me in the sense that I just, I felt like I was transcribing messages from the great beyond. I do not seek; I find.”
In the early 1990s, Tippett conceived three minutes of what would become “Mad God” with the help of the crew that worked on the “RoboCop” films. But after they moved on, proceeding on his own became too daunting.
Unsure of precisely where the kernel of inspiration for “Mad God” had originated, Tippett spent the next two decades devouring information on a variety of subjects to expand on it: theology, archaeology, paleontology and psychoanalysis.
It wasn’t until about 12 years ago, when young colleagues at Tippett’s studio saw him archiving that original footage and galvanized to support him, that the fulfillment of his vague concept seemed possible.
Volunteers from local schools also joined the makeshift production, which slowly began taking shape with resources gathered from several successful Kickstarter campaigns. After a few years, Tippett had completed 45 minutes (in three separate segments) of this free-flowing idea, at which point he decided to double the running time to make a feature.
Tippett, who is not fond of digital techniques, pushed to achieve nearly every aspect of this gruesome parable via in-camera, practical means — the way he has always done it. This can be seen in the meticulously detailed craft on display in each increasingly bleak frame.
He used a fish tank and corn syrup to conjure up the cloudy opening sequence that features a plastic replica of the Tower of Babel he bought online. He shot a surgery scene with live-action actors at a low frame rate to mimic the movement of stop-motion animation, and for three years he enlisted the assistance of up to six students, one day a week, to fabricate piles of melted plastic soldiers.
“I wanted to make something ugly and beautiful at once,” said Tippett, who cited the work of painter Hieronymus Bosch as a major influence.
Tippett also mined his own subconscious for creative fuel. “During the period that I was working on ‘Mad God,’ I was a prolific dreamer,” he said. “Every night I’d have these amazing dreams that I would write down and use.”
“Mad God” constitutes the most complete expression of his erudite image-making expertise, but its consummation nearly drove him to real madness. Hyperfocused on finishing, working obsessively for hours on end and drinking daily, Tippett subjected himself to such exhaustion he landed in a mental health facility. He was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“As it happens to many artists like Beethoven or Carl Jung, particularly if what they’re working on is over a protracted period of time, it really popped my cork at the end of it,” he said. “My manic side is my superpower, but if I don’t manage that, it can destroy me.”
“The strongest thing about Phil as an artist is that he feels everything to the extreme,” Dennis Muren, an Oscar-winning veteran in the visual effects industry and a longtime friend of Tippett’s, said in a phone interview. “He wants that feeling to come across on the screen, and it doesn’t matter how it gets there.”
“This movie taught me a lot about myself,” Tippett said. “I didn’t even think that I had the capacity to do something of this magnitude.”
Tippett is relieved that “Mad God” has left his psyche and his studio and has now haunted film festival audiences to great reception; he mischievously recounted the time a family with young children walked in to watch the film, only to run away soon after.
“That was amusing because if you hear, ‘It’s an animation film by the guy who worked on “Star Wars,”’ people think, ‘Kids will love it. It’s like a Pixar film.’ And well, it ain’t,” he said.
A grateful Tippett confessed that, because of the priceless creative opportunities he had been given, he could easily be convinced that our reality is a simulation. Although he said he would never again attempt a project as all-consuming as “Mad God,” he doesn’t regret having gone through the ordeal. And he has already written a sequel.
“It would be very embarrassing to die and not have taken the opportunities that were handed to me, not to make something that was unique,” he said.