An Interview with Phil Tippett
Oscar and Bafta-winning effects artist Phil Tippett has been responsible for some of the most memorable scenes in cinema history, having worked on the Star Wars, Jurassic Park, RoboCop and Starship Troopers movies. Roger Crow talks to Phil about his inspiration, creating movie magic, and Mad God, his new animated epic which has been decades in the making.
Phil, congratulations on Mad God. How does it feel to have finished the film after 30 years?
It’s a relief. It performed far beyond my expectations. I was very dubious… if it would find an audience? It was rejected from the first two film festivals, Berlin and someplace else. And I thought, ‘Okay, here we go’. And from Locarno, where it premiered, it just took off from there. It did really well for an indie film.
How difficult was it to keep up that momentum and vision for 30 years?
You know, I don’t quite understand it. The term ‘vision’ is what I could reduce it to, because it literally was that. It was a very religious experience in that regard, because I just saw it like a light. It’s very hard to describe how you see it. There’s a 20-year period where I had no reason to believe I would ever make it. But everything I do is like a really ‘slow cook’. You know even the stuff I’m writing now is stuff I’ve been working on for 20 years. That’s totally antithetical to my day job in terms of schedules and what not, but that seems to be the way I do things. If you look at interviews with Beethoven and Bach and all those artists: ‘Where does your beautiful music and ideas come from?”, and they just point up: ‘I just transcribed it’. And I’m not alone. A lot of so called brilliant people… scientists… It’s the same thing. You just let your unconscious go. You dream and E equals MC squared (laughs).
Did it take you back to being a kid when you were seven years old watching The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, thinking, ‘This is what I’ve always wanted to do’?
No, for me it was a bit more philosophical. Mad God, I started it all off over 30 years ago, but I couldn’t have done it until I was in my sixties. It needed all that life experience and knowledge and all that stuff to piece together this collage.
“It was everything we ever dreamed of”
And Hieronymus Bosch is a fantastic source of inspiration.
Yeah, my dad was an artist and he showed me this book (featuring Bosch). I was not more than 10 years old. I wanted to be a film maker at that time and I thought, ‘One day I wanna make a movie like Hieronymus Bosch’. That’s really what it came down to, like a modern version of Bosch and Dante.
Take us back to Star Wars. Was there a feeling you and other effects geniuses like Dennis Muren and Ken Ralston were breaking new ground?
Oh it was everything we ever dreamed of, and having a boss as encouraging as George (Lucas), it was really a dream. And we always thought, ‘What can we do to make things better?” Or up the sense of spectacle?
By the time you animated the AT-AT Walkers for The Empire Strikes Back, was there a feeling you were up and running?
No, I didn’t feel by the time Star Wars (The Empire Strikes Back) came round I was really prepared. I wasn’t, and I could see my weakness, so I was really lucky that we had a big post-production period, and I would just spend as much time as possible going in. It was a bit like doing scales on the piano. Doing ‘walk cycles’. There are some storyboard ideas, trying to work out movements that that felt naturalistic. “It’s not working… It’s not working… I don’t know how I did that. What am I doing wrong?” And then all of a sudden, it’s like learning to ride a bicycle. All of a sudden you’re there. You’ve got it! How that happened, I have no idea!
Were the original RoboCop films a joy because it was a chance to work on a more R/18 rated pictures?
Well you know, George (Lucas) and Steven (Spielberg) are much more ‘user friendly’. It was essential for them to reach a wide audience. Paul (Verhoeven) just didn’t care. Well he cared, but in interviews he would be asked: “Who do you make your movies for?” And he said, “I made them for me”. He’s like an artist in that way as opposed to a commercial artist. And of course he hopes the movies make money. If they don’t… It’s like so many of them, they get panned, and then like 10 years later, they’re hailed as cult classics.
The killer droid ED-209, which you animated, has a real aggression to it, which probably wouldn’t have been the same as a CGI creation.
Well they did a RoboCop reboot that had ED-209s in them, and they look really… stupid. They had to make them look modern. “Yeah, let’s make a remake, but let’s make it in the future”. And of course nobody makes stuff in the future that looks really good except for Ridley Scott. Just a false economy. The intention behind ED-209 was to make it appear like an overwrought, messed up American mechanism, like an Edsel car. It’s intended for one purpose, but it just doesn’t work.
“It’s very much like being a magician”
How difficult was that time during the making of Jurassic Park when it was decided to change things from stop motion dinosaurs to CG creatures?
I had an over emotional reaction to it, and I thought it was like the end of my world. “Everything that I’ve built my life around since I was a kid, just went into the toilet”… which ultimately wasn’t the case. My final statement was with Mad God. Like many people I became over-satiated with digital stuff. I found that the craftsmanship in model-making and stop motion characters and miniatures and what not has that hand-made feeling as opposed to something that’s made out of zeros and ones.
There’s a moment in the documentary Light and Magic which suggests that your art saved your life. Is that true?
Nah. I was just extremely lucky. Paul Verhoeven has called me a genius a few times, and coming from Paul that’s better than an Academy Award.
I think many fans of cinema would agree with Paul Verhoeven.
I was reading an article where Einstein was talking about ‘genius’. And his observations were really clear in that those of us that are called that are products of our time… in changes of the technology. With my line of work it’s very much like being a magician. And so you do those things that you studied and studied… the masters before that became your mentors, and you make it look really easy. Even though it isn’t.
Phil, thanks for your time and a lifetime of amazing movie moments.
‘Mad God’ is available on Blu-ray, DVD & digital from 5 Dec from Acorn Media International