A stop-motion animation maverick and 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 1990s.
Tippett’s indelible gifts to the movie world include animating the AT-AT walkers in “The Empire Strikes Back”, lending his in-depth knowledge of dinosaurs to visualize the velociraptor kitchen scene in “Jurassic Park”, and building and animating the imposing ED-209 robot featured in the “RoboCop” franchise.
The director of ‘RoboCob’, Paul Verhoeven, has long been impressed by Tippett’s handmade style.
“Personally, I often don’t believe it with a lot of digital things, but with Phil I believe it,” Verhoeven said in a telephone interview. “He can make characters move in such 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 footage, which is very hard to do.”
Tippett, 70, also worked on sequences for Verhoeven’s ‘Starship Troopers’. The filmmaker emphasized the value of Tippett’s contributions.
“In my view, his participation was just as important as mine,” said Verhoeven. “I’m really grateful to him for what he’s done for my movies.”
For Tippett, a prosperous profession began as a fascination with the tactile magic of the monsters in “King Kong” (1933) and “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958). After attending a conceptual art course at the University of California, Irvine, he honed his unique skills experimenting with stop motion, then making commercials at the Cascade Pictures studio in Los Angeles.
As part of the teams that helped realize the imaginative worlds of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Tippett earned two Academy Awards.
“I always saw myself as a choreographer working on films, and that was my relationship with directors,” Tippett said. “Everything I did was performance driven.”
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 present day. He was in his workspace at Tippett Studio in Berkeley, California, where his ventures were born.
Of all the achievements to his credit, “Mad God,” a stop-motion film now in theaters and streaming on Shudder, proved the most taxing. Thirty-three years in the making – from its earliest sketches and storyboards in 1987 to completion in 2020 – this macabre magnum opus follows an enigmatic character as he descends into the bowels of a Dante-esque realm ravaged by 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 that I just felt like I was copying messages from the great afterlife. I do not seek; I think.”
In the early 1990s, Tippett conceived three minutes of what would become “Mad God” with the help of the crew working on the “RoboCop” movies. But after they moved on, it became too daunting to continue on their own.
Not sure where exactly the inspiration for “Mad God” originated, Tippett spent the next two decades devouring information on a variety of topics to develop it further: theology, archaeology, paleontology, and psychoanalysis.
It wasn’t until about 12 years ago, when young colleagues in Tippett’s studio saw him archive that original footage and galvanized it to support it, that the fulfillment of his vague concept seemed possible.
Volunteers from local schools also got involved in the makeshift production, which slowly began to take shape with funds collected 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 run time to make a feature film.
Tippett, who isn’t fond of digital techniques, insisted on achieving almost every aspect of this horrifying parable through hands-on in-camera means—as he always has. This can be seen in the meticulously detailed craft that can be seen in each increasingly sombre frame.
He used an aquarium and corn syrup to evoke the cloudy opening scene with a plastic replica of the Tower of Babel that he bought online. He shot an operation scene with live-action actors at a low frame rate to mimic the motion of stop-motion animation, and for three years enlisted the help of up to six students, one day a week, to fabricate piles of molten plastic soldiers. .
“I wanted to create something ugly and beautiful at the same time,” said Tippett, who cited the work of the painter Hieronymus Bosch as a major influence.
Tippett has also mined his own subconscious mind for creative fuel. “During the time I worked on Mad God, I was a prolific dreamer,” he said. “Every night I had these amazing dreams that I would write down and use.”
“Mad God” is the most complete expression of his erudite expertise in image-making, but its completion almost drove him to madness. Hyper-focused on finishing, obsessively working for hours and drinking daily, Tippett subjected himself to such exhaustion that he ended up in a mental health facility. He was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“As it happens with a lot of artists like Beethoven or Carl Jung, especially if what they’re working on is over an extended period of time, my cork really came off at the end,” he said. “My manic side is my superpower, but if I don’t get that done, 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 visual effects industry veteran and longtime friend of Tippett, said in a telephone interview. “He wants that feeling to come across on 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 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 received a great reception from film festival audiences; he mischievously recounted the time a family with young children came in to watch the film, only to leave shortly afterwards.
“That was funny because when you hear, ‘It’s an animated film by the guy who worked on ‘Star Wars,'” people think, ‘Kids will love it. It’s like a Pixar movie.’ And well, it isn’t,” he said.
A grateful Tippett confessed that because of the priceless creative opportunities he was given, he could easily be convinced that our reality is a simulation. While he said he would never try a project as all-encompassing as “Mad God” again, he doesn’t regret going through the ordeal. And he has already written a sequel.
“It would be very embarrassing to die and not have seized the opportunities that were presented to me, not to create something unique,” he said.