Ask any visual effects fan who Phil Tippett is, and they’ll probably answer: “He’s the guy who did all the animation in the original Star Wars trilogy.” Or you might get: “Didn’t he do Dragonslayer and RoboCop?” They might tell you he’s the Oscar-winning stop motion expert who entered the digital age when he became dinosaur supervisor on Jurassic Park. They may also know he’s the founder of acclaimed visual effects company Tippett Studio, based in Berkeley, California.
What they may not know is that, having served up top-drawer visual effects to Hollywood for nearly forty years – including recent work on Cloverfield, the Twilight saga and Ted – Phil Tippett has just released a film of his own. It’s called Mad God, it’s Kickstarter-funded, and it chronicles the journey of a character known only as The Assassin through a bizarre underworld populated by macabre creatures and unholy monsters.
Here’s what Phil Tippett has to say about the movie:
The final form of Mad God isn’t the film itself, but the memory after you watch it. It’s bringing you to that moment just after waking up from a dream, frozen, exploring fragments of your feral mind before they fade back into the shadows. That’s the moment. Mad God is just a way to get you there.
In an exclusive interview for Cinefex, Phil spoke to me about Mad God, independent filmmaking and the craft of stop motion animation …
For people unfamiliar with Mad God, could you describe what the film is, and its genesis?
Around the time I was doing the RoboCop movies, Jurassic Park and Starship Troopers, I spent the better part of ten years going around pitching projects. I developed maybe ten different things: lots of key art and scripts. After a period of rejection, Ed Neumeier – who wrote Starship Troopers and RoboCop – told me all my ideas were “art-damaged” … meaning, I guess, they were just too weird. I took that to heart and just stopped.
Original storyboard for Phil Tippett’s “Mad God”
One of the projects was Mad God. I’d shot about six minutes worth of film on 35mm, but the project had got too big, and around that time the digital revolution hit, so I had to completely re-gear how I thought about things. Then, about three or four years ago, some of the guys at my studio – including Chris Morley and Randy Link – saw me archiving all this ancient Mad God material. They were really excited and relaunched the project.
It started where I would do a few setups, and then go off and shoot a movie for my day job. There was a great deal of interest from people wanting to volunteer to help, so I put together this team that was really skilled and talented, with good eyes and good thoughts.
Since then we’ve been gaining more and more momentum – albeit glacial, this being stop motion work. I did this Kickstarter thing, so we got some funds that paid for the stage rental and lunches for the crew, and we’ve just wrapped up Chapter 1. I’ve got four segments planned out, and each is going to be about twelve minutes long.
On the Kickstarter video, Chris Morley describes making Mad God as a “therapeutic process”. Could you explain that?
It’s about making things. As opposed to computer graphics, if you work with objects there’s a “zone” that you get into where the objects start talking to you. You’re not telling them what to do; they’re telling you what to do. It’s a different kind of creative process.
Mad God is the antithesis of my day job, where there’s a lot of filmmaking rules. I thought of it like a painting that I would work on a for a long period of time, maybe shoot something over here, and something over there, and not really know exactly how they were going to link. I studied my dreams. I read a lot of Jung. I wanted to use the unconscious to drive the thing. And that takes more time. You have to let things cook for a while. I wanted to do something without the trappings of story and plot. There’s a narrative, but it’s not a story per se.
Tom Gibbons animates a stop motion shot for “Mad God”
The lead animators that I’m working with – Chuck Duke and Tom Gibbons – are really great, experienced, professional stop motion animators. They’re totally in love with the process. They work for me in the day job now as computer graphics animators, and then we do Mad God at the weekend. Gibby and Chuck and I do most of the animation, and we’ve got a team of maybe six to eight people coming in also that I can task.
Could you talk us through how a typical stop motion shot from Mad God is set up? How much is it planned out? What’s going through your head during those long hours when you’re animating?
Well, the direction I give to most people is: “Don’t think!” I look at animators like they’re actors. It’s all about performance – this different, weird kind of performance.
You’ll get into a shot and not really know where you’re going for the first twenty frames. Then, all of a sudden, it starts to make sense, and you just keep going. The shots can double or triple in length, but they still have a good momentum – they fulfil everything the narrative needs but they might build and build and build on it, and you don’t even know it until you’re actually in there doing it.
I think that will surprise some people. I think there’s a perception that animation is meticulously planned to the nth degree.
It depends on your skill level. At a certain level it’s like playing a musical instrument, where you’ve intuited all of this stuff so much over your life that you can just do it without a great deal of thought. Because the process is so slow, you’re working yourself into a meditative state. Certainly, the concentration level is really high. That’s just what it takes.
(Mad God’s immersive and atmospheric soundtrack features an original score by Dan Wool and sound design by Richard Beggs.)
Dan Wool came on board when I had only six minutes of the original material. He created a score that we were able to break up and move around while we were creating the film. The main theme is a very beautiful, fragile theme. Dan works in other more ambient, industrial noise, but it’s still scored as music.
I also got really lucky to work with one of Dan’s collaborators, Richard Beggs – one of the great sound designers. When I showed it to Richard for the first time, he said, “You know, not much is happening in this, but there’s a lot going on.” And I said, “That’s the movie I’m trying to make!”
Can you tell us about the different characters in Mad God?
We call the main character The Assassin. He leads us through the film. The way I think about it – and I don’t preach this to anybody – all of the characters in Mad God are members of a ghost or spirit world, disconnected entities that don’t have any kind of solid background. Backgrounds are insinuated but they’re never specifically delineated.
For The Assassin, do you have a number of puppets in different scales?
I work in what I call a “Ray Harryhausen scale”, so the puppets are about the size of a small cat. It’s something you can easily get your hands around and manipulate. So, for the main characters, there’s usually just a one-off.
In Chapter 2, there’s a section with these zombie-esque guys that we call the Shitmen. They’re built in different scales, because I’m doing some forced perspective stuff. I’ve got lead heroes with really good ball and socket joints, and then probably sixty others that are much more simplified, with wire armatures, that are foam-cast.
The outer surfaces of the Shitmen puppets are taken from my vacuum cleaner at home – a lot of dust and cat hair. I found that when I glued all of that on to these foam rubber things, it looked really great. It’s generally the kind of thing you stay away from when doing stop motion work, because the surface is very unstable. Every time you touch the thing, the surface shifts and changes. In a way it was like the 1933 King Kong.
Where the fur ripples.
Right. It has that same feeling, where the surface is agitated all the time.
As well as animated characters, the camera is very animated too. (The cameras used for Mad God were Canon EOS Rebel T2is with Nikon prime lenses.) There are sweeping shots where the camera moves round a big miniature. What sort of rig do you use?
I’ve got a lot of equipment left over from the photographic era, stuff from the RoboCop movies. I have lathe beds that I can attach cameras to that allow for tracking shots. I’m intentionally staying away from motion control. I like to leave myself open to changing things at any given moment. I don’t want the preordained camera moves to influence the performances; I want the performances to drive the camera moves. So I can always at any point go in and slow things down, or speed things up, or bring things to a stop.
There are a number of shots showing The Assassin’s diving bell descending on a rope through all kinds of bizarre environments.
For example, there’s one shot where the diving bell drops down in front of a gigantic ammonite, with the light from the capsule playing dramatically up the ammonite. Are these in-camera shots or composites?
The ammonite that I have in my collection is probably not more than four by six inches. Matt Jacobs animated a light going down and illuminating the ammonite. We took that, and used it as a background plate, and projected that up like Ray Harryhausen would have done (the background plate was displayed on a large TV monitor). Then we built a tiny diving bell – not much more than an inch tall. Chris Morley animated it going down on invisible wires, timing it to the lighting effect that Matt had shot.
(While Mad God is around 90% stop motion, there are a number of live action inserts. These inserts were shot using a pixilation technique originally developed for a scene in Chapter 3 …)
The Charnel Hospital
Twenty years ago, cinematographer Pete Kozachik and I did this big shot for Chapter 3 in what we call the Charnel Hospital: ten floors of hospital rooms with operating tables where victims have been disassembled. The camera booms down and moves in, and we dissolve to a live action set.
My first intention was to do straight live action, but it looked crappy. It felt like a sitcom or something. So I came up with this pixilation effect that worked out really well.
In the scene, Niketa Roman plays a nurse, and our lead compositor Satish Ratakonda plays a doctor. I would have them rehearse a move until the performance beats were drilled in. Then, when we shot, I would have them do the same pantomime, but backwards, and as slowly as they possibly could. And there was no way they could do it – no possible way! So there would be these little screw ups and inconsistencies. I would take that footage, reverse it and speed it up by about 800%, so I would get a shimmering, kinetic texture.
(This technique was subsequently developed for use in Chapter 1, and proved an efficient way of creating inserts such as a shot of The Assassin opening up his jacket and looking at a map, or close ups of feet and hands. The pixilation effect helped to integrate the live action with the artificial stop motion world.)
There’s a certain amount of digital finessing, like the flak during the opening sequence.
Yeah, there’s quite a bit of compositing work, including the flak. I try and keep as many setups as I can stop motion and in camera. There’s a wide master shot where The Assassin walks into this big junkyard. In the foreground is a big pool of green slime, and in the background there are fires burning. I would sweeten shots like that by comping in the lake and the fires.
The Junkyard composite shot
You said you had six minutes of film going back twenty years or so. How much of that has made it into the final cut?
I’m using just about everything. We take the Ray Harryhausen philosophy, which means 99.9% of the time we get everything in the first take. What I tell everybody is: “You can’t do anything wrong. Whatever you do is going to be right.”
You’ve described your improvisational approach to Mad God. In a visual effects shot for a theatrical feature, if you’ve got a three-second cut where you know the dinosaur’s got to get from point A to point B, is the process of animation inevitably more mechanical, or do you still get “in the zone”?
All of that is very heavily driven by the budget. Everything has a dollar attached to it – every single frame. So everything is boarded out, and from the boards you create your budget, and the budget drives the schedule. So you pretty much know what you’re doing all the time. Mad God is more in the tradition of the puppet film. The world is totally artificial. That gives you a great deal more freedom to do pretty much whatever you want to do.
We’ve seen some successful stop motion features in recent years, and it seems to be a relatively healthy craft. Do you feel optimistic about the future of stop motion?
There’s a grass roots interest that keeps it alive. Theatrical features with stop motion appear to be dwindling, unless you’ve got a billionaire behind you. I don’t think the last couple of films did that well at the box office. Studios don’t like to do it any more, it’s too complicated! But I don’t have that problem. When I don’t have a schedule, I can let things cook and simmer.
The influence for Mad God was totally out of Vladislav Starevich and Jiří Trnka – I like that eastern European darkness. I’m not such a big fan of the Tim Burton/Pixar approach. They’re driven by the economic needs to reach a big audience. In this country, everybody thinks that animated features have to be PG, and you have to start off with a little kid that’s got some huge thing that he has to deal with and ends up saving the world. To me that’s just a big yawn. There’s a great deal of skill and craftsmanship that goes into it, but it’s driven by the presumption that that’s the kind of thing that sells.
The Kickstarter crowdfunding model has worked very well for you. There’s clearly an enthusiastic audience out there.
If you go to a studio and try to get money for something, it’s like pulling teeth. What I found with Kickstarter was that it’s more a like a magazine culture. People that are interested in this kind of thing are very altruistic. They want to see something. They want to participate. They want to give you money! And it’s like, wow! A bunch of nice people want to give me money to make this thing!
So much so that you’re able to look ahead to another three films on top of this one.
Right. I’ve broken Mad God into four films in total. The way I’ve articulated the chapters is pretty much driven by the Kickstarter model. I’m trying to get the production time down so that I can create each ten to twelve minute section within a year.
Actually, there may be a little confusion about how I’ve approached this. In some of the initial trailers, I have elements from Chapters 1, 2 and 3 mixed in. And so some people that have seen Chapter 1 are saying, “Wait a minute, I was expecting more stuff”
When I get these four movements done, I’ve got ideas about how to go back in to any given point and open it up with other material. I might tell the back story of The Assassin. I haven’t decided if I’m going to do that or not – I’ll probably want to think about it for a few more years.
The ability to evolve it over time goes back to what you said about it being like a painting.
Yeah. And it’s about how you engage yourself in a creative process. I look for ways of making things that get you back to being a child: working in a milieu of play where you don’t have all of the answers. The answers find you. As a consequence, you get surprised.
Creativity as a voyage of discovery, rather than a preconceived notion of what the end result will be.
Definitely. The day job I would describe as “architectonic”. If you have any business being in the commercial theatrical film world, you had better dang well know that the foundation that you’re pouring is going to support the twelve-storey building, because you don’t want to get up on the fourth floor and realise that you’ve got to jackhammer everything back down. And there’s just huge sums of money involved. When you don’t have that burden, it allows for a very different kind of process.
Finally, talking of theatrical features, the visual effects community is excited at the news that you’ve got the job of Dinosaur Supervisor on Jurassic World. I think people need to know if you’re going to be able to keep the dinosaurs under control this time, Phil, or are more people going to die?
You know, I don’t know what to say about that. I mean, everybody makes mistakes, don’t they? I make no promises.
Special thanks to Niketa Roman. All images copyright © Tippett Studio 2014. Used with permission.