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Past Article

Bugs, Dragons and Robots: a talk with Phil Tippett
By Jonathan Marlow
June 1, 2004 - 1:35 AM PDT


"It's showbiz."

Phil Tippett has worn some of the most unusual and undoubtedly some of the most fun hats in the film industry. He was the "demon supervisor" on The Golden Child, for example. "Dragon designer" for Dragonheart is another, along with "alien monster designer" for Howard the Duck. Thanks to his work as a "dinosaur supervisor" on Jurassic Park, he's actually had a dinosaur species named after him: Elaphrosaurus philtippettorum. But the two titles Tippett most often bears are "stop motion animator," on films ranging from the Star Wars trilogy through the RoboCop films, and "visual effects supervisor" on such eye-stunners as The Haunting and Evolution.

Now, Tippett has taken on the title just about everyone really wants: "Director." Following up on his roles as "creature visual effects supervisor" and co-producer of Starship Troopers, Tippett has recently helmed the sequel, Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation. Jonathan Marlow asks him about its making, his early inspirations and his future plans.

Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation

Marlow: Like many in the stop motion field, you had what could be called a "Cambrian event" at a screening of a Ray Harryhausen film, in this case The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. What effect did that film have on you when you first saw it?

Tippett: It completely changed my life. When I saw it, I could not believe what I was looking at. I was seven years old, in 1958, and it was pure magic. It was the most amazing thing that I'd ever seen. It was like a bolt of electricity burned through my brain. In those days, of course, there were no other outlets for media - it wasn't on VHS or DVD or anything. It had a theatrical run and, back then, people only went to the movies once (particularly since I was seven and didn't have any money and my parents only wanted to sit through it once). I had to imagine how it was done. Gradually, I became more aware of the process and would see other movies like Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts or a re-release of Mighty Joe Young. By that time I started reading Forey Ackerman's publication Famous Monsters of Filmland and found a few articles on the stop motion process and Ray's work.   

Marlow: Did you start making models at that point?

Tippett: Yes, but even before that I drew a lot as a kid and was always attracted to the art. Over the years, I would fight clay and learn how to sculpt things. At some point, after mowing lots of lawns, I was able to get a little 8mm Keystone camera that had a single-frame trip release and started doing a number of my own 8mm experiments with stop motion.

Marlow: From what I understand, you graduated from UC Irvine and then you ended up at Cascade Pictures. Did you work with Ken Ralston?

Tippett: Yes, Ken was there.

Marlow: I wager Cascade was quite a learning experience.

Tippett: That was the place. If there was ever any kind of like a club of stop motion geeks, the only people in the world that were interested in doing it were there. It was this amazing place. At that time they were doing the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Jolly Green Giant and all this kind of stuff. They had a department that was run by Phil Kellison who did quite a bit of visual effects work on movies in the 1950s and 1960s. Phil was kind of the guru of the place and Jim Danforth and Dave Allen were there, the key animators and innovators.

At some point I found out about this and went up there and started visiting these guys on a quasi-regular basis and became their friend. This was where Ken Ralston and Dennis Muren and Jon Berg and Tom St. Amand and people that ended up to do the Star Wars pictures all gravitated around. It was an amazing place. It was probably 1966 or 1967, I think Dennis and Jim and Dave had found a trunk in the possession of the widow of Pete Peterson who helped Willis O'Brien on The Black Scorpion and The Giant Behemoth and a number of those pictures as well as Mighty Joe Young. The trunk was just full of all kinds of stop motion puppets and things from experiments and the Black Scorpions and everything. Phil Kellison had an armature of King Kong and there was an armature of Mighty Joe Young that was floating around the place. Jim and Dave were making their own armatures. It was just the bastion of that kind of work.

Marlow: It seems like a great starting point.

Tippett: It was like kids in a candy store. They were extremely inclusive and very helpful. They were really encouraging. They'd stop their day and show you around and talk to you. When I started working there, after I graduated from college, I worked primarily with Dave Allen. I had a really great time with him. He was a really terrific guy to work with and I learned a lot from him.

Marlow: It's clear to me from the movements of the Imperial Walkers in [The] Empire [Strikes Back] or the "back of the beast" sequence in Starship Troopers that you've studied character movement very carefully. Your technique seems to form a bridge back to Ray's work on Jason and the Argonauts, a real attention to movement and detail that's quite unlike anything else.

Tippett: There is no formal education that you can get in stop motion animation. You have to train yourself. At a certain point, I "graduated" from 8mm to 16mm and just became more and more adept. I practiced a lot. We didn't have any playback systems like we have today, like the video-assists or frame-grabbers or that sort of thing. You just had to shoot and you had to build everything - you had to build the armatures, you had to figure out how to sculpt and make molds and run the rubber and build the sets and load the camera. Absolutely everything that you needed to do, you understood one way or another. You got the entire process. Eventually, as I was hired to do more specific tasks, like at Lucasfilm, and the engineering issues, such as building the Walkers and armatures, became more of a production issue and more experienced and talented people did that stuff anyway. Then I didn't do that and focused more on animating. Typically, what I would do is study a bunch of stuff. Just do as much preparation as any performer would do for anything, whether it was acting or the trapeze. Get as much input as you possibly can to help flesh-out your characters. In the instance of the Walkers, Dennis Muren and Jon Berg and I shot 35mm footage of elephants. That was the basis for the Walkers. We ultimately didn't use them, we moved completely from the elephant footfall pattern, but at least it was a starting point for us.

Marlow: In an effort to figure out how something that massive would move?

Tippett: Just to see how the joints articulated. Observation in the real world is paramount, particularly now with computer graphics because the computer likes to do things in a lazy, boring way. If you don't break it and don't move with intention then it just looks like more boring computer graphics stuff.

Marlow: You formed Tippett Studio in 1983 with Prehistoric Beast, which points back to the very beginnings of stop motion with Willis O'Brien's The Dinosaur and the Missing Link and, later, The Lost World. You won your first Emmy for the television special Dinosaur!, thus indirectly leading to Jurassic Park. That film, like Jaws before it, really changed the way that an "event movie" was perceived. At the time, weren't there more effects shots in the film than in any movie prior to its release?

Tippett: Actually, there weren't that many effects shots. The split was between the full-scale puppets that Stan Winston's shop developed and they were used in very specific kinds of scenes - the head of the Tyrannosaurus or the dying Triceratops were Stan Winston creations. Everything was carefully choreographed and laid out to work between Stan Winston's full-scale puppets and the CG work. I think that there weren't more than 50 or 60 CG shots in the whole thing. The original intent was to create the dinosaurs using stop motion Go-Motion techniques. Dennis Muren was going to attempt to achieve the stampede with computer graphics because he felt at that time that the state-of-the-art would allow for some wide master shots and it would be the best way of making use of what computer graphics could do at the time. What they found, as the camera went in closer and closer on these dinosaurs, was that they held up photographically. They did a few tests and Steven [Spielberg] decided that he wanted the whole thing to be done with computer graphics because it was such an amazing new look.

Marlow: You mentioned it in passing, but can you talk a bit about the development of Go-Motion?

  Tippett: That was certainly an attempt to cross that really wide gap of the clarity of every frame in stop motion animation and what happens when you actually shoot a moving creature with a camera. The interruption of the persistence of vision with the shutter in the camera creates an artifact on a frame that has a blur on it.

Marlow: Motion blur, right.

Tippett: In order to achieve that blur with a puppet, it has to be moving while the shutter is open. When computer graphics came along, you could add a post-blur to a stop motion puppet if you wanted to but why not just do the whole thing in CG at that point? It became very clear that with the motion control technology that they were using on the Star Wars pictures that had been developed by John Dykstra and Richard Edlund that if you hooked up a stop motion puppet to the motion control equipment in a certain way, you would have a computer-driven rod puppet. That's pretty much what we developed. The stop motion puppets would have these attachments that would allow it to be held up by its feet and its body and its neck and each of these pylons or rods that were connected to the puppet were then connected to a number of moving devices that were X, Y and Z and north and south. Each of these axes were programmed one at a time until you ended up with a composite of all of the movements that you needed. As the puppet was run, the shutter of the camera would open and close and then you could go in between frames and hand-animate all of the details.

Marlow: Amazing. I'm going to backtrack a little bit, back to 1985 when you first worked with Jon Davison on RoboCop. That film featured some pretty stunning stop motion work. Later, you went on to do the CG bugs on the Davison-produced Starship Troopers, where you were justifiably nominated for your sixth Academy Award® (and were caught instead in the Titanic sweep). Now you've completed the sequel - Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation.

Tippett: Actually, to backtrack even further, I worked with Jon Davison in the mid-1970s on a couple Roger Corman pictures, one of which was Piranha. I did some stop motion work on it. Jon is a huge movie fan and loves stop motion work. We've been trying to make movies together for a long time. He was really the one that got some interest at Sony to do a sequel because the original Troopers didn't do well at the box office. We were having trouble floating a number of projects in Hollywood because they were too weird. This turned out to be the project where Jon and Ed Neumeier and I could be reunited. Because the budget was so low, that really was what had driven us to go the conventional horror route. It's the most convenient thing, if you don't have any money and you need to tell a story, it's got to be relegated to the horror gulag. We had to engineer the story to fit the budget.

Marlow: That dictated the largely single location of the action?

Tippett: Absolutely. Everything basically had to be The Old Dark House.

Marlow: The entire film was shot on a soundstage? Even the opening sequence?

Tippett: The very opening was shot at a quarry. We spent two nights shooting there.

Marlow: Where was the rest of the film shot?

Tippett: All of the stage work was done in Manhattan Beach at Raleigh Studios on two soundstages.

Marlow: How was it for you to work with actors?

Tippett: Well, I had a really good time. We spent a great deal of time casting and hired the actors that best fit the part. With the key actors, I would go out to lunch and we'd talk about the characters. What was very important for me to do was to try and get everyone together to bond as though these people had known each other for a long time. I wanted to insinuate that they had been working and fighting together for months and months. Brenda Strong, who plays Sgt. Rake and coincidentally was in the first Starship Troopers, threw a party at her house and we were able to get everybody together. At that point, everybody started to let their hair down and meet each other. I could say, "Look, it's Cy Carter. You're Billie Otter, right?" Everybody could see their parts and they all became quite good friends during the production. I was able to squeeze out three days of rehearsal time that I thought was very important for everybody - to meet and establish lines of communication and work out some logistics.

Brenda's significant other, Tom Henri, was a drill instructor in the Marines and he came in and spent a day working with everybody to get military protocol, holding weapons, salutes and other attention to detail right. Another day of rehearsals was spent working on how we were going to communicate regarding some of the complex choreography and another day just talking about finding the right tone for the number of troopers that become infected in this picture. It was important to find a tone that was not a George Romero zombie kind of a thing.

Marlow: How long did you spend working on the script of the film?

Tippett: About a year. Once we knew that there was interest from the studio, Ed and I rented a little place on the beach up in Marin and pretty much framed the story in one weekend and then spent the next eight months detailing it and fleshing it out.

Marlow: With the budget in mind, did you write the script with the full knowledge of how many effects shots you could actually have and how those effects shots could be used in the film?

Tippett: Absolutely. Everything was considered like that. All of the production design, the choices of materials that would be used. There was a big issue with the weapons from the first Starship Troopers - close to $1.5 million were spent just on weapons and blanks. That would have killed us. On RoboCop, my buddy Craig Hayes came up with a way of generating gun flashes for ED-209, the big robot, by using strobes. Essentially camera flash attachments. Based on that, Frank Petzold, the Effects Director of Photography, and I spent a bit of time testing flashes on prop guns. We knew we were going to be shooting digitally. Because of the way the flash appeared on the digital format, it really looked like a good, solid, burned-out explosion. This was the way we were able to deal with a lot of problems.

The guns, when you're firing blanks - number one, they're very dangerous, and number two, they're very loud. If you get near people's ears, in a tight situation, it can ruin their hearing. Also, they jam all the time so you lose a lot of time on the set. So, by using these electronic flash guns, you didn't have the visceral effect that you generally do with a real weapon firing but these people are actors so they're pretty good at miming and making it seem as though the things have weight and mass to them. Then we got Frank Eulner and Steve Bodeker, the sound designers, to create some terrific sounds for the weapons.

  Marlow: Did you shoot it on the Sony HDW-900?

Tippett: Whatever the 24p camera is.

Marlow: And you edited it on an Avid?

Tippett: Louise Rubacky was the editor and she cut everything on an Avid.

Marlow: What was the overall production time on the film? You started writing in 2002 and shot it last year?

Tippett: It was close to two years.

Marlow: How much of your studio was occupied with work on the film? Obviously there were a number of other projects that passed through during that time.

Tippett: We had relatively small staff for this picture because the budget was so low. We had about sixteen people working on it, which is very small. Most of the animators - most of the crew, really - were people that recently graduated from the local school down the road, Ex'pression [College for Digital Arts]. It was their first time working in the feature film department. I had key people that I had worked with over the years. Chris Morley was head of the compositing department and Pete Konig was the head of the animation department; Eric Leven was the overall supervisor, and these were all guys that I worked with in the past. Pete and Eric both worked on the first Starship Troopers so they gaffed it and taught all of these guys how to work.

Marlow: I was able to see the film on tape so naturally it was missing all of the extra features. Did you, Jon and Ed enjoy recording the commentary track?

Tippett: It was horrible.

Marlow: That's what I was afraid of.

Tippett: It was ridiculous because we had no schedule, really. We were down doing all of the color timing; we had about a week to do the entire color timing for the thing. We had just wrapped up a session with the final color timing; we had finished our commitment to the movie and had to drive all the way across town in traffic and do the commentary. We'd been watching the movie probably 1,000 times and the last thing we wanted to do was watch the movie and comment on it. I couldn't stand to listen to it. I'm sure that it's horrible.

Evolution

Marlow: What's next? You said that this was the first project that the studios bit on. You have a couple of other ideas in mind?

Tippett: Ed and Jon and I have a number of projects that we would like to do, so we're in the process of fleshing those out and developing them. Once they're in shape, we'll take them around and see if we can talk anybody out of the money. The next thing that we'd like to do is something with a little bit more money, not a lot, and I'd like to shoot it on film.

Marlow: Excluding all of the other films that we've discussed, there are a number of universally panned films that you've worked on - The Haunting, Hollow Man, Evolution - that critically or financially failed to perform very well. Reviewers and audiences still comment on the animation in these films and mention your efforts as the lone aspect of merit. It always seems that the quality of work that Tippett Studio brings to these projects outshines everything else in the film. Is that a little awkward? It's a situation similar to that of Ray Harryhausen and his films of the 1950s.

Tippett: It's showbiz. It's the movie racket. I've been really lucky to work on some decent pictures, some seminal pictures. The way I look at these things, sometimes you get to work with really great crews and really great people and have a good time and make something that's fun and actually turns out to be a good movie. Other times, the analogy I use is that we're kind of like people at Lawrence Livermore [National Laboratory] that get a grant to do experiments. You can work on your own and you do what's interesting to you and let the world go by. In the end, all you've done is, you've contributed to the making of a bomb.

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"It's showbiz."

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Jonathan Marlow
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

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