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Visual Effects Legend Phil Tippett Talks Star Wars, Stop Motion, And George Lucas

Following the career of visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett has been a fascinating journey from the Hollywood he grew up with in the ’50s to the technologically obsessed industry of today. Tippett’s specialty in stop motion animation got him in the door with the original Star Wars trilogy, an incredible launching pad that lead to fruitful collaborations with Joe Dante (Piranha), Ron Howard (Willow), Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop), and Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).

While stop motion remained his specialty through most of these projects, Spielberg’s Jurassic Park changed everything, transforming him into an effects supervisor overnight. Over two decades later, Tippett’s interest in stop motion is still going strong, as evidenced by the Mad God shorts he directs and his revival of the holochess sequence in The Force Awakens. With that film’s Blu-ray arriving in stores today (read our review here), we talked to Tippett about his long relationship with stop motion, CGI, and the franchise that started it all: Star Wars. 

Space: When you think back on the first Star Wars movie, what memories stand out?

Phil Tippett: When we were working on the cantina scene doing the inserts in Los Angeles, George would come by our studio once a week and check the progress over the six-week period that we were making the costumes and masks. I had a stop motion puppet that I had made a few years earlier and that caught George’s eye. We talked about the possibility of doing the chess stop motion and he said, “Yeah, sure. That would be great.” Over the period of about two weeks, my partner Jon Berg and I built a bunch of alien creatures. We fabricated them very, very quickly and then took them on to a stage over at ILM. Dennis Muren set up the shot. John and I shot over the period of two or three days. It was right at the very, very end. It might have been one of the last things that we shot for the first Star Wars because I remember shooting the last shot and they were having their wrap party.

Did you feel nostalgic returning to holochess after all these years?

Yeah, somewhat. It was a very different process than what we did on the first Star Wars. It was a process of re-creation, not invention. That was a whole different kind of experiences on a creative level. Reconstruction takes a great deal longer because you’re trying to make something look like something that has already existed and is part of the public consciousness. J.J. [Abrams] and Kathy [Kennedy] didn’t want to change anything. They wanted to pick up the chess set where we left off, so that was the mission. It took a great deal of time and effort to reconstruct the characters.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

You’ve said that the industry’s transition from stop motion to CG took a major toll on you personally, but it seems like you adapted well. How did that transition alter your career?

I was a hands-on craftsperson and I kind of got kicked upstairs. At that particular point in time, I knew a lot of stuff about the entire production process, so in many ways, I was a lot more valuable as a person that had a wider view of things. A lot of computer graphics guys were not filmmakers, so they didn’t understand the production process. They knew how to make computers work and do the jobs that were creatively required for that, but in terms of the big picture, they just didn’t have that kind of experience. By happenstance, I moved to a more supervisory, directorial kind of level, helping to set up things in pre-production, going out and shooting, making sure that what was shot was going to be able to be put together and that kind of thing. At the same time, with the advent of computer graphics, I was interested in it as a tool for production, but I was not interested in doing hands-on work because I would not for the life of me be able to sit down at a desk all day long and work on anything. In my current position, I get to stay on my feet all the time.

As CG got more sophisticated, George Lucas famously revised and augmented the special effects in the original Star Wars trilogy. How do you feel about those changes? Were you involved in any way?

No, I was not involved at all. I’m kind of ambivalent about it. It’s George’s stuff, so it’s his prerogative to do whatever he wants to do with the material. Throughout history, artists have revised their work. [J.M.W.] Turner, when his paintings were being exhibited in the gallery, they had to kick him out because he’d keep painting on them. There’s a bunch of kind of contingent things, things that George wanted to fix. Like in the first Star Wars, there was a human that played Jabba the Hut and George did not like the performance. He felt he needed something that was more alien, but the technology did not exist at that time to paint out the actor that was in the scenes with Han Solo. 20 or 30 years later, the technology existed, so he did it.

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Jurassic Park, Piranha, and RoboCop all inspired sequels and/or remakes. Do you feel any connection to those later iterations?

No, not particularly. The fun part for me is working on original pieces. Once it turns into a franchise, it’s less interesting, although that was not the case with the Star Wars movies. I found that Empire—since my responsibilities were a lot greater, more varied—was one of the highlights in my so-called career. Same thing with Jedi. Even though the second two Star Wars movies were part of a franchise, the term franchise really hadn’t quite sunk in at that time. Now it’s a whole different game.

How do you feel about the current state of stop motion? Do you have any interest in films like Fantastic Mr. Fox or Anomalisa?

Yeah, I see most of them. I’m not that interested in the current so-called puppet films. I find those kind of boring. Fantastic Mr. Fox and Anomalisa are interesting because they went off the path of what is generally presumed to be acceptable to PG audiences. But most of the stop motion stuff you see has the same story: the little kid has some emotional conflict in his life that gets resolved and he saves the world from the monsters. It’s pretty much the same story, so I find it kind of tedious.

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Do you see your own work as director expanding and potentially moving into feature films? I know you directed Starship Troopers 2, but would you ever consider directing a stop motion feature?

No, I think that’s kind of unlikely. My mind and the kinds of things that I am personally interested in doing, I don’t think they’re commercially accessible to the people that would give me money. I’ve kind of gone on my own path and done Kickstarters to make my own movies without any adult supervision.

So many filmmakers from your generation were groomed on King Kong and the work of Ray Harryhausen. Are you able to find a similar appeal in today’s movies? How are they different from the films you grew up with?

Oh boy, they’re totally different. What happened with the coming of Star Wars and then Empire and Jedi is that the B-movies in Ray Harryhausen’s day… he had very tight budgets and relied on spectacle to help sell them. I had a few conversations with George about that. He mentioned that the Star Wars films kind of are Ray Harryhausen movies, but with better scripts.

The Force Awakens is now available on Blu-ray. Watch the trailer below.

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