To look at him, you would not think that Phil Tippett is the creator of some of the most horrific and terrifying monsters ever witnessed by the human race. A quite normal-looking man of average height, with thinning grey hair, he has been at the forefront of movie animation for almost three decades. Phil Tippett is one of the greatest animators of all time, starting off with the age-old techniques of stop-motion and then moving on to the technical computer generated wizardry of today. I chose to write about him because I greatly admire the work he had done in the industry and he has witnessed first hand the technological advances that have occurred during the course of his career. I am also interested in him because as well as being involved in the field of cgi special effects (a career which I also wish to pursue), he was also closely involved in the ground-breaking (for the time) special effects and animation in the Star Wars Trilogy, which happens to be another love of mine ?.
Born in 1951 in Illinois, Tippett has had a lifelong fascination with the art of animation. During his childhood he was fascinated by films such as King Kong and Jason and the Argonauts. He was fascinated by the surreal images in these movies and wanted to know how they were achieved. He went to his local library to research the subject and discovered the principles of stop motion. One of his favourite childhood hobbies was to make stop motion films with his father’s old movie camera. Tippett had been a lifelong devotee of stop motion as practiced by masters like Willis O’Brien in King Kong (1933) and Ray Harryhausen in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Stop motion was, and still is an intricate, painstaking art in which animators pose and photograph miniature figures frame by frame. He wasn’t alone. “Just about every top animator or effects man today has favorite Harryhausen figurines, such as the part-rhino, part-centaur Cyclops, the serpent woman, and the two-headed Roc bird from Sinbad; or, from Jason, the harpies that are a cross between gargoyles and pterodactyls, and the seven-headed Hydra and its spawn” (ILM). In traditional stop motion (still practiced by Henry Selick in marvels like The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach), the camera records a series of subtly different poses rather than actual shifting, so the resulting flow of images is inherently surreal — ultra-sharp and jerky. That is the reason that an audience can instantly tell when a creature has been animated in this way. If one was to look at a frame of film of a person running, they would see that the legs of the person in the frame are blurred. This was the thing that gave stop-motion away. If one were to pause a movie and look at a single frame, one would see that the movement was perfectly focussed and not blurred at all. Starting with the movie Dragonslayer in 1980, and later used on the Taumtaum creatures in Return of the Jedi, Tippett helped develop a new method of animating at ILM which became know as ‘Go Motion’.In go motion, motorized and computer-governed rods were attached to the models that were being animated. When each frame was shot, the rod moved to blur the movement on the film, thus giving a more realistic look of motion.
In 1992, Tippett was hired to do the animation work for the film, Jurassic Park. He did not know it then, but he was about to embark on a journey that would forever change the way he, and many other artists like him worked. At the time, the director of Jurassic Park, Steven Speilberg thought that Tippett’s ‘Go Motion’ would do the trick for all the effects he wanted. Go motion was state-of-the-art in the early ’90s. But there was trouble on the horizon. One of the computer artists at ILM presented Spielberg and company with a rough computer animation of the T. Rex circling the Land-Rover from one of the planned story board scenes in the movie. Computer animators at ILM, hired to embellish Tippett’s effects, were instead conjuring ways for digital graphics to supplant them. Spielberg had scheduled the computer artists to do only a couple of herd shots, but the results of their experiments knocked him out. He cancelled the go motion. The way Spielberg has told the story, he and Tippett watched tests of computer-generated dinosaurs moving smoothly through bright sunlight. Then Tippett turned to him and said, “I’m extinct.”
Cut to 1997 — and Tippett lives. And thrives: His most recent film Starship Troopers opened with a $22 million opening weekend gross. Tippett described himself as being “physically debilitated” when Spielberg decided to work primarily with computers on Jurassic Park. “It was such a horrendous proposal,” he said. “Basically, everything I’d done practically since I was able to walk was not to be used anymore.” How Tippett got from there to here is the story both of one man’s reinvention of himself, and of his fight to keep movie art in the computer age honest, messy, and true.
In the early days of Jurassic Park, there was a terrible crash at the intersection of art and technology. It soon became clear that computer animators weren’t immediately qualified to visualize mammoth reptiles dynamically and persuasively. As Spielberg’s “Dinosaur Supervisor” (as his credit on the film read), Tippett schooled a corps of ILM and Tippett Studio animators in animal motion and behavior, encouraging them to prepare to “play” dinosaurs as actors would, with everything from mime and dance classes to field trips to animal sanctuaries and museums. “Before this,” one ILM animator admitted, “I tended to just move my little mouse around and not use my body.”
The ILMers, says Tippett, had to key into the manifold bizarreness of real-world movement — “a twitch [for example] a dinosaur might make before it started to turn. Only then could they begin to understand the kind of reflexes and action they needed to emulate.” Tippett enlisted the computer in his cause and turned computer animators into fans of the spikes and hiccups that would show up on their dinosaur read-outs that showed up on their computer screens.
In collaboration with ILM, Tippett’s close associate Craig Hayes developed the Direct Input Device (or DID, also known as the Dinosaur Input Device or the Digital Input Device). The DID, which Hayes had been thinking about for years, is basically a skeletal puppet rigged with electronic sensors. The sensors record information on a controller box that translates it for software and use in a computer. From Tippett Studio’s perspective, the DID allowed stop-motion artists to keep a tactile connection to their work and animate computer-graphic characters without learning a whole new technology. At the ILM end, it enabled computer animators not yet at full dino speed to study data that signaled the weirdness and anomalies of animal movement. Says Tippett: “If you look at the raw data you get from the DID, there are all these spikes and hiccups that pure computer-graphics guys would never have thought of; but eventually they saw that all this weirdness related to something a dinosaur might do.”
For Tippett, “it was extremely painful, the entire process of coming to grips with the computer.” He still insists, “The computer doesn’t like to do anything that’s really good,” and regards the video display terminal as a “one-eyed monster with a keyboard. We’re people who live in a multitude of environments; to just sit in an efficient work station is pretty criminal. And it’s a false economy.” Tippett holds no rancor toward computer animators. But generally, he says, “I prefer people who have some experience working in the real world — they have more of an overall idea of things. If you live exclusively in a virtual world, there’s a litany of details that you don’t think are important — but they are.” Tippett contends that artists need to dig into their materials physically: “If you don’t cut your finger, if you don’t know you have to move around an object or keep your eyes peeled while you’re working on it, you may lose the notion of consequence — that whatever you do has ramifications, so you have to be careful. If you have had that experience, doing stop motion or whatever, you think on your toes a little more.”
Jurassic Park and it’s like brought forth a whole new way of dealing with special effects in films. In the golden age of Hollywood, effects sequences were often the lonely high points of epics, spectacles, and fantasy or adventure films. They were isolated in their position in the movies, and isolated in the way they were made. Typically, Tippett explains, “a production designer would call for a matte painting, a director would call for a dam bursting.” That began to change in the ’50s, when puppet masters George Pal (Destination Moon, The Time Machine) and Harryhausen developed enough clout to seize control of entire productions. In the ’60s and ’70s, a series of collaborative leaps — made by Douglas Trumbull and Stanley Kubrick in 2001; by Trumbull and Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; and by ILMers like Muren and Tippett and Lucas in the Star Wars trilogy and beyond — brought effects teams and directors close together. And after Young Sherlock Holmes, filmmakers began to realize that the computer enabled them to weave the most whimsical or dangerous effects even more intimately into the fabric of a movie.
That hasn’t happened yet — in 1999, effects are largely still a carnival attraction. Tippett compares the digital boom to the emergence of color television: “When the sets for the TV shows all had to be very colorful, game-show sets had panels with nine different colors. Everything went haywire and became garish. Each new invention basically gets abused in some fashion until good sense takes over.”
It seems that now things have come full circle. Tippett thought that digital technology would be the end of him, but he adapted and applied his wealth of knowledge and is now again at the forefront his field. His company, Tippett Creature Studios, has been involved in a number of projects, including 1998’s hugely successful Starship Troopers. It just goes to show that no matter how technology progresses, and no matter how things change, there is no substitute for experience. Just as he drew inspiration from the greats before him such as Harryhausen and O’ Brien, I will look to Tippett for mine.