In this transcript of The Fabulist’s wide-ranging conversation with Phil Tippett, the modern master of stop-motion animation talks about the art, mental health struggles, and techniques of sculpture, puppetry, writing, film editing, lighting, and collaboration that come together in his epic, unhinged feature film, “Mad God.” This interview has been lightly edited for continuity and clarity.
The Fabulist: Phil Tippett, legendary animation pioneer veteran of “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park,” thanks for joining us at The Fabulist.
Phil Tippett: Yeah, my pleasure; good to be here.
So you’ve got this epic passion project coming out. It’s 30 years in the making: “Mad God.” It’s nightmarish, a far-out, freaky stop-motion movie. And I guess it’s all Ray Harryhausen’s fault?
Significantly, yeah! He was a huge inspiration as a kid growing up, and I studied his work religiously.
And at that point in time the only information I could get was from the Warren publication Famous Monsters of Filmland, the editor was Forrest J. Ackerman. And Forrey was very inclusive, and would invite us up. His house was a museum, called the Ackermansion.
And that’s where I met Ray. Forrey was a friend of Ray’s and would run articles on Ray’s process. That’s how I began to understand what, what the issue was for that.
When I saw [“The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad”], it was just magical. I had no idea how it was done. And throughout my career that’s what I aspire to — just make things that were magical, and different. When I was done with a project, turn the page. When we wrapped the Star Wars series I was done with space aliens; and then I was done with robots; and then was done with dinosaurs. I just like to move on.
What is it about stop motion that is so arresting when compared to CGI? It’s such a distinct medium.
Roger Ebert put it the best way — computer graphics look real but feel fake, and stop motion looks fake but feels real. Yeah.
Do you feel that there is a saturation point for the viewer at this point in cinema or in moviemaking, where CGI is not extraordinary anymore, and by becoming ordinary it affects the audience’s ability to to be swept along by the story?
To me, it’s like drinking from the firehose. I don’t go see those movies because they’re just mind numbing, you know? I really lost interest. There’s a few that have come out that had interesting design, like “Arrival,” I thought that was quite good. Martin Scorsese was interviewed earlier in the year, and he was complaining about the use of the word “content,” and it’s just — what the fuck is “content”? It’s just stuff so that Netflix can sell whatever. It’s like Coca Cola.
Its content contact content, hot air, hot air, hot air. [Scorcese] said: What was the last movie you saw that you can really remember? That was spectacular and amazing? He said that was “Gravity.” And I would have to agree. You know, that’s the only thing that really stuck in my mind because of the spectacle of it all.
I suddenly thought of the Scandinavian vampire movie “Let the Right One In,” which had very low-budget effects and was horrifying.
That was great. But, but character-driven, of course, yeah. Yes. That was it’s secret sauce.
The uncanny valley is something most folks commonly associate with CGI, but as you said, quoting Ebert, “stop motion looks fake but feels real.” With stop-motion, in other words, the uncanny valley is even more pronounced. Is that something you find that resonates?
Well, you are filming a real object with real light, so it is real.
Looking back at in particular “Jurassic Park” and “Starship Troopers” — after that, there was this huge fall-off in the quality of work, and design character, and creature design. And for a long time, it just really didn’t look that great unless Dennis Muren was doing it.
I would never sit down at a computer and wiggle a mouse around, I’m terrible with the computer. As far as I ever went was with Word, and that was that. But luckily, by that time, I kind of got kicked upstairs as a supervisor and, would help the directors; I saw myself as a choreographer for the directors,
The idea of choreography in stop-motion is interesting. I heard the word “dance” used in the Kickstarter video for “Mad God” — where making the movie was described as a dance. And you’re now using the word “choreographer” — you’re coordinating a lot of moving elements that have a little bit of that mind of their own.
Yeah, they do. Again, working from the unconscious; are you familiar with the term solipsism?
Yes — deeply self involved.
Yeah. Well it’s a cage that we all have. Our minds are our cage. That’s all we have. That’s all we know, is our own minds. There’s a lot that we don’t know, it’s like being [in] this prison that you can’t get out of — but it’s also a universe. An endless universe, labyrinthine, and so once you tap into that psychically, you can kind of channel your thoughts …
If you look back at the equivalent of interviews with Bach or Mozart or Beethoven, and they’re asked where their beautiful music comes from, they just say “I just transcribed it from God.” And that’s pretty much it.
I mean, “Mad God” was very much a religious experience for me, and I’m not particularly religious, but I certainly studied religions, and am interested in them, and their impact on society, and the kind of peace that one gets from religion that’s absolutely necessary, until it becomes dogma.
You had mentioned that with computers, you got about as far as Word — and the thing about Word is that you can create entire universes with Word, or any blank sheet of paper and a pencil, writing down words, and telling the story. So let’s talk about the writing behind “Mad God.” I’ve seen the trailer, it’s great. It’s a total freak show. And not just because stop action is creepy or scary — and it is creepy or scary — but somebody wrote this. You wrote this. Where did the story, the nightmarish and horrific sequence of events, come from? Is there something you’re trying to exorcise around despair about human nature and the universe we’re living in?
Basically, I’m very misanthropic. I really don’t think there’s, there’s much hope for mankind at all from what I have observed, you know. There was no way [“Mad God”] could not be some kind of reflection of the era, the gestalt of the time. A lot of times you don’t know what you’re doing until you’re done, and you can look back; I follow the news very avidly, and I don’t think there’s any way that you can not be affected by that. It enters into your worldview and it’s like breathing air, there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s a lot I would not like to remember, but all that stuff gets relegated to the unconscious, and that’s where it cooks.
And so that was pretty much the process for “Mad God”; if asked what “Mad God” is about, I say it’s about scale and process and time. That was, that was kind of my canvas that I was working with.
You had described your movie as Miltonesque, I’m thinking about Paradise Lost. There’s also Dante’s Inferno, Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Breugel, and some of the images also reminded me of Francis Bacon, the painter, these expressions of grotesquerie in human nature. Was that all you, or did your large volunteer crew contribute? Were they co-writers? Did they bring some of their own vision and, and madness?
No, it was pretty much me, I was a producer and director. And they pretty much followed me in terms of the narrative content, such as it was.
It was not not a conventional narrative by any sense. During “Mad God” I dreamt prolifically, and I had a big book that I recorded my dreams in, and that was kind of my compass. All of my dreams had a narrative cohesiveness to it that were not in any way like a three-act structure, but there was a logic to it. And so I just felt that, and made a movie about my inner mind.
Maybe a little Carl Jung at work there.
Absolutely. You know, [during] the very last year or so of “Mad God,” or even before that, the last couple of years, I ended up hating it. It was just a slog, just go in every day, and then get it done. And at the end, maybe about a year before it was complete, I had a huge mental breakdown and had to go into a psych ward for a while, and recovery, and that took me about three months to get over — but it busted my brain.
And the same thing happened to Jung with his Red Book; he went down this path, [with] this beautiful book, but his intention was not that much different than me.
“Mad God” is Miltonesque and there’s one direction, it’s down, you just get sucked into it. And I became kind of a method director, and I couldn’t tell the difference between me and the movie, and I ended up resenting it.
I feel differently about it now, but it was a dark period — and with Jung it was the same thing, you know. His book drove him mad. And his family, from what I understand, pulled him out of it. He worked on this thing for 16 years, and his family finally dug him out, and probably psychiatrists.
So, [it happens to] a lot of artists; I know it happened to Coppola on “Apocalypse Now,” I know it happened to Beethoven a bunch of times. So it’s not uncommon.
As we mentioned earlier, stop motion can have an inherently creepy quality. Art Clokey’s Gumby, and those Rankin Bass Christmas specials from the ‘60s — even though they were warm and benign and full of music and so forth, they actually could be quite creepy. Stop-motion has been creeping out viewers for a long time, and in more contemporary movies like ”James and the Giant Peach” and “Coraline,” and it was a natural fit for Tim Burton with “Nightmare Before Christmas” and outside of the commercial sector we see Bruce Bickford’s claymation for Frank Zappa and Jan Svankmajer — the medium seems to trend dark. Maybe there was a little bit of a feedback loop working with you and “Mad God”? Is there something inherently just off about stop-motion that lends itself to the strange, the paranormal, the eerie, the dreamlike?
Well Ray [Harryhausen] characterized it as being surreal. It’s in two different universes. And the connective tissue is your mind as you’re putting this illusion together oh, yeah, one frame at a time. And then projected at 24 frames a second.
Joe Johnston, we were working on the [Star Wars] walkers and the taunton, he said it was an unholy art.
One aspect of the art you’re working with, that seems to get less visibility, is the creatures, the characters, the models, the dolls, the materials. I imagine it is a distinct pleasure to make these little creatures. I was thinking about Wendy Froud and Yoda and “The Dark Crystal,” and how her doll- and puppet-making made those stories so possible. Is there any crossover from that world — the sculptural world, the doll making world — into stop motion?
I’ve studied the history of puppetry, and puppetry goes way back; it really influenced the Surrealists a great deal. It is that fascination with the uncanny quality of these lifeless things that appear to be alive/
And your materials are resin and casts, or stuffing and fillings and stitching? How broadly do you reach in making each of these creations?
I cast a wide net, and my imagination is boundless. So I don’t think about what I’m doing. I just just start. In an interview with Pablo Picasso, many years ago, he was asked what he’s looking for, what he’s seeking. And he said, “I do not seek, I find”; that’s what artists do. They tell jack shit until you get into it, start channeling the thing, and it starts telling you what to do.
You’re not creating — it’s telling you what to do.
I’ve read about the sculptor with a block of stone or a block of wood and somewhere in there is a form that they have to excavate.
Oh, that was Michelangelo! Yeah, he could see — I mean, unbelievable — he would come up with these plans; [there] would be a big block, and he would have them drill into certain depths, and that’s where the character was, he was just unlocking it. And then he’d give it to assistants and say, “okay, hack it out.”
I wonder if there is happy stop motion movie in the future. The only one I can think of that really pulls off a sense of benign and giddy joy is “The Wizard of Speed and Time,” Mike Jittlov.
I lived in the same neighborhood as Mike, he just lived up the block. And Mike was an odd fellow. He was someplace way up in the spectrum. He knocked on my door one night at three o’clock in the morning, and said, “Phil, I just figured out how to whistle Shostakovich’s Third Symphony backwards.” Mike!
Yeah, so, a similar mind.
I just recently, within the last few years, I self-diagnosed myself as bipolar. And that and I’ve got ADD and OCD and all these things, attracted to shiny objects. I don’t get depressed very much at all. And usually over silly things. Usually, they’re the results of projections like, when “Jurassic Park” went CG, I overreacted. And when “Mad God” was rejected from the first two film festivals, I got really depressed. But it’s just a projection. That was just all in my mind.
It must have been quite an experience to have that Kickstarter blow up and this crew of folks turning out to validate this work, you’ve been hacking away at sort of an isolation.
Luckily, I picked up a crew of guys at my studio that wanted to work, sets and lights and models. And so they were really essential to getting it done … my heroes were the sound designer Richard Beggs, who goes back to “Apocalypse Now,” and Dan Wool, the composer, and then Chris Morley was my DP.
I would generally go in and do a setup and rough in the lighting and then Chris would come in and finesse, and it looked really good. I really owe Chris in a lot of ways, because he’s far superior at lighting.
Our editor Ken Rogerson was really instrumental in this. I’d done a bunch of storyboards, and you’re doing a shot, and it’s just like putting together a puzzle, where all the pieces have to fit.
There’s the section in “Mad God” where I just shot the shit out of it — I kind of did what Kubrick did in “2001.” You know, the first thing he did was he rented a warehouse and they did experiments on the liquid dispersions. And so I did that, I just shot, I don’t even know what I was doing. And Ikind of had a dump truck. Thousands of feet of film, most of it high speed, some some time lapse, and I just dumped it all on Ken and it took him two years to figure it out.
I mean, I had a narrative thread — kind of an evolutionary thread — in mind that we followed, but he put all the pictures together. You don’t do this stuff without your heroes. I had some stop-motion animators that worked for me, some of the best stop-motion artists in the world. Tom Gibbons and Chuck Duke, Chuck’s working now on Guillermo [Del Toro]’s movie, “Pinocchio.”
Oh, wow. That’ll be something to see. I was not aware that that was in development.
Yeah, it kind of got slowed down by COVID …
So what’s the road ahead for Mad God?
It’s doing really well in film festivals. There are very few negative reviews. I mean, it’s pretty much preaching to the choir because a lot of them are horror film festivals, but it premiered in Locarno. And I was overwhelmed by the response. So many of these film festivals would have a screening and then they go, “Hey, can we booked four more screenings?” So it’s just caught fire.
And I have a team of about 13 people that are doing what I have no idea about — which is the marketing and social media. I think Shudder might be interested in it, and then there’ll be a conduit to a bunch of other things.
And so my managers are starting on simmer and turning it up slowly. It already has attracted a bunch of domestic and international distributors. So it’ll get out there. And they said that they might want to make some toys or effigies.
You run a studio over in Berkeley, Tippett Studio. It’s in demand today, I guess you got plenty of work lined up superheroes and spaceships …
It was really bad for a while .. The tax-incentivized countries killed us. And now it’s coming back, there’s a lot of work on Marvel, there’s a bunch of domestic stuff that’s coming back.
What’s your next passion project after this thing is sorted out and out in the world?
I spent my COVID vacation working every day on a project called “Pequin’s Pendequin.” It’s not going to be like “Mad God,” but as they say, the canary sings one song so it will have my thumbprint on it, but it’s much lighter. I’m not gonna do “Mad God” again, it took me fucking 30 years, I want to be able to hire a crew and get it done in two or three years, stop motion. I sculpted all the maquettes …
I shot them against blue screen and composited them in, and drew out the 800 storyboards, and the script, so it’s sitting there all ready to go. It’s more the tone of a 1940s Warner Brothers cartoon, but it also has a dark side — but it’s more it’s more uplifting … and then I’ve got two other Pequin sequels. I’ve got them all written out and I just get to keep tinkering with them.
Pequin is the central character.
The main character, yeah.
Just the name has a bit of a fantasy-world feeling — not on Earth.
Yeah. Pequin is a shapeshifter.
That should be an interesting thing to see and stop motion. Are there any glimpses out there on the Internet we could see?
No, nope nope, nope nope nope. it’s all up here. [Points to forehead.]
Anything we need to know before we sign off about the movie or otherwise?
Everybody send a $1 check to Tippett Studio.
Yeah, I’ll tell you you know if you know I make any money. I’ll give you 10% of it.
Just make more movies.
Yeah, don’t hold your breath.
I’m looking forward to Pequin and to “Mad God.” Thank you so much.
My pleasure. Thank you.