Phil Tippett already lives in your dreams. Are you ready to take a tour through his nightmares?
As a master and innovator of stop-motion animation, Tippett made his name bringing exotic creatures to life for some of the biggest movie franchises in history. He also helms his namesake Tippett Studio, the Berkeley, California-based special effects shop that’s in demand whenever a major movie or TV series needs spaceships, superheroes, and fantasy creatures that look vividly real onscreen.
Now he’s taking center stage with “Mad God,” a deeply personal stop-motion feature film that plumbs the depths of surrealistic horror, and scales the heights of animated myth making.
“It is Miltonesque,” Tippett said in an interview with The Fabulist. “There’s one direction, and it’s down.”
On one level, “Mad God” — a loosely plotted but obsessively detailed descent into an increasingly nightmarish netherworld — is the culmination of 30 years of arduous labor and personal struggle.
Yet it’s also, ironically enough, an ambitious debut for Hollywood veteran Tippett as a truly independent movie-making force.
With “Mad God” out on the film-festival circuit, he’s already at work on a series of new movie projects, chasing his childhood dreams of fantastical filmmaking, and creating cinematic magic.
A galaxy far, far away
Phil Tippett first got into your head with the original “Star Wars” movie back in 1977. Remember the holographic, 3D chess game on the Millennium Falcon? “Let the Wookie win”?
Yup. That was Phil. Ditto for the Galactic Empire’s armored AT-AT walkers, and Luke Skywalker’s snow-striding tauntaun, both seen on the Ice Planet Hoth in 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Working with fellow special-effects pioneers such as Jon Berg, Dennis Moren and Joe Johnston, Tippett created and animated these iconic figures, and launched himself into a trailblazing career of special-effects innovation.
Vermithrax Pejorative, the titular, fire-breathing reptile from Disney’s “Dragonslayer,” is a Phil Tippett creation.
For the original “Jurassic Park,” he helped bridge the gap between stop-motion and CGI in developing the movie’s breathtakingly realistic dinosaurs.
And he led a huge animation team that brought to life the hostile hordes of alien space spiders in Paul Verhoven’s 1997 film “Starship Troopers.”
An adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s classic science-fiction novel, “Starship Troopers” is a deadpan satire of technofascistic militarism; Verhoven has credited Tippett as essentially co-directing the film’s extensive and abundant battle sequences.
Yet with decades of moviemaking come and gone, Tippett, the artist and animator, is tired of the franchise work.
‘Content’ … or magic?
“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,” he said. “Yeah, I just like to move on.”
Part of the problem is we’re at peak CGI in contemporary filmmaking — and have been for quite a while. Audiences are saturated, and the amazing images are, frankly, no longer extraordinary.
“To me, it’s like drinking from the firehose,” Tippett said. “I just don’t go see those movies because they’re mind numbing, you know? I really lost interest in it.”
There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Tippett cites movies such as Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” as standouts of storytelling and character development that happen to rely heavily on special effects.
Yet as CGI became more widely used in cinema, he said, “there was this huge fall-off in the quality of work, and design character, and creature design,” even as cinematic art lost ground to the manufacture of product.
“Martin Scorsese was interviewed earlier in the year and he was complaining about the use of the word ‘content,’” he said. “And it’s just, what the fuck is ‘content’? It’s just stuff so that Netflix can sell whatever. It’s like Coca Cola.”
Phil Tippett does not want to make the cinematic equivalent of Coca Cola. He’s out to create movie magic.
As a kid, Tippett’s world was changed by stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen — in particular the 1958 adventure classic “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad,” with its monstrous cyclops, fierce dragon and childlike genie in a magic lamp.
“[Harryhausen] was a huge inspiration as a kid, and I studied his work religiously,” Tippett said. “When I saw ‘Sinbad’ it was just magical. I had no idea how it was done. And throughout my career that’s what I aspire to, is just make things that were magical.”
A youthful Tippett was eventually able to meet with Harryhausen himself, after reading articles about the master’s methods in Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, through which Tippett’s fannish fervor eventually opened doors.
“Forrey was very inclusive, and would invite us up,” Tippett said. “His house was a museum, called the Ackermansion. And that’s where I met Ray. And Forrey was a friend of Ray’s and would run articles on Ray’s process.”
Decades later, Tippett remains devoted to stop-motion as a storytelling medium without peer.
“Roger Ebert put it best: computer graphics look real, but feel fake, and stop-motion looks fake but feels real,” he said. “You are filming a real object with real light, so it is real.”
Perhaps this juxtaposition of the real and the fantastic is what makes stop-motion such a fundamentally strange medium — one that readily accommodates the depiction of grotesque monsters and fantastical beasts.
Indeed, the uncanny valley of CGI is even more pronounced in stop-motion, to the extent that even ostensibly benign productions, such as Art Clokey’s “Gumby” or the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials of the 1960s — “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and such — have a slightly off and even creepy quality.
“Ray [Harryhausen] characterized it as surreal,” Tippett said. “It’s in two different universes. And the connective tissue is your mind as you’re putting this illusion together one frame at a time, and then projected at 24 frames a second. [Director] Joe Johnston, when we were working on the [Star Wars] walkers and the tauntaun, said it was an unholy art.”
Today, stop-motion is overrepresented in scary, spooky, and unnerving animated cinema, from Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” to Laika Studios’ “James and the Giant Peach” and “Coraline.”
Which brings us back to “Mad God.” It’s a strange, epic and inspired achievement that is also, frankly, quite disturbed.
Very, very disturbed. Hieronymus Bosch-on-bad-acid disturbed. The trailer alone is packed with body horror, fascistic terror, industrial decay, war, exploitation, abuse, and all manner of grotesquery.
And pulling it out of Tippett’s feverish imagination was no easy task.
“Mad God” is not just a feature-length, stop-motion horror movie without peer; for 30 years, it was also an albatross around Tippett’s neck that would occasionally claw at his face and peck at his brain.
“I’m very misanthropic,” he said. “I really don’t think there’s much hope for mankind … there was no way ‘Mad God’ could not be some kind of reflection of the era. I follow the news very avidly, and I don’t think there’s any way that you cannot be affected by that; it enters into your worldview, and all that stuff gets relegated to the unconscious, and that’s where it cooks.”
And did it ever cook.
Over the course of the movie’s production, Tippett began keeping a log of his dreams, which was “kind of my compass for ‘Mad God.’ 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.”
It was, by his own reckoning, a mind in turmoil. The film has taken Tippett three decades to complete, even with a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign and a large volunteer crew to help work on the film.
Even so, he says, by the last few years of production, it became a “slog” that he grew to hate — and “Mad God” seemed to hate him right back.
“Maybe about a year before it was complete,” he said, “I had a huge mental breakdown and had to go into a psych ward for a while, and that took about three months to get over, but it busted my brain … I know it happened to Coppola on ‘Apocalypse Now,’ I know it happened to Beethoven a bunch of times. So it’s not uncommon.”
Moving on to “Pequin’s Pendequin”
Nowadays, Tippett is feeling great. “Mad God” is killing it on the festival circuit worldwide, and will end up on big screens and streaming services soon enough.
“It’s doing really well. There are very few negative reviews. It’s pretty much preaching to the choir because a lot of these are horror film festivals,” he said, but the movie’s premiere at Switzerland’s prestigious Locarno International Film Festival was auspicious.
“I was overwhelmed by the response,” he said, “and so many of these film festivals would have a screening and then they go, ‘Hey, can we book four more screenings?’ So it’s just caught fire.”
With a publicity crew now on task, and domestic and international distribution in the works, Tippett is already moving on.
“I spent my COVID vacation working every day on a project called ‘Pequin’s Pendequin,’” he said. “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.”
Tippett is tight-lipped about the movie, its plot and its visual design, merely noting that Pequin, the central character, is a shapeshifter, and that the film will have the tone of a 1940s Warner Brothers cartoon.
“So far I sculpted all the maquettes, I shot them against blue screen and composited them, and drew out 800 storyboards,” he said. “It’s sitting there all ready to go. It also has a dark side, but it’s more uplifting. And I’ve got two other Pequin sequels in mind.”
Phil Tippett, who has over the last 40 years filled your head with cinematic dreams and nightmares, is really just getting started.
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