Between 1999 and 2009 Lightsabre.co.uk brought news, fanfic, podcasts and much, much more to the masses. Our fourteenth guest is a two-time academy award winner – Phil Tippett.
Lightsabre – Phil, welcome to Lightsabre.
PT – Thanks for the invite.
Lightsabre – You’ve been involved in some of the most amazing films in cinema history, among them Robocop, Empire Strikes Back and Dragonslayer. For Return of the Jedi and Jurassic Park you and your teams were awarded Oscars. As an innovator as well as an artist you’ve helped shape effects techniques from the 70’s to the 21st century. Which of those projects gave you the most satisfaction, from both a technical and aesthetic sense?
PT – Although it wasn’t as commercially successful as the ones you mention above, I’d have to add Starship Troopers to that list. They all represent an opportunity to do things you haven’t done, develop new approaches and ultimately see things you’ve never seen, at least not quite in the same way. With Empire & Dragonslayer we developed Go-Motion. On Robo I took a step to the side and applied what I knew of Go-Mo to techniques developed by Ray Harryhausen. On Jurassic I was dragged kicking and screaming into a whole new technology but was able to bring my knowledge to it.
PT – As a child I was fascinated with the fantastic and weird. I became a huge fan of the work of effects artists Willis O’Brien & Ray Harryhausen. Ray especially was an inspiration who pulled most of those I’ve worked with over the years into the movie racket.
Lightsabre – What has it been like to be a key part of the Star Wars phenomenon?
PT – From being one of the first theatrical motion pictures I had worked on it was tremendously exciting just being part of the film making process. We all felt very lucky to have George Lucas as our boss. To be part of something so big certainly makes you feel that you’re on the winning team.
Lightsabre – We often hear funny stories from the sets of the movies, and it’s known that the ILM guys had a particularly fun time, despite the pressure of constant deadlines. Do you have any good stories from those days?
PT – I recall torturing Jim Bloom who was managing ILM when we relocated north for Empire. At the time space was hard to come by and there were some safety issues. I made a cast of my finger, painted it, bloodied it up and put it on his desk along with a note that I’d had an accident. Things got fixed pretty fast.
I Mostly recall the camaraderie; Jon Berg and Joe Johnston shooting rockets off in the field, dart games and beer late into the night, pranks Nilo Rodis and I played on some stodgy Union bosses, Tom St Amand and I smoking packs of cigarettes in the machine shop. Things like that.
Lightsabre – Like many fellow artists, as the original Star Wars trilogy ended you left ILM in 1983 to set up Tippett Studios. How much of a jump was that, to leave such a successful studio and strike out on your own?
PT – I’d always been freelance in LA, and when there was no work you moved on and found some. I’d also kept in touch with folks in LA like producer Jon Davison who I continue to develop projects with today. I’d always imagined having my own studio in Berkeley (where I was born) and making movies there, so it was what I wanted to do out of a sense of excitement. It certainly wasn’t a business decision
Lightsabre – Apart from Empire and Jedi, which you worked on, which of the other four Star Wars films stands out from an effects standpoint?
PT – Of course whatever the first Star Wars is called now was huge by virtue of its reinvention/ application of lost skills/crafts and approach to cinema. The new ones are certainly pursuing George’s vision of creating a cinema not completely reliant on material reality – with so much of the show being created artificially.
Lightsabre – Your effects work covers a multitude of skills and techniques, from stop-motion through go-motion and to the modern usage of computers. Do you miss those hands-on days when you could feel the texture of the model and manipulate it with your own hand?
Lightsabre – One of your finest effects shows was Evolution, a great film that was criminally overlooked at the box office. For that show you did a large number of CG creatures and approaching 200 shots. How demanding was that, given the strange and totally alien look of the creatures?
PT – I don’t think it was the criminals who overlooked that show. Currently 200 shots are not considered that much for a summer picture these days, but you’re right about the number of creatures that needed to get designed. That was the real task for that picture, each time you have a new thing you need to figure out how to make it work and when something complicated works in only a few shots it becomes quite expensive.
Lightsabre – What would you change about your Star Wars experience if you could go back and do it again?
PT – Ya know – nothing. I look back on that time as one of the happiest in my life.
PT – I had a great time making Starship Troopers 2. I got to work with lots of folks I liked and was reunited with Jon Davison & Ed Neumeier. And yes I’m looking for and developing other things to direct as we email.
Lightsabre – It’s been a great interview, and thanks for being our guest. Just one final question. Your stop-motion Walker from Empire, your go-motion dragon from Dragonslayer and your CG alien from Starship Troopers are nominated for Oscars, but the academy can’t decide which one to give it to. They fight it out among themselves, but who wins and how?
PT – No one wins. A giant rubber Godzilla breathes fire on Hollywood and everything is incinerated, Then because he’s so heavy the earth cracks open and he falls in. The earth closes back up and everything is peaceful. The only bad news is there are no more monsters – so people reinvent them again.
This interview was originally posted on lightsabre.co.uk on 30th April 2005.