Phil Tippett interview | Stop Motion Animator | Star Wars

Phil Tippett can easily be called a legend when it comes to special effects. His career spans over three decades in which he has worked on some of the biggest movie productions ever: the original Star Wars trilogy, Dragonslayer, Robocop, Jurassic Park and Starship Troopers to name a few. This led to one Oscar and a Special Achievement Award. For the Star Wars movies he was responsible for creature design and created a new effects technique for the TaunTauns and AT-AT's called go-motion.
In the following interview that was done in late May 2010 he talks his Star Wars period.



You joined ILM in the late seventies and worked in the animation department. How did you manage to get this job?

I worked independently and was just hired toward the end of post production on Star Wars to help out on the cantina and chess sequences, got along with George and was rehired on the subsequent shows - also Dennis Muren worked there and was a big stop motion advocate.

In the first Star Wars you were responsible for the Dejarik Holoboard scene; the game played by Chewbacca. Can you tell something about how you created these scenes?

There wasn't much time or money - just something George thought would open the film up a bit. I used an old puppet that George saw in our Cantina shop - then Jon Berg and I sculpted the chess pieces in a couple evenings and shot it during the ILM wrap party.

You are also featured as an alien in the famous Cantina scene. What are your memories from the filming of these scenes?

We cycled through a number of characters that we had created in a shop we set up under Rick Bakers wing - a bunch of unemployed stop motion animators. We shot for two days in a little insert stage in Hollywood. George directed and Carroll Ballard was the DP. George had fun putting slime on the creatures.

After the huge success of Star Wars the expectations for the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, must have been big. Was this the case and can you tell something about your experiences when ILM was suddenly becoming THE effects company? How were the work circumstances for instance?

At the time, ILM was really the only VFX place other than Apogee - Dykstra's reformulation of the place. I was one of about 15 folks that moved from LA to the San Francisco area and we built the team out from there. It was a great time - it was what we had all been preparing for and now we got to do it! George was a great boss and gave us a lot of rope to hang ourselves with.


Phil Tippett and Jon Berg working on the Dejarik Holoboard game

Your best known effects for The Empire Strikes Back are the AT-AT’s and the TaunTaun using the stop motion technique, which later evolved in the legendary go motion technique that was invented by you. Can you tell something about this process and how you came up with this technique?

Folks had been trying to add blur to stop motion characters for years. Staravitch did; Jim Danforth experimented with it. It became clear early on that we should try attaching the puppets to the motion control equipment - we did - and it worked.

Regarding the AT-AT’s and the TaunTauns: when you did these effects what did you know about the story and the importance your effects would have in telling the story of The Empire Strikes Back?

We read the script and talked to the director and found out what it was we had to do - like normal for a movie.


The AT-AT's from The Empire Strikes Back

For Return of the Jedi you headed the famous creature shop. One of the creatures you did was the Rancor. Originally, the Rancor was designed to be a ‘man in a suit’ instead of a puppet and the man that would wear the suit was going to be you. Can you tell something about the ‘suit tests’ and why a puppet worked so much better than the suit?

The suit was just too ungainly for the design. I had always imagined the thing as a stop motion character but George wanted a man in a suit. At the end of the day we compromised with a hand puppet shot at high speed, 72 frames per second.

There is a Return of the Jedi documentary in which you talk about Jabba the Hutt and show the viewer some Jabba models. Can you tell something about your work regarding Jabba?

Joe Johnston, Nilo Rodis-Jamero, Ralph McQuarrie and I all contributed ideas and George picked mine.


Phil sets up a shot for the TaunTaun sequence

Both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi had George Lucas on the set and at ILM a lot. I heard many times that he overlooked nearly everything. How was your relationship with him and what kind of advices and guidelines did he give you?

He was on set and in ILM dailies every day. He was clear with what he wanted, much of it worked out in storyboards and animatics. George was very inclusive and gave us a great deal of freedom as long as he got what he wanted. It's the best relationship creatively because you always want to give more.

Why did you decide to leave ILM and set up your own studio in the mid-eighties?

There were no more projects that required the kind of work that I did anymore. I'd worked independently and kept up contacts and simply found other work.

Didn’t you find it risky to leave the biggest effects company of all time?

After three Star Wars pix it was time to move on. I would, however, go back from time to time and help out on other projects though.

In the early nineties CGI took over from the ‘old’ effects. You said just before Jurassic Park you had become extinct because of these new technologies. How did you still manage to stay a leading name in visual effects?

There was stuff I knew regarding the film making side of things that the computer guys were clueless about.


In the ‘old days’ there were a lot of techniques still to be ‘discovered’ or techniques that could be perfected. George Lucas and ILM were always way ahead of everyone in terms of effects. Nowadays, effects are almost always done by computers and it seems that nothing is impossible anymore and it seems audiences aren’t easily impressed anymore. What is your view on this?

It's mostly the industry selling spectacle. Things are pretty bloated these days. I generally avoid the big VFX blockbusters unless the pic looks good or there's something in particular that I should take a look at.

Also, what do you think about the fact the old craftsmanship (stop-motion and go-motion for instance) seems to have vanished and isn’t used anymore?

Folks are still doing stop motion - Henry Selick, Tim Burton and others - its being offered in college courses, I continue to make stop motion short films. So - it ain't dead yet.

How do you look back at working on the Star Wars movies and working at ILM?

It was a dream come true and I look back with great fondness.

Your career spans over 3 decades and includes almost every blockbuster from the last 30 years. What do you regard as your own personal highlight?

My favorites were the Star Wars pictures, Jurassic Park and Starship Troopers. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Paul Verhoeven are all wonderful directors to work for - the word inclusive keeps popping up - those guys encouraged one to do the work they were hired for and good at. It was before the studios became overly corporate and we didn't have the 'help' one finds these days.
We were able to work with one guy and one voice - that of a film maker not a business affairs guy.