by Walter Chaw The heir apparent to stop-motion pioneers Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen, Phil Tippett is one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century. It's his hands animating the AT-ATs in The Empire Strikes Back. He designed creatures for the Cantina and the moving pieces on the Dejarik table. He animated the Rancor, and the bugs in Starship Troopers, and RoboCop's ED-209. He was the "dinosaur supervisor" on Jurassic Park, overseeing the industry-changing transition from stop-motion, Tippett's metier, to CGI. It could've been the end of his career, but his working methods adapted to the digital realm. The product of his hands is, for my generation, the clay of our imagination. I grew up playing with toys based on his designs and watching movies full of his animating spirit, everything from Piranha to The Golden Child. With his place in the pantheon long assured, he moved to the director's chair for the thirty-years-in-the-making Mad God, and the end result is something that looks and feels very much like madness. It's glorious. I spoke with Mr. Tippett over Zoom and was betrayed once or twice by overwhelming emotion; I thought I was done feeling like this about things, but speaking with the father of Vermithrax Pejorative was humbling and exhilarating. If you get the chance to tell your heroes how much their art has meant to you, do that.
I began by asking him about the electricity that passes between an artist and an object he's created.
PHIL TIPPETT: I don't have a good answer for it. The best I've been able to come up with is, you know, artists--the great artists like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart--you might ask them where the music comes from and they would say they just transcribed it, that it came from some higher power. God, they said. Or Picasso, they asked him what he was looking for in his paintings when he was making them and he said, "I do not seek, I find." I don't put myself with those guys, but like them, I don't think you can ever operate from intention. You just have this vibe or feeling or emotion. Sometimes you can actually see the movie in your mind and you're pretty much just following directions.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Is working without intention a state that can be achieved or a state that must be arrived at?
Interesting. Let me try to answer it this way: it was King Kong for me on TV in 1956. I was five. Watching it, one thing led to another, but that first viewing of it, I got a vision for the whole thing: what I wanted to do, what I wanted to create for the rest of my life. I started designing characters, and you learn right away as you go through projects that work and the more that fail how sometimes it comes really easy and sometimes, well, it's not like that at all. Some things, my god, took me six weeks, two months, just to start: all just building it up and tearing it down again because it's not right. But sometimes it really comes easy and then you don't know why it ever takes you a long time.
Does intentionality actually stunt the process?
I think so. It's so much seeing what you want to do, the shot that you want to do. (Tippett lifts his hands and molds an invisible thing between them in the air) There was a German guy, young, he was the guy assigned to guide me around a festival, and he told me he was a stop-motion artist, so a few weeks later, I had him come over on a project and he spent about eight months with me. I guess I was kind of a mentor to him and he turned out to be very, you know, very good, but very German (laughs), you know, he was a pretty good animator, but he was really good with technical things, so it was really helpful because I'm hopeless there. Arne Hain is his name. But we would be about to set up a shot and he would want to know, "Well, what is the intention of this shot?" And I would go, "Well, uh, the intention is to set up the table." "So what's, what is the shot about?" he would ask, and I would say, "Uh, the shot is about, um, you know, setting up these miniature walls that we made," and I just would go on like that. He would want to know why the puppet was out at night but I only understood it as: first thing, set up a camera. Then do the set. Then pop the puppet in. Then do the lighting.
Is it possible to teach art?
I don't know. I was trying to communicate that you're just moving things around all the time until it feels right, but I can't know what you're feeling. But when it feels right, then you're ready to go. And, you know, even if it's all storyboarded out pretty much, sometimes you deviate from that and... It's very much like a play, you know, live theatre, where you can start with an idea for what you wanted to do performance-wise but sometimes you improvise as the spirit moves you. You have to not be constrained by intention when all of a sudden you get this, you know, idea or sense or whatever it is, and say, "You know what, I could do this instead, and that would be better." You gotta build it when you're called to build it. It's intuitive and I don't know that you can teach it.
There's an empathy to Willis O'Brien's work in King Kong that I see reflected in your work--the little gestures and grace notes. ED-209 fluttering his foot, Vermithrax Pejorative nuzzling her pups...
He was the king. Him and Harryhausen. I can't take credit for any of those things in my work. ED-209's foot was an homage to the stegosaurus tail in King Kong, you know, when the tail rattles at the end during his death--or when like when the Tauntaun falls down and instead of it just being a "boom" down, over, we do one final exhalation because it's exhausted. (laughs) It's dying is what it is, and it's like a big gear that's grinding down but it has one last rattle. But these are the things that have become a part of me, I think, in how it wouldn't feel right to me to animate without these grace notes that distinguish the puppets as individuals. In Mad God, some of the big characters that are whipping the Shit-Men towards their cathedral, I'll have them scratch their ear or cock their head like they see something, and I know when I see it that it's the T-Rex from King Kong coming out through me. So, yeah, I'm stealing stuff all the time (laughs).
You've spoken often about the influences of O'Brien and Harryhausen on your work--can you speak about the importance of research in other areas when you engage a project?
Yeah, both of them, titans. But you know, in terms of prep and research... For all of the Empire [Strikes Back] stuff and Dragonslayer, I would spend the pre-production time really studying animal movements and behaviour, and reading philosophy and Joseph Campbell and all that, and that's what I've done all along. Certainly for Mad God, too. There were long periods of time where I would just immerse myself in what these things could be. Willis O'Brien has said a number of times how, when he was working on Mighty Joe Young he became a vegetarian and wouldn't eat with the other people and he would sit on the ground and eat bananas and... I never went that far (laughs). For Dragonslayer, I would go to the zoo and watch the Komodo dragons, take pictures of them, get documentary footage, study their footfall patterns and bite patterns, and would come up with a bible with tons of drawings over the pre-production period, just to teach my fingers. Four months, six months, I forget. So that when I'm ready to start, I could just toss the thing away and let the feel take it from there, you know? With the right amount of preparation, I already know what the scene is before I arrive to do it.
Yes. I can visualize things very easily and I always have been able to. As I'm talking to you, I'm visualizing a cube and I can rotate it, turn it red. I can turn it black. I can turn it white. And if you can do that with three-dimensional objects, you can...see in your mind's eye at great detail what something should look like from every possible angle and vantage point. To help that knowledge, sometimes I would get on the ground and act it out, you know, crawl or howl, inhabit those movements. If you can imagine you are the thing, you learn a kind of muscle memory through that sometimes.
Same with Go motion?
(laughs) Uh, not so much with the Go motion stuff, because that was like a mind-bender for me. With Go motion, I had to break everything down the axis, the technical part again that I'm not good at, but with stop-motion animation, you know, it's more organic. You can even use the lights a lot because it's a moving sculpture. Light is really important to sculpture, you know, not just in the performance, but how the light moves with it depending on the volume of light. Go motion... Yeah, too much thought, but stop-motion you just make your mind a screen and project it into the brain. It's how we perceive, right? You can always be guided by how information is taken in by the eyes and processed by the brain and then put back out through the action of the mind animating the hand.
Talk to me about visual density. The artists you've cited as inspiration--Bruegel the Elder, Bosch, Joseph Cornell--all deal to some extent with densely-packed canvases.
A dream poem. That's the idea and the goal. My mind goes off in 20 different directions, all of our minds do that, how do you express that through your art? But truly, I only know what I've done after you look back on it--there's no analysis in the process, or there shouldn't be, ideally. There's drive, intention of course, but it's an unconscious or subconscious intention. It's there, but you don't know it. I would say my unconscious intention through my work for myself, especially through Mad God, has always been to try and duplicate the experience of a dream by packing the images with, um--making them so dense that you couldn't possibly within the length of the shot have time to really ascertain the breadth of it. Like how it could be days after a vivid dream you've had where something triggers a detail you had forgotten. With Mad God, you do have a figure you're drawn to looking at in the frame, but then there's the details of the environment and the play of the light, all of this stuff that, you know, it ends up being kind of overwhelming. You see it, but you can't process it, and then the shot's over with, and then you go onto the next thing, but it's in you now whether you know it or not.
The irony of all this information available to us in the world outside of art is that it sometimes stunts our ambition to seek information.
It makes us fucking bored. Jaded. There was this interview with Scorsese sometime last year, and he was bitching about term "content" as it relates to art. And he was just railing against it. When he was asked what was the last new movie that he really liked, and he said that was the last movie I can even remember was Gravity from like 10 years ago, I laughed when he said that, but then I realized he was absolutely right. What the fuck? It's the only one I can remember that felt alive. And then I saw The Northman recently in a great theatre and it was: wow. That's the best film I've seen since Gravity! He was right.
Is it the scale?
I was always attracted to scale in the sense you mean, but also the manipulation of it. In Mad God, the throughline character I call "The Assassin," people assume that he is six feet tall, but then he's in this mill and you see how tiny he is--or how huge everything else is. It's changing all of the time. Is it even human? Is it like a Guillermo del Toro thing that's full of gas, you know, or sand or who knows? What is it imbued with? Magical powers? Science? Where did it come from? Midway through you kind of learn the origins of the character, but the character has this arc that transforms it. It's torn apart, it's raped, brutalized, reduced to its constituents, and through alchemy--if that's what it is--he's reborn again and then disassociated again into separate chemical entities to be combined into a formula and then that formula through alchemy... And then the apparition... And then a creator appears, an Alchemist who throws that dish full of the congealed, condensed parts of the hero.
I wanted to talk about the feeling of knowing how we are made of sludge. I wanted to create some kind of an evolutionary art, you know, what does it mean to say we are made of stardust? How are we? I don't get it. Is it through these fields of energy, this "small" bang that we become a creation of a universe that destroys itself over and over again as it circles back in time? And which way is time going forward or backwards, you know? Reality is so subjective, it's such an illusion. I was very inspired by conceptual art in college. It really helped me to become more of an idea guy, just being guided by an idea as simple as, What if and Why? And then figure out how, I guess that's it. Answer the ultimate questions. The simple ones are the hardest ones. Try to get a hand around concepts floating around out there. We came from God, you know, which means it came from myself and my solipsistic mind. Your mind is a prison and a universe at the same time, you know--it's wonderful and it's terrible. And so it goes.
Do you suffer from depression?
I'm mono-polar, by which I mean I don't have depression unless there's a really good reason to be depressed, but I'm... I am mad. The only way I can stave off the noise that surrounds me in my head and in my body is to stay focused on doing things. On Mad God, I was possessed. It was a religious experience, for lack of a better term. It totally depleted me. By the time it was done, I was just a basket case, and it took me a couple of months to recover from it. All I could do was sit in front of the television. Somehow my adrenaline broke. I sat, I watched television for three days and then slowly, gradually, I started working back to becoming myself again.
Where had you gone in your head in that three days?
In that solipsism is a universe of paths leading to paths leading to more unknown paths, leading to doors that lead to doors, you know... I have no idea. I was lost and looking for repair. I wonder if there is such a thing as fate. I think that the idea of fate is ridiculous on the one hand, but on the other hand, everything I have ever wished for and more has come true, and I have lived a charmed life. Which leads me to wonder if I really am a simulation. The world is too amazing, you know? I doubt it, of course, but it does prompt these feelings of the abstract. We voyage into the unknown whenever we let go. Maybe that's why we try so hard to control it.
You credit Paul Verhoeven as a great mentor to you--what is it that drew you to him?
He saw the world as it was. Paul and I, I mean, as opposed to Steven [Spielberg] and George [Lucas], you know, they were... I mean, I really learned a lot and had a great time working for them. They were great bosses, they were really good creative managers, you know, and they made sure that you had what you needed to make the best thing, the best movie you possibly could make. Really encouraging, totally backed you up. But Paul and I, philosophically, were on the same page. Politically he was pro-Palestinian and of course, so am I. We would have philosophical chats and came to the conclusion somewhere along the way that we were existential, Buddhist--(laughs)--just silly stuff like that, you know? His worldview guided me, you know, guides me still in a lot of ways. He was asked once why his movies have to be about sex and violence, and he said, my movies don't have to be about anything. Art doesn't have to be about anything, and by that I mean there's no intention if you're doing it honestly. And I totally believe that. If there's a polemic or a political intention, you know, some point you want to get across, a message, that falls away from the kind of art I'm invested in. Jack Warner said it best once when someone asked him what the message was of the war films they were pumping out back then and he said, "Well, if you want a message, send a telegram."
I went to Mad God after the assassination of Shireen Abu Aqla by the Israeli occupation army for, of all things, solace.
I stay informed as much as I can with what's going on in the world because there's no way of avoiding the world, and you try to hold these two things--your sense of self and your despair of the world--in some kind of balance like the Libra statue. There is a psychosis, a collective psychosis, that's the result of media saturation. It's made us crazy. We were not meant to know what happened five minutes ago, it just is not part of our 30,000 years of genetic engineering that led us to where we are today. I mean, if you look at the timeline from the Cro-Magnon to Homo-Sapien, you know, it's just like, we're this brief, tiny moment here compared to everything, the millennia that's gone into our makeup. And then this information flood is just a fraction of that fraction. What we're experiencing, it's almost like the old definition of schizophrenia. We're at the limit and past it. I remember recently seeing images of the devastation in Ukraine, these blasted-up buildings, and at some point they all look the same, every wartime atrocity over recorded visual time: they all look like the same blasted-up buildings. It's like the flatline after the cacophony. It's fucked up. And you know, they blew up a city, but one blown up city in our mind's eye is like the next. That was the genius of the attack on the Twin Towers, I think. They were these iconic sculptures, and their destruction played over and over and over and over and it made people fucking crazy. To be inundated like that, it made them, it made us, crazy. That's the schizophrenic mind right there, when you fracture our archetypes. But, you know, on the other hand, um, there's so much beauty in the world.
There really is.
I'm looking out my window at these trees going like, oh my God, or I look up at the moon at night and it snaps you back into, "How can these stupid territorial apes not appreciate the beauty of all of this stuff?" So I kind of wanted to hold that as the centre of Mad God, to make something that was, you know, terrible and frightening but beautiful simultaneously. I wanted to find hope in the middle of the nightmare, the chaos and doom, too.