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Phil Tippett GALACTICA.TV interview
Written by Marcel Damen   
Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Recently Marcel Damen caught up with Phil Tippett, better known for his creature designs on the Battlestar Galactica 1978 series. Phil talked about how he got in the business his work on Star Wars, his design work on the Ovion on Battlestar Galactica, his extensive career and what he's currently up to.

I read that at the age of 7 you were an admirer of the work of Ray Harryhausen and this set off your career as an animator.

When I was 7 years old I saw the 7th Voyage of Sinbad in 1948. I had no idea what was involved in creating these particular characters, but I knew whatever the particular process was that it was totally different from any of the other fantastic stuff and material I had seen in motion pictures. When I was younger, I remember seeing the 1933 version of King Kong on television. I was just totally mesmerized by whatever that process was. Over the years I eventually figured it out, most of it through my contact with Forrest J. Ackerman. Forry was a huge collector of movie memorabilia and edited the Famous Monsters in Filmland magazine in which he wrote articles about his friend Ray Harryhausen.

Through that I began to understand what the process was and over the years I mowed a lot of lawns, saved up and got a single frame, 8 mm camera and started to figure out how to do this stuff on my own.

What was the first project you made that you were really proud of?

It was just work. You get to the point where you are proficient at doing this stuff. So there are a lot of moving parts, a lot of things that you have to learn and at that time very few people were doing it. Finding mentors that were interested in that kind of thing was very difficult, because nobody was doing this stuff -- unlike now. In my early teens I ran across a guy who was an amateur film maker and helped him on his independent movies. His name was Bill Stromberg and he was working on a 16 mm version of Ray Bradbury's short A Sound of Thunder. The story required building some miniature sets, making a stop-motion Tyrannosaurus and all that kind of stuff.

Through that project I introduced myself to Ray Bradbury and I corresponded with him for a number of years (he was also a close friend of Forrest Ackerman and Ray Harryhausen). Everything started to come together in a strange and mysterious way. I would drive up to Los Angeles to visit Forry, Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury. They were kind of like the overarching God mentors. People that basically said: "Pursue what you want to and don't listen to those stupid adults who say you should be thinking reasonable thoughts."

Phil Tippett

Phil Tippett

At Forry's place I was able to meet a few people and found out that at a commercial studio in Hollywood called Cascade Pictures was doing some stop-motion. It was the only stop-motion that was done in the United States (like on the Pillsbury Doughboy commercials). My mentors there were David Allen and Jim Danforth, who were two of the most prominent practicians of stop-motion work. I learned a lot from them and that's how I kind of got started.

Eventually my big break happened in the mid seventies with people like Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston and all these guys. They are all big visual effects supervisors right now. We all came up through the ranks at Cascade and my big break was of course with Star Wars. They weren't making any kind of movies like that before that.

Were your parents supportive of your career or did they have anything else in mind for you?

They didn't have anything in mind for me, but they thought it was the stupidest thing I could do. At that time nobody was doing it, so it wasn't seen as a serious career. All my life, I never looked at it sensibly. I pushed through what I wanted to do and they would have needed to put bullets in me to stop me. I just kept doing it and it usually worked out.

I think at one point my parents were vaguely concerned about all of these monsters, creatures and stuff like that. They never would put me down for anything I did, but they would have uncles at family gatherings trying to talk sense into me -- about being practical with my life.

Did you have any formal education at all in this or was it mostly self taught?

Motion work was pretty much self taught. It was just a matter of putting in the hours to do it. On top of the stop-motion background, it really helps if you have art skills. So after High School I went to College for a number of years. I graduated with a BA in fine art. I did a lot of felting, drawing and some painting, but I also focused on the animation. Nobody taught that stuff then, so I had to do it on my own.  

So next to working on Star Wars I also found out you worked on the Battlestar Galactica series.

Yes, that was the job right after Star Wars. Actually, I forgot that I worked on it!

My information is that you, Jon Berg and Laine Liska did the design of the Ovions. Is that true?

Somewhere in my archives I have pictures of the original designs I did for these little ant like people (Ovions) on Battlestar Galactica. The only person I ever dealt with was producer Glen Larson. It was on the Universal lot and he hired me to do some design work. I made this small clay maquette which was the basis for the design of the suit and the manufacturing of it. I did some other characters as well but I can't exactly remember, but there was some big cloaked alien, a dark overlord (The Imperious Leader). I just worked on the very initial design phase.

Phil Tippett's maquette for the Ovion on Battlestar Galactica

Phil Tippett's maquette for the Ovion on Battlestar Galactica

Phil Tippett's maquette for the Ovion on Battlestar Galactica

I know they intended to make costumes from them. That was not my thing, so I wasn't included in the production of them anymore. I do remember that Laine Liska was involved in defining this little robot thing that they designed around a chimpanzee (Muffit, the Daggit).

Did you also do anything on that?

No. Most of what I did was to make these little clay maquettes which were the equivalent of sketches on paper but they were three dimensional. Glen Larson liked them and gave the designs over to the people that were making the costumes. They took it from there. I didn't really work that much on it. I probably only designed a couple of weeks on it.

Did you meet and work with Richard Edlund on Battlestar Galactica?

Richard was on Star Wars, so I certainly knew him from that. My friends Dennis Muren and Ken Ralston were both working there as cameramen on the night crew after Star Wars. At some point in time George Lucas wasn't happy with the material that he got from the Cantina scene that they were shooting in England. He wanted to group together a couple of people to flush out the Cantina scene. Through Dennis' and Ken's contacts he knew Jon Berg, Laine Liska, Doug Beswick and myself -- a bunch of out of work stop-motion animators. We got together with our buddy Rick Baker. Rick put together a shot along with Rob Bottin. When George came by to check out our work, he saw the motion puppets that I had brought.

Initially he had intended to do the Chess scene (Dejarik Holoboard) in Star Wars with people in masks. I think Michael Crichton had just done Westworld and there was some kind of a holographic game with people with masks. George saw that we did stop-motion and he said to these other guys: "Oh well, you guys are too expensive, let's do this Chess scene (Dejarik Holoboard) with stop-motion". and he hired Jon Berg. Dennis Muren did the photographic setup of everything. Jon and I shot it in a couple of evenings.

Did you on Battlestar Galactica also see the sketches Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie did?

I did. I think I went into various meetings and they were on the table or on the walls. To me all of that stuff was just normal. Ralph and Joe were just guys that I worked with and you'd go: "Hey, that's a really nice Ralph McQuarrie painting."

There was also some mentioning that Carlo Rambaldi (creator of E.T.) worked on the creation of The Imperious Leader creature on the Battlestar Galactica show.

I was never involved with the production at all. I was on the preproduction side, very early on. So by the time they were actually shooting I'd probably moved on to work on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Did you visit any other departments like the model shop, creature costume making or the sets?

No, none of that. I primarily worked out of my apartment. I did a lot of design work and sculpting there. For the first Star Wars we pretty much were like day players. We just came in and set up a shot to make the Cantina creatures. We had 6 weeks and just had to make it quick and cheap. We spent two days on a little insert stage on La Brea in Hollywood. George Lucas directed us. We got into the costumes that we made. Carroll Ballard with a cameraman and they shot everything. Gary Kurtz would help us get into the outfits. It was just a very small unit that would put that material together. We would just assemble and put a bunch of stuff together and then disband.

When we were doing the Pillsbury Doughboy commercial at Cascade, we'd be pretty much hired for just that particular job and then work was over. We were all freelancers. There was no thought, not even remotely, of working for a studio. Number one, the studios didn't do this kind of work period and number two, you had to be in the union to be able to work in the studios. In the studios the only thing that was sort of remotely similar in terms of a job designation was the prop department, the prop union, the local 44. You had to learn how to tie knots, build walls and stuff like that. We didn't even waste our time, trying to get into that union.

When George [Lucas] set up ILM, he did it on the outskirts of the union jurisdiction, so we had no problem working on the movies. We could do our thing and not get busted for it.

Phil Tippett on the set of Star Wars

Phil Tippett on the set of Star Wars

Which was your favorite Cantina character to play, since you played several?

Oh yeah, we just cycled them. George and Caroll would point a camera and do a corner. We'd put on a bunch of masks for three or four takes, get out, they pointed the camera in another direction, started lighting it and we'd put on another mask. We shot this really, really fast and furious. It was fun. There was not a lot of consideration. George said: "I want the one eyed guy there. the double guy there and big furry guy over there." We'd just put on the suits and follow direction.

At ILM you worked in close collaboration with Jon Berg on the first two Star Wars movies. What was the most important thing you learned of working on this big budget production?

I don't know if it was actually learning anything other than the fact that we were very aware that we were doing all of the stuff we'd been wanting to do all of our lives. We were given the key to the kingdom and we could actually do it. We had a 33 year old millionaire boss who didn't like the studios and was like a renegade. He wanted to move away from the studios and make his own film decisions.

We were all in our mid twenties at that time and we were very much kind of like minded, anti historical. George showed us the rough cuts of the Cantina scenes and the Chess scenes (Dejarik Holoboard) and said: "Okay. This is it." and we thought: "Oh boy, this is really going to be a lot of fun." In the beginning Jon Berg and I didn't work at ILM -- we were independent contractors. That's pretty much how we worked in the commercial business at that time. It was just working as freelance artists. We just came in and did the work.

On Empire Strikes Back George Lucas hired Jon Berg, Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston, myself and a few other people like Richard Edlund, Joe Johnston and Bruce Nickelson. There were like twelve or fifteen of us that moved up from Los Angeles to where we relocated ILM. That was really big stuff, because George gave us some big stop-motion scenes to work on.

You co-developed the animation technique Go-Motion. Can you explain the biggest differences between Go-Motion and Stop-Motion?

Go-motion is essentially a computerized rod puppet. Where ever the limbs are connected to stepper motors that are set up in various configurations in X, Y and Z, in an up and down configuration, that could be programmed. Eventually once we got the system kind of worked out, we could program it one frame at a time and in the beginning it was just a huge pain. The motion control system worked with a weird velocity thing so you had to kind of choreograph all the moves. Unlike regular stop-motion animation which was basically sculpting from pose to pose in time, all of the motions had to be broken down linearly, so you had to understand how to build complex un-mechanical motions out of these models mover which would just move in straight lines.

The desired effect we were going after was to add blur to the stop motion character, which stop-motion characters don't get, because they're anomalous objects. You're taking a still frame of a static thing. We just hooked up all these motors to the stop-motion characters and programmed them so when we hit the button on the camera the shutter would open and the model movers would move the characters and create a blur. Also the model movers registered the characters a little bit more solemnly, because sometimes you'd get long animating scenes by hand. It created the effects that it added a little bit more photographic realism to the performance of the character.

Phil Tippett on the set of Star Wars

Phil Tippett on the set of Star Wars

In Return of the Jedi the Rancor was originally created as a life-size suit in which an actor could portray the role. There is footage that shows you playing the role of the Rancor. In the end, it was decided that the Rancor was going to be a stop-motion puppet. Can you tell something more about this and do you feel that a glorious acting-career was stolen from you by doing that?

No. (laughing) How did that work? George Lucas decided that we were going to make the best Godzilla suit ever and wanted us to do Rancor as a man in a suit. I had designed the Rancor hit monster to be a stop-motion character at that time, since that's what I thought you should do. George was very adamant that we're going to do a man in a suit. We got into starting to lay out shooting some of the stuff with the suit that we had built and it was just too hard to perform in, in any kind of way -- it just didn't look any good.

At one point we were still trying to figure out in how we should do the Rancor, but the schedule kept getting shorter and shorter -- we kept pushing it back. By the time we got there it was just one day and they were looking at me in the suit and George just went: "Oh, never mind. Just go and do it in whatever way you want. This just isn't going to work." (both laughing)

Tom St. Amand designed the character as a thing that could potentially be stop-motion animated, but we actually designed it as a rod puppet, so it could be puppeteered in real time. It was a decision Dennis Muren had made, because our schedule was so backed up. There wasn't time to do a elaborate stop-motion setup. We had to get a lot of takes relatively quickly. We designed the whole scene as a hand puppet and shot it that way at 72 frames a second, which was tricky in trying to figure it out.

In 1983 you left ILM to start Tippett Studio. What set you off or made you decide to do that?

Nothing. I didn't have a plan at all. When we moved out to do The Empire [Strikes Back] and [Return of the] Jedi, George Lucas said: "Here's the deal. I'm going to do this movie and maybe another movie if The Empire [Strikes Back] makes money, but I'm not making any commitments to anybody, at all." Up until that time I never worked for a studio before and I never even considered working for a studio on those two pictures. I did The Empire [Strikes Back], [Return of the] Jedi and Dragonslayer back to back. I didn't use a nomenclature they use now, like having a career, working for a client or anything like that.

Phil Tippett on the set of Dragonheart

Phil Tippett on the set of Dragonheart

I was just working for the film maker. I worked for George Lucas and did what he wanted for his picture and there wasn't any work after that. So when they offered to keep me on at ILM I said: "Nah. I'm going out to find some other work." and just did it. I had kept contacts in Los Angeles and had contracts that I wanted to do, so I just started working out of my little garage. One thing led to the next and it kind of turned into the studio that I've got now.

In 1991 when talking to Steven Spielberg for Jurassic Park you found out that ILM/Dennis Muren had developed new cutting edge CGI techniques and your go-motion animation had become "extinct".

Dennis is a close friend of mind. We've known each other for over 30 years. We kind of grew up doing this stuff together in a way -- professionally. So he'd call me in to consult about things, like the very first computer graphic stuff. The only thing where this was ever done on before that was on Willow, which was a project I was working on. I did a start of using, developing a morphing technology for some of the transformation on that.

Then on Young Sherlock Holmes he did this computer graphic stain glass man, which was the first total computer graphic character. He would bring me in and I'd look at his dailies and ask my opinion on it.

When James Cameron was starting to get The Abyss underway, he sent John Bruno, his effects supervisor, to talk to me in doing it all stop-motion. I thought it was just the screwiest idea, with the water. I didn't want to do it and Cameron called up and we just talked for ever. He had these ideas about projecting high speed water on clay and animating the clay to the water. I told him I didn't want to do it and he either take that water snake out of the picture or go talk to Dennis Muren at ILM. He was doing all this stuff with computer graphics and I thought maybe he could help out. Dennis got it and created the effects for The Abyss.

When we were starting to block out Jurassic Park, the intention was that we'd do most of the work with the conventional go-motion and high speed photography for the dinosaurs. There was going to be one computer graphic scene: the stampeding dinosaurs. But the deeper and deeper they got into actually testing the technology, the rendering really held up. They did a couple of tests and it looked really good. We took the test out to Steven Spielberg and showed it to him. At that point I was part of the dinosaur supervisors. I'd made some short films of dinosaurs and studied a lot with paleontologists. I was hired on that project by a guy who knew what dinosaurs should be like and someone who could bring them on the screen as well. We showed this to Steven and he said: "Yeah, I think I'm going to want all this stuff done in computer graphics.".

Though CGI makes a lot possible there's still a very large group of scifi fans especially, who would rather see the old school way of doing it, using spaceship models and people in suits for creatures.

Absolutely. All of my children, who are in their early twenties, think that way. They don't like computer graphics. They like the stop-motion type stuff. I think it's going to be a cold day in hell before anybody goes back to do a bunch of stuff in stop-motion. A few will still make puppet films, I'm sure, but I don't know if there's anybody who's mounting any projects. Part of it is because of the scale at which they make these movies is so huge it's impractical to do stop-motion, because it's such a labor intensive kind of a thing. And there aren't many practitioners that really understand that level of thing.

It's the corporate mindset that runs the studios that doesn't like to be beholden by only a few artists that it has to depend on. Computer graphics are considered as empty feats that are filled with an air plate. The whole idea of craftsmen are kind of devalued. Every time I finish a movie and I do an interviewed, the first question that comes out of a lot of interviewers nowadays is: "What kind of technology did you use to make this movie?" Of course it's a lot. It's very top heavy, all this technology, but it's actually skilled people that are driving it. We kind of live in a fantasy world, anything is possible and big things happen. It's kind of wacky.

I often find that CGI is crossing the boundaries of what's believable or not and it all looks way too "clean" and it therefore doesn't fit in with the rest of the acting. It sticks out.

There's a lot of really bad computer graphics out there. One of the things that is interesting about it, and I talk this with Dennis Muren about quite frequently, is how the computer graphic looks. The phony look is becoming kind of acquiring the theme of nostalgia for some of the people who first got into the computer graphics type of stuff. They actually aspire to a kind of computer graphic look, whereas what our intention always was to either one time make the material look just cool, fun and artistically interesting and to blend it into the scene as much as you possibly could, rather than to create a cool computer graphic effect, which I think a lot of the guys are kind of going after these days.

Of all the projects you worked on over the years which project are you most proud of and why?

I enjoyed working on the most were generally the biggest challenges, like working with George Lucas on the Star Wars pictures. It was just a pleasure because he was a terrific boss. He had a great eye and he was very inclusive. He included us in the making of the stuff, which was actually both very respectful on his part and rewarding as well, because we worked twice as hard for him. Steven Spielberg was the same way -- a really smart film maker that knew how to put stuff together. You speak the same language with these guys, so it's not hard to do. You know exactly what it is that you're trying to do.

Probably one of the biggest accomplishments for me was working with Paul Verhoeven on Starship Troopers -- just pulling all of that stuff together. I liked working with Paul a lot. He was like Steven and George -- very inclusive and very clear in his direction and what he wanted. He really wanted a lot of input as well as of how to doing stuff. You felt very much included as a part of the process.

Phil Tippett with a Warrior Bug claw on the set of Starship Troopers

Phil Tippett with a Warrior Bug claw on the set of Starship Troopers

How about colleagues you had the opportunity to work with? Any colleagues you were proud of working with?

The Empire [Strikes Back] and [Return of the] Jedi days were terrific. Joe Johnston and Nilo Rodis-Jamero, the guys from the model department. Every Friday after work Jon Berg, Ken Ralston and I would go up to the art department and they'd have a dart board. We'd buy a bunch of beer with Joe and Nilo and stay up all night playing darts. There was just a great deal of camaraderie. It's a philosophy that I've kind of prescribed over the years. You become friends with the people you really like working with and I think that big memory I always try to walk away with. You have fun at working at a project if you work with people that work well together.

You were nominated and won Academy Awards and an Emmy. Often these awards go out to movies or TV shows that are well known to the public. Are you happy with the awards since they do credit your work or are you sad that probably the best work, the things you tinkered on early on in your career were often in small budget movies or never even saw the day of light. I was wondering if you felt you were nominated for your best work or other work should have been nominated too but was never seen like that?

Well, not to be too "pessimistic"... There's a tendency in terms of these awards are given to the shows that were given the most exposure. It generally means the biggest box office tend to get the awards for the visual effects. It's just kind of the way it is. I awards for Return of the Jedi, which was the biggest money making movie of the year and Jurassic Park which back then was the biggest money making movie of all time. On the one hand it's nice to be recognized for doing good work and on the other hand you're just in the right place at the right time.

When we did Starship Troopers, which I think has some of my best work in it, we were up against Titanic. I was sitting there with the other guys on my team in tuxedos and up came the visual effects and I took my shoes off -- I just had my socks on. The other guy said: "Phil put your shoes on. We have to go up and get our award." and I said: "We're not going to win it this time. We're up against the Titanic. Just take your shoes off and relax." (both laughing) I could see it coming a million miles away. That's what happened. There's better work in Starship Trooper than in Titanic, but it was just a bigger grossing movie.

Does winning awards make it easier because more people will want to hire you for new work or does it make more difficult because they're expecting an even higher standard?

No, I think the Academy Award has like a radioactive half life. When you get them you‘re really hot, because that's kind of on everybody's radar. I thought somebody published a book not too long ago of how the Academy Award burnt over the years as they exist in people's homes or offices. They're all decorated with weird stuff or would have cobwebs and dust on them or are left holding open a door. So the actual thing -- over the years, for all the people that have won them and have since then forgotten -- sort of loses their iconic status a little bit. It just becomes this other trophy you've got, along with the bowling and golf trophy. I think it's impressive for some people. I have got it in my studio. People walk in and pick it up and even have their picture taken with it. It great to be recognized.

Your career now transitions from visual effects supervisor to motion picture director. Some actors turn director and because of their past they understand actors better and this might improve the whole performance. What are the most important things you learned as a visual effects supervisor that you are now using as a director?

I haven't directed that much stuff. I've made some short films and I directed one super low budget direct-to-DVD thing. My career as a director is totally in question. I understand the Hollywood, movie making process. I certainly learned that over a period of years as a result of doing work with visual effects, because you're brought in right at the very beginning. You're working almost from day one with the writers, producers and directors, shaping the material so that it can be economically designed for the money that we've got. In some cases producers deputize me as a co-producer who come in and help shape the picture. So you're involved very much with all at the very, very beginning of blocking out how the picture is going to be designed. You work very closely with all of the different departments, like the director of photography, the costumes, production designers and art directors -- just about everything you touch.

Then you go out and shoot all of the stuff with the crew and you make sure that everything is something that you can use when you come back to put the stuff into. So you learn from the entire production in general. Then your work really starts, when you start putting in the artificial characters to the things and at that point in time you're working with editors, sound people and you go to what they call the DI suites now, what they would call color timing back then. You work all the way from the cradle to the grave, to the final release they are sort of making in which everything is working. So you understand the entire film making process.

Phil Tippett

Phil Tippett

On the point where actors are directing movies having an advantage because they know how to talk to actors. It's kind of a misnomer, I mean, there's a lot of those things out there and I wonder how good the performances really are. There's an argument to be made in a more pure film making sense, that film making is about film making, you know? It's not about any one of the disciplines. A master like Alfred Hitchcock wanted to work with Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant, because number one: they're a hot box-office so that was going to assure that he would make another movie afterwards because they'd go see the actor and number two: he'd let the actors do their job while he'd worry about the film making side.

In fact I think there was some story about -- I think it was Montgomery Clift, who was directed by Hitchcock -- and Hitchcock said: "Okay in this scene you walk in here, you look up and you look up on the shelf." and Clift said: "Why would I do that?" Hitchcock said: "Well that's your job." (both laughing) I liked that.

Is directing something you want to continue doing?

Yes absolutely. Again, I don't have a conventional outlined look at things in terms of a career. I've been asked if I'd be interested to direct certain kind of movies and I said: "No, I'm not interested in doing that. I'm not interested in that subject matter period." I have no particular interest or have to prove anything in terms of being a director on a whole bunch of movies which I don't think anything about. On the other hand it's kind of like my hobby to develop some stuff that I would like to see. I work with writers and low budget studios to try and get this stuff made. For years I've been doing this totally unsuccessfully.

I don't know if you remember the film maker Alex Cox who did Repo Man and Sid and Nancy years ago? He's kind of become a renegade. He couldn't work with the studios anymore, but Alex has not stopped in making movies. He just makes one every year or two. He's working on Repo Chick and I'm trying to help him out on that. It's a no budget movie, but he's a passionate filmmaker who's been interested in film making for the right reasons as far as I'm concerned. It's more about what cinema is about as opposed to the studios which are just giant corporations. They can sell stuff that nobody has to look at anymore. People will just go out to see it. Transformers will make a billion dollars in a week, but I have no interest in that.

Any other future plans?

I'm still holding down my day job and I've got a bunch of stuff I would like to do. It's just a matter of seeing if people will give me the money to do it and in the meantime in a couple of weeks I'll go out and am helping shoot the third in this sort of teen vampire saga called Twilight. I'm going to help filmmaker David Slade who's directing that.

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