Like creating the Holochess set in Star Wars, for example.
Phil Tippett is a visual effects veteran, with a career that has taken him from stop-motion animation production on Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope to digital animation in Star Wars: Episode VII-The Force Awakens. During the 28 years in between his career has included consulting on creative effects for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, designing characters and supervising animation for The Spiderwick Chronicles and of course, being the dinosaur supervisor on Jurassic Park.
We spoke with the film industry legend about how advances in technology over the last three decades have changed the way he works, and what he believes the future holds.
Image: Phil Tippett
It is difficult to fully comprehend just how much the way special effects are created has changed in the time between Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope and Star Wars: Episode VII-The Force Awakens, but if one man has any idea, it’s Phil Tippett.
The approach for creating special effects had to evolve, Tippett told Gizmodo, “by the simple nature of changing the tools that were used to make stuff with.”
“The process of building miniatures and creating sets and shooting them photographically was a very, very, very different process than the process we use for creating computer graphics.”
It influences your thinking about how to do things, he explains.
“A lot of considerations back in the photographic era were workarounds for practical limitations. Like if you wanted something feel weightless, or sense of lifting off the ground — it was much more difficult to achieve using stop-motion animation and models, whereas with computers it just comes with the package.”
But there are definite disadvantages to the current digital model, he says. Realism is the main one.
“Getting things to look good in computer graphics is a lot more complicated,” Tippett laments. “If you build three dimensional things that you are photographing, they have an inherit sense of reality to them. Computer graphic images in general tend to look like what they are.”
Working on Star Wars: Episode VII-The Force Awakens specifically, Tippet re-created the Holochess set from Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope, taking it from this:
It is is easy to assume this would be an easier process with today’s technology, but Tippett disagrees. “Reconstructing characters that had been made 30 years ago, and getting them to look identical to the characters in the first Star Wars in was a much more elaborate process,” he says.
It’s clear that Tippett has a love for the pre-digital methods, but says keeping these processes alive is out of his hands.
“It’s contingent of the feelings of directors and producers,” he says, with stop-motion now only existing within the confines of what he calls “a stop motion version of a pixar movie, PG movies with the same plot.”
In certain circumstances a particular director may say using the approach and techniques of stop motion is really going to expand the philosophical ideas that they have, Tippett says. “They may say, ‘I want to use this as a technique to tell the story better’.” But that will be a rarity.
“Are we ever going to another imperial snow walker scene shot with stop motion? I think hell will freeze over before that happens,” Tippet laughs.
Having a clear passion for techniques that are literally dying out in a commercial space must be demotivating for Tippet, but his sights are set firmly on keeping things creative and looking to the future.
“I stay motivated by working with talented and creative people,” he says. “I like the idea of casting people — like directors cast actors — and finding the right people for the job. Then you don’t have to micromanage, you can just exist on a creative plane like children at play. You end up creating something you haven’t really seen before.”
What Tippett is creating today is more diverse and creative than ever.
“Now that there is no work in California we are doing a lot of work with the Chinese, with immersive lives and full digital lives,” he revels. “Then we’ve entered into the Virtual Reality fray. There’s a totally different format [with VR] in that you can’t think of it the way you think of film.”
“It’s kind of exciting, it’s kind of like the wild west, which is where I like to live.”