Interview by Paul Salfen
Phil Tippett BIO
Phil Tippett is the founder and namesake of Tippett Studio. His varied career in visual effects has spanned more than 30 years and includes two Academy Awards; and six nominations, one BAFTA award and four nominations, two Emmys and the advent of modern digital effects in motion pictures.
As a child of seven, Phil was profoundly inspired by Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion classic, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Willis O’Brien’s classic character King Kong. His subsequent devotion to the creation of the fantastic creatures in film has become his raison d’etre. As a kid, and then as a student always drawing, sculpting and making animations, he developed his skills in a broader context first with a Fine Arts degree from University of California at Irvine, then as an animator at the commercial house, Cascade Pictures in Los Angeles. As a young adult Phil sought out teachers and mentors establishing connections and friendships with Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury.
A huge turning point came in 1975 when George Lucas hired Phil and Jon Berg to create a stop motion miniature chess scene for Star Wars: A New Hope. Phil also had a hand in many other aspects of the Star Wars films, including modeling and casting alien heads and limbs for the busy Cantina scene in the first film. By 1978 Phil lead the animation team at Industrial Light and Magic that would launch his career bringing life to the sinister Imperial Walkers and the alien hybrid Tauntaun for The Empire Strikes Back.
In 1982, building upon insights from ‘Empire’, the same ILM team developed a stop-motion process that they comically christened as ‘Go Motion’ that produced a startlingly realistic beast for Dragonslayer and won Phil an Academy Award; nomination. And in 1983, as head of the ILM creature shop, he began work on Return of the Jedi, designing Jabba The Hut and the Rancor Pit Monster as well as animating the two legged Walker and later winning the Oscar; for Best Visual Effects.
In 1984 Phil left ILM to create a 10-minute short film, Prehistoric Beast. The newly formed Tippett Studio, then operating out of Phil’s garage, drew upon Phil’s wealth of experience with stop motion and his expertise in anatomical modeling and rigging. He and Tippett Studio went on to create top-notch stop motion animations for various television and film projects including Dinosaur!, Willow, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and the Robocop trilogy.
In 1991, Steven Spielberg, learning of Phil’s expertise in dinosaur movement and behavior, selected him to supervise the dinosaur animation for Jurassic Park. When Phil learned of the choice to go with the computer generated dinosaurs, instead of stop motion, his initial reaction was, “I think I’m extinct!” It was this project that was responsible for Tippett Studio’s transition from stop-motion to computer generated animation and for which Phil was awarded his second Oscar®.
Phil’s next major challenge came in 1995 when Paul Verhoeven, again with producer Jon Davison, asked Tippett Studio to create the swarms of deadly arachnids for the sci-fi extravaganza, Starship Troopers. Leading a team of 150 computer artists and technicians, earned Phil a sixth Academy Award; nomination in 1997. Starship Troopers firmly planted Tippett Studio (and Phil) into the digital age of filmmaking.
In the following years Phil has been a guide and mentor for the Tippett Studio VFX supervisors and crew as they create monsters, aliens and appealing creatures for the numerous films that wind their way through the Tippett pipeline.
Partnering with associate, writer Ed Neumeier (Starship Troopers and Robocop scribe), the two created the story for Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation, which Phil went on to direct in 2004 for Screengems.
Recently, Phil oversaw the design and creation of the wolf pack in Summit Entertainment’s New Moon and Eclipse, the second and third film installments based on the Twilight series of novels by Stephanie Meyer.
Phil’s roots in stop motion, modeling and practical effects and his ability to use this foundation in conjunction with developing technologies has made him one of a handful of artists whose careers have spanned the transition of visual effects from largely practical to digital. In this way he is a great teacher and mentor to the crew passing on the tradition of mentorship given to him in the early part of his career.