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The Genius of Phil Tippett

Billy Stoker May 12, 2022 Scroll to read in 5 minutes

At the young age of 7, Phil Tippet saw a piece of stop-motion work that would change his life forever. ‘The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad’ by Ray Harryhausen is often regarded as one of the most influential and famous pieces of stop-motion media in history. This is most certainly the case for Phil. After watching this, it started an obsession with stop motion and monsters that would see him become one of the most critical figures in stop-motion. This blog is to digest the sheer genius of Phil Tippett.

Star Wars - Trilogy

In 1976, Phil was hired to design and create alien/creature masks for the legendary cantina scene sequence of the now infamous sci-fi film 'Star Wars. Whilst checking in on the production process of these masks one week, a certain George Lucas noticed that Phil had some stop-motion puppets on his desk. George saw this as an opportunity to implement some stop-motion into the film's 'Dejarik' (Holochess) scene. This developed a great relationship between George and Phil, leading to Phil coming back to production for the thrilling sequel to the saga 'The Empire Strikes Back alongside other creatives and animators such as Jon Berg and Dennis Murren. Tippet designed and animated some of the most iconic elements of the film with the famous 'AT-AT' walkers and 'TuanTuan' creatures. To achieve the most realistic movements of the puppets, Phil pioneered an old, almost forgotten technique from the 1920's where the object is slightly moved during the exposure of the camera shutter, giving the illusion of motion. This technique is now known as 'go-motion' and has become a staple of stop-motion animation going forwards. Still being heavily influenced by Harryhausen. Phil was also a very gifted designer and illustrator who particularly loved monsters. This led to Phil working on the third and final instalment of the original ‘Star Wars’ saga, ‘Return of the Jedi’. He designed and animated some of the most iconic creatures and characters, such as ‘Jabba the Hutt’ and the feared caged monster, the ‘Rancor’. Phil’s knowledge of stop-motion and his relentless study of old Harryhausen gave him the perfect skill set to create some awe-inspiring and influential work that inspired 1000s to learn about stop-motion just as Harryhausen did for him in the late 50s.

Paul Tippett atat web pic

Jurassic Park - 1993

In 1984, Phil directed, produced and animated a 9 min short film called 'Prehistoric Beast', which was later incorporated into a documentary called 'Dinosaur!' in 1985. The immense studying of dinosaur anatomy and movement Phil did for these films opened the opportunity for him to work on Jurassic Park in 1993 when George Lucas recommended him to Steven Spielberg. Phil landed the famously ironic role of 'Dinosaur Supervisor' in the 1993 blockbuster leading the stop-motion team in creating the initial animatic of the famous tyrannosaurus rex scene. However, after finishing the initial test animation, Spielberg told Phil that he would be taking a newer computer-generated approach. This knockback deeply affected Phil leading to a bout of pneumonia, depression and anxiety about his whole career and industry disappearing.

Once recovered, Phil was put in charge of a new piece of technology developed by Craig Hayes called the Digital Input Device (DID). This device consists of very early motion capture techniques with motion encoders attached to key points of an armature of the tyrannosaurus rex.

The DID allowed Phil to manually animate the movements of the armature whilst simultaneously inputting those movements directly into the 3D models' framework. This gave the dinosaur the authentic heavy movement that the CGI team did not have the skill or knowledge to produce—the reinstatement of Phil's expertise and skill proved that his occupation was not obsolete.

Jurassic Park t rex input web pic

Mad God - 2021

Starting production in the very early 1990s. Phil began animating some horror-themed shots that would later become 'Mad God'. These early shots were all made on 35mm film until Phil packed it all away after his career doubts working on 'Jurassic Park'. The footage was untouched for almost 20 years until Phil's employees at Tippett Studio encouraged Phil to resurrect production. With the help of volunteers and a Kickstarter, production continued and premiered in 2021. Phil's synopsis of Mad God is his embarrassment for the Western world's destruction of others to gain their privilege and how they don't take responsibility for it. 'Mad God' is a visual interpretation of this with less emphasis on narrative and more of a way to flex Phil's stop-motion and visual storytelling skills; it also pays homage to the stop-motion style of his idol, Ray Harryhausen.

Mad God 3

Tippett Studio - 1984

In 1984, Phil and his partner Jules Roman founded the then stop-motion studio, ‘Tippett Studio’. Initially, the company was a stop-motion studio specialising in go motion. While designing and building props for films such as RoboCop and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. They later moved into computer-generated imagery (CGI) whilst working on Jurassic Park in 1993 and perfectly blending the use of CGI and stop-motion animation by developing the Digital Input Device (DID). This work on Jurassic Park led to the studio earning its first academy award. Nine years later, they shifted to visual effects, making ‘Coneheads’ their last stop motion project. Tippett Studio has since gone on to be an incredibly prolific visual effects house working on massive blockbuster projects such as Jurassic World, Star Wars Solo & Episode IX, and the Disney+ Marvel series ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Without a shadow of a doubt, Phil Tippett is an absolute titan in the world of stop-motion. From creating small animations inspired by Ray Harryhausen to pioneering the ‘go motion’ technique, animating on some of the biggest films in cinema history, and making an incredibly prolific visual effects company. He has mastered the art of stop-motion and manifested an astonishing career out of it.

If you enjoyed this blog, then you’ll love our piece on the grandfather of stop-motion Ray Harryhausen or this blog on how to get started in stop-motion animation.

Tippett studio web pic