October 25, 2011

phil tippett

A few months ago, the Alamo Drafthouse and Mondo got together to unleash another one of their incredibly-awesome Mondo Mystery Movies upon an unsuspecting Austin populace, and—as is always the case with a Mondo Mystery Movie—those in attendance had no idea what the film-in-question might be.  After stringing ticketholders along for weeks, the night finally arrived, everyone seated and anxiously awaiting the official announcement from host/Mondo creative director Justin Ishmael.  Soon enough, we learned that the film was Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park…and that Mondo had the film’s “dino wrangler”, Phil Tippett, on-hand for a post-screening Q&A.  I sat down with Tippett shortly thereafter to ask a few questions of my own.  Wanna know what Tippett has to say about George LucasStar Wars Blu-rays?  The making of Jurassic Park?  Read more after the jump, folks.

Mondo Jurassic Park Print Number TwoOf all the cool events constantly being thrown by the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, the one nearest and dearest to my heart is the Mondo Mystery Movie.  Ticketholders throw down anywhere from $75 to $200 for a “Regular” or “Variant” print-ticket (each ticket comes with an extremely limited-edition Mondo print), show up at an Alamo Drafthouse theater without knowing what they’re going to see, and then watch as Mondo creative director Justin Ishmael unleashes awesome by screening…well, one never knows what Mondo will screen, but generally it’s something we’d all agree is pretty damn cool.  Even better: Mondo usually has someone associated with the film onhand to do a post-screening Q&A.  So, to recap, for your $75 to $200, you get a mystery, an awesome movie, a Q&A, and a nearly-one-of-a-kind Mondo print to take home and have framed (some of these prints are now going for very, very high prices on Ebay).  It.  Is.  Awesome.

Side Note: Mondo’s next Mondo Mystery Movie happens this Saturday—tickets are sold-out;  sorry, folks—and we’ve been told the event will be “one of the biggest in Drafthouse history”.  Stay tuned for my in-the-trenches coverage from that event next weekend (we’ll have photos, video, and more).

A month or two ago, the Mondo Mystery Movie turned out to be Jurassic Park, and Mondo had “dono wrangler” Phil Tippett onhand to answer questions after the show (the print, by artist Aaron Horkey, is one of the coolest ever produced by Mondo; you can see it on the right), and it ended up being one of the most entertaining Q&A’s I’ve ever seen at the Drafthouse: Tippett had no problem speaking his mind, voicing dissatisfaction with the changes George Lucas has made to the original Star Wars films on Blu-ray (“They suck”) and telling all manner of tales out of school about a number of other former co-workers.  There was nothing vindictive or angry about Tippett’s Q&A that night, but it was obvious that he prides himself on being outspoken.  And so, when the opportunity to interview Tippett came along the following day, I leapt at the chance: here’s a guy who knows how to keep interviews interesting.

Before we get to that, though, here are a few highlights from that chat (which, keep in mind, happened all the way back on September 1st, just after the Jurassic Park Mondo Mystery Movie and right before the release of the Star Wars films on Blu-ray):

  • Tippett says “motion-capture is where directors go to die” (your move, Zemeckis).
  • He also mentions that Taylor Lautner’s abs are 100% “real” in the next Twilight film, which he worked on.  I refuse to believe this.
  • When pressed to name a recent, effects-heavy film he enjoyed, Tippett names Source Code, which featured effects that didn’t matter because—as he noted—the audience actually cared about the story and the characters.
  • Asked what he thinks about Lucas’ meddling with the original Star Wars films on Blu-ray, Tippett says, “He has the right to do whatever he wants.  It’s not like anyone should be surprised.”
  • Tippett’s been working on his own film—which remains a bit of a mystery, as you’ll soon see—for decades now, and has no idea when it might be finished.

Without further ado, here’s our chat:

phil-tippett-image-05Hey, Mr. Tippett, how are you doing today, sir?

TIPPETT: Good. How are you?

I’m fantastic.  Actually, I was at the show last night and I ended up standing next to you in the urinal at the bathroom, which was a highlight. I haven’t taken a leak next to an Oscar winner since the last time I was at Meryl Streep’s house. I can cross that off my bucket list, so, thank you for that. I hadn’t seen Jurassic Park in years and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it help up.

TIPPETT: I hadn’t seen it since it was released, either, and yeah, I feel like it really does. There was this thing that they did at the Academy a couple years back where it was called “Technology and Creatures/ Monsters” or something like that and they ran all of these clips from Lon Chaney, Creature From The Black Lagoon, and they fast forwarded to Jurassic Park and I noticed a very distinct cut-off.  From that all the way up to Avatar, where things just got worse. It’s pretty amazing, the dividing line. Steven [Spielberg] worked this way and understood that you manage your resources really carefully and you plan and plan. With Jurassic Park, there weren’t more than 50-something computer graphic shots in the whole thing…but it plays.  The effects totally feel right, but things you film today you feel like you’re totally drinking from the fire hose.  At a certain point—when you’ve seen so much that’s spectacular—you just want to go home.

I agree with you, and I think it has gotten to be just way too much spectacle at the expense of storyline. Do you think there are filmmakers today that incorporate a fair amount of special effects in their work whose movies you also enjoy? Or, do you think overall it’s a shitty time for film?

TIPPETT: It really depends on how you lucked out. There are a lot of effects in Source Code, but I didn’t care one way or the other if they were good or bad because the movie was so fun to watch. Even if the special effects aren’t (amazing).   Yeah, some of the work’s marginal, but you can tell  the filmmakers are having fun with the material.  Charlie Chaplin could do a fun little pantomime with a couple of forks and breakfast rolls and that was fascinating.  I think this obsession for quote-unquote “Realism”…I don’t know… There is an abstract with computer that’s really hard to break through that wall, where everything looks like an airbrush painting. There will always be something terminally fake about it.

You were talking about this last night too and it made me I was curious if you had seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

TIPPETT: I have not yet, but I intend to.

phil-tippett-imageI wanted to ask you about that because you said yesterday that “motion-capture is where movie directors go to die.” I’m wondering if you could elaborate a little more on that sentiment. I happen to agree with you, but I’d like to hear a little bit more of your thoughts there.

TIPPETT: It’s just a tool.  If the tool is used for what it functions as, then it’s fine.  (Some) guys have found this niche market doing (motion capture) where it tends to work.  You can translate the human motion of a pantomime artist into an ape or a Golem or something like that, and that totally works… but try and do that with an octopus and see what happens.

For the last few days, the big hubbub online has been about the Star Wars Blu-rays that are coming out, where George Lucas has made even more changes. I’m wondering specifically if you think that the fan boy whining about this is justified or do you think it’s an overreaction?

TIPPETT: I can only speak for myself but I don’t care really one way or another because he has the right to do with it whatever he wants. I think a lot of it is financially driven more than anything else. So it’s not like anyone seeing this should be surprised. Yeah he’s going back and adding more stuff and selling more merchandise (this will probably be going on for a while) but there will always be the original stuff and it’s not going away.

Well, I think that that’s part of the problem. The stuff that was released originally in theaters is actually unavailable and these newfangled versions don’t even give you the option of seeing it in the format that you might’ve fallen in love with in the first place. I think that’s where most of the outrage.  I could imagine why you would want to go back in and fix little things here and there but to do it over the course of decades seems almost like a compulsion or mental illness.

TIPPETT: A lot of artists go back in and rework this stuff, but I think this perhaps is more…uh, financially driven. But he’s got a huge beast to feed, y’know?  There’s not a lot of shows in production, so what is he going to do?

That’s true… Anyway, let’s move on.  If 3D is the current gimmick, what do you imagine will be the next step?

phil-tippett-image-03TIPPETT: [James] Cameron and [Peter] Jackson are talking about shooting at 48-60 frames per second, so this…uh…this adds insult to injury. Actually, years ago I saw Doug Trumbull doing ShowScan,  and watched a demo that he was doing for a bunch of executives for some kind of theme park thing and it was pretty amazing what happens to your personal sense of vision going from 4 to 60 on a large format 65mm camera. To me, it offers a much more visceral/pleasing type of feel than 3D does.  It looked pretty darn amazing. What it’s going to mean production-wise is awful. You’re going to have to double the frames…uh…I’m not looking forward to it.  All this stuff is a marketing gimmick; it’s showmanship and salesmanship and all of that kind of stuff. My theory is that we’re living in an age similar to the Nineteenth Century, where symphonic music hit its ceiling with Mahler and Bruckner…and where could they go but get louder and make things longer? On top of that, now every shot is filled with stuff like an exploding moon and five rocket ships and a tidal wave and a submarine torpedoing the Titanic.  Now they’re going down the road of selling spectacle but spectacle is like cotton candy….

Last night, you talked about taking meetings with directors and they would tell you they wanted this and that for their project, and sometimes their requests weren’t particularly thrilling to you.  I’m wondering what the strangest request you’ve ever heard from a filmmaker was, or if there was something that someone wanted that you knew couldn’t possibly be done.  Does anything like that come to mind?

TIPPETT: One that I get over and over and over that just irks me is that everyone wants it to look “real.”

As opposed to what?!  As if anyone would want it to look fake?

TIPPETT: Exactly!  We try our best, but…”You mean you just want it to look good?”

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN Part 1 posterYou’ve been working on the new Twilight movie, which is a franchise—if I’m being frank—I’m not a fan of…

TIPPETT: Yeah, neither am I.

Well, that’s because we’re not pre-teen girls.  But there are a lot of fans out there, and there is a huge amount of buzz about the next one.  I’ve read some things in particular about the storyline of the last book, and some of the sequences that were written into that novel sound like they’d need some elaborate special effects to make it on screen.  Like, I’ve heard there’s this C-section scene where a vampire baby crawls out of a girl?  Can you talk a little bit about the effects that you designed for the new Twilight movie and if so…

TIPPETT: Well, I really just do the wolves on this [film].  I’m not the effects supervisor, so I’m not apart of designing and putting together all of that stuff.  But, it’s a PG13 rated movie.  I’ve seen some of the stuff and it looks pretty cool.  It’s a real good production team, the director is very good, very inclusive, and we work well together.

Ah.  I didn’t realize that you weren’t supervising the effects for the movie…So you had nothing to do with Taylor Lautner’s abs in the film?

TIPPETT: (Confused) They’re real…

I was joking. Has there ever been a dream project you really wanted to work on, but it fell through or the financing never came together?

TIPPETT: Well, I’ve been working on a short film of my own for the last 20 years, so that keeps me happy.  And with that, there’s no one yelling or telling me what to do or anything like that.  After Starship Troopers had tanked in the theaters, there was some type of talk of doing a mini-series on it.  Paul [Verhoeven] kicked around a bunch of ideas, and it had seemed like it was going to be a lot of fun.  Paul wanted to do the Russian tribe version of Starship Troopers, but I guess they didn’t have the appetite for it.

Well, I wanted to ask you about that project, the one you’ve been working on for 20 years, because you mentioned that in passing last night. Can you talk about that at all?

TIPPETT: Yeah, it’s got an extremely loose narrative and I’m working on it in a way that is not what I do at the day job.  It is very production oriented and genre specific. This is more like working on a painting or sculpture. I’ve worked with it enough where the work is not telling me what to do and I’m not telling the work what to do.  It’s got everything but the kitchen sink. It’s got stop motion and live action and whatever…

What is it about the movie that’s taken you so long to work on it?

phil-tippett-image-04TIPPETT: Well, part of it is that I started shooting it a long time ago on 35mm film, got some of it done, and then the digital revolution hit.  That faked me out for a while, because I thought “Oh God, everything is over!  Now nobody likes this kind of stuff!”  So I kind of shelved it.   About two years back, I was archiving it and some of the guys at my shop asked, “What in the hell is that? It looks like some lost Czechoslovakian film.”  And so we got really interested in it and I called up the set, and I had like a bunch of people that are  guys who missed out on an era where we actually built things. So it became like a golf club, where we put in time after hours to shoot it.  This is what now sort of keeps me sane.

How close are you to actually completing it?

TIPPETT: Well, people think I’m kidding when I say it, but it’ll be done when I’m dead. Hopefully, I’ll get it in shape. What I’m planning on doing now—because of all the connectivity that’s out there—I can just start posting behind the scenes stock or clips on the website to show people the work in progress as we build it.

Awesome, I’m really curious to know more about it.  Anytime someone says they’ve spent 20 years on something you know they’ve got to be doing something special…

TIPPETT: Or just going crazy.

That too, but sometimes that’s the method to the madness.

phil-tippett-creature-imageTIPPETT: Yeah, well,  I’ve been doing this stuff to make a living since I was quite young, and I enjoy the film making process… but I’ve always imagined using all these tools and techniques in more of a collage, less a narrative sense. I’m more of an art school guy, and everything that I develop is heavily art damaged and no one will pay for it in a million years so I just have to do it myself.

Awesome.  Well, I appreciate very much you taking the time out to talk to me.  Last night was great and I’m a huge fan of your work; you’re a living legend.

TIPPETT: Thanks!

And that, my friends, was my time with living legend Phil Tippett.  If you hadn’t noticed, Mondo’s actually got another Jurassic Park print going on sale sometime today (that’d be Oct. 27th, for those of you not reading this on Thursday), which we’ve got a photo of below.  You can also pick up the entire Jurassic Park trilogy on Blu-ray—from Universal, whose Blu-ray transfers always look rock-solid—in stores now (yes, you’re gonna have to buy all three if you wanna have the first one at your disposal).  Special thanks to Fons PR, the folks at Mondo, and the Alamo Drafthouse for setting this one up: you guys kick ass!

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