From "Star Wars" to "Indiana Jones" to "Jurassic Park," visual-effects maestro Phil Tippett has had a hand in some of the greatest movies of the past 30 years. This past weekend, if the wolves of the record-setting blockbuster "New Moon" thrilled you, then you have him to thank.
In an exclusive interview with MTV, the owner of Tippett Studio was eager to chat about making the wolf pack come to life, the intensive research that had his computer artists hanging out with the real thing, and why trips to the "New Moon" set often became a hairy proposition.
MTV: Congratulations, Phil, the fans seem pretty pleased with the movie so far.
Phil Tippett: I suppose so; I'm not quite one of that ilk.
MTV: You're not a teenage girl?
Tippett: Nooo. [Laughs.] I've been through it — I've been through the teenage-girl thing not that long ago with my daughters. But I'm on a break from it now.
MTV: You worked on Chris Weitz's "The Golden Compass." So, did he just call you up and ask you to do "New Moon" as well?
Tippett: No, actually we didn't deal with Chris that much. We were involved in "The Golden Compass," then everything came our way right at the very end [of the "New Moon" production] in a 911 call [from a producer]. She realized that she had a bunch of wolves to do, so she gave us a call and said, "Hey, this is right up your alley, what do you think?" And we said, "Yeah, we're onboard."
MTV: What were the greatest challenges on "New Moon"?
Tippett: With the werewolves, the big deal from Chris and from Stephenie Meyer's books was that these things are horse-sized wolves, not traditional beastly, werewolf-y, quasi-human type things. They are, for all intents and purposes, timberwolves. And so, that's the trick; you get into that uncanny valley — the land usually occupied by computer-generated canines and cats, which are so much a part of our world that when you're trying to do a duplication of the character that's not fantasy, it's so common to everybody's observation that it gets a lot more tricky to make them digital, yet photographically representational.
MTV: So, real things are harder to make than made-up things?
Tippett: Very much. If you have a bug from another planet, or a giant robot, or something like that, you can get away with murder — but when it's something recognizable, then the onus is on you.
MTV: Did you do a lot of research into wolves?
Tippett: Yes, they're required to do very specific things, to move certain ways, and to that end we do an incredible amount of research — the co-supervisor on the show, Matt Jacobs, led an exposition down to a wolf preserve in Los Angeles. He brought a bunch of the animators and art department guys, and they observed a bunch of timberwolves to commune with them and their behavior and get their vibe.
MTV: This is one of the most eagerly anticipated movies of 2009. Were there a lot of top-secret measures you had to take as you worked on the effects?
Tippett: There were things that were amusingly irritating. Like, the paparazzi got so bad following the stars everywhere that in some instances we were going to these godforsaken locations out in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes the production would put up signs pointing to a different location to confuse the paparazzi. Of course, that would totally confuse us as well, which would make us show up late to the set. [Laughs.]
MTV: That's hilarious. Tell us about the wolves themselves.
Tippett: Well, we put a good amount of time into studying the behavior and the physical actions of timberwolves, and then multiplied that up to a 1,200-pound character, so that the weight and mass appear to fit properly into earth-specific gravity and all that stuff. Sam Uley is the big-kahuna wolf, definitely the biggest one. Each wolf is between 1,200 and 800 pounds, and a lot of that is on a shot-for-shot basis — Embry and Jared are the smallest. Sam is the biggest one, then Paul and Jacob are roughly the same size — Jacob is maybe a little bit bigger.
MTV: In one key scene, Jacob's wolf makes eye contact with Bella. Tell us about that shot.
Tippett: One of the things Chris was very insistent on was that all the wolves have human eyes, as opposed to normal wolves who have these golden, very piercing classic wolf eyes. The way he had laid out a number of scenes was there were some extreme close-ups of wolf eyes, with Bella reflected in them, like that Jacob scene. Chris wanted to make sure that Taylor Lautner's eyes would be the right choice, emotionally, for those scenes.
MTV: How did you achieve that?
Tippett: We got Taylor to peel his eyelids way back, and we got in really close with a camera and shot his eyes.
MTV: Wow. Was it like "A Clockwork Orange" thing?
Tippett: Yeah. [Laughs.] No, we had him do it with his own hands, so he could find his own comfort level. We didn't use any instruments of torture.
Check out everything we've got on "The Twilight Saga: New Moon."
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