Interview: Phil Tippett Talks About The Oscar-Winning Visual Effects of Jurassic Park

Between the original Star Wars trilogy to Robocop to Starship Troopers, it’s safe to say that Academy Award-winning visual effects artist Phil Tippett is responsible for some of the most indelible miniature and digital work of our time. In preparation for this week’s Blu-ray release of the Jurassic Park trilogy, Tippett sat down to discuss the leaps in technology made in service of the original film, early influences on his career, later difficulties and just what remains to be seen in the realm of computer-generated imagery.

Q: How did you initially get started in this line of work?

Phil Tippett: My first memory was, as a kid, seeing King Kong on television and just being kind of zapped by that. It was like 1955. And then The 7th Voyage of Sinbad came out in ’58, so that was the bolt of lightning that struck me. I just wanted to know how that stuff was done, and it was hard to figure out because there was no information about any of that stuff. The only conduit really was “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” because [Forrest J. Ackerman] knew Ray [Harryhausen] and all that…

Q: How did you first meet them?

PT: I forget how I met Forry, but he was very open to fans and would invite people up. He would show us stuff, he really liked showing his collection off, and then when Ray Harryhausen would come to town, he would just call us and say, “Hey, Ray’s in town, we’re going to have a little get-together, do you want to come up and meet him?” He had all the Kong puppets there and Mighty Joe Young and tons of props from Ray’s things, so it was just like, “Uhhhhhh…” Like being in pig heaven.

Q: How did you set aside your awe of these things and come to learn from him? How does it become a mentor relationship as opposed to a fan relationship?

PT: Well, with Ray, it was never an actual “mentor” kind of a thing, other than that he was always like a magician who didn’t want to tell how he did the tricks. So we would pretty much talk in generalities, but he was always supportive. Mostly, it was just by looking at his stuff. Back then, you went to a movie and if you had enough lawnmower money, you could maybe see it a couple of times, but it was just in your memory. And I think that went a really long way to being an important developmental kind of thing. I often think that now, with all of the media available, it would probably be enough for me as a kid. If I would mow enough lawns and buy a cool Cyclops model, I’d be happy, and why would I need to learn how to make all of that stuff? The process of being inspired by that, you have to learn to paint and draw and sculpt and machine things and load cameras and just the whole nine yards, so you’d educate yourself.

Q: Were your parents supportive?

PT: They were worried about me; they thought I was obsessed. I had to hide my “Famous Monsters.” I had to bury them in the backyard, and in the end, they were all crinkled and water-damaged.

Q: What do you think you might’ve pursued if not this career? Was there ever any other track in mind?

PT: No, not really. I was always interested in paleontology, but there was too much academia involved. The movies are a nice blend between intellectual and blue-collar, so it was always kind of a reality check.

Q: Over your career, how have you approached the progress of technology? With Jurassic Park, it was a transition from Go-Motion to CGI, and I was wondering how much of it feels like a new opportunity and how much of it feels like a cheat or something that’s going to possibly extinguish what you’ve already done…

PT: With the whole Jurassic thing, Go-Motion was a glacial development. It was kind of a no-brainer, because you hook up the motion control stuff to a stop-motion puppet, and you make it work, but the divide when computer technology looked like it was going to be a decent production tool, that was a hard one. At a certain point on Jurassic, we were going to do everything conventionally and they were just going to do a couple of scenes, like with the ostrich dinosaurs in the herd scenes. There were just going to be some long shots, and the creatures held up close to the lens. I had all of these concessions out with people making Go-Motion type things, with hundreds of thousands of dollars out, and Steven called up and said, “Yeah, we’re not gonna do it that way. We’re going to go all CG.” That was a bitter pill to swallow. But at the time, for all of the computer graphics guys, it was their big chance, so it was like the young gunslingers coming into town, and I was like, “Oh, God, I’m totally ruined.” But at a certain point, you know when you’re going to draw, and they go [makes whooshing noises and juggling gestures]. “Okay, shoot.” “Well, I don’t have any bullets.” They knew the tools, but they didn’t have any experience with filmmaking. A tool’s a tool, but how you use it is…

Q: And now, it’s what your studio specializes in.

PT: Well, there’s no choice. It’s what everybody wants to see, so you have to commit to that path. I mean, I still do stop-motion animation, but not commercially.

Q: Were there any projects that you missed out on that you wish you had worked on? I was really curious when you mentioned the Verhoeven/Disney/dinosaur thing.

PT: I wasn’t sad when we got kicked off of [that], because we could tell where it was going to go. [2000’s Dinosaur]. Walon Green had written a really nice script, and the idea was basically to make a silent movie. [The dinosaurs] weren’t going to talk, and they weren’t going to have eyelashes, and there weren’t going to be any songs. It was just going to have a symphonic score and sound effects. We pitched it like a Disney documentary. And they did what a lot of studios do, they just kind of mine you for whatever you’ve got, and then they’ll start pushing you down their path. And at a certain point, we were just intractable and said, “This isn’t the movie we wanted to make,” and they said, “Okay, bye.” In fact, I blew off some meeting with Jeffrey Katzenberg and thought, “This was a waste of time,” and I was banned from Dolby Drive for five years until he left.

Q: With Starship Troopers, you took a very prominent role with the action scenes. What’s the key to bringing those creatures to life and then having them hold up to scrutiny, of bringing to life something that doesn’t exist and making it seem realistic?

PT: Just being on the same wavelength with the director. In an ideal world, the way it works is that you’re telepathically connected, and there aren’t any belabored conversations. “Here’s what we’re doing, this is how we’re going to do it.” It was a lot of storyboarding and a lot of shaping and just work. The models that we were using, the whole Leni Riefenstahl/WWII thing, the pieces just fell together quickly. You always need these connecting things that allow you to let the thing lead you, you know? So each of the bugs had a defined role, like weapons in World War II. There was the flame-throwing tank and the Messerschmitts and blah-blah-blah – everybody did something.

Q: Do you think you’ve had your strongest working relationship with Verhoeven?

PT: I think that… Paul’s willing to take risks and do wacky things, and George [Lucas] and Steven [Spielberg] tend to be a lot more commercially minded and more gentle, whereas Paul’s going, “It’s a f—king war movie! Big fat people get their heads chopped off!” (laughs) And the brain bug was Cthulhu, the H.P. Lovecraft god, and “His mouth is like a vagina! Or an a—hole, we don’t know!” So we called that the “poo-gina.” (laughs) We didn’t know if we were going to get that by the critics. In fact, we had to go back, we had this great shot where Dizzy is killed by a bug. This thing comes up behind her, it’s a high-speed shot, and with its pinchers, penetrates her chest, bah-bah-bah-bah-bah! And all of this blood flies out. It was just a big Jackson Pollock painting, and we had to paint all that blood out because the MPAA, they had Paul in their sights. They were just being mean to him.

Q: Do you like revisiting your work, or do you find yourself more critical?

PT: No, it’s fun to have distance because it’s hard to look at stuff when you’re just in there, under the hood, looking at everything that’s wrong. Usually, the only meter is going to see it with an audience. You can just see if people are responding to the stuff in the right way.

Q: Do you think people are more cynical towards visual effects these days because they’re so pervasive?

PT: Well, my analogy is that a lot of it’s like symphonic music at the end of the 19th century – it’s just like, where does it go after Mahler and Bruckner? It just gets louder and longer, and that’s kind of where we’re at. Everybody’s pushing a 300-pound turd so hard to make things spectacle that it’s just not spectacular. It’s just like drinking from the fire hose.

Q: You mentioned that stuff like The Social Network impressed you, where it’s more subtly integrated…

PT: Any time a smart filmmaker makes a decent film, that’s what you want to see, and [David] Fincher uses the work to advance what he wants and not to pile it on just as a marketing gimmick… He’s a smart boy. You know he worked for us at ILM? He was an assistant in the matte department, and he helped us out with a bunch of shots on [Return of the Jedi], like the Rancor sequence… He totally gets it. A lot of times, you’ll be working with writer-directors now. The world divides between picture guys and word guys, and Dave bridges both of those.

Q: What advice do you think young filmmakers should take to heart when they can create many things on their computers?

PT: If possible, I’m a big proponent of the whole mentor thing as the best way of learning. That might mean that, if you can’t find somebody, if you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, I don’t know, get all the John Ford movies if you like John Ford and just immerse yourself in ‘em. Or try and find a school where there are interesting filmmakers. Alex Cox now is teaching at the University of Boulder, and if I was a film student, I’d pack my bags and head there.

Q: Do you think that there’s much more room for advancement given visual effects these days?

PT: I really don’t know. I can’t predict the future very well. I just roll with it as it changes. You just accommodate. 3-D? Okay, fine. Whatever. It’ll be interesting to see what comes up once they start doing this stuff at 48 and 60 frames a second, because that’s just going to make things a lot harder, and only the ILMs and the Wetas can do that kind of stuff… I think my mind is more – at this point in time, on a creative level – into the way I think about things, and the way my mind works is a little more like a sculptor or a painter. I can work in a filmmaking environment, but working on commercial cinema is a very defined path, and once you find that path, it’s relatively straightforward. You can’t really branch out and do really wacky stuff, so you just do it on your own. That’s what I think independent filmmakers should do, just find your voice like a writer and make your own stuff.

The Jurassic Park Ultimate Trilogy will be available on DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday.