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February 19, 2008

Phil Tippett a special-effects pioneer

The San Francisco Chronicle ran this nifty spread yesterday... nice.

It's not hard to find Phil Tippett, who is waiting upstairs in the main building of his special-effects studio in Berkeley. Just follow the trail of Tyrannosaurus rex models, which are scattered liberally among the memorabilia from scores of science fiction films he's contributed to since his groundbreaking work on "Star Wars."

"Little boys diverge into two groups: One goes into trucks and the other goes into dinosaurs," he says. "I went into dinosaurs."

Among the special-effects pioneers of his era, many of whom have settled in the Bay Area, Tippett is a bit of a dinosaur himself. The Berkeley native carried the stop-motion animation torch longer than anyone else, and was so despondent when computer graphics took over the industry in the early 1990s, that he became physically ill. (sfgate.com)

But a decade and a half later, his studio continues to thrive - known for its superior creature effects. Tippett Studio was responsible for the monster in "Cloverfield," and the studio teamed with Industrial Light & Magic to create various beasts for "The Spiderwick Chronicles." Tippett's resume already contained a toy chest's worth of science fiction geek icons, starting with the animated chessboard monsters in "Star Wars" and the stop-motion AT-AT snow walkers in "The Empire Strikes Back."

"Phil's like this big blustery guy - he's grumpy but he's also funny," says Spiderwick animation supervisor Todd Labonte, who has worked at Tippett Studio for almost a decade. "And then you start talking about work, and he has this great understanding of animation and animal behavior."

Tim Harrington, the animation supervisor for ILM on "Spiderwick," is the latest young special-effects person to work side by side with Tippett, in awe of the living legend.

"I grew up reading about all of these guys in magazines, and Phil's work had a particularly big impact on me," Harrington says. "When I met him, it was like 'Oh my God.' All you want to do is impress him."

Tippett walks into his upstairs conference room with his shirttail out and a wild ring of long gray hair that only adds to the mad professor vibe. Tippett is friendly, but anxious - co-workers say that's his permanent state. He relaxes a bit when he starts a film reel, which is heavy with stop-motion work from two of his biggest influences: "King Kong" special-effects worker Willis O'Brien and "Jason and the Argonauts" mastermind Ray Harryhausen.

"It was this scene right here that I saw at the (Berkeley) Oaks theater, when I was 7 years old in 1958," Tippett says, pointing at the screen as a few actors throw spears at a four-story-tall Harryhausen creation. "This was the thing that inspired me, that scene with the Cyclops in 'The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.' And I was never the same since."

With no special-effects industry jobs to aspire to, the young Tippett mowed lawns for the money to make his own stop-motion films. After college, Tippett says, he "and the 10 other geeks who were interested in this stuff" ended up at Cascade Pictures in Los Angeles, honing their skills on commercials, including ads for Brawny paper towels and the Jolly Green Giant.

Tippett and his longtime friend Dennis Muren, a six-time Oscar winner, were recruited by George Lucas in the mid-1970s to work on "Star Wars." Lucas made two sequels, science fiction directors including Steven Spielberg, Paul Verhoeven and James Cameron came on the scene, and an industry was born.

"When we first got hired to move up from Los Angeles and go to ILM, George said, 'Well, we're going to make a few pictures, and then people will probably get tired of us, and then we'll have to move back to Los Angeles,' " Tippett remembers. "It didn't happen."

Tippett became the head of the ILM creature shop, animating the Tauntaun creatures in "The Empire Strikes Back" and the dragon in the 1981 movie "Dragonslayer." He formed Tippett Studio in 1984, making the Emmy-winning CBS documentary "Dinosaur!" Tippett and fellow effects wizard Craig Hayes later hooked up with Verhoeven to work on "RoboCop."

Tippett was recruited in the early 1990s by Spielberg to help create the dinosaurs for "Jurassic Park," thinking it would be his biggest project yet. While Tippett took a traditional approach, with puppets and other animatronic solutions, Muren had found ways to use computers to make the prehistoric stars convincing.

"We had mounted 'Jurassic' as if we were going to do it conventionally, and the computer graphics were only going to be used for the big crowd scenes," Tippett says. "And as Dennis pushed the camera in further and further and further, the things held up photographically in a way that nobody really imagined."

Tippett kept working on the "Jurassic Park" team, winning his second Oscar. But even as the crew enjoyed the movie's success, Tippett realized that he was in danger of becoming extinct himself.

"It was really hard for me because I thought it was all over with completely. I got pneumonia," Tippett remembers. "I had people building big, giant motion-control rigs and had hundreds of thousands of dollars floating around. I had to pull the plug on it, and I could see everything going down the toilet."

Tippett says he struggled for a while, but kept the studio alive, investing in new equipment and adapting to the changing times. Not long after "Jurassic Park," he got a big job creating the swarm of space bugs in Verhoeven's 1997 film "Starship Troopers."

More than 10 years later, the studio has spread out into five buildings with 160 employees. Tippett Studio reflects its founder, with a healthy clutter among the cubicles. There's also an apparent prejudice against fresh paint on the walls. During a walk-through two weeks ago, many of the employees were in the middle of a beard-growing contest.

But the company also has rooms stacked with computer servers, for the complex special-effects work being done inside. The forte of the studio seems to be creature design, creating monsters wholesale as they did in "Cloverfield" and "The Spiderwick Chronicles." Tippett has a "creature supervisor" title for "Spiderwick," and the studio was responsible for some of the movie's more unconventional characters, including the bird-eating animal Hogsqueal and a reptilian-looking cave monster.

Even in the age of computer graphics, Tippett has an organic influence on the studio. Labonte says that for "Spiderwick," Tippett had the crew go to the East Bay Vivarium so the animators could understand what a toad's skin felt like. Other animators were tracking down videos of alligators and other real-life creatures to study their movements.

While many working in the special-effects industry will quietly acknowledge that studios are oversaturating summer films with special effects, Tippett openly airs his concerns - lecturing on the subject twice during an hourlong interview. He says audiences are becoming numb to the excess of some effects films, and he often prefers the results in smaller-scale ones, such as "Cloverfield."

"With theatrical feature films, people don't feel that they can really compete with television and other media unless the spectacle level is as high as it can possibly be," Tippett says. "So they just throw as much crap on the wall as they possibly can."

Which may help explain Tippett's recent entrance into low-budget filmmaking, making his directorial debut on the 2004 straight-to-DVD sequel "Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation." Tippett's offices are filled with movie artifacts, including a full-size ED-209 robot from "RoboCop" that is perched on a wall in the studio's biggest warehouse. But he seems equally proud of the more primitive effects, pointing out a small AT-AT walker that is little more than a strip of cardboard with Styrofoam backing - and still appeared in "The Empire Strikes Back."

"We pushed it way in the background. It was really crappy, but it worked," Tippett says. "That's the thing that I miss today, that sort of 'Our Gang' sense of making stuff. You only build what you need for the shot, and it's junk after that."

Tippett has several other movie projects he'd like to direct, with budgets ranging from $5 million to $25 million. They may not be perfect, but he promises they will be unique.

"I'm very much interested in the lower-budget fare, because it's where the opportunity exists to do some original work," Tippett says. "I almost don't even care if it's any good. I just want it to be different.'"

Ray Harryhausen & Friends: With Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren and others. 7:15 p.m. Wednesday. Rafael Film Center, San Rafael. www.cafilm.org.

Playing now: "The Spiderwick Chronicles" and "Cloverfield." At Bay Area theaters.

E-mail Peter Hartlaub at phartlaub@sfchronicle.com


Posted by dschnee at February 19, 2008 2:28 AM