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Building the Perfect Beast 

As the movie industry contemplates a new age of computer-generated features, Berkeley's Phil Tippett fights to keep the art of special effects honest, messy, and true

Wednesday, Nov 19 1997
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1. "I'm Extinct"
Movie special-effects maestro Phil Tippett has won billowing praise for the jaw-dropping digital transformations that turned models of alien bugs into the fearsome insect armies of Starship Troopers. But the 46-year-old founder of Berkeley's Tippett Studio is his own most astonishing piece of transformation. If he's at the top of the bug-heap now, five years ago he was plummeting toward the bottom. No less a luminary than Steven Spielberg told him so.

Tippett is a big guy with a bald pate and a casual yet urgent manner; in conversation his mien runs from the boyish to the brooding as he careens from the grunts and growls of mythical brutes to the aesthetics of digital alchemy. At the crisis point of his career, he'd built a reputation as a design and animation paragon who put a distinct signature on medieval and futuristic monsters. His creations had included the volcanic flying reptile of Dragonslayer, the elephantine Imperial Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back, and the gelatinous Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi. These massive incubi had bone-rattling impact, menacing beauty, and the kind of horrific details that stick in a movie-lover's memory. Jim Morris, now the president of Lucas Digital, says, "When I started working at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Phil was doing the two-headed dragon, the Eborsisk, for Willow, and I asked Phil instantly, `What's wrong with its mouths?' Phil said, `It has diseased gums.' "

After leaving ILM's creature shop in 1983, Tippett funneled his own fascination with dinosaurs into an experimental short called Prehistoric Beast and an Emmy-winning CBS TV show, Dinosaur! When Spielberg set about launching Jurassic Park, he knew that Tippett was the man to make dinosaurs come alive. But Jurassic Park nearly became Tippett's Waterloo.

When I asked to see Tippett in action, his studio lent me a home video fit for a time capsule: a taped record of an early (October 1991) Jurassic Park work session at Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment HQ in Los Angeles. It records Tippett and animatronics expert Stan Winston introducing the director to his main characters, the T. Rex and the raptor, with detailed scale models and an array of drawings. It's an amazing document of one man's obsession -- and I don't mean Steven Spielberg.

Tippett is the meeting's magnetizing force. While the others get caught up in camera angles and mechanics, Tippett forges an imaginative connection to the dinosaurs as animals and characters. He punctuates his stream of perceptions with mime, whoops, and whinnies: his body language bespeaks an uncanny identification with the prehistoric beasts. With his arm sweeping up from his waist to his bobbing head, he talks about dinosaurs as "conscious beings who filter the world through their eyes to their brains" and are always "looking, looking." At one point, he reminds everyone that animal behavior includes stupidity: He imitates a behemoth slamming down on a Land-Rover, then dumbly straightening up and twirling around because it doesn't know why it can't get in. "It's not necessarily dramatic," he says, "But it's real."

You can see Spielberg sparking to Tippett's gutsy, informed enthusiasm, his I'll-say-anything confidence. At that point, there was no reason for Tippett to doubt that he'd be delivering dozens of dinosaur shots to Spielberg using "go motion," an up-to-date version of traditional stop-motion animation.

Go motion was state-of-the-art in the early '90s. But there was trouble on the horizon; you can sense it on the tape, when Spielberg and company ooh and aah over a rough computer animation of the T. Rex circling the Land-Rover. Computer animators at ILM, hired to embellish Tippett's effects, were instead conjuring ways for digital graphics to supplant them. Spielberg had scheduled the computer jocks to do only a couple of herd shots, but the results of their experiments knocked him out. He canceled the go motion. The way Spielberg has told the story (as quoted in Joseph McBride's biography), he and Tippett watched tests of computer-generated dinosaurs moving smoothly through bright sunlight. Then Tippett turned to him and said, "I'm extinct."

Cut to 1997 -- and Tippett lives. And thrives: Starship Troopers opened with a $22 million weekend gross. When I visited him in his lodge-like office at Tippett Studio in August, he took off his shoes, let down what's left of his hair, and described himself as being "physically debilitated" when Spielberg decided to work primarily with computers. "It was such a horrendous proposal," he said. "Basically, everything I'd done practically since I was able to walk was not to be used anymore." How Tippett got from there to here is the story both of one man's reinvention of himself, and of his fight to keep movie art in the computer age honest, messy, and true.

2. The Dawn of Digital
Tippett had been a lifelong devotee of stop motion as practiced by masters like Willis O'Brien in King Kong (1933) and Ray Harryhausen in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) -- an intricate, painstaking art in which animators pose and photograph miniature figures frame by frame. He wasn't alone. Just about every top animator or effects man today has favorite Harryhausen figurines, such as the part-rhino, part-centaur Cyclops, the undulating serpent woman, and the two-headed Roc bird from Sinbad; or, from Jason, the harpies that are a cross between gargoyles and pterodactyls, and the seven-headed Hydra and its spawn. In traditional stop motion (still practiced by Henry Selick in marvels like The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach), the camera records a series of subtly different poses rather than actual shifting, so the resulting flow of images is inherently surreal -- ultra-sharp and jerky. In the go motion Tippett helped develop at ILM starting with Dragonslayer in 1980, motorized and computer-governed rods produce believable blurred movement.

Computers weren't content to stay in the wings. In 1985, director Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man) was pondering how to nail down a difficult effect for Young Sherlock Holmes. He had a stained-glass church window with a knight on it: He wanted the knight to jump off the window, march down the aisle, and whack a priest with his sword. Levinson recalls poring over the storyboards with ILM visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren and thinking, "We should see the stained-glass man come toward us, and then [have the point of view of the camera] begin to counter-move so that we'd [end up] over his shoulder looking at the [priest]. We needed to get into the next generation of special effects to have those two things happen." To capture the action in a continuous move and countermove, Muren turned to Pixar, then George Lucas' computer-animation group; John Lasseter (who later directed Toy Story) was among those responsible for the effect. Levinson didn't dwell on it: "I got a rough look at ILM on a video screen when they were just doing early stages, and I thought, 'Wow, if we can get this to work it will be a great little moment.' "

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Michael Sragow

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