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

For Tippett, "it was extremely painful, the entire process of coming to grips with the computer." He still insists, "The computer doesn't like to do anything that's really good," and regards the video display terminal as a "one-eyed monster with a keyboard. We're people who live in a multitude of environments; to just sit in an efficient work station is pretty criminal. And it's a false economy." Tippett holds no rancor toward computer animators. But generally, he says, "I prefer people who have some experience working in the real world -- they have more of an overall idea of things. If you live exclusively in a virtual world, there's a litany of details that you don't think are important -- but they are." Tippett contends that artists need to dig into their materials physically: "If you don't cut your finger, if you don't know you have to move around an object or keep your eyes peeled while you're working on it, you may lose the notion of consequence -- that whatever you do has ramifications, so you have to be careful. If you have had that experience, doing stop motion or whatever, you think on your toes a little more."

Tippett and Hayes mistrust the mixture of complacency and perfectionism that permeates the digital age; they abhor the idea that everything will come out right given enough computer time. "Anxiety, too," Hayes says, "is part of the artistic process."

Tippett wants to stay in a warts-and-all mode of filmmaking. ILM has by and large jettisoned the DID, but Tippett Studio has continued to refine it. Hayes designed one that could be worn as a body suit for the "animatics" (animated story boards) on Dragonheart. For Starship Troopers he came up with another that could move (in Hayes' words) "like a doll, in real time" (rather than frame by frame), an enormous help for conjuring crowded action scenes of bugs "jumping over walls, snapping, slamming into people."

4. Starship Troopers
Starship Troopers is one of the most effects-intensive projects in movie history, containing more than 500 effects shots. Tippett pulled off 250 of them. (The Lost World, by comparison, had about 200.) He did more than rise to the occasion: He made the occasion with his most tumultuous and imaginative menagerie yet. The beasties that dominate the final hour have more juice and life than the air-whisked fascist beauties of the first. The soldier bugs have heads like staple removers and limbs like corner pieces in a razor-sharp erector set; when they cover the horizon like the massed tribesmen in Zulu, they erupt with a primal xenophobic aggression far more persuasive than the humans' teen spirit. At the high end of the insect spectrum are obscenely endomorphic brain bugs that are like abstract cartoons of effete, sedentary, polymorphous-perverse intellectuals. It's a bestial rogues' gallery worthy of the medieval craftsmen who took their cues from Revelations.

It's arguably the biggest foray into total filmmaking for any maverick creature-builder since Harryhausen. The project has led Tippett to treat the computer with grudging respect: "It enables us to blend every kind of special-effects technique with animation, so that you're not doing your shots in a vacuum, but you're involved with the plan and construction of the movie, with the director and producer, the editors, all the way through to the sound people."

Judged strictly by the calendar, Starship Troopers has been a four-and-a-half-year project for Tippett. But it's rooted in his long professional history with producer Jon Davison, starting with the jovial 1978 Jaws rip-off Piranha, and with director Paul Verhoeven, which began with the 1987 smash RoboCop (which Davison executive-produced). As Verhoeven explained to me over the phone from L.A., his impetus for Starship Troopers came from an earlier project he'd hatched with Tippett: "It was set 60 million years ago when dinosaurs were the rulers of the world. It was going to be about a little doglike animal who befriends them before a meteor hits and destroys them all. Walon Green [co-writer of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, co-director of The Hellstrom Chronicle] wrote the script; it was grim but entertaining and philosophical; there were battles between good and evil, but no human beings. It would have cost anywhere from $30 to $45 million and Disney thought that was too high."

When Starship Troopers came along Verhoeven saw it as a chance to do a similar Darwinian spectacle with Tippett, whom he regards as "a genius in his field. I had it in my contract that I would do the movie only if Phil Tippett were doing the bugs." Tri-Star hesitated to give the movie the green light until Tippett and Verhoeven made a test. I saw the 45-second clip at Tippett Studio, and it does make you believe that Warrior Bugs exist and can corner and impale a human soldier. Verhoeven says, "Even before the filming, I felt that Phil was acting as a co-director.''

Craig Hayes was also in from the start. Tippett notes, "Craig designs the things to look good; I have to make sure they work." And Hayes agrees: "I try to create something visually strong. Phil's input comes with the movement, how a bug would reach in and grab someone and cut him in half." The two of them consulted with Verhoeven, Davison, and screenwriter Ed Neumeier, too. Hayes says they agreed on a central concept: "This was to be not a fantasy film but a war film. The bugs would almost be mundane -- instead of having five thousand legs floating in some other dimension that would take an audience the whole movie to comprehend, we wanted to keep them grounded in reality, so people could register what they were and get on with the rest of the movie."

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