No matter what the Criterion Collector says in your life, DVDs have been slowly disappearing from our lives in recent years. Losing movies as a standalone thing to acquire has many ramifications, but the most important of these for movie nerds is the transformation of ‘extras’. Where would things like deleted scenes, director’s commentary, bloopers, or behind-the-scenes vignettes exist when they can no longer be packaged right next to the movie? Perhaps today’s YouTube videos, oral histories, or podcasts work well enough in many situations, but frankly, some innovators in movie history earn more.
Fortunately, in 2019, this type of content has increasingly found a new streaming-era-friendly home: the standalone documentary. From Hayao Miyazaki: Never ending man (mainly extras for) Boro the caterpillar) until The Director and the Jedi (that is the last Jedi), these projects show that what would have been extras in the past can work as their own full-length feature films that can play to crowds of movie buffs at festivals or exist as algorithmic suggestions alongside original movies on Netflix, Amazon Prime, et al. . .
At Fantastic Fest 2019, this burgeoning format proved to be just right for Phil Tippett, a movie effects legend whose work you’ve seen, even if his name doesn’t ring a bell. From Star Wars until Jurassic Park of Robocop In between, Tippett is the stop-motion scholar behind so many historical “effect” movies from the era before CGI took over. And the old industry hero has finally turned the spotlight on him in Phil Tippett – Crazy Dreams and Monsters, a new documentary that captures that familiar behind-the-scenes feeling in the best possible way†
Of craft and creatures
If you recognize the name Phil Tippett, you already know that documentary makers Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet a lot of material to work with for their latest feature film (and not coincidentally, this duo previously produced a full-length documentary about the work of VFX pioneer Ray Harryhausen). For everyone else, Crazy dreams and monsters serves as a crash course on the work of arguably the greatest VFX artist of the past 50 years. Tippett has done Oscar-winning and movie-standard redefining stop motion animation and VFX work for decades; his iconic work on Star Wars (from cantina creatures to Jabba the Hutt) and Jurassic Park (the original T-Rex) represents just the tip of the iceberg.
Penso and Poncet chronologically structure their new paper into roughly five equal parts, outlining Tippett’s upbringing/entry into VFX, his work on three industry-changing films (RoboCop gets the microscope in addition to what has been noted above), and his recent years spent working on passion projects and transitioning into the CGI era. Each of those five individual aspects could definitely be a standalone vignette on DVDs of yesteryear, based on the material these filmmakers have collected (including some funny puppeteers). But together, this material paints a deeper picture of both Tippett the artist and his greater influence on the industry than a single volume could have alone.
For many, this documentary will sing the most when it focuses on a movie that the viewer loves. Tippett walks viewers through the ideation process for some very iconic sequences and characters. star wars’ famous holochess, for example, was originally going to be filmed with actors in costume (aka how the movie Future world had done it a few years earlier), but George Lucas saw Tippett’s puppetry and changed course. That change of heart took on ripples decades later when Lucasfilm brought the gang back together for a scene in Solo.
Or with Jabba the Hutt, for example, Tippett’s original vision was more like a snail, but Lucas didn’t care (Tippett thinks it’s a bit too much in retrospect). Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless). “It was too rude, so I ended up asking, ‘If you could cast a character, who would it be?'” Tippett reveals. I had never heard of actor Sydney Greenstreet (Casablanca, Maltese Falcon), but a quick Google Image search certainly shows the resemblance. This same detailed creation process emerges for Robocop (Cain from the sequel existed to complicate the life of unlicensed model makers after ED-209) and Jurassic Park (great insight into Dinosaur-Input-Device), too.
But for people who are only half familiar with one of ‘s tentpole movies crazy dreams and samples, the information about Tippett himself is more likely to stay with you. Tippett describes his upbringing as quiet and quite uniquely focused on art, the sort of thing he looks back on when his parents quietly worried about him (perhaps more because of the aliens Tippett was constantly creating). “It’s a reflection of the world I live in and the madness of it,” Tippett says of his interests and iconic stylings. “But I have to find some kind of expression to understand things that don’t make sense to me.”
He first did stop-motion animation work for a movie at the age of 15, literally writing to filmmakers he admired and asked to contribute. And interestingly, Tippett had a commercial career before going full-time in the movie business at Cascade Pictures, a company that produced ads for brands like Pillsbury. (“It was like a graduate program because the commercials turned around so quickly,” he says in the film.)
For all his incredible creative skills, everywhere Crazy dreams and monsters Tippett seems rather reserved and not quite comfortable talking about himself. In that light, it makes perfect sense why Penso and Poncet would divide their documentary this way. Focusing more on the work and these films allows many others to sing Tippett’s praises in more colorful terms – people like fellow VFX legend Dennis Muren, director/contributor Paul Verhoeven, Tippet’s wife and Tippett Studios partner, Jules. The variety helps to balance the sometimes dry direct interviews with the man in focus.
But for anyone passionate about a craft — whether it’s writing, painting, playing an instrument, or stop-motion moving creatures you’ve dreamed and sculpted — Tippett shows what a dedication to growth and belief in yourself can potentially do. Even in the face of changing demands, changing industry standards and new generations of tools, he has such a solid foundation in his field—that once-in-a-generation vision, his fundamental understanding of movement, an innate creativity and curiosity—that he has been able to develop outside of work. It’s Dylan going electric or Miyazaki picking up a Wacom just applied to some kind of alien.
Depending on the topic, these new extra-long versions of extras sometimes work better. never ending man can go into more detail about Miyazaki’s philosophy and process in the field of animation. Director and the Jedi shows a rounded picture of Rian Johnson’s personality and ability to handle the weight of an iconic franchise. And crazy dreams and monster gives us a glimpse of the man and mad genius behind so many iconic cinematic sequences. This film guides fans to better understand how Phil Tippett’s mind works and to discover what has allowed the VFX legend to enjoy such a long life in what can be a very rapidly changing industry (film technology). Some 50 years after he started, he has continued to produce iconic works for the past ten years: clover field, Harry Potter Twilight, etc.
“There’s a Reason I Did That” Starship Troopers,” as producer Jon Davison puts it towards the end of the film, reflecting the insect-like war creatures he saw firsthand created by Tippett. “I wanted to make a movie with Phil Tippett. I wanted to make a giant insect movie with Phil Tippett.”
Phil Tippett – Crazy Dreams and Monsters currently plays in the festival circuit. Stay tuned for future screenings via the film’s Facebook page, but production house Frenetic Arts states the film will “come soon on VOD, DVD, and Blu-ray.”
List image by Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet / Fantastic Fest