No matter what the Criterion collector in your life says, DVDs have been slowly fading away from our lives these last few years. Losing films as a self-contained thing you can acquire has many ramifications, but chief among them for film nerds is the transformation of “extras.” Where should things like deleted scenes, director’s commentary, bloopers, or behind-the-scenes vignettes exist if they can no longer be packaged right alongside the film? Maybe today’s YouTube videos, oral histories, or podcasts work well enough in many situations, but frankly, some innovators in film history deserve more.
Luckily, this type of content in 2019 has increasingly found a new streaming-era-friendly home: the standalone documentary. From Hayao Miyazaki: Never-Ending Man (essentially extras for Boro the Caterpillar) to The Director and The Jedi (that’s The Last Jedi), these projects show that what would’ve been extras in the past can work as their own feature-length entities able to play to crowds of film lovers at festivals or exist as algorithmic suggestions alongside original films on Netflix, Amazon Prime, et al.
At the 2019 Fantastic Fest, this budding format proved to be just right for Phil Tippett, a film effects legend whose work you’ve seen even if his name doesn’t ring any bells. From Star Wars to Jurassic Park with Robocop in between, Tippett is the stop-motion savant behind so many landmark “effects” films from the era before CGI took over. And the long time industry hero finally has the spotlight on him in Phil Tippett—Mad Dreams and Monsters, a new documentary delivering that familiar behind-the-scenes feeling in the best way possible.
Of craft and creatures
If you recognize the name Phil Tippett, then you already know documentary directors Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet had plenty of material to work with for their latest feature (and not so coincidentally, this duo previously produced a full-length doc on VFX pioneer Ray Harryhausen’s work). For everyone else, Mad Dreams and Monsters serves as a crash course on the work of perhaps the greatest VFX artist of the last 50 years. Tippett has done Oscar-winning and film-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) merely represents the tip of the iceberg.
Penso and Poncet structure their new doc chronologically in 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’s noted above), and his recent years spent on passion projects and transitioning into the CGI-age. Any one of those five individual aspects could absolutely be a self-contained vignette on DVDs of yore based on the material these filmmakers have gathered (a few amusing puppeteering bloopers included). But together, this material paints a deeper picture of both Tippett the artist and his larger industry impact than any single portion could’ve alone.
For many, this documentary will sing most when it focuses on a film the viewer adores. Tippett walks viewers through the ideation process for some very iconic sequences and characters. Star Wars’ famous holochess, for instance, was originally set to be filmed with actors in costume (aka how the film Futureworld had done it a few years earlier), but George Lucas saw Tippett’s puppet work and changed course. That change of heart had ripples decades later when Lucasfilm brought the gang back together for a scene in Solo.
Or with Jabba the Hutt, for instance, Tippett’s original vision more closely resembled a slug, but Lucas didn’t care for it (Tippett in retrospect thinks it was a bit too much like Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless). “It was too gross, so I eventually asked, ‘If you can cast a character, who would it be?'” Tippett reveals. I’d never heard of actor Sydney Greenstreet (Casablanca, Maltese Falcon), but a quick Google Image search certainly shows the resemblance. This same granular creation process detail comes out for Robocop (Cain from the sequel existed to complicate life for unlicensed model-makers after ED-209) and Jurassic Park (lots of Dinosaur-Input-Device insight), too.
But for folks only semi-familiar with any of the tentpole films of Mad Dreams and Monsters, the information about Tippett himself is more likely to stay with you. Tippett describes his upbringing as quiet and pretty singularly focused on art, the kind of thing where looking back he suspects his parents quietly worried about him (maybe more so because of the otherworldly creatures Tippett continually created). “It’s a reflection of the world I live in and the craziness of it,” Tippett says of his interests and iconic stylings. “But I have to find some kind of expression to make sense of stuff that doesn’t make sense to me.”
He first did stop-motion animation work for a film at the age of the 15, literally writing to filmmakers he admired and asking to contribute. And interestingly, Tippett enjoyed a commercial career before entering film full-time, working at Cascade Pictures, a firm that produced ads for brands like Pillsbury. (“It was like a graduate program because the commercials turned over so quickly,” he says in the film.)
For all of his incredible creative prowess, throughout Mad Dreams and Monsters Tippett appears to be kind of reserved and not totally comfortably talking about himself. In that light, it makes perfect sense why Penso and Poncet would divvy up their documentary in 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/collaborator Paul Verhoeven, Tippet’s wife and Tippett Studios partner, Jules. The variety helps balance out the occasionally dry direct interviews with the man in focus.
But for anyone passionate about a craft—be it writing, painting, playing an instrument, or stop-motion animating creatures you’ve dreamt up and sculpted—Tippett shows what dedication to growth and belief in yourself can potentially do. Even in the face of changing demands, shifting industry norms, and new generations of tools, he possesses 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’s been able to evolve right alongside the work. It’s Dylan going electric or Miyazaki picking up a Wacom, just applied here to some type of alien.
Depending on the subject matter, these new extra-length versions of extras sometimes work better. Never Ending Man can get into more granular detail about Miyazaki’s philosophy and process on animation. Director and The Jedi shows a rounded picture of Rian Johnson’s personality and ability to deal with the weight of an iconic franchise. And Mad Dreams and Monster gives us a glimpse at 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 longevity in what can be a very rapidly turning over industry (film technology). Some 50 years after he started, he’s still producing iconic works within the last decade: Cloverfield, Harry Potter, Twilight, etc.
“There’s a reason I did Starship Troopers,” as producer Jon Davison puts it toward the end of the film, reflecting on the bug-like war creatures he witnessed Tippett create firsthand. “I wanted to do a movie with Phil Tippett. I wanted to do a giant bug movie with Phil Tippett.”
Phil Tippett—Mad Dreams and Monsters is currently playing the festival circuit. Stay up to date on future screenings through the film’s Facebook page, but production house Frenetic Arts states the film will be “coming soon to VOD, DVD, and Blu-ray.”
Listing image by Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet / Fantastic Fest