Phil Tippett is the founder and namesake of Tippett Studio. His varied career in visual effects has spanned more than 40 years and includes 2 Academy Awards, 6 Academy Award nominations, 1 BAFTA, 4 BAFTA nominations, 2 Emmys and the advent of modern digital effects in motion pictures.
As a child of seven, Phil was profoundly inspired by Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion classic, ‘The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad’ and by Willis O’Brien’s classic character ‘King Kong’. His subsequent devotion to the creation of the fantastic creatures in film has become his raison d’etre. As a kid, and then as a student always drawing, sculpting and making animations he developed his skills in a broader context first with a Fine Arts degree from University of California, Irvine, then as an animator at the commercial house, Cascade Pictures, Los Angeles. As a young adult Phil sought out teachers and mentors establishing connections and friendships with Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury.
At Cascade, in the early ‘70s, traditional effects: hanging miniatures, stop motion animation, rear screen projection, forced perspective were used to enhance a variety of commercials: Pillsbury Doughboy, Jolly Green Giant etc. It was there, in the playful atmosphere of that rough workshop/stage in the center of Hollywood, that Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren and Ken Ralston cut their teeth in the world of VFX, inspired and egged on by Tex Avery the great animator, and their boss and mentor Phil Kellison. At the time of this apprenticeship visual effects was a little regarded wing of the motion picture business but it was to become one of the most influential and game changing aspects of filmmaking.
In 1977 Phil was approached by Joe Dante and Jon Davison to create the viscous fish for Roger Corman’s, ‘Piranha’. It was a lesson in low budget, seat of the pants filmmaking and cemented a bond between Phil and Jon.
In 1975 George Lucas hired Phil Tippett and Jon Berg to create a stop motion miniature chess scene for the first Star Wars which went on to change the course of film history laying the path for the VFX laden block busters of the past several decades.
By 1978 Phil lead the animation team at Industrial Light and Magic that would launch his career bringing life to the sinister Imperial Walkers and the alien hybrid Tauntaun for The Empire Strikes Back.
In addition to his work on the Walker and Tauntaun models, Phil had a hand in many other aspects of the Star Wars films, including modeling and casting alien heads and limbs for the busy Cantina scene in the first film. In fact, Phil himself can be spotted in the scene a number of times, playing the part of a variety of colorful musical aliens.
In 1983, this time as head of the ILM creature shop, he began work on Return of the Jedi. He designed Jabba The Hutt and presided over the creation and design of the numerous characters populating Jabba’s Palace, including the Rancor Pit Monster as well as animating the two legged Walker.
In 1982, building upon insights from ‘Empire’, the same ILM team developed a stop-motion process that they comically christened as ‘Go Motion’ that produced a startlingly realistic beast for Dragonslayer, which won him an Academy Award nomination.
In 1984 Phil left ILM to create a 10-minute short film, Prehistoric Beast. The newly formed Tippett Studio, then operating out of Phil’s garage, drew upon Phil’s wealth of experience with stop motion and his expertise in anatomical modeling and rigging.
The relative realism of the dinosaurs and the film’s reflection of contemporary scientific theories led to his work on the 1985 CBSanimated documentary Dinosaur! for which Phil won his 2nd Emmy®.
In 1985 Jon Davison approached Phil with RoboCop, a project helmed by director Paul Verhoeven. Phil’s longtime collaboration with Craig Hayes began on this project with Craig designing and constructing the life action prop of the ED-209 robot, while Phil and crew designed and animated key sequences with the miniature ED 209.
In 1991, Steven Spielberg, learning of Phil’s expertise in dinosaur movement and behavior, selected him to supervise the dinosaur animation for Jurassic Park. It was this project that was responsible for Tippett Studio’s transition from stop-motion to computer-generated animation and for which Phil was awarded his second Oscar®. The transition was not without personal drama for Phil. When he learned of the choice to go with the computer generated dinosaurs his initial reaction was, “I think I’m extinct”. Amusingly that line became incorporated into the film itself. In the transition from stop motion to CG a digital input device (DID) was created allowing the traditional stop motion animators to animate the Jurassic Park dinosaurs.
Phil’s next major challenge came in 1995 when Paul Verhoeven, again with producer Jon Davison, asked Tippett Studio to create the swarms of deadly arachnids for the sci-fi extravaganza, Starship Troopers. Leading a team of 150 computer artists and technicians, earned Phil a sixth Academy Award® nomination in 1997. Starship Troopers firmly planted Tippett Studio (and Phil) into the digital age of filmmaking.
In the following years Phil has been a guide and mentor for the Tippett Studio VFX supervisors and crew as they create monsters, aliens and appealing creatures for the numerous films that wind their way through the Tippett pipeline.
Partnering with associate, writer Ed Neumeier (Starship Troopers and Robocop scribe), the two created the story for Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation, which Phil went on to direct in 2004 for Screengems.
Phil helped translate writer Tony DiTerlizzi’s fantasy world to the screen by breathing life into its militia of trolls and goblins for The Spiderwick Chronicles.
Currently, Phil is continuing his oversight in the creation of transforming werewolves for Summit Entertainment’s finale to the wildly popular Twilight Saga movie adaptations. After working on the New Moon and Eclipse episodes, the wolves in Breaking Dawn Parts 1&2, are the most intense and realistic yet.
His next project is a personal film called MAD GOD that features traditional stop motion animation. It was fan-funded through the website kickstarter.com.
Phil’s roots in stop motion, modeling and practical effects and his ability to use this foundation in conjunction with developing technologies has made him one of a handful of artists whose careers have spanned the transition of visual effects from largely practical to digital. In this way he is a great teacher and mentor to the crew passing on the tradition of mentorship given to him in the early part of his career.
In February of 2009 the Visual Effects Society awarded Phil the Georges Méliès Award for his lifetime achievements in Visual Effects. In response to his recognition as a pioneer of the VFX industry, Phil good-naturedly spurns the title in deference to his predecessors. “Visual effects people are either ‘gurus’ or ‘magicians’ or ‘pioneers.’” he says, “But Willis O’Brien was THE pioneer. He was the guy who took technologies from the 1800s, and figured out how to turn them into King Kong. The rest of us are craftsmen and practitioners.”
In February 2005, Phil was awarded the festival’s highest form of recognition– Festival Honors in Frankfurt, Germany at the 8th Annual eDIT Film Festival, an international film festival with a focus on storytelling in the digital age.
There, Phil’s mentor and inspirational figure Ray Harryhausen congratulated Tippett on receiving Festival Honors, before cutting to the skeletal battle sequence from Jason and the Argonauts that reportedly inspired Phil to embark upon a career in visual effects. Phil was touched most by this token from his mentor, later remarking that Harryhausen’s congratulations represented “the pinnacle… for me it was going to the full route, it was really moving.” Phil received a place of honor on the Wall of Fame, a permanent installation in the foyer of the German Film Museum in Frankfurt, which represents the Festival Honors awarded annually by eDIT. Phil joins director Peter Greenaway, the cinematographers Michael Ballhaus, ASC and Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC; visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren, ASC; editor Tom Rolf, ACE; production designer Dante Ferretti and legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. This marks the first time that an animator has received this honor.