Tippett Studio revisited the famous Holochess set in the newest entry to the saga – Solo: A Star Wars Story. We’re excited to have joined forces again with our friends at Industrial Light and Magic and Disney on this film. Check out this insightful interview with our very own VFX Supervisor on the show, Chris Morley:

How did Tippett get involved with this movie?

In 1977 Phil Tippett and Jon Berg designed and animated stop motion creatures for a scene in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.  In 2015 we recreated those 8 creatures for a scene in the Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  So, Lucasfilm knew who to call when they needed the Tippett stop motion gang back together for Solo.

How would you summarize your/Tippett’s work on this movie?

We brought the iconic Star Wars Holochess creatures back to life for a scene where Beckett and Chewbacca are playing a game of Dejarik.  We completed 9 shots that included practical stop motion animated creatures that were digitally integrated over live action plates shot on the millennium falcon communal space set.

Were there any creative ideas that Tippett brought to the sequence?

For Star Wars Episode IV, Phil Tippett and Jon Berg designed and created 10 stop motion creatures for a scene aboard the millennium falcon.  Out of the 10, George Lucas chose 8 of those characters to be used for the final shots. In Solo, the Millennium Falcon is new and clean, much different from the grimy, heavily modified version we see in the later years of it’s service.  We decided that it would be a good idea to pitch bringing back the two Holochess characters that didn’t make it into the first film in 1977, as if in the Solo movie the Dejarik table was in full working order with all pieces intact.  This led to capitalizing on a very serendipitous moment during the shoot where, in one shot, Chewy slams his paw down on the Holochess table in frustration.  The force of the blow broke two buttons off the screen right side of the table set piece.  An unplanned event that we thought would be a great opportunity to tell the story of how the two new Holochess pieces were lost from that day forward.  We added some sparks, glitched off the two creatures and showed a version to Lucasfilm VFX supervisor Rob Bredow who loved the idea and pitched it to Ron Howard who ran with it.  It was a great feeling to be able to embrace the magic of what we call a happy accident.

What effect or shot turned out differently than you imagined?

The amazing and fun thing about using stop motion to animate a creature is that it usually turns out slightly different than you imagine.  When the animators block out a shot, what we call a pop-thru, animation is rough and blocky but all the beats are there.  It’s not until they animate the shot one frame at a time where the things start to fill out and a funny thing happens where the characters seem to start influencing the animators a bit.  Though the animators stay true to the pop-thru, sometimes the puppet wants to move a certain way the animator didn’t initially intend.  This requires adjusting small portions of the animation performance while in the middle of the shot.  Tom Gibbons and David Lauer are pretty creative and these adjustments usually result in great and memorable moments of the animated performance.

How did it feel to be asked to create classic stop motion effects for a modern film?

Tippett Studio has a rich history of stop motion animation for film, it’s our foundation.   We still have a stage with lights and practical tools for physical shooting.  For the day job we use it for reference or element shoots but it gets most of its use from Phil’s stop motion film anthology MAD GOD.  A few of us around the studio are a part of the crew. We have some animators with stop motion backgrounds, MAD GOD gives them a chance to keep their chops up and I’ve been working closely with Phil as a cinematographer over the years so when any jobs from a galaxy far, far away needing stop motion come along we get very excited and are ready for the task.

What was the process and were there any challenging aspects to it?

We know these creatures and how they need to look and move.  We’ve done it a few times now so we’re quite used to that part.  Kayte Sabicer did a great job with puppet surgery, tuning up all the stop motion armatures and fixing any cuts or tears in the silicone. The hardest thing for this is the camera setup but we took steps to make it as streamline and precise as possible.  We use Canon 5D cameras and shoot with Dragonframe capture software.  A Canon 5D and the Arri 65 used on set have close to the same size sensor in height so we were able to use lenses with focal lengths that match lenses used to capture plates on set.  On set VFX supervisor Rob Bredow did a great job shooting the background plates with a post stop motion integration process in mind.  For example he made sure most shots didn’t have a lot of camera movement and one shot that required a pan was done using a nodal rig to alleviate parallax.  We had a solid foundation to work on top so the ball was in our court.  We used a grid lineup process to help match the stop motion camera positions to the background plates.  Fortunately in it’s design, the Holochess table has a circular grid pattern that is absolutely perfect for lining up cameras.  We created a digital wireframe version of the grid pattern and lined it up in the computer.  We exported an image of the wireframe for each shot and used the live view function in Dragonframe to line the digital grid with a physical grid constructed out of orange tape stuck to the animation table surface.  This allowed for a precise lineup of stop motion characters to background plate.  We matched depth of field and focus, locked the cameras and made sure to add cones and other barriers so no one could accidentally kick the camera.

What was the team dynamic? What worked and what was challenging?

A lot of us have worked together for many years on full digital visual effects projects as well as traditional stop motion projects.  We know our way around cameras and physical setups. The stop motion crew is a pretty well oiled machine from fabrication to animation to cinematography.  The animation team consisted of Phil Tippett as animation director, Tom Gibbons, a well versed stop motion animator with a lot of experience in the medium and David Lauer, a very talented young stop motion animator.  It was great to have Phil, Gibby, and David involved in this project, that’s three generations of stop motion animators!  Being surrounded by so many years of experience tends to allow things to fall into the right place and keeps disasters to a minimum.

What would you say is Tippett’s greatest strength in a project like this and how did it manifest in this film?

Tippett Studio prides itself on creativity and thoughtful ideas.  Ron Howard and Phil Tippett go back a ways to the days when Phil worked on Willow.  For Solo, both Ron and Rob were open to our ideas and made us to feel comfortable pitching them. Bringing ideas to a collaborative atmosphere is something that we truly love to do and it shows in the final result.

In 10 years, what do you think you will remember about this experience?

The Star Wars movies are the height of cinema pop culture.  They continue to wow people of all ages regardless of what year the films were released. They are timeless and it is great to be involved in a small part of that world.  I can confidently tell you that in ten years I will fondly reminisce of that time we brought a classic visual effects process back to a film filled with cutting edge, modern visual effects.

VFX Producer
Lee Hahn

Animation Director
Phil Tippett

VFX Supervisor
Chris Morley

Animation Supervisor
Tom Gibbons