Whether they realize it or not, anyone interested in science fiction, fantasy, or action films from the 1970s to the 1990s grew up with animator and special-effects guru Phil Tippett’s work. He rose to prominence in the industry thanks to his stop-motion work on the original Star Wars trilogy, which included everything from designing and shooting Chewbacca’s holographic chess set to animating the Tauntauns and AT-ATs in The Empire Strikes Back. His groundbreaking work on Jurassic Park’s practical and digital dinosaur effects earned him an Oscar and allowed him to start his own studio. It also made him a long-running meme: The film billed him as “Dinosaur Supervisor,” which led internet jokesters to note that he didn’t do his one job, since the dinosaurs escaped and started eating people.
People who know his work from Starship Troopers’ buglike aliens, Willow’s creature effects, or Dragonheart’s dragon have never seen it like they will in Mad God, his 30-year stop-motion labour of love. Tippett began shooting the film as a personal project in 1990, but shelved it when he began work on Jurassic Park due to the time commitment that film required. But, at the urging of some friends who came across his early footage and the puppets he’d created for the project, he resurrected it.
Finally, he crowdfunded the project on Kickstarter, releasing chapters of the film to subscribers as work progressed and working on it behind the scenes with volunteers and industry friends. The final 82-minute film is a series of nightmare vignettes with no dialogue. On a quest for a mad scientist, played in live-action by Repo Man and Sid and Nancy director Alex Cox, an unnamed, gas-masked character (dubbed “the Assassin” in film festival notes) descends into what appears to be hell and navigates a series of disturbing horrors. Tippett has said the visuals came in part from his study of artists Hieronymus Bosch and Peter Bruegel, but the jittery, anxious sequences, with humanoid and demonic creatures torturing and destroying each other, had more contemporary influences.
In an interview with Polygon shortly before Mad God’s screenings at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, Tippett said, “I was inspired by keeping up with the news.” “Every day, there’s a lot of Bosch and Bruegel in the news.” That’s what artists do — there’s no escaping the environment, the mill that surrounds you and that you’re not even aware of. We’re all in a terrible state of anxiety as a result of everything that’s going on. It’s also a fantastic subject.”
Tippett claims that the original 12-page treatment for Mad God in 1990 was more of a tone description than a script. “It had stations in it.” “I was aware of the location of the stop signs.” He claims that the industry friends and assistants who worked on the project with him didn’t really talk about the meanings of the film’s eerie, unsettling sequences, but that they had “a Joseph Campbell kind of mythological connection between us all as we worked.” Some of the most elaborate sets — like a battlefield the Assassin travels through, where the half-melted corpses of soldiers are piled in high, teetering heaps — took three years for his team of helpers to construct, working on weekends and evenings.
Tippett says, “I got a lot of volunteers, some of whom are very skilled artists who worked for me and donated their time.” “And then I’d get college students and high school students who saw me giving talks around town and offered to help.” So I devised a strategy for utilising all of these people to perform the heavy lifting, the fiddly work that would have otherwise taken an eternity. I wouldn’t have done it if I had to do it alone because it would have irritated me. I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time.”
Tippett says his techniques on Mad God were similar to how he animated the Star Wars holographic chess set back in the 1970s, despite the massive changes in effects technology over the last 30 years. He says, “I don’t like to reinvent the wheel, which I’ve had to do a few times.” “Everything changes when technology changes, so you have to relearn things,” says the author. “However, these were all very old techniques that digital technology enabled us to use more cheaply.”
In one case, he did use digital characters. “In Mad God, there was one shot that I shot over 30 years ago that required some tiny little ant-like characters,” he says. “And because of the scale, I couldn’t make them practically.” I needed characters that were [indicates ant size] that big because it was a big miniature set. For that one shot, we created those digitally. You go ahead and do what you need to do. I treated it like a collage, combining various elements.”
Tippett shrugs when asked how his anxiety about the world manifested in the film. “Well, nothing is deliberate,” he says. “You know, everything is influenced by the current zeitgeist. You don’t even notice it — it’s as natural as breathing. It’s the world in which you live. I’ve mostly reconciled myself to the world and the people who inhabit it. I’m a misanthropic person. I don’t hold out much hope for humanity, so that’s a big part of the film as well. I just don’t think we’ll be around forever. I believe we’ll be lucky if we make it through the next thousand years.”
While he believes that anxiety in the Trump era influenced the film — “I live in Berkeley, so you kind of know where my politics are” — he believes that attempting to convey any specific political message would be “fascistic filmmaking.” While he enjoys older political films — “I was just rewatching Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove, and they have some great political moments” — he thinks most films that try to communicate a specific agenda are boring and pointless.
He laughs, “In general, everything is too saccharine for me.” “It’s a little too Hollywood, you know?” It’s just too inbred for me, and I’m not interested in it at all. The cinema has become incredibly dull. […] It’s all about the money. It’s not a question of ability. It’s not about craftsmanship; it’s about greed and the American way of doing things. It’s Coca-Cola, you know, and making as much money as possible from your vast resources in order to make more money in order to make more crap.”
Despite his extensive resume, Tippett says he is “completely fed up” with working on modern films. “The last one I ever had fun with or enjoyed was Starship Troopers. The others, on the other hand, were [raspberry noise]. After that, everything went downhill for everyone.”
However, he still remembers his Star Wars days with fondness and enthusiasm. He exclaims, “Oh God, we were in pig heaven, like kids in a candy store!” “We were all in our early twenties at the time.” We were all under the age of 30. Richard Edlund, the shop’s oldest employee, was a cinematographer. It was exactly what we had wished for since we were children.
“I hooked up with my first jobs in Hollywood doing TV commercials, which was a great learning ground. It was like a graduate review, you just got to burn through all this stuff really quick. We had really great mentors, and it was really a fun time.
“And then Dennis Muren and Ken Ralston got a job on the night crew of Star Wars, and I was introduced, and helped work on the cantina scene and the chess set, and the chess set took off. So then there was Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and [giddy speeding-up effect noise]. I never worried about work at all, because there was no competition. I could usually see the projects stacking up, because there was so much demand. When there was a big lull, it was just a matter of time before somebody called. None of that stuff caused me any anxiety.”
Tippett’s studio continues to work on current movies and TV, including The Mandalorian, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and The Orville. But he himself isn’t interested in hands-on, primary effects-supervisor roles these days. “I just cannot stand it anymore. Too many micromanagers. It wasn’t that way when I did Troopers or Robocop, or was working with George [Lucas] or Steven [Spielberg]. It was pretty much one-on-one. You’re just working with the filmmaker, and trying to translate what’s on the page, and his direction. That’s the job. I didn’t get to do my own stuff, but the stuff I was working on for all these other guys’ projects was really exciting, because they were all different, you know? Space aliens for one, robots for another, and giant bugs for another. What the hell, you know? That’s a great job!”
Mad God certainly shows that hunger for variety. Virtually every scene introduces a new creature or scenario or setting, in a dizzying blur of horror and destruction and consumption. Asked who the movie is ultimately for besides himself, Tippett laughs.
“I have a lot of different ways of avoiding that question!” he chuckles. “But I think the best one, the most accurate, is that Mad God is an experience. It’s not like a movie. It really does come from the same place that Biblical visions come from.”
That approach explains a lot about Mad God’s freewheeling, stream-of-consciousness feel, and the way so much of its imagery appears to come directly from the darkest places of the id. “That film is from visions that I had, that I could see in my mind,” Tippett says. “I can see things in my mind as three-dimensional objects and rotate around them. It’s very easy for me to make things. I was very talented when I was younger. I’m 70 now, and I’ve just built up so much skill. I just do everything intuitively. I don’t even think about what I’m animating. I just know basically what it needs to do.”
Mad God is currently playing a series of film festival dates around the world. Keep up on the film’s further distribution plans at MadGodMovie.com.