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Q&A: Phil Tippett on Experimental Stop Motion Passion, “MAD GOD”

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Fangoria readers are likely very familiar with the visual effects work of Phil Tippett. Like Ray Harryhausen and Stan Winston, Tippett’s Oscar-winning creations for Hollywood rank among the most impactful moments in the history of the cinema. Holographic monster board game in STAR WARS? Phil Tippett.  AT-AT Walkers and tauntauns in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK? Phil Tippett.  ROBOCOP’s ED-209? You’re beginning to get the idea. Tippett’s stop motion creations have helped shaped generations of film fans and filmmakers.

Yet even as Tippett claimed his second Oscar (for his work on JURASSIC PARK, his first coming from THE RETURN OF THE JEDI), the world of special effects was changing. Computer generated work was taking the place of physical effects, and Tippett managed to roll with those turbulent times.  He now runs a highly successful effects and animation house (Tippett Studios), and continues to bring magic to movies screens, albeit in a digital rather than physical fashion.

But recently, Tippett has begun to step back into the world of physical effects and animation, with his series of short films entitled MAD GOD. Part One has just been made available, and Fango readers have reason to rejoice. MAD GOD is a stop motion exploration of the darker regions of fantasy and sci-fi. It portrays a world of mystery and danger, and it’s permeated with a deep sense of dread.  But it’s also beautiful (in a wonderfully nightmarish way), and is filled with remarkable, twisted moments.

To put it simply, the genius behind the original Star Wars effects has turned his talents towards much darker, much more dangerous landscapes. Shivers of joyful anticipation for horror fans, we know. So step into the darkness, as a true master pulls back the curtain and schools us on the puppets, the process, and the cinematic perversion that is  MAD GOD…

FANGORIA:  What exactly is MAD GOD?

PHIL TIPPETT: It’s an expression of a sentiment that I’ve been developing over the years … very different from my theatrical film day job. I’m taking a much more protracted collage approach that allows me to operate outside conventional norms. My inspirations are Jiri Trnka, Ladislas Starevich, Joseph Cornell, Hieronymus Bosch, and Guy Maddin.

FANG: I know this project goes way back for you. Can you take us through its history a bit?

TIPPETT: I began shooting MG on 35mm film well over 20 years ago. The scope of the project was quite unwieldy and then the digital revolution hit and I was forced to reinvent my approach to my day job, and that took many years. At some point I was archiving the project and some of the guys at my studio noticed, and thought it was some ancient Czech thing from the 1930s. These guys were inspired by the STAR WARS and ROBOCOP pictures, but their career paths fell in the digital age. They’d missed the era when you made stuff with your hands. They convinced me to restart MG, and volunteered to help. Suddenly I had a crew and cheap digital cameras and I took them up on the bet. Gradually the crew of volunteers grew and after a successful Kickstarter campaign, I was able to begin to believe that this thing might actually be able to get produced.

FANG: Why make this intimate series of short puppet films?

TIPPETT: I really have no choice in the matter. It is a creative obsession that I must pursue. If I do not do it no one else will.

FANG: Why not make MAD GOD in cg?

TIPPETT:  The digital realm requires that one works from the position of intention. MG cannot operate like that. I approach it more as a collage or painting that wells from the subconscious and, as a consequence, it requires an approach that allows itself to grow. When working with material objects they look at you and demand attention. They tell you things and maybe you wouldn’t otherwise be so perceptive. It is about the process and listening to the things around you, hearing and what they can tell you. That takes time. In the day job we work under the onus of production schedules. I wanted this to be like a much older way of working wherein the consequences of time were less relevant. That informs the process in a very, very different way. It takes longer to cook and therefore you get something unlike what is being made by production processes that are typically used in animation projects. Much of my day job involves shooting live action, and I have altered my approach to animation much more along those lines.

madgod3FANG: Chapter One of MAD GOD has just been unleashed upon the world. The story is a mysterious one, with no easy answers. Events unfold in a cause-and-effect manner, but we can’t necessarily understand how the rules work. We’re outside of this world, and are only given a glimpse into it. In other words, this film is pretty darn experimental! How have audiences been reacting, considering your previous stop motion work has fit more easily into popular entertainment?

TIPPETT: There are two camps. One gets it and is very appreciative of an alternate voyage. Others expect a conventional approach and are flummoxed. It is to be expected. If some people are disturbed or confused, that’s when you know you’re doing it right.

FANG:In addition to well-known and widely popular artists like Ray Harryhausen, you’ve also been influenced by certain European stop motion artists, like Vladislav Starevich, and Jan Svankmajer. Svankmajer’s work in particular is quite dark and disturbing, and intended for specific audiences that are open to truly strange and unique worlds. How does it feel to be using the medium of stop motion to journey to such dark and rarified regions of the imagination?

TIPPETT: Those guys were huge influences. The consequence of shooting real objects in an unreal application creates a disorienting effect. One cannot deny the photographic reality of what is being seen, yet at the same time it may not compute in terms of everyday observation and expectation. I am very careful on MG to use conventional iconic everyday props and imagery as an anchor that allows me to take off. I’ve little interest in reality when it comes to the creative process. It’s an argument I face frequently in my day job where everything needs to be faked to look “real”….doesn’t anyone realize that it’s all pretend?

FANG: MAD GOD has no shortage of goodies for horror fans. It’s got monsters and gore and blood and guts, not to mention a general atmosphere of serious dystopian dread. And that’s just Chapter 1! As you craft the project, are you drawing inspiration from horror movies that have left a mark on you, or from other forms of art… or from a darker place entirely? I know you’re a follower of Carl Jung, who praised the benefits of confronting one’s Shadow self…

TIPPETT: Much of the approach to MG comes from the analysis of my own dreams. I don’t mean by this that there is any symbolist or psychological philosophies that I am trying to get out. At some point I realized in the study of my own unconscious (dreams) that upon awakening, the narrative is generally very fractured and obtuse. However, I came to find that if I didn’t think, and wrote the experiences down as quickly as I could, that they self-assembled into a quasi cogent narrative. That idea guides me in my process. I don’t move from a position of intention, but from one that allows me to surprise myself as I was able to do when I was a child. That keeps me alive.

madgod5FANG: Much of Chapter One of MAD GOD involves a literal descent for the main character. At one point, his vessel takes him through what could be described as a tomb that is filled with statues that represent human history and religion.  Keen eyes will see the cult of Ray Harryhausen well represented!  It suggests a larger story (or perhaps a larger statement, at least). Can you talk about this sequence?

TIPPETT: All of the stuff in that scene has an overloaded art historical approach. There’s a great deal of “stuff” stuffed into MG  that is not quite as blatant, but that was the set piece; the kitchen sink of meaningful objects that I’ve collected since childhood. And yes, I had no choice but to include the Cyclops from THE 7TH VOYAGE.

FANG: The idea that alchemy and stop motion are somehow intertwined is a fascinating one. Both pursue goals that lie beyond the grasp of normal man. For alchemists, the goal is to arrive at pure metals, while for the animator it’s the creation of life itself (albeit onscreen). Can you talk about this idea of stop motion animation residing within the realm of the “dark arts”?

TIPPETT:Once you put yourself in a darkened chamber closed off from the rest of the world, the act of animating becomes a calming, meditative one. Analogies to alchemy are romantic… There’s that idea of operating outside the realm of the known, attempting to bring into focus, that may have some oblique similarities.

FANG: At times, MAD GOD subtly blends live action and stop motion. It makes the whole experience quite unsettling, because the audience’s association with the onscreen character is always in flux. Is that a puppet? Is it a real person? Can you talk a bit about this blending, from a creative perspective? Are we seeing live action, or some other form of magical animation trickery?

TIPPETT: I ripped that off from Karel Zeman. He had no trouble trafficking between the two worlds. He’s another huge influence.

FANG: I understand your crew is made up entirely of volunteers. Some are employees from Tippett Studio, and others are eager art students. You have some very solid animators working (namely Chuck Duke and Tom Gibbons), but if we assume most of the crew isn’t stop motion professionals, how do you see these artists with different backgrounds and skills growing as they work in this medium?

TIPPETT:  Some folks are craftsmen close to my age. Some are students. I have been very lucky in drawing in local, talented and interested people who want to observe and participate in these ancient processes. Everyone brings something to the table and, I think, I hope it’s as inclusive of an experience for them as it is for me.

FANG: I’m assuming that with all these keen artists on hand, you’ve been placed into the role of “mentor” for this project.  If so, what kind of artistic philosophies do you use, as you guide these artists into the strange land of puppet animation?

TIPPETT: My approach is somewhat antithetical to the manner in which much animation is done. I take a much more live action shooting approach. I do not use motion control because I need the performances to drive the action. I’m there on the set shooting and direct, in a sense, when Chuck or Gibby want to open up a performance I’ll have the latitude to adjust the camera to suit their intuitions much like one would do with an actor on the set. My direction tends to be as general as I can make it. Many times the direction is “DO NOT THINK.”

FANG: What is it about the process of stop motion animation that eternally attracts people?

TIPPETT: I can only speak for myself. The magic comes from the same place it did for me seeing 7TH VOYAGE when I was seven years old. I couldn’t understand it then, and I still don’t.

FANG: Chapter One concerns a central character that is journeying to “somewhere.” We cannot know more about that somewhere, at this point in the story. They say that life is a journey and not a destination, so I wonder if the same maxim holds true for the protagonist in MAD GOD?

TIPPETT: I have no idea. Maybe it’s some sort of Buddhist/Existential /Totemist  thing.

FANG: What has your journey through the land of MAD GOD revealed to you, thus far?

TIPPETT: About 12 minutes of footage.

FANG: You exceeded your ask for the project on Kickstarter by a very solid 80g. Any observations about the whole experience of crowd funding?

TIPPETT: I’m very lucky to have a very smart guy, Corey Rosen who works for me who is the architect of the KS campaign. I merely assist.

FANG: How do you like going directly to the fans, with no middleman?

TIPPETT: I’m hoping I can make something out of it. With so many altruistic folks interested in such a project, it allows me to make something that I hope they will find rewarding, which will allow me to make more. It’s like having a benefactor that encourages you and that gives you both hope and a sense of responsibility in a strange and mysterious way.

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FANG: How about a crowd-funded stop motion feature version of MAD GOD? You have to know that the fans are there for something like this…

TIPPETT: MG will find its own shape. I don’t feel the need to stuff it into the box of preordained expectation for a theatrical feature film. This thing will never make me rich. Every Kickstarter dollar is on the screen. It’s something I am compelled to do, allowed by the generous resources made available by the KS participants. My responsibility is to them; I just hope they don’t all hate it. But if they do, I’ll know I’ve succeeded in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

 FANG: Chapter One is finished, and being eaten up by audiences. Where are you at in terms of production on future chapters of MAD GOD?

TIPPETT: We’re launching a second Kickstarter in about a month. I’ve got some material that’s been shot for Parts 2 & 3, some of which has been included in trailers. I need to keep the momentum going…I’m a bit obsessive in that way.

FANG: It’s recently been announced that you are returning to the world of dinosaurs, in the form of JURASSIC WORLD. Are you able to tell us a bit about your involvement?

TIPPETT: It appears as though they seek my involvement. Things are still shaping up. I’ve met up with Colin Trevarrow and he’s a great guy. Steven, Kathy & Frank are behind the thing and I get to work with producer Pat Crowley who I did the Robocop stuff with. It’s a great team!

FANG: MAD GOD is described as a “mature film,” and it lives up to that claim. We are faced with truly disturbing creatures that seem born of a frenzied fever dream. We encounter intense explorations of sexual urges. Vivisection is also on hand (or hints of it, at the very least). Just how far into darkness will it go?

TIPPETT: MG is somewhat of an expression of my worldview: ridiculous, humorous, violent and sublime. I have no interest in darkness. I wish everything could be wonderful, however it cannot. For further reading for those interested in the making of things, these books have deeply influenced me in my decision to move forward with MAD GOD: The Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson, The Craftsman by Richard Sennett, The Gift by Lewis Hyde.

Visit MAD GOD to learn more about the project, and to purchase a digital download of Part One.

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About the author
Chris Walsh http://www.madlabproductions.ca
Chris Walsh is an animator and filmmaker who specializes in stop motion animation. He also teaches in the Animation Program at Sheridan College, where he trains students in the mysterious art of stop motion, and nurtures their dark souls in his "Cinema of Horror" film studies course. Check out his animated work at www.madlabproductions.ca
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