Tippett inspired by latest monster task

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Fans of menacing movie varmints bow down before visual effects wizard Phil Tippett. When the Oscar-winning mind behind "The Empire Strikes Back's" sinister Imperial Walkers, "Jurassic Park's" blood-thirsty dinosaurs and "Starship Troopers' " arachnids was tapped this summer by producer Kathleen Kennedy to supervise creatures on Paramount Pictures' upcoming "The Spiderwick Chronicles," a collective 'Hail Mary' could be heard among critter aficionados.

In recent years, Tippett has become something of a rarity on the visual effects scene. He still presides over the 2-decade-old Tippett Studio, but in 2000 he turned his energy to writing and directing. The result was 2004's direct-to-video title "Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation," Tippett's writing and directorial debut. Despite his new direction the beast maestro was unable to turn down Kennedy when his former "Jurassic" producer called with an opportunity to reunite on "Spiderwick," director Mark Waters' adaptation of the six-book series written by Holly Black and illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi. eyeing a 2008 release.

Tippett has designed eight to 10 "Spiderwick" characters, ranging from goblins and spirits in various subsets -- from a goblin king to a bull goblin -- with temperaments that range from "really scary to really hilarious to scary and hilarious at the same time," he says.

The creature supervisor's partner in crime is Industrial Light + Magic VFX supe Pablo Helman, who is handling two-thirds of the VFX work at his Bay Area shop while Tippett handles character design, animation and some VFX.

The twosome's overarching goal is to base creatures on DiTerlizzi's pictorial style but transform them into biological creatures believable enough for you or me to encounter them in the woods. The leap of imagination entails crafting anatomically plausible skin surfaces, textures and actions found in a fantasy kingdom still rooted in a tactile world, Tippett says.

But more than the possibility of making great technical breakthroughs in post, Tippett says he is inspired by the possibilities of performance, with lead actor Freddie Highmore, playing Simon Grace, providing rich takes for character animators to work from. "This isn't 800 charging CG horsemen," Tippett says. "What I like most about 'Spiderwick' is it's the story of a very close family pulled into a magical world. It has a very intimate feel, with lots of meaty roles to play."

In the years since 1993's "Jurassic" and even 1997's "Troopers," Tippett says he has noticed a promising shift in the way studios and filmmakers have begun to deal with fantastical creatures onscreen. "The industry has been moving -- due in large part to Peter Jackson and the CG characters in (Andrew Adamson's 'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe') -- to more compelling characters," Tippett says. "It's not just a monster chasing a human from A to B or getting blown up. It's daunting character performance."

For the time being, overseeing creature performances infused with emotional nuance is enough to keep Tippett engaged while his personal projects simmer on the back burner.

"I'm not really a careerist by nature," Tippet says. "I don't fit into the whole Hollywood thing being a Berkeley boy. I'm attempting to develop three to four projects that I'd like to direct, but that process takes forever. I'm 100% committed to ('Spiderwick') in between while I try to get the next weird thing going."
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