'Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters': Film Review

Courtesy of Le Pacte
Fantastic beasts and the man who made them.

The Oscar-winning effects maestro behind 'Star Wars,' 'Jurassic Park' and other blockbusters over five decades is the star of this French-made documentary.

Given the sheer amount of money, megabytes and human resources invested in Hollywood fantasy and sci-fi flicks nowadays — the new Star Wars being the latest in a long line of blockbusters dating back to, well, the first Star Wars — it's hard to imagine there was once a time when such films consisted of a bunch of guys building and shooting stuff in their workshops, trying to conjure up movie magic.

In Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters, the new documentary from French behind-the-scenes specialists Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet (Creature Designers: The Frankenstein Complex), we get to meet one of these guys up close, learning how Tippett's artsy obsession with stop-motion animation evolved into an Oscar-winning practice and several billion-dollar tentpoles for five decades and counting.

Packed with details, anecdotes and enough figurines to please technicians and Comic Con buffs alike, this informative piece of fanboy fodder has so far played a handful of festivals, including Mill Valley and the Paris Fantastic Fest. A bit too specific for the general public, it could nonetheless reach its target audience via online streaming services.

With credits on a handful of the Star Wars movies, the first two RoboCop films, Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, The Twilight Saga and Starship Troopers, Tippett's long and prosperous career includes some of the biggest Hollywood franchises of all time.

Born in Berkeley, Calif., the young Tippett saw Ray Harryhausen's groundbreaking work on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and decided he wanted to be an effects wizard himself. He began making stop-motion animation films and eventually landed a job at a studio in Los Angeles, working on commercials like the claymated Pillsbury Doughboy ads.

Tippett got his big break when Dennis Muren, the VFX supervisor at George Lucas' nascent Industrial Light & Magic, brought him on to animate the extraterrestrial chess set in the first Star Wars movie. That memorable scene would kickstart a career that spanned several other films in the franchise — Tippett animated the Tauntaun lizards and AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back — and then a host of other '80s and '90s blockbusters, from RoboCop to the Jurassic Park movies.

For the former, director Paul Verhoeven details Tippett's exemplary work animating the ED-209 armed robot, working with full-size models that felt very much like the real thing. Indeed, Tippett's specialty was making his monsters and robots seem as lifelike as possible on the big screen, giving them their own individual personalities. Each animated character acted and moved in a particular way, like full-blooded performers, which is why many of Tippett's creations remain so memorable to this day.

The film's most fascinating section delves into Tippett's work on Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, which saw a major transformation from stop-motion (or "go motion" as the animator called his system) to computer-generated imagery. "I've just become extinct," was Tippett's initial reaction to CGI, but he soon embraced it as his only viable option for the future ("there was absolutely no choice," he explains). And yet, as with his work in clay and models, Tippett approached CGI with his own perfectionist's sense of realism, making the T-Rex and other dinosaurs as authentic as possible in their movements.  

"I think of myself as a filmmaker," says the animator at one point. Toward the end of the documentary, we finally get to see his work as a writer-director on his series of experimental shorts, Mad God, which sit somewhere between the steampunk aesthetic and the hellish visions of Hieronymus Bosch. Indeed, for a man whose contributions to Hollywood tended to lean toward the dark side, the shorts are a fitting conclusion to an oeuvre that was major in a minor way.

Alongside Verhoeven and Muren, other interviewees include director Joe Dante (Tippett worked on Piranha) and producer Jon Davison (Starship Troopers, RoboCop). 

Production company: Frenetic Arts
Cast: Phil Tippett, Jules Roman, Paul Verhoeven, Joe Dante, Jon Davison, Dennis Muren, Alec Gillis
Directors: Alexandre Poncet, Gilles Penso
Producer: Alexandre Poncet
Director of photography: Alexandre Poncet, Gilles Penso
Music: Alexandre Poncet
Editor: Gilles Penso

Sales: Le Pacte

84 minutes