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When practical effects ruled the world: VFX legend gets his due in new doc

The trailer for Phil Tippett—Mad Dreams and Monsters

No matter what the Criterion collector in your life says, DVDs have been slowly fading away from our lives these last few years. Losing films as a self-contained thing you can acquire has many ramifications, but chief among them for film nerds is the transformation of "extras." Where should things like deleted scenes, director's commentary, bloopers, or behind-the-scenes vignettes exist if they can no longer be packaged right alongside the film? Maybe today's YouTube videos, oral histories, or podcasts work well enough in many situations, but frankly, some innovators in film history deserve more.

Luckily, this type of content in 2019 has increasingly found a new streaming-era-friendly home: the standalone documentary. From Hayao Miyazaki: Never-Ending Man (essentially extras for Boro the Caterpillar) to The Director and The Jedi (that's The Last Jedi), these projects show that what would've been extras in the past can work as their own feature-length entities able to play to crowds of film lovers at festivals or exist as algorithmic suggestions alongside original films on Netflix, Amazon Prime, et al.

At the 2019 Fantastic Fest, this budding format proved to be just right for Phil Tippett, a film effects legend whose work you've seen even if his name doesn't ring any bells. From Star Wars to Jurassic Park with Robocop in between, Tippett is the stop-motion savant behind so many landmark "effects" films from the era before CGI took over. And the long time industry hero finally has the spotlight on him in Phil Tippett—Mad Dreams and Monsters, a new documentary delivering that familiar behind-the-scenes feeling in the best way possible.

  • Young stop-motion savant Phil Tippett at work. Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet / Fantastic Fest
  • Tippett doing some stop-motion work more recently (in the last 10 years) Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet / Fantastic Fest
  • One of Tippett's earliest "wow" moments around VFX came in 1955 watching TV as a kid: " They were running the 1933 King Kong. I remember just being blown away as a 5-year-old." Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet / Fantastic Fest
  • Perhaps Tippett's most famous work involves creating all sorts of creatures for the Star Wars universe, like this early Tauntaun sculpture (Luke rides this spacey camel-like things in The Empire Strikes Back). Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet / Fantastic Fest
  • A look at Tippett's home studio, covered in drawing pads and inspiration books, as you might expect. Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet / Fantastic Fest
  • Penso (left) and Poncet (right) came to Austin to present their doc and conduct a Q&A. Fantastic Fest was the International Premiere of their film. Heather Kennedy / Fantastic Fest
  • Some guy named Rian Johnson crashed their Q&A because he wanted to ask a question about Tippett. In exchange, Penso and Poncet got to ask him about CGI work on The Last Jedi. Heather Kennedy / Fantastic Fest

Of craft and creatures

If you recognize the name Phil Tippett, then you already know documentary directors Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet had plenty of material to work with for their latest feature (and not so coincidentally, this duo previously produced a full-length doc on VFX pioneer Ray Harryhausen's work). For everyone else, Mad Dreams and Monsters serves as a crash course on the work of perhaps the greatest VFX artist of the last 50 years. Tippett has done Oscar-winning and film-standard-redefining stop-motion animation and VFX work for decades; his iconic work on Star Wars (from cantina creatures to Jabba the Hutt) and Jurassic Park (the original T-Rex) merely represents the tip of the iceberg.

Penso and Poncet structure their new doc chronologically in roughly five equal parts, outlining Tippett's upbringing/entry into VFX, his work on three industry-changing films (RoboCop gets the microscope in addition to what's noted above), and his recent years spent on passion projects and transitioning into the CGI-age. Any one of those five individual aspects could absolutely be a self-contained vignette on DVDs of yore based on the material these filmmakers have gathered (a few amusing puppeteering bloopers included). But together, this material paints a deeper picture of both Tippett the artist and his larger industry impact than any single portion could've alone.

For many, this documentary will sing most when it focuses on a film the viewer adores. Tippett walks viewers through the ideation process for some very iconic sequences and characters. Star Wars' famous holochess, for instance, was originally set to be filmed with actors in costume (aka how the film Futureworld had done it a few years earlier), but George Lucas saw Tippett's puppet work and changed course. That change of heart had ripples decades later when Lucasfilm brought the gang back together for a scene in Solo.

Or with Jabba the Hutt, for instance, Tippett's original vision more closely resembled a slug, but Lucas didn't care for it (Tippett in retrospect thinks it was a bit too much like Flash Gordon's Ming the Merciless). "It was too gross, so I eventually asked, 'If you can cast a character, who would it be?'" Tippett reveals. I'd never heard of actor Sydney Greenstreet (Casablanca, Maltese Falcon), but a quick Google Image search certainly shows the resemblance. This same granular creation process detail comes out for Robocop (Cain from the sequel existed to complicate life for unlicensed model-makers after ED-209) and Jurassic Park (lots of Read More – Source

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