Back in August, the Alamo Drafthouse held a very special, 35mm screening of Jurassic Park. They created a special poster available only at the event and they flew in Phil Tippett, one of the effects masterminds responsible for bringing the film's dinosaurs to life, to do a Q&A after the film. It was a helluva time and just another notch on the ever expanding belt that is "events only the Drafthouse could pull off."
Before Tippett left town, to tie into this week's stellar Blu-ray release of the film, we were given the opportunity to pick the effects legend's brain. We've doled out little bits of this interview in the time since, but here's the whole thing. Due to the casual nature of the chat, topics do jump around a bit, but below you'll find Tippett's thoughts on how the current state of the film industry, what it was like working on classic films like Jurassic Park, Star Wars and Starship Troopers, projects that never came to be, and where he's heading in his career.
Movies.com: Thanks for bringing the short MutantLand to the screening and sharing it. Was that something you directed?
Phil Tippett: Yeah, we put it together at our studio. It was one of these things where we were working on a movie at Warner Brothers and were all crewed up and the green light turned into a blinking green light and I had the whole crew for two weeks with nothing to do. So I just jammed and we looked at our assets that we had, I just wrote something up and we got started. Then, slowly over the next couple years, whenever anybody had any down time they continued to work on it.
Movies.com: I imagine that's something that happens a lot in your work. You get so close to the green light and then nothing ends up happening.
Tippett: It can be very frustrating.
Movies.com: Do those projects ever tend to come back around or do you find that once the light is off, it stays off.
Tippett: It's generally just the studio playing some kind of brinksmanship game with production. It's their move in a game of, "Shave $3 million off or we're not going to make the picture."
Movies.com: Jurassic Park is one of those movies that means a lot to me not only on a deep, personal level, but that helped shape into the film geek that I am today.
Tippett: Yeah, it's amazing to me too. We did this thing at the Academy a year or so back...the theme was 'monsters and technology' or something like that, and they strung together a bunch of clips historically that went back to Lon Chaney and Jack Pierce and Willis O'Brien and blahblahblah and then it got up to Jurassic Park and everything was still really quite cool looking. And then after Jurassic Park on to Avatar and everything it was like, "What happened?"
Movies.com: What did happen? What changed?
Tippett: You know, I just put it off to the corporatization of the world. It's just now all the studios do big franchise things or graphic novels and other established things. But Jurassic Park was all just a good fit. Spielberg knows that genre really well and had a lot of fun with it.
Movies.com: In the Q&A last night you mentioned being on the project for years before it ever officially went into production. That early on, how collaborative was the process with Steven Spielberg? Is it a case of you saying, "This is what we can do," or does he go, "This is what you need to figure out how to do"?
Tippett: He, like all the best directors, is really inclusive and hires you for what you know and wants you to bring as much of yourself to the table as possible. From there it's just cherry picking ideas, figuring out what will work and what doesn't.
Movies.com: Reading Vic Armstrong's autobiography earlier this year--
Tippett: I didn't know Vic wrote a biography! What's it called?
Movies.com: The World's Greatest Stuntman.
Tippett: [Laughs] That's Vic alright.
Movies.com: Well in the book he mentions being surprised by how open Spielberg was on set and how as a stunt coordinator he wasn't used to directors who would actually take "No, we can't do that" for an answer. Did you have a similar sort of experience on the effect side?
Tippett: Yeah. During the process of storyboarding and working out the script, the whole ending with the Tyrannosaurs coming in, that wasn't in the many drafts. All the way up until we were shooting, the ending was really lame. The kids and everyone are on the back of the Tyrannosaurus as they're getting out of the vents. The raptors are attacking, the skeletons shaking, and the whole skeleton falls down and the jaws cut the raptor in half and then the other one is impaled on something random. I was just like [makes frustrated sound].
It was just awful. So we, Dennis Muren and John Bell, one of the art directors who did all the storyboards, got a meeting with Spielberg. We flew down to LA, got him in a room and said, "Man, we've got to do something about this." And he listened. We pitched him some ideas and he said, "Okay, fine." We kept back to shooting, it was getting real close to that scene, and he called up and said, "Hey, I know what we're going to do!" And that was what we did in the movie.
Movies.com: You mentioned that watching the film last night for the first time in over a decade, you noticed other things you'd have done differently.
Tippett: That was just subjective stuff, mainly just performance things. I kind of prefer things with a little bit of a hard edge. I think Steven just wanted things to feel big, and because of his process of understanding film and the way he views cinema, he wanted things to be a bit more high speed. Because of that, there was a tendency to not do any twitchy moves, which is just a different direction thing, you know. "If you want it that way, we'll do it that way."
Movies.com: At what point did the realization set in that you guys weren't just on the cutting edge, you were actually redefining what the edge was?
Tippett: It wasn't until we saw the movie. We were just working, trying to get it done. It was all so new for me, everything being digital. Learning the process and working on the stuff was really hard to hammer those things and figure out the tools and get them into shape. We were just working non-stop to get the shots out, so it wasn't until we went down to LA and Kathy [Kennedy] screened it for us that we realized. But even at that time, we had no idea it would be any kind of a hit, we were just relieved it wasn't terrible.
Movies.com: Is that the case with most movies you work on? That during production you never have the perspective to realize how the film will be seen by people who aren't working on it?
Tippett: Pretty much. I mean, I knew on Troopers it was going to be weird and that a lot of people weren't going to like it, but it was what we wanted to do.
Movies.com: Speaking of Troopers, I am not exaggerating that it is one of my favorite films of all time. When I had laser eye surgery a few years ago, I made sure the last movie I watched before being potentially blinded was Starship Troopers.
Tippett: [Laughs] Oh, God.
Movies.com: It's one of those rare movies, particularly of that large a scale, where nothing seems out of place and everything, whether people get it or not, is completely defined by the personality of the film.
Tippett: That's Paul. I call him the Hannibal Lecter of directors. He's got a photograph memory and when we were trying to get the money to make the thing, we met and worked up designs, but then he went off to do Showgirls and we went off to do some other picture. Then, like a year later, we did a test, a little short where we got some athlete and filmed him running and getting torn apart by bugs. Then Jon Davison, the producer, and Ed Neumeier, the writer...Mark Canton was the head of Sony or Tri-star at the time and we had to go pitch it up the food chain to reach him.
There were a couple executive we showed it too and they just didn't get it. Stuff like, "Well, the monsters don't have eyes, so where do you look?" and, "They don't have teeth, they should eat the people." Well, they don't eat the people, they just kill them. "So what do they eat?" Some kind of sap that they make down in their lairs? I don't know! [Laughs]
Ed used to be an executive at Universal, so when Mark Canton came into the meeting, he was followed by like ten other guys in suits. I said to Ed, "Who are those guys?" and he said, "Here, I'll show you." So we went up to two or three of them and Ed said, "Hi, I'm Ed Neumeier, I wrote and produced Starship Troopers blahblahblah, what do you do?" And they all would say, "Oh, I'm so and so, Vice President of blahblahblah." "Oh, cool, what do you guys do at blahblahblah?" "Oh, well, actually, our thing is undergoing some re-organization..." The short answer was really, "I'm the Vice President of nothing." They were all just butt boys standing around. And that's how things have really changed.
But even back then, the studios were already in such disarray that the people who were running things didn't know anything. They were clueless. And now they still don't know anything, but it's turned all mean. And so now a lot of the process at some studios is just terrible. I don't know if it's unconscious or what, but they just throw roadblocks in their and your way. Everyone knows all this stuff, because everyone's read the books on writing and making movies, so everyone thinks they knows how it should be, and in some situations you are doomed to fail so they have someone to yell at. And if they have someone to yell at, they have a job! It's silly.
Movies.com: You also mentioned last night that you were disappointed by the designs in Avatar because all they did was give relatively normal looking creatures an extra set of legs, and for the humans, all they had were standard mech suits we'd seen in movies already. Was that one of the motivating factors for why Starship Troopers is so radically different than the book? Are there no power armor suits because you didn't want to do something familiar?
Tippett: The power suit thing was more of a budgetary thing. In some of the first meetings we opened up the hood and looked at what it would take to integrate all of those things and it was really a budgetary show stopper. It was a choice: power suits or bugs and Paul went with bugs.
Movies.com: Well I think it paid off.
Tippett: Yeah, it was just Paul's sensibility. Once he found the movie he wanted to make, it was all clear. It was just... Sandra Dee and Tab Hunter as fascists, you know? [laughs]
Movies.com: I'm glad he got to make the movie he got to make. And speaking of that stern sense of authorship and ownership. Us fans bitch and moan and gripe whenever George Lucas starts messing with Star Wars again, but is that something effects people who actually worked on the film feel? Are we the only ones who think he's a crazy person?
Tippett: No, not really. At a certain point, even going back to Return of the Jedi at ILM...they had a little room where you could get chips and drinks and I was getting something. George and Richard Marquand, the director, came in and Richard was saying, "George, I don't totally get where we need to go with this picture." And George said, "Well, did you see Benji?" "No George, I didn't see Benji." "Well, what we're doing now is kind of like a cross between Benji and what we did on Empire Strikes Back."
So even then he was thinking about keeping his company alive and merchandising toys and stuff like that. It's really hard with franchises. It's really hard to keep things going. It's really hard to think of a third movie in a franchise that's better than the first two, ya know? Whoever it was, Pepsi Cola or whatever, paid him $3 billion to do the next three movies as long as he worked and directed it, so...
Movies.com: Was there ever any talk at Universal or with Spielberg of going back and making alterations to Jurassic Park or any of its sequels?
Tippett: No. No, no. But, for a while...I went down and had a meeting with Steven and Melissa Mathison to talk about doing a sequel to E.T. And we went down the road of all the things we could do and at one point Steven just said, "You know what? Just leave it alone. Just let it stand, let's not rake it over the coals."
Movies.com: Would you ever return for something like Starship Troopers 4?
Tippett: Oh, we wanted to get that far, but the movie tanked. It was really funny because it opened against something like Mr. Bean, so all the kids were paying to see Mr. Bean and then walking into Starship Troopers. That was a problem since we'd made an R-rated kids film. [Laughs] We actually seriously worked on a thing where it was going to be the Russian front version of the Starship Troopers story. We, Paul Verhoeven and everyone, wanted to do it as a mini-series and we tried to shape it, but there was no interest.
Movies.com: What about Jurassic Park 4? Would that even be something you could be involved with if it ever really did happen?
Tippett: No. There's a whole Steven, George mafia now. ILM would do it, I'm sure.
Movies.com: What does Tippett Animation primarily gear to? Do places like ILM and Weta kind of have the market on lockdown, forcing you to gravitate to more indie stuff?
Tippett: Well, I like to try and help out filmmakers if we can. We helped Alex Cox make a really silly movie in Repo Chick. That was fun to do because you can really fly under the radar and have some fun. We're working on a thing now, helping Phil Kaufman out with Hemingway & Gellhorn for HBO, and that's fun because Phil puts together stuff like collage material and then we go back and make the locations, wars in China and other cool stuff, and then put the characters in. If we can, we do that, but it's mostly a niche market for creature design, so we often get stuck in the talking animal gulag. [Laughs]
The big places are usually the places where the studio goes because they're 800 pound gorillas. People like Peter Jackson with Weta and James Cameron with Digital Domain have the bandwidth to take on those projects. Now there's like 1,500 to 2,500 visual effects in a show, and my studio doesn't get much bigger than 150 to 250 people. So that's more like a lifestyle thing. I like to keep things small and manageable.
Movies.com: Well I wish you guys all the luck in the world.
Tippett: Thanks. It's rough, man. There's so much competition now, because everybody is doing this. A good 70% of the work is going offshore.
Movies.com: Will Hollywood ever get back to a point where a film as singularly important as Jurassic Park can even get made?
Tippett: Yes, because filmmakers will surprise us. What was that movie about the shrimp people? District 9? Something surprising like that will come out. Or earlier this year, movies like Source Code. People are still making decent, interesting movies, though I don't know how groundbreaking they will be. It just takes a bunch of contingent events just happen to come together and sometimes it just works that way. I think it's up to independent cinema to find a way in. Anybody can make a movie!