Special effects master Phil Tippett comments on commercial film industry

Lucasfilm Limited/Courtesy

Northern California during the 1970s served as a bastion of cinema with such enduring filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Philip Kaufman basing their projects in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Seen as a practical alternative to the established hierarchy of Los Angeles, Northern California attracted a multitude of technical talent disillusioned with the business of Hollywood, from writers to film editors to sound mixers.

Of course, the ’70s were an era long past. Now, only the remnants of the period remain in the form of LucasArts and Industrial Light & Magic in San Francisco’s Presidio District as well as Coppola’s relatively meager American Zoetrope (not to mention his multitude of restaurants, cafes and wine estates all over the North Bay).

However, nestled only a few blocks away from Berkeley’s San Pablo Park stands special effects wizard Phil Tippett’s very own Tippett Studios. Established in the 1980s after the runaway success of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, Tippett Studios is at once a relic of the past as well as evidence of an industry that has experienced tremendous change in its last 30 years.

In his recent presentation as a part of the Pacific Film Archive’s “Behind the Scenes: The Art and Craft of Cinema” series, Tippett focused on his early memories of movies, his involvement with the “Star Wars” films, and the massive changes that have taken place in the special effects business in the last 20 years.  Disillusioned yet surprisingly funny in a blunt manner, the joy he infuses in his work translated to his lecture as a packed audience burst into laughter with every story.

Citing the works of Willis O’Brien (“King Kong”), and especially Ray Harryhausen (“The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” “Jason and the Argonauts,” “Clash of the Titans”) as direct influences, Tippett stressed the importance of mentors in his life, while recalling the day he had a beer with Harryhausen as one of the greatest moments of his life.  Childhood experiences continued to play a major role in his life, leading to one of his major goals of wanting to work on a dinosaur movie. “Every boy is either into dinosaurs or trucks,” said Tippett. “I was into dinosaurs.”

It was once Tippett met George Lucas and Steven Spielberg that his career really took off.  “These guys understood how to get people to come back to theaters. They knew the importance of spectacle in movies, and we had similar influences,” said Tippett.

Although Tippett wouldn’t work with Spielberg until the early ’90s, his involvement with the “Star Wars” films would rewrite the possibilities of films heavy on the special effects in the future.  “There weren’t a lot of people working in the field at the time, very different from today,” he explained.  As technology progressed, so did the filmmaking process with more and more directors relying on special effects.  Tippett alone worked on such box office hits as “Dragonslayer,” “Robocop” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” through the ‘80s.

1993 marked another turning point in the history of the spectacle (or now considered the blockbuster) movie with the release of Spielberg’s seminal film, “Jurassic Park.” The picture marked the end of physical special effects through models and stop-motion and the start of the CGI revolution. “Spielberg decided all his movies would be done this way [with CGI]. I didn’t get depressed, but I got sick,” said Tippett. So began what Tippett called the “corporatization” of the film industry, something he blames the lack of quality blockbusters coming out of Hollywood on.  “Even the layperson asks, ‘Why is everything so bad after Jurassic Park?’ It’s because it’s all been corporatized.”

Since then, Tippett Studios has been responsible for the special effects on some of the biggest box office and critical bombs of the CGI-era, including “Evolution,” “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” and the “Twilight” franchise. While admitting the shortcomings of these films and the industry in general, Tippett ended his program with a glimmer of hope by showcasing an animated trailer he’s been working on for the last 20 years entitled “Mad God.” As usual, it all depends on financial backing and marketability, but the passion Tippett exudes for this long-gestating project further illustrates the immense level of joy a disillusioned master can still hold for his work.