Exclusive preview: ‘Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters’

There’s a moment at the beginning of Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters when visual effects legend Phil Tippett’s stop motion puppets – having brought audiences so much joy over the past few decades – come alive once again, just for a few brief seconds of motion.

And, it’s absolutely magical.

Indeed, part of me almost wished that the entire film was just Star Wars holo-chess puppet pieces, the miniature ED-209 robot, or a Starship Troopers bug puppet being animated on the screen for a few hours.

But, of course, Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet’s documentary is so much more. That’s because it chronicles the story of a major, major player in the history of visual effects and filmmaking, in Phil Tippett, in a way I had never seen before.

Certainly, it dives into familiar territory by including the many highlights of Tippett’s career – all the way from his first attempts at stop motion, through the heady days of Star Wars, the stunning animation of films like Dragonslayer and RoboCop, to the shock introduction of CG with Jurassic Park. And, expectedly, it goes full circle by coming around to Tippett’s original and more recent experimental stop motion work such as MAD GOD.

The difference is, there’s an emotional arc to the visual effects supervisor’s story that feels very different. Some of that comes from the artist himself, interviewed amongst his somewhat chaotic belongings. Even more emotion is contributed by a wealth of Tippet’s many collaborators over the past four decades. Altogether they explore Tippett’s career heights, and lows. The clip below reveals a time after the Star Wars films and after number of other successes when the supervisor wondered what might be next.

Penso and Poncet had unprecedented access to Tippett Studio and to the man himself over three years, as well as his collaborators. Visual effects aficionados may be familiar with the filmmakers’ previous documentaries Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan and Creature Designers – The Frankenstein Complex, where they had already explored, to some degree, the contributions Tippett has made to the industry.

But they found in the VFX supervisor’s journey something else they wanted to explore – a journey that mirrored massive changes in the industry but a person who never lost any passion for creatures and storytelling.

Along the way, Penso and Poncet managed to get many of Tippett’s filmmaking partners on-camera to help re-live what is effectively a short history of stop-motion and VFX; people like directors Paul Verhoeven and Joe Dante and VFX supervisors Dennis Muren and Craig Hayes, among many others. Another important addition to the documentary is Tippett’s wife, Jules Roman, who runs Tippett Studio, and who of course adds a hugely personal side to the doco.

Paul Verhoeven.

I’ve interviewed Tippett several times, written about him and read and watched countless interviews. But with Tippett candidly looking back at his own history, and with several others weighing in, somehow Mad Dreams and Monsters manages to reveal so many new things I’d personally never heard before (the stories about the production of Piranha, for example, are fascinating and hilarious).

Plus, there’s just an extraordinary amount of behind the scenes footage in the film. Penso and Poncet not only spent many days at Tippett Studio, they also mined Tippett’s collection of maquettes, puppets, props, photographs and footage for the documentary. Significant time was spent obtaining clearances to show clips from the key films Tippett had contributed to, and this helps tie all the stories together so well.

As noted, the addition of artists actually re-animating puppet armatures is perhaps the most exhilarating element of the documentary, if only because that is a rare thing to see anywhere. (A sequence with RoboCop 2’s Cain puppet towards the end of the film is simply glorious).

David Lauer and Phil Tippett with the Cain puppet from ‘RoboCop 2’.

‘It’s not a sad trajectory’

As Mad Dreams and Monsters rolls out on the festival circuit, I had the opportunity to speak to co-writer/director Alexandre Poncet about his experience making it, including his concerns about whether audiences may have already heard a lot of Tippett’s story before, what things couldn’t be included in the film (but will be available as special extras), and what getting his hands on an actual Tippett armature was like.

b&a: Why did you want to make this film?

Alexandre Poncet: Well, we were finishing The Frankenstein Complex and we were shooting a lot of scenes about Phil. Phil’s interview is at the center of that film, actually. His drama behind the scenes of Jurassic Park is a pivotal scene of The Frankenstein Complex, emotionally. Apparently it affected a lot of people when they saw the film, so we knew that it was an important story to tell. But we had already told it, in a way, in The Frankenstein Complex.

Gilles Penso (right) and Alexandre Poncet.

We basically wanted to do a book about Phil. So while we were finishing The Frankenstein Complex and we were shooting additional footage for the extras, we started to scan all the archives of Phil and to photograph all these puppets and props. And so we did beauty shots of everything. 

Sometimes Phil came to the office and said, ‘So, what did you find?’

I actually had an office at Tippett Studio with a flatbed scanner and Phil had prepared 14 boxes – huge boxes – of archives from Piranha, Star Wars, Dragonslayer, everything you can imagine. I actually found a box of chocolates that had not been open that were from 1982 for a screening of a very rough cut of Return of the Jedi with a note from Lucasfilm to Phil. I put the chocolates back in the box, and it’s still there.

I would be scanning all day long. Sometimes Phil came to the office and said, ‘So, what did you find?’ We found a lot of stuff. We found letters from Irvin Kershner, really moving letters that he wrote during the production of RoboCop 2. So many things. I think I have thousands of elements. And then Gilles Penso joined me in San Francisco, where we shot all the miniatures and we went back to finishing The Frankenstein Complex. And then the next year we said to ourselves, ‘You know what, it would be good idea to make a book, but you know, the guy really deserves a documentary.’ It was a logical choice for us because it would be the closing chapter of our ‘monster creator’ trilogy.

We said to ourselves, ‘If we want to make that documentary one day, we will have to redo every interview that we would do for the book.’ So we decided to film the interviews and really make it as lavish and beautiful as possible for a film. And then we actually put the book aside and focused just on the documentary.

Jon Berg, Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett reunited for a Star Wars holo-chess scene.

b&a: There’s so much about Phil Tippett’s career that can be talked about in terms of success, but there’s also heartbreak in a way, isn’t there, because of where he was when visual effects changed?

Alexandre Poncet: Actually, that’s the core of the film. We did a test screening, we did two test screenings a year ago, and many people cried during the film. It’s a little weird to see that, but we were really aiming at something emotional. We are talking about an artist that went through the punches to keep working in Hollywood. And actually we re-worked the cut a little after that test screening because we didn’t want to make a sad movie.

See, it’s not a sad trajectory. It’s a triumphant story because the guy actually was almost killed by what happened during Jurassic Park, in terms of career, and then re-invented himself with Starship Troopers. We wanted to address that in a very personal way, but also show that he’s still working, he’s still creating stuff and even more personal things today. And he has projects, crazy projects – things he started as a teenager or a young man, he’s going back to these, while he still does state-of-the-art CGI. But he’s going back to his experimental art and it’s really interesting the way it works.

Tippett with the Dinosaur Input Device used during the making of ‘Jurassic Park’.

b&a: Were you worried the documentary might re-visit a lot of discussion that has been had about the advent of CG?

Alexandre Poncet: The very first discussion I had with Gilles Penso was, ‘How are we going to say the same thing twice without the audience thinking that it’s the same thing? So we tried to find a new point of view. So, in the film, it’s the story of Phil, of course. But it’s not only the story of Phil, it’s the story of Phil and Jules’ (Roman) romance, falling in love and building that visual effects production company. And it’s the story of the friendship between Phil and Dennis Muren, and even a little about the ‘betrayal’, since Dennis would of course end up using CG for Jurassic.

So in a way we have a love story in the film for Jules and Phil, and we have actually a musical love theme. I composed the music for the film, actually, and one of the first themes that I composed is Jules’ theme. When you see the meeting between Jules and Phil, you hear two pieces of music. But when there’s the ‘betrayal’ and this Jurassic Park story, you hear those pieces again.

We tried to connect things, musically. When Phil’s a kid, when you see him doing experiments in his bedroom or doing experimental films as a student, you hear a certain track of music. And when you’re back at the present time, when you are on the set of MAD GOD, you hear exactly the same music that was used when he was a kid.

b&a: You had a lot of access to Phil and others – what couldn’t you include in the film?

Alexandre Poncet: Well, we have DVD/Blu-ray release planned for next April in France. We are going to have hours of special features. I’m working on them right now. I’m actually reopening old versions of the film and using deleted scenes now. There are quite a few because we changed the film quite a lot during the past year, and ironically the length is still the same. It’s still one hour and 20 minutes because we removed a lot of things but added a lot of things that were more personal and intimate and showed more of the creative process of Phil.

We are going to have also, I think, a two hour long making of which is kind of a video log of how the film was produced. It’s in four parts. Every part is a year of production. There’s no interviews. It’s just us working on the film and the artists that are being interviewed, so we have behind the scenes of that. Also, there’s a big section about how we animated or re-animated in stop motion some of the Phil’s items.

David Lauer animates the DID.

b&a: That is seriously one of the coolest things about the film.

Alexandre Poncet: Yeah, we animated Cain from RoboCop 2, some creatures from the Star Wars chess set, the DID of the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. Phil did one shot. David Lauer, who is a great animator, animated Cain and the DID. Ri Crawford, who is also a great stop motion animator, animated a prop from Starship Troopers. And I even got to animate Cain, also.

b&a: No way…

Alexandre Poncet: I did two shots and one of them is seven seconds long and it took me four hours. It was so much fun.

Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters is screening at Festival Stop Motion Montréal, where Phil Tippett will be in attendance. It will also screen at the Strasbourg Fantastic Film Festival, Fantastic Fest in Austin and Mill Valley Film Festival in California in September, and at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain in October. You can find out more at the official Facebook page.

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