Star Wars interview: Phil Tippett

Celebrating the release of the Star Wars Complete Saga Blu-ray with the master of stop motion

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Now heading his own effects studio, hard at work on the new Twilight movie no less, as stop motion animator and creature effects on all three Star Wars films, Phil Tippett crafted some of the most iconic scenes in the saga, from the AT-ATs emerging from the snow to the eerily fascinating patrons of the Mos Eisley Cantina, and was on hand for the birth of SFX powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic. Tippett takes a Tautaun down memory lane with SciFiNow.

What was the first thing you remember hearing about the first Star Wars movie?

“I had a couple of a friends that I worked with, we worked at a place called Cascade Pictures and they did television commercials, the Pillsbury Doughboy and Jolly Green Giant and car commercials and that kind of thing. And they had a little insert stage called Stage Six that was kind of our home, it was the only place in the United States at that point that was doing stop motion animation, so that’s kinda where everybody gravitated to – I mean my mentors were Jim Danforth and David Allen, who were the lead animators there. Me and my friends – Dennis Muren who was a lighting cameraman and Jon Berg who built armatures and puppets, and Ken Ralston and all these guys – we all wanted to work on movies, but there weren’t any movies and we couldn’t get into unions and no-one was doing that kinda thing.

“Dennis got hired to work on this little movie called Star Wars that George Lucas was directing, and we were all fans of American Graffitti and THX and we thought, ‘Oh, that could be fun’, and so Dennis started working there, and from there it just kinda ballooned. He was on the night crew and he hired Ken to come on as assistant camera, and then things just started happening. So I was tracing the progression of Star Wars through Dennis – at that point they were having a lot of problems, this was the year before the release or something like that, getting everything working, all the stop motion control and blue screen and all this kinda stuff, so they weren’t getting that much footage. They were running out of time and money was getting flushed down the toilet, then I would go over and visit, look at the set ups, watch what they were doing, have dinner with them, and stayed abreast of it.”

“George wasn’t happy with the Cantina scene, he didn’t get all the footage that he needed and he didn’t like the creatures, so he needed to set up a little insert unit where we could shoot additional creature stuff for that Cantina scene. So I got involved with it – a bunch of out of work animators – Doug Beswick, Jon Berg, myself and a couple of others.”

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Was it a bit of a trial by fire?

“No, it was fun! George ran the scene for us and we just went ‘Woooah, hey, this is gonna be good!’. So we were all very excited, so as a group we put together a small shot under the auspice of Rick Baker and threw in a bunch of masks that he’d made, and Ron Cobb did a bunch of designs, so we moved into this tiny little place and George would come by every week or so to check out the progress, and it was at that point that we added the stop motion puppets that were brought in – I was working on them on the side. And he said, ‘Oh, you guys this stuff too? Hmm’, so he started thinking and that’s how we got the gig doing the chess scene, and Star Wars was shot with me and Jon as stop motion animators. That was a long winded answer!”

What was it about the Cantina scene that was missing?

“George needed to flesh out more unusual creatures that they weren’t able to get, Stuart Freeborn got sick on that show, and wasn’t able to deliver all the stuff that he hoped to be able to deliver. Most of the creatures that they shot in England were like animal type things – mole people and crocodile people, that kind of thing – and George wanted it more like space aliens, so we fleshed out that kinda stuff. So pulled all this stuff down to an insert stage in La Brea, and all of us guys that made the stuff got to put the masks on, and George came down and Carroll Ballard shot all of these little inserts on little sets that matched what they had in England. We just spent a couple of days putting on masks, and acting and doing all this stuff… it was fun!”

Was George good at giving feedback on the various designs?

“No, he was all very easy. He’d say ‘come up with a bunch of stuff and do as much stuff as you can’.”

Was the atmosphere a lot different on The Empire Strikes Back?

“Everybody was really optimistic about everything because Star Wars was such a huge success, it was fun working on that movie and being able contribute but nobody had any idea that it would be the phenomenon that it was. When George elected to move his operation up north I was more than happy to be a part of it because we all owe him so much – and I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, so it totally worked out for me. Everybody had a really great time, we had a really whacky schedule because we didn’t have a lab in San Francisco – the lab was in Washington – so we’d get our dailies back at two o’clock in the afternoon or something like that, so we couldn’t really do a whole lot of work, so we’d come in late and work ‘til like three or four o’clock in the morning. We played a lot, every Friday was darts and beer, and we would make up projects out in the field and do weird little set ups that had nothing to do with anything – I think at one time we did a false perspective thing with glass that made a B-29 crash into the building, silly stuff like that.”