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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All the really ambitious stop motion is in Empire, did you feel daunted by that?

“No, it was a challenge, it was exciting. Jon Berg worked really closely with Joe Johnston and did a prototype of the walker, and I think the whole onus of stop motion was that it was something from Ray Harryhausen’s day and it was just used on a few pictures in the Fifties and Sixties and shunted to a gulag of ‘Oh, that’s a low budget thing’. With Star Wars and Empire being quote-unquote a picture, the bar had to be raised and we didn’t know exactly how to do until we thought, ‘The walkers are mechanical, and that would work with stop motion – if you it right it can look convincingly mechanical’, and we’d been thinking all along – and I could tell when watching the in flight spaceships on A New Hope – that the motion control technology had a very clear application to stop motion. Throughout the history of stop motion people have been trying to figure out different ways of adding blur to the things – you know, Starewicz did it in like the Twenties – so it was kinda a no brainer, so we had to find a way of hooking the Tauntaun up – which was a live animal and had to run quickly – to a motion control camera so that when the Tauntaun moved you’d get a motion blur.”

Which was your favourite scene to work on?

“We were like kids in a candy shop – it was like, ‘Oh wow, this is everything we wanted to do’, so the walkers and the Tauntauns were our main big deal but Probot would be ready and we’d throw together a set really quickly, someone would get the smoker – who was Patty our receptionist at that time, and a bunch of us would just get together and shoot the shot. Okay, we got it, let’s move on. I’d do little things like… Ken Ralston was on the night crew, and I built this little pterodactyl thing out of wire – and he animated that in the swamp to give it a little bit more atmosphere and stuff like that. And Jon Berg and Joe Johnston, just on the weekend, put together a little two-legged snow walker as a throwaway thing. We would always be doing stuff like that, we’d be looking at the dailies of the Wampa snow creature and the thing just looked stupid, we implored George, ‘That can’t in your movie – let us do something else’, and he said ‘Okay, do something else then and let me take a look at it’. We just threw something together and went out in the parking lot and shot it, it’s kinda funky but it’s better than what it was.”

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Was there anything you worked on that didn’t turn out quite as you hoped it would?

“Everything, you know. You’re so anatomically focused on everything you can see how it would be a mistake. George is really good about that, with the walkers or just about anything, if you allowed him to he could find an editorial fix and just cut a scene where it was weak. Because the strength of the idea for the scenes of the walkers was so strong, that turned out good and successful, the Tautaun was more ‘hmmmmm’… it was a first stab because we were inventing something that later worked, but I don’t think those shots were as good as the walkers. The Tauntaun too was just a throwaway thing, it was like a horse so it didn’t really play, those were just shots, but if you have a strong theme you can get away with mediocre work [laughs] and the thing still works.”

How much freedom did you have to come up with these things?

“They were pretty well worked out on storyboard with Joe Johnston and Nilo Rodis, they were the art department, then later they came out and Dennis and Ken and Jon Berg and I were all friends at that time, we could say ‘Hey, what if we did this? What if we did that?’ or ‘Oh god, we can’t do this and we can’t do that!’. So we’d all get together and manage to put our two cents in but everything that we shot was laid out in storyboards and George was a big proponent of animatics, which have become previews today, and he would shoot those storyboards and drop them into the film. We had the animation department – and this is the TV animation department – do like very rough pencil drawing cartoons of some of the action, those guys had fun with them, so there’d be these shots of a giant walker walking in the foreground, and a walker that was animated like a deer, leaping through the frame in the background.”

In terms of special effects, it felt like the Star Wars films gathered together the best of what was available and then pushed it even further – how did they change the landscape of visual effects?

“What was really fun about it is that we used every trick in the book, then of course John Dykstra had been working up then motion control technology which added a significant amount of impact to the whole repertoire of tricks. We did tricks with glass, with mirrors, with false perspective, all the stuff that had pretty much been invented back in the Twenties, near the inception of film itself , so there were all these tried and true techniques that we’d done as kids, made our own home movies and tried out all this stuff in the garage, and now somebody was paying us to do it. It was a really good time and everybody remembers it really fondly, compared to today, and I’ve got a lot of people in my studio who bemoan the fact that they’re not a part of this legacy that we shot and put in this movie, because everything’s in a little box now. It was very collaborative and everybody had a really good time together.”

Star Wars Complete Saga Blu-ray box set is available September 12 from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, price £67.49, and SciFiNow’s collector’s edition Star Wars issue is available now from all good newsagents and online from the Imagineshop.