Phil Tippett’s MAD GOD

|Joe Midthun|

Tippett on the right painting a medium-sized model of the Rancor monster. The monster has a hunched back with bumps, long fingers, and claws, and a chunky head. Its color pallet is black, brown and dirt yellow.

Mad God plays at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, November 4 through Sunday, November 6. Visit for tickets and more information.

A special effect is a tool, a means of telling a story. A
special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.

George Lucas, From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga, CBS/FOX VIDEO, 1983

If you want to take a good shit, you have to eat well.

Phil Tippett, quoting Milos Forman

I grew up in the middle of the woods.

Twelve miles south of the nearest rural village, my world lay tucked into the pines at the end of a quarter mile dirt driveway. The radio was constantly on—a helpful reminder that we were not alone. But, the television, our 19 inch crystal ball, also transmitted an instant fuzzy glimpse of the outside world. From the television guide in the previous week’s Sunday paper I was far too obsessed with, future programs could be gleaned up to a week ahead of time. I spent hours tracing my fingers across the black and white page, scanning the blocks of fascinating programs on exotic cable channels our antenna would never receive over the air. 

In my household, sitting down was a luxury. Sitting down in front of the television was a rare celebration. My sisters and I were proficient lobbyists and tenacious at that. I had been working over my parents all week with the help of my sisters, and when 8|7 Central rolled around on a chilly November 21, 1983, we were ready. Snuggled into the couch with my family and bathed in the cool glow of the cathode rays shot from the television set, I clutched my new favorite toy: the ferocious Rancor monster, a spiked hard plastic “teddy bear” from the Star Wars universe.

I was five years old as of a month before. In my mind, life had only truly begun that preceding summer, upon seeing Return of the Jedi in “a theater near you.” This evening’s program, Classic Creatures: Return of the Jedi, was a documentary special hosted by Carrie Fisher and Billy Dee Williams. A gaggle of visual effects artists and crafters illuminated the screen as they worked to bring the latest penultimate vision of George Lucas to the silver screen. 

But for me, the real star of Star Wars was Phil Tippett.

The thirty-something head of Industrial Light & Magic’s Creature Effects department, with bright chroma red hair and a shy-but-sassy sensibility, expounded on his rejected maquettes (tiny concept sculptures) of Jabba the Hutt (the giant slug-like gangster) and Sy Snoodles (a leggy egg-shaped gogo singer).

The handheld camera hovered around the manic Tippett as he sculpted and puppeted to life a beautiful and messy version of the creature I held in my hands. This man had used a process I was vaguely familiar with—stop motion animation—to create stunning images. The Dejarik table (holographic chess) in Star Wars, the trusty Tauntauns, and the giant AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back were all brought to life, at least partially, by Tippett’s hands. Before the credits rolled, I was already plotting to construct a working “Rancor Cage” for my anatomically inarticulate toy.

The author as a child sitting in front of a prototype model for a Rancor cage.

Over the next few years, I watched as Tippett brought the horrors of our collective nightmares to life: dinosaurs, dragons, monsters, and killer robots. They all clashed across the screen with a unique brutality I recognized from nature. Looking back on some childhood artwork I have managed to save, the messaging that I was receiving around this time was definitely mixing in just the right ways, if you ask me. I can only imagine how many similar drawings have been produced by other young media fanatics.

A children's drawing by the author showing the Rancor monster and a few humanoid stick figures. The word Joe Jedi is prominently featured on the top right.

If you want to believe, Disney’s Light & Magic documentary series (2022) details the history of the fabled visual effects church, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). Founded in 1975 with George Lucas’s pocketbook and lauded as a collective of genius Generalists, ILM continues to be a major player in motion picture visual effects. To a budding fan like me in the 80’s, it seemed that ILM was everywhere that was anywhere. Tippett Studio was animating everything using stop motion as well as a new technique created by Tippett and ILM called “go motion.”

Traditional stop motion animation involves shooting a puppet frame-by-frame and moving the puppet slightly for each exposure. Surface gauges (familiar to engineers) can be used to reference precise positions in 3D space. The resulting sequence of images creates the illusion of movement. However, it lacks the motion blur that live-action photography captures. Also, it is very delicate work: the slightest mishap—a bumped puppet, camera, or light—can ruin a shot.

Motion blur can be simulated by smearing petroleum jelly on a glass plate in front of the camera at certain frames. Alternatively, a layer of 2D animated motion blur can be superimposed over the image with an optical printer.

Go motion added computer-aided motion control to the stop motion process, via servos connected to a rod puppet. Adding capabilities for even more precise movement and mechanical in-camera blur, this innovation produced a smoother and more realistic image. It also made the process more complex, furrowing the brows of executives everywhere.

In 1993, Jurassic Park wowed audiences with cutting edge computer-generated imagery (CGI) from ILM combined with practical animatronics fashioned by another visual effects master, Stan Winston. While the rest of the world was marveling at how amazing the dinosaurs were (and they were), as a devotee of Tippett, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. I was expecting a go motion magnum opus. His earlier gig work animating late Cretaceous North American fauna on another program called Dinosaur! was so tactile that I yearned to see these creatures inhabiting Crichton’s lost world, especially because Jurassic Park was backed by a Hollywood blockbuster budget.

A T-Rex dinosaur model illuminated from the top. The logo of Tippett Studio marks this image in the bottom right.

Tippett’s Jurassic Park production credit as Dinosaur Supervisor was almost as cryptic as the technologies he would create for the film. The Dinosaur Input Device, or DID, was a motion capture armature that allowed Tippett and his fellow stop motion animators a direct pipeline to assist in the computer animation.

In filmmaking as an industry, visual effects would never be the same. Worse yet, Tippett halted the production of his clandestine and true animation masterpiece, MAD GOD.

According to Tippett, after Jurassic Park, stop motion animation went “extinct.”

After two decades of introspection, and at the behest of his fellow animators who caught a glimpse of the shelved footage, Tippett launched a series of successful Kickstarter bids to fund the production of MAD GOD.

Over the next few years, Tippett Studio released 3 short episodes of MAD GOD and secured funding to complete the project as a feature film. As one Kickstarter backer of 4337, I chipped in a measly $25. All together $231,568 was raised to continue the production where Tippett had left off. The result, over thirty years in the making, is the definition of spectacular, honest, and hard-to-watch animation.

Tippett explains that with MAD GOD, he intended to make a film with no intent. I see it as an experimental counterpoint to the ol’ Lucas chestnut that “a special effect without a story is boring.”

While there is no dialogue in MAD GOD, the film speaks fluent cinema. The soundscape, woven by sound designer Richard Beggs and composer Dan Wool, conjures a foreboding sense of sentimentality, reinforcing the iconic scope and scale of the image.

A golden tower with a circular stairway in front of a glowing red sun that marks a blood red sunset. A figure stands on top of the tower. Grey and black clouds are in the sky.

The imagery treads the thin line between gorgeous and grotesque, spilling over to each side before you can catch your breath. Make no mistake, the basest and rudest elements are on full display. From the first shot of an alter-universe Babel moonlighting as a perceived homage to the near century old opening of 1933’s King Kong, the prolonged and graphic vivisection of the protagonist that might make Gasper Noe cry “uncle,” to the chaotic rush of the finale channeling pure 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tippett embraces forbidden colors and holds them longer than others dare.

Like all of Tippett’s work, MAD GOD is iconic. There is at least one pulsing truth at the core surging throughout the images as they flit toward us and then pass: The illusion of time conquers all. And, although it is a comparatively tiny voice against the titans of industry and the masses that consume and replicate their instantly gratifying content, MAD GOD minces no words.

The film has been exalted by critics and fans alike, and this weekend’s screening at the Trylon marks its final stop on a year-long US/UK tour. 

While some might steer clear of MAD GOD for fear of witnessing darkness and despair, I am drawn back again and again. I can only see a new hope.

A fuzzy, ape-like creature is strapped to a laboratory table. It is looking up and over its right shoulder. The setting is saturated in various shades of blue.

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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