The Inverse Interview

Mad God: Star Wars stop-motion maestro Phil Tippett’s wild ride to hell and back

The visual effects titan braved his own subconscious and a trip to the psych ward.

He went to hell and back to make his masterpiece.

And in speaking with special-effects titan Phil Tippett about Mad God, his 30-years-in-the-works Dantean descent of a feature debut, it soon becomes clear this journey took a toll.

“I just started falling apart,” Tippett tells Inverse, stroking a long white beard that alternately makes him resemble Santa Claus and Sophocles. Mad God opens with a quotation from Leviticus, the Bible’s most wrathful volume, and there’s something decidedly Old Testament about Tippett’s appearance over Zoom as well, which he undercuts with flashes of wry humor.

“I hated working on Mad God,” admits the stop-motion maestro, who recently turned 70. “There's that scene that every art student should be shown [in 2013 documentary Tim's Vermeer] where he gets to this point, throws down his instrument, and goes, ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, I hate this! Damn it!’”

Phil Tippett at work in his studio, next to an AT-AT from Empire Strikes Back.The Hollywood Reporter

A VFX wizard in the industry for nearly 50 years, Tippett has designed many of the most memorable special effects in science fiction history. Among his most iconic creations: the Millennium Falcon’s holochess board in Star Wars, the Tauntauns and AT-AT Walkers from Empire Strikes Back, the Rancor in Return of the Jedi, the bugs in Starship Troopers, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and that deadly, malfunctioning ED-209 from RoboCop.

But Mad God is Tippett’s magnum opus, a pilgrimage through the bowels of stop-motion hell that he’s spent the past three decades making. In its opening moments, a steampunk figure sporting a gas mask and trenchcoat — referred to as “The Assassin” in press notes — enters a corroded diving bell and descends through layers of metal and bone. Upon reaching a subterranean world populated by all manner of grotesque creatures, The Assassin sets out on a mysterious mission, only to be seized en route and forcibly transmogrified beyond recognition.

A scene from the trailer for Mad God.Tippett Studio

“If Mad God is about anything, it's about scale and process,” says Tippett. “That's the backbone. It's much more pictorially and sound-art-oriented than a typical Hollywood theatrical feature.”

Tippett compares working on his abstract nightmare to “pursuing your dream then finding out that you're chained to a rock, and there’s a bird eating your liver.” A weary smile flickers across his features as he says this, though he appears deadly serious.

Tippett didn’t detail when exactly his passion for Mad God became inextricable from the anguish it stirred in him. But there was a time in his life when he did little besides labor on the project, meticulously crafting, staging, lighting, and shooting its disturbing images one frame at a time in his California studio.

“I had some sort of psychotic snap at the end, and it sent me to the psych ward for a while,” he explains. “It was just too much. I got too close and got burned.”

A scene from the trailer for Mad God.Tippett Studio

Too close to what, exactly? With its eerie dream logic, Mad God feels like a portal into the darkest recesses of Tippett’s mind. Though he was unaware of it while making the film, Tippett compares his process to Carl Jung’s writing of The Red Book, an extended self-exploration that took the Swiss psychiatrist 16 years to complete. (Read the journal’s short epilogue: “To the superficial observer, it will appear like madness.”)

In his late thirties, Jung had set out to confront his inner psyche, filling an enormous red leather book with abstract, often frantic recollections of visual hallucinations he self-induced in hopes of accessing the “collective unconscious” he believed all people share. Part psychiatric journal, part psychedelic vision quest, The Red Book offered a portal into Jung’s waking fantasies and escalating psychosis.

“That’s a dark journey that Jung took,” says Tippett. “He just went down this path, got lost and terrified, and had to dig his way out, but he was having a hell of a lot of trouble doing it. I think his family intervened and took him to the psychiatrist. And that was pretty much my path.”

Phil Tippett at work in his Berkeley, California studio.Vice

Tippett speaks from a cottage behind his home in Berkeley, California, surrounded by piles of books he’s accrued over a 20-year period, from study materials (Homer’s The Odyssey and photographer Sebastião Salgado’s book Migrations: Humanity in Transition) to markers of his larger-than-life career (sculpture designer Lorne Peterson’s exhaustive Sculpting a Galaxy: Inside the Star Wars Model Shop, to which Tippett contributed an afterword). Many of the books here are notebooks filled with Tippett’s hazy recollections of his dreams.

“I'm throwing it all away,” he says, grinning. “For my own sanity, I’ve got to just put Mad God behind me and say it's done. It's actually been very cathartic, doing that; it's just really important for me to close that chapter and move on.”

But before Tippett can do that, he’ll shepherd Mad God through a lengthy stint on the festival circuit, hopefully ending in a wider U.S. release. The film is still seeking distribution, but festivals have greeted it warmly thus far. It recently played Nightstream, a virtual festival pooling the resources of various US genre festivals, from Boston Underground to Brooklyn Horror, and screens as part of the Chicago International Film Festival on October 22. (Virtual options also exist from October 14-24.)

A scene from the trailer for Mad God.Tippett Studio

After a global premiere in Locarno, Switzerland, Mad God had made its way to a North American premiere at this year’s hybrid Fantasia Film Festival, where Tippett received a hero’s welcome. In addition to winning three awards for Mad God (including two from the audience and one sponsored by magazine L’Écran Fantastique), he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award and taught a virtual masterclass.

But to hear it from Tippett, making Mad God was the one undertaking in his professional career that he’s at a near-total loss to describe — let alone teach. “It was actually Biblical, for lack of a better word,” he says of the process. “We're talking about my spirit being inhabited by this world. And I just got lost. I became a method director and acted pretty much without intention.”

Tippett first started working on Mad God after Robocop 2, for which he led all the visual effects units and designed the memorable Cain robot. At the time, stop-motion was losing its standing as Hollywood’s go-to visual-effects style to computer graphics, and Tippett soon found himself rethinking his professional trajectory.

Phil Tippett at work on a Tauntaun for Empire Strikes Back.Lucasfilm

Mad God became a passion project he’d work on during evenings or days off; serving as producer and director, he could move at his own pace. For the next 20 years, he’d chip away at the project, only for it to take a massive leap forward around 2000 when young animators inspired by Tippett’s work on RoboCop and Star Wars found out about Mad God and volunteered their weekends to help him work. Kickstarter campaigns enabled Tippett to finish Mad God as three short films, though he considers this feature the project’s final form.

Often, creative epiphanies occurred to Tippett in strange, unsettling ways. Pterodactyls fly overhead, and Cain’s eyes and brain from RoboCop 2 materialize briefly out of the film’s steampunk miasma, making Mad God strongly evoke Tippett’s artistic subconscious ripped to shreds and strewn around this hell.

Gruesome creature designs heighten the film’s sense of atrocity exhibition. Faceless ‘Shit-Men’ lope through the debris, a horrifyingly deformed “surgeon” disembowels another abomination in the wasteland, and four gigantic figures appear trapped in a constant state of electrocution. Most horrifying of all is the ‘She-It,’ a sickeningly slug-like creature that howls to reveal a set of human teeth.

A scene from the trailer for Mad God.Tippett Studio

“20 years ago, a friend of mine had inherited a farm from her spinster aunts, who died, and they had an immaculate Victorian house,” explains Tippett, detailing the creature’s origins. “She let me go on a tour of the Victorian house. And in one of the bedrooms on the nightstand was a pint glass. You could see how all of the water had evaporated in it over the years because she left her teeth in it when she cacked, and it just sat there the entire time.”

Tippett made an unusual request. “I asked my friend if I could have them, and she said, ‘Yeah?’” He recalls, chuckling. “I was looking at it, and I turned it upside down and, wham! I got the whole [creature design.] You know, it was all built from the teeth.”

Mad God isn’t even the only stop-motion opus on the festival circuit this year. Takahide Hori’s Junk Head, which took a mere seven years to complete, played opposite Tippett’s film at Fantasia. A similarly apocalyptic sci-fi horror, though far lighter and less opaque, Hori’s film also follows an individual who descends through a war zone before navigating a surreal underworld far below the surface.

Tippett has long maintained that stop-motion lends itself to gestural, even archetypal stories such as these. “The Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert once wrote this great line that encapsulates everything,” says Tippett. “It was that ‘computer graphics look real but feel fake, and stop-motion animation looks fake but feels real.’”

A scene from the trailer for Mad God.Tippett Studio

Though he supervised a chess scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and remained aboard as a consultant for the new Jurassic World films, Tippett has largely avoided the more CGI-driven blockbuster space. “I call it ‘drinking from the firehose,’” says Tippett of the industry’s current, digitized deluge of visual effects. “I don’t go see those movies anymore.”

Even The Mandalorian, for which Tippett Studio provided stop-motion animation, doesn’t appeal to him. “I don't have to do anything on The Mandalorian except show up for photo ops,” says Tippett. “I've been there, done that. It’s like, ‘Why?’ I have no interest in it.” He’ll leave it to the younger animators who came to work with him on Mad God and have stuck around since.

Still, working on Star Wars was a process he’ll always remember fondly. Early in his career, Tippett worked on props for TV commercials in Los Angeles, when he was tapped to join a team of four stop-motion animators being put together by make-up design maestro Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London). Tippett built costumes and helped to realize the Mos Eisley Cantina in A New Hope.

That’s him on stage at the dimly lit Tattooine tavern, wearing an alien mask and miming the Benny Goodman tune "Sing, Sing, Sing" (Lucas's suggestion) as part of the on-stage band. Tippett and Jon Berg collaborated on that holochess board. Both returned to lead Industrial Light & Magic’s animation department on The Empire Strikes Back, developing a technique called “go-motion” to bring the AT-AT Imperial Walkers and alien tauntauns to life.

A scene from the trailer for Mad God.Tippett Studio

Hollywood’s biggest sci-fi names kept calling, especially once Tippett earned his first Oscar nomination in 1981 for using go-motion on Dragonslayer, a dark fantasy epic. After he’d completed the original Star Wars trilogy with Lucas, Tippett met Verhoeven, who enlisted him to realize the metallic dystopia of RoboCop. Steven Spielberg also tapped him to create lifelike dinosaurs for Jurassic Park. Tippett has warm memories of working with all three.

“George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and all of those guys were really great creative managers,” he recalls. “They just hired people and pretty much left them alone. They’d still direct, and Steven could be very specific, but George was really general.”

Still, “Verhoeven put it the best way,” adds Tippett. “He said to imagine he’s the conductor of a symphony orchestra, and I’m the first violinist in the violin concerto. He would make sure that I had everything I needed, then back me up, so that I could do the best job that I could, not to make him look good but to make the symphony sound good.”

To that effect, one can think of Mad God as a deranged, psychologically see-sawing violin solo from a master of the instrument. Tippett brings the full force of his creative mind to bear on one of the most thrillingly subliminal one-person symphonies in stop-motion history.

“If you look back at the equivalent of interviews with, say, Bach and Mozart, they’re asked, ‘How do you create this amazing music?’” Tippett says. “And they say, ‘I just transcribed it. God told me what to do.’ Mad God was that.”

Mad God screened at Nightstream this month. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.