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[ Episode IV ]

The Early Years
And Then Came Star Wars
The Digital Revolution
Hero of the Federation
Phil Tippett: Hands-On Effects
June 02, 2004

The Early Years

If the 1958 film The Seven Voyages of Sinbad had a toyline, Phil Tippett would not have followed his particular career path. Or so he theorizes upon reflection of the film that influenced him the most. "I would have probably been completely satiated and saturated, and completely happy."

[ Phil Tippett: Hands-On Effects ] Instead, the movie stuck with young seven-year old Tippett, specifically the amazing stop-motion animation by the legendary Ray Harryhausen. "I saw it at the Oak Theater on Solano Avenue in Berkley, and it just completely changed everything. It zapped me like a bolt of electricity. I wasn't the same after that. I just could not figure out how these amazing creatures were brought to life, but I really liked it."

It was a time before movie websites, before online and television documentaries that went behind-the-scenes, before entertainment programming dedicated to peeking past the curtain of movie magic. "That thing percolated in the back of my brain for many years," says Tippett, "It was probably in the early '60s that I ran across a Forrest Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland publication. In that was a very small article and a few pictures on Ray Harryhausen, and how he achieved the stop-motion effects."

From such slim sources, Tippett was able to piece together the magic behind the craft. Stop-motion animation takes advantage of the persistence of vision and the frame-by-frame nature of motion picture film. Moving images are actually a succession of 24 still frames shot in a second. By shooting an inanimate puppet or subject one frame at a time, and moving it slightly between shots, a skilled animator could create the illusion of life. Harryhausen had been awed by the original King Kong, featuring the animation of Willis O'Brien. Tippett would follow a similar path, where the movie magic glimpsed as a young boy would lead him to become a pioneer and effects veteran in his own right.

"When I was 11 or 12, I mowed a lot of lawns and bought a little Keystone 8 mm camera. I would set it up in the garage or in my room, on a little table, and just started animating clay or pipe cleaners or whatever I could find. When G.I.Joes came out on the market, it was like, 'Wow!' They were so articulated that you could do a lot of stuff with them."

These little experimental films didn't see much play beyond Tippett's parents or his friends, but they were a helpful introduction to the time-consuming and tedious craft. These miniatures required subtle manipulations 24 times just to capture a single second's worth of motion. "It was very expensive and it took forever to shoot. You'd send the stuff off to Eastman Kodak, someplace in Rochester, and you'd have to wait three weeks to get it back, and you never knew what you were going to get."

Tippett continued to experiment, finding escape in his little films. "One afternoon, on some terrible science fiction show on TV, there was a guy being interviewed on the show that made a stop-motion movie. His name was Bill Stromberg, and I was able to get in touch with him. He was about 25 years old, and a hobbyist at the time. He made movies on the side, so I became his helper. I would go over to his house every weekend and help him make his 16 mm short films. That provided me with more of a structure and some kind of mentorism."

This led to contacts in the film industry, but at the time visual effects pictures were few and far between. Studios had closed their effects shops as films became increasingly reality-based. Much of the real experience in visual effects could be found in outfits like Cascade Pictures, which focused on commercial work -- accounts like the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Jolly Green Giant. Here, Tippett began his professional work, and would meet a camera operator by the name of Dennis Muren who would also go onto big things. Though none could predict just what lay beyond the horizon.

"I was finishing my B.A. in Art at UC Irvine, doing some work in the gallery when one of the guys I was working with had been in the Navy with Richard Edlund," Tippett recalls. "He said, 'Hey, I've got this friend that's doing this movie, and he needs some help, and I'll have him give you a call.'"

That call was recruiting camera operators for an upcoming space fantasy film helmed by George Lucas. "One thing led to the next. Richard hired Dennis Muren, and Dennis hired Ken Ralston and then it all just kind of began, like a snowball rolling down a hill."


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