Building the Perfect Beast

Special-effects wizard Phil Tippett--creator of Starship Troopers' murderous bugs--envisions the digital future.

No matter what you think of the Star Wars influence on the art of movies in general, George Lucas brought a Yankee tinker's obsessiveness and inventiveness into the realm of fantasy--and his diverse followers have carried on that legacy. That's what gives their work on dull or silly projects its own integrity. Even if you can't stay awake through Casper, you have to recognize that it's a milestone for computer-graphics characters. Dragonheart may be a pale medieval dilute, but the dragon itself is a marvel of expressive design.

Maybe one reason Tippett has survived the industry shakeouts is that his studio has maintained the owner-operator spirit. His partners in Tippett Studio are his wife, producer Jules Roman (the company's vice president), and design-collaborator Hayes (who carries the title of art director and visual-effects supervisor). Davison sums up their approach: "They hire artists and train them to use technology, as opposed to people who hire experts in technology and then try to force the art."

Tippett's currently working on effects shots for Virus, with Jamie Lee Curtis and Alec Baldwin, and Disney's big-screen My Favorite Martian, starring Christopher Lloyd. His next all-out project, tentatively called Expedition, could be an artistic breakthrough for the same computerized image-making that almost put him out of business. As far as the plot goes, he and producer Davison will say little more than it's "about an expedition to another world." If Tippett gets his way, everything in it will be computer-generated, including its human characters. Of course, Toy Story was fully computer-generated, too. But that was a family cartoon (albeit one with 3-D depth of animation), and its humans were deliberately peripheral and more two-dimensional than its toys. Tippett insists that he can bring off Expedition as an adult feature whose computer-generated protagonists are as complex as humanity. If he does, he will open uncharted realms of expression for high-tech artisans.

For the audience, this could mean new levels of pop transcendence. Look at it this way: If all goes according to plan, this movie will have the mesmeric effect on moviegoers in 2001 that 2001 had in 1968. Tippett has conceived it as a visual tour de force, but in an opposite direction from that sci-fi classic. Kubrick achieved a documentary dystopia with remarkably detailed miniatures and full-scale props; he persuaded audiences of the hollowness of future men and the vitality of diverse space vehicles and a super-computer, HAL. In a sense, HAL will be making Expedition. Even Kubrick in 2001 couldn't pull off the emergence of a "star child." All the (non-stoned) audience saw was an aged human abruptly become a giant bulbous-headed baby in a clear-skinned egg. But if Kubrick's aesthetic had contained and unified every aspect of human and alien behavior and design, he might have convinced the most hardened skeptics. The computer makes that overarching control possible.

On Expedition, Tippett has assumed Kubrick's challenge of "taking audiences to places they've never been before." Although he won't divulge any details, he's got a fix on his goals. He refuses to make his animated figures merely mimic humans. His background is in fine art, not computers; he thinks that any attempt "to get a photographically representational human being that looks and acts like a real live person" would end up "boring" or "grotesque." He wants his computer-graphics dramatis personae to be stylized and of a piece and to contain potent emotion. Tippett feels that special-effects films risk crippling live actors, who can't interact with their environment when they're emoting in front of a blue screen. But a computer actor in a computer set, in Tippett's view, "doesn't miss anything; he's just reacting to a different kind of vision." Tippett's dream computer-graphics feature would have the texture of a painting--not an "action painting," he quips, "but an action-picture painting."

The attempt is full of paradoxes, but paradox is Tippett's brain's default mode. Despite a project that sums up the state of intelligence (artificial and otherwise) in the world of movie arts and crafts, he contends that he's "no visionary." While saying he's "technologically indifferent," Tippett is driving his studio to a serrated cutting edge. He still adores Harryhausen's home-grown surrealism and believes that it's crucial for filmmakers to connect with what thrilled them as children. But with computers, he pushes his own monsters and robots past the jitteriness and funkiness that are part of the old artifacts' charm.

Tippett is wide open to radical developments, including nano-technology (building products, even living things, from the atom up): "In my wildest dreams, if it didn't have these worse-than-nuclear implications, it'd be great. I was reading a book about how, in the nano-future, making things would be more like cooking. That's what I would like--to pour things in bowls and mix them up and put them in the oven and turn on the temperature and wait." And when he got the goop out of the oven, would he still put his hand in it? "Maybe you could talk to it; that would be fine too."

Tippett abhors any novelty, digital or otherwise, for its own sake. When he's viscerally engaged, he feels he taps into his (and perhaps the collective) unconscious--images and feelings that exist in millennial man's psyche but could also be seen at the dawn of art: "You want something possibly magical or deeply mythological to emerge, and the skills and level of imagination you're using go back to the Lascaux Caves.

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