A pair of false teeth in a pint glass, students in his house on Saturdays, building it “bit by bit”. As Fantasia honors him with a Lifetime Achievement award, stop motion master Phil Tippett tells animation correspondent Kambole Campbell what it took to bring his 30-year Mad God vision to life.
Mad God is Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy’ as interpreted by stop motion puppets; a perverse mirror of creation myth, and an exploration of humanity’s self-destructive history, made over 30 years by an award-winning visual effects supervisor and producer Phil Tippett.
Even if you don’t recognize his name, you’d recognize his work. Tippett has been celebrated with an Honorary Career Award at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival for his decades-long output in stop motion and creature design, on films including the original Star Wars trilogy, Jurassic Park (where he’s famously credited as “Dinosaur Supervisor”), and RoboCop, for which he helped develop the ED-209.
Mad God, Tippett’s passion project as director—which was funded through Kickstarter by his many, many fans—is full of weird and horrible creatures and depraved, profane acts occurring in the wasteland. Rather than try to reason it out, all viewers can do is go along for the ride; to descend one level deeper and see what the hell kind of messed up thing awaits.
The film is more stop motion nightmare than dream journal. It feels both radical, and also appropriately old school, considering the age of the project and Tippett’s foundational position in the film industry.
Letterboxd: I was struck by the nature of Mad God as a collage. At points it felt like journeying through a William Blake painting, among other things. What led to this approach?
Phil Tippett: It was identical to a lot of religious experiences. Mad God came to me over 30 years ago as a flash, and I wrote out a treatment that was mostly just tone. It didn’t specify characters or anything like that. And that was my jumping off point. I had shot about three minutes of footage after we completed RoboCop 2. I had a crew and we shot on 35mm film. I realised the scale of the project was way too big, and I lost my crew. And so it went on hiatus for the next twenty years, while I was having to do my day job: going to production meetings and going on location and doing the digital effects for various movies. In the meantime, in my time off, I did a lot of studying.
My wife [Jules Roman] worked in the editorial department on Amadeus, and so we would go out to dinner with [director] Miloš Forman. As a young filmmaker, I asked him if he’d give me some advice, and he gave me the best advice I’ve ever gotten, which is: “If you want to take a good shit, you have to eat well”. ‘Oh, I totally get it.’ And that validated this twenty year period of just putting it on simmer and working it.
Then I went back to the treatment, continually adjusting, doing various creature designs. A huge amount of adjusting. ‘It could be this, it could be that.’ I did that for twenty years. I have a pretty extensive library and so, I read a lot of Freud, Milton, Dante, art history, archeology and paleontology. So I fed myself for twenty years.
Around 2000, some of the guys that worked for me were inspired by Star Wars and RoboCop, but the train had left the station, so they had to be computer graphics artists because they were very accomplished picture makers. So they offered to do a couple of shots for Mad God. I had saved the puppets and so we built the set, and did the scene where The Assassin is going down the stairs and he’s got a torch he’s holding that kinda looks like the Statue of Liberty’s. And then one thing led to the next and I acquired a crew from all different fields. Guys from work would come down on the weekends or their time off.
I did a lot of talks around the San Francisco Bay. On Saturdays, I would invite the people from the schools to come in. They had no skill, per se, so it was just getting experience. I would advise them, and I would spend a certain amount of the week figuring out processes for what they could do, and then they would accomplish those tasks, but very glacially.
There’s one scene with mountains of dead soldiers, and I used thousands of little army men, and they would melt them onto these wire structures. And that took three years to complete, with six people working on Saturdays.
The end result really did blow my mind. It may be the most hellish thing I’ve watched this year.
It’s actually interesting because I showed it to Jon Favreau, who’s doing The Mandalorian. And he called me back and he was ecstatic, he absolutely loved it. He hired me to do key art for the sets on The Mandalorian, which looked like Mad God.
Was there a favourite set that you worked on?
It was all kind of done as a whole. In terms of the creature design, there was a character that I hadn’t figured out what it was going to look like yet. I had a friend who inherited a farm from her spinster aunts, and she gave us a tour of the old Victorian house, just immaculate. In one of the bedrooms, there was a pint glass, and you could see where the water had evaporated, and at the bottom was a really nice pair of false teeth. I asked her if I could have them, so I pulled them out and I was looking at them, and I found that when I turned them upside-down, that gave the look. I knew if I just built around that, the character would just summon itself.
Was that how a lot of the film came to you?
Yeah, some of the things. I have puppets from twenty years ago that are somehow still intact, so I used some of them. I have a pretty big collection of stop motion maquettes from various things that I had done so I built with those. I used all kinds of different stop motion puppet techniques like filling them up with foam rubber or casting them in latex or silicone. It was a lot of work.
I’m an admirer of the work of Joseph Cornell, who was a surrealist artist in the ’30s and ’40s. He made these immaculate boxes, hundreds of them, with objects, like a collage of various things. He would mine antique stores and junk shops for stuff to put in his boxes. For instance, he might go into a junk shop and find this stuffed yellow parrot, and so without having any idea what that could be used for—well, he had a slight inkling—he paid his 25 cents and took it home and put it in his box next to green parrots and blue parrots.
Usually he would be working on three or four projects at the same time because you have a lot of time to let this stuff grow. which is very similar to me. Just have three or four sets going, and just slowly let my unconscious decide what direction I was going. I never really worked at all from intention. There is a certain amount of intention that goes into it, of course, turning it into something that you can actually watch. I did the same thing, I collected tons and tons of stuff over that twenty year period—and I already had a lot of stuff—so they became a lot of the props that I used in the movie.
Was there a sequence that was particularly complicated to piece together?
No, they were all complicated. You can just never predict. Sometimes you think things are going to take a long time, but they come together relatively quickly. Other times, you think you’ve got something simple and it ends up not being so simple.
Did anything change between the feature version and the shorts?
Nothing. We did three chapters with Kickstarter, and those are the three chapters that we put out for people to buy, and then things started to take shape. You know Stanislavski, the great Russian stage director? Very famous modern theatre director. He came over to the United States and was giving some classes, and one student asked, “How do you block the scene? It’s just so complicated, there are so many moving parts.” And in his Russian accent, he said, “You do it bit by bit.” And that introduces the nomenclature of script writing, as “beat”. So “beat” equals pause.
But what he was actually saying, that was lost in translation a little there, was “bit by bit”. So you get your stage, you have it built, you have your actors go round and see where they want to go. And you can direct actors by lighting. They will always seek light. The vision is just too big to comprehend all at once, so you just have to do it bit by bit.
You composited in some real actors alongside your puppets. What sparked the idea to have live actors alongside these creations?
Well, I needed it. There’s not much plot so I had to be very careful about how I advance the narrative. If Mad God is about anything, it’s about scale and process, and that’s what some of the subject matter is. The throughline for the whole thing is essentially inspired by evolution. The making of things that get transformed into other things. Characters like The Assassin, who gets caught, and essentially raped, and becomes a victim. They call out the doctor and nurse to have this guy anaesthetised, and they go in and they’re pulling all this stuff out.
Eventually, after quite a while, they just keep pulling out stuff, books, jewellery, and throwing them on the floor. It gets to these creepy, organic, buggy things, and the doctor extracts this one wormy screaming thing that’s screeching like a baby. He throws it into a tray that the nurse takes down the corridor to a big metal door that opens, and the alchemist comes out, which is all shot at high speed, about 120 frames a second.
It was just about building it bit by bit.