Creative designer, Phil Tippett and his crew were inspired to build some 75 to 100 different monsters for Return of the Jedi.
Tippett's film career spans some 10 or 12 yearsmost of it at Industrial Light and Magic. He got his "high school training" at Cascade Productions in Hollywood in the early seventies along with several others: Greg Jein, Dennis Muren, Bill Hedge, Jim Danforth, Dave Allen, and Tom St. Amandto drop a few names. Some of Tippett's first work appeared in commercials for Pillsburyeveryone's favorite doughboyand for Green Giant with everyone's favorite Li'l Sprout.
Now officially billed as "creative designer" on The Return of The Jedi, he feels that he is getting his advanced degree. After two solid years on the project he believes he is beginning to resemble his creatures: "potatoes for brains."
It is hard to imagine a potato head dreaming up any of the monsters that inhabit the same galaxy as Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. Tippett insists, "I think fear motivated me. George (Lucas) said, 'You have six months. Hurry up. GO!' They came from really practical and pragmatic considerations. They were inspired by terror." And yet, they are not the kind of creatures that appeared in Alien or The Thing." Tippett continues, "I think my monsters are a lot more fun monsters than the ones in those two films. They are not insidious or insipid. They aren't monsters that are inspired by cancer of the liver or something like that. They are more like the ones that cause you to knock over your cup of coffee or cause your shoelaces to break. They're annoying little gremlinsstupid monsters."
Out of a menagerie of a hundred faces, some take on a little more character than others. "There are favorites. There is a little band in the film made of creaturesjust stupid looking monsters that play ridiculous instruments. I like the lead vocalist a lot. She looks like an egg on stilts and she has these big red lips that sing."
All the creatures started out as little clay sculptures anywhere from two to six inches tall. There were not any sketches or drawings. "All the doodling was done in three dimensions. The things were going to end up in clay anyway and we were going to be building them ourselvesso we just short cut the system. Besides, we are all better sculptors than we are draftsmen."
Hundreds of little terrors were given clay form and presented to George Lucas. "George would point his finger at one and say, 'No throw it out;' then he would point his finger at another one and say 'Yeah, keep that one!' After three or four months we had a menagerie of 40 or 50 creatures. We weren't sure how they were going to be used, but they were in. They were just ideas that George liked. From them he would define the characters. This one would be a Gamorrean Guard. That one would be an Admiral Ackbar. He knew what he had in mind for the script, but we weren't sure what we were designing."
Lucas did not want anyone to know. In order to insure secrecy, he had the creature shop set up in an area that was isolated from the rest of ILM. The company was working on several other productions when work began on the creatures and Lucas did not want to take any chances with monsters escaping. Tippett could not even tell his wife what he was doing.
Once the creatures were okayed by Lucas and it was determined what size they would be, the next thing was to figure out how the creature would move. Tippett explains, "We would draw all that out on paper and do blue prints for the armatures. We had to figure out whether it was going to be suspended from wires or be operated from underneath the set or from behind the wall. And some of them were people in suits."
"Then we would start sculpting the creatures. Concurrently, the articulation would begin. Say a creature had big blue eyes, a mouth that protrudes way outside of his head and long cow-like earsall of these things would have to move. Stuart Ziff, who helped develop the go-motion system, was in charge of articulating all of the features. He made the mouths move and the eyes blink. Then molds would be made and rubber would be cast around the articulated joints. Everything would be glued together and painted. Most of the things were operated externally by cables."
"We came up with a number of creatures that we used with the main shooting unit over in England and in the Forest. Those were primarily "background" monsters that were just slip cast latex masks that go over performer's heads. They looked like other faces instead of human faces. In addition to that we came up with a number of puppets and body costumes that would alter the human form so it didn't look like a guy in a costume walking around."
In England, Tippett helped supervise a crew of over 30 mimes and puppeteers. He had very little time to operate any of the creatures until he began work with the Rancor Pit Monster. Originally this was thought to be a perfect candidate for go-motion, but as it turned out, ILM chose to use a puppet. It was about 15 to 20 inches tall and was animated by a crew of three to five people. Tippett donated his hand for the head of the monster, described as being "part potato and part bear." Tom St. Amand was the monster's arms and David Sousalla worked the feet. The monster was photographed at high speeds to give it weight and scale. That posed an interesting problem for the animators.
"We had to move three times faster just to get a move down. It was funny coming right off the walkers (ATATScouts) which you have to approach as a stop motion animator. For Rancor we had to use the same sort of motions that an animator would, because you can't just stop and start a move. You have to fade gently in and out of moves. That can be very difficult when the scene you're doing is 48 frames long. You have to make all your movesthe creature looks up, looks to the right and opens his mouthin a third of a second. It doesn't give you a great deal of time to finesse it like you can when you have an hour or so between frames. It was real interesting thinking on your feet as opposed to thinking like an animatorlike a snail."
Thinking slowly and meticulously is part of the art of stop-motion animation. At ILM stop-motion has been raised to new heights and renamed go-motion. The system was experimental on Empire and perfected for DragonSlayer. It is used extensively in Return of The Jedi for the walkers. Tippett explains why the walkers were perfectly suited for the go-motion system: "The walkers are big lumbering creatures that use a single means of locomotion. Essentially, in an afternoon we could create a walk cycle program (on the computer) and use that throughout the show, with some minor variations."
A walk cycle program is much easier to construct for a purposely mechanical creature than it would be for Tippett's pet dinosaur. "It is the same cycleleft foot forward, right foot forwardover and over, multiplied so you get the thing walking 50 or 60 steps. A walker is made out of nuts and bolts and right angles. You don't care that it lacks self-motivating or thinking qualities. We did try to anthropomorphize them a bit to take the curse off the mechanical thing."
Go-motion essentially combines the art of stop-motion animation and motion control photography. The result is a very precisely registered movement through each frame. The combination of the precise registration and the slight blur from moving the puppet with the shutter open eliminates the static look of the typical stop-motion effects shot. Go-motion would be perfect for that "primo dinosaur movie."
"Just one, it just has to have one dinosaur," Tippett sighs wistfully. Sounds like the perfect touch for the next Indiana Jones movie.