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Star Wars effects legend Phil Tippett explains his 30-year nightmare project Mad God

“It’s not like a movie. It really does come from the same place that Biblical visions come from.”

A mummy-like puppet creature in a red coat and sunglasses, about to be hacked up in Phil Tippett’s stop-motion movie Mad God Image: Phil Tippett Studios
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

Anyone who cares about science fiction, fantasy, or action movies from the 1970s to the 1990s grew up with the work of animator and special-effects guru Phil Tippett, whether they know it or not. He’s a legend in the industry, launched into prominence with his stop-motion work on the original Star Wars trilogy, from designing and shooting Chewbacca’s holographic chess set in Star Wars to animating the Tauntauns and AT-ATs in The Empire Strikes Back. His groundbreaking work on both the practical and digital dinosaur effects on Jurassic Park won him an Oscar and gave him the freedom to launch his own studio. It also made him a long-running meme: The film billed him as “Dinosaur Supervisor,” which led internet jokesters to note that he didn’t do his one job, since the dinosaurs escaped and started eating people.

But people who know his work from the buglike aliens in Starship Troopers or the creature effects in Willow or the dragon in Dragonheart have never seen his work like they’ll see it in Mad God, his 30-year stop-motion labor of love. Tippett started shooting the film as a personal project in 1990, then abandoned it when he began work on Jurassic Park, because of the time commitment that film demanded. But he eventually revived it at the urging of some friends who came across his early footage and the puppets he’d created for the project.

Ultimately, he crowdfunded the project on Kickstarter, releasing chapters of the movie for subscribers as work was completed, and working on it with volunteers and industry friends behind the scenes. The finished 82-minute film is a dialogue-free series of nightmare vignettes. An unnamed, gas-masked character (dubbed “the Assassin” in film-festival notes) descends into what appears to be hell, and navigates a series of disturbing horrors on a quest for a mad scientist, played in live action by Repo Man and Sid and Nancy director Alex Cox. Tippett has said the visuals came in part from his study of artists Hieronymus Bosch and Peter Bruegel, but the jittery, anxious sequences, with humanoid and demonic creatures torturing and destroying each other, had more contemporary influences.

“I was inspired by keeping abreast of the news,” Tippett told Polygon in an interview shortly before Mad God’s screenings at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. “Boy, there’s plenty of Bosch and Bruegel on the news every day. That’s what artists do — there’s no way you can get around the environment, the mill that surrounds you that you aren’t even conscious of. We live in a tremendous state of anxiety, all of us, through all this shit that’s going on. And it’s great subject matter.”

Tippett says the original 12-page treatment for the 1990 iteration of Mad God wasn’t a script so much as a description of tone. “There were stations in it. I knew where the stop signs were.” He says the industry friends and helpers who worked on the project with him didn’t really discuss the meanings of the film’s eerie, unsettling sequences, but that they had “like a Joseph Campbell kind of mythological connection between us all as we were working.” Some of the most elaborate sets — like a battlefield the Assassin travels through, where the half-melted corpses of soldiers are piled in high, teetering heaps — took three years for his team of helpers to construct, working on weekends and evenings.

“I got a number of volunteers, some of whom are very skilled artists who worked for me, and they donated their time,” Tippett says. “And then I would get college students, high school students, who would see me coming in to give talks locally, and they would volunteer. So I figured out ways of using all these people to do the heavy lifting, the fiddly work that would have just taken forever. If I had to do it alone, I wouldn’t have done it, because it would have just irritated me. I don’t have the time.”

In spite of the massive changes in effects technology over the course of 30 years, Tippett says his techniques on Mad God weren’t much different from the way he animated the Star Wars holographic chess set back in the 1970s. “I tend not to like to reinvent the wheel, which I’ve had to do a number of times,” he says. “Whenever technology changes, everything changes, so you have to relearn stuff, but these were all very old techniques that digital technology allowed us to use more cheaply.”

A miserable-looking stop-motion monkey strapped to a surgical table stares bleakly at the camera in Mad God Image: Phil Tippett Studios

He did use digital characters in one case. “There was one shot in Mad God that I shot over 30 years ago, and it needed to have some tiny little ant-like characters in it,” he says. “And I couldn’t make them practically, because of the scale. It was a big miniature set, but I needed characters that were [indicates ant size] that big. So we made those digitally for that one shot. You do whatever you need to do. I treated it like a collage, just mixed and matched stuff.”

In terms of how exactly his anxiety about the world manifested into the film, Tippett shrugs. “Well, nothing’s intentional,” he says. “You know, everything comes from the zeitgeist. You don’t even think about it — it’s just like breathing. It’s the world you live in. I’ve pretty much made peace with the world and the people in it. I’m very misanthropic. I don’t hold out any hope for mankind whatsoever, so that’s a pretty big component of the film too. I just don’t see us lasting forever. We’ll be lucky to make it over the next thousand years, I think.”

He says that while he feels the film was heavily influenced by anxiety in the age of Donald Trump — “I live in Berkeley, so you kind of know where my politics are” — trying to bring across any kind of specific political message would be “fascistic filmmaking.” While he loves older political films — “I was just rewatching Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove, and they have some great political moments” — he thinks most movies that try to communicate a specific agenda are dull and pointless.

“In general, everything’s too saccharine for me,” he laughs. “Too Hollywood, you know? It’s just inbred too much, and it’s of absolutely no interest to me at all. Cinema has gotten incredibly boring. […] It’s only about money. It’s not about skill. It’s not about craft, it’s about greed and the American Way. It’s Coca Cola, you know, and just getting as much money as you can out of your massive resources, to make more money to make more crap.”

In spite of his long résumé, Tippett describes himself as “completely fed up” with working on modern movies. “Starship Troopers was the last one I ever had fun on, or enjoyed. I mean, the rest were [raspberry noise]. It just went right downhill after that, for everybody.”

But he still looks back on his Star Wars days with enthusiasm and affection. “Oh God, we were in pig heaven, kids in a candy store!” he says. “We were all in our early 20s. Barely any of us were 30. [Cinematographer] Richard Edlund was the oldest guy in the shop. It was just what we had dreamed of doing since we were kids.

“I hooked up with my first jobs in Hollywood doing TV commercials, which was a great learning ground. It was like a graduate review, you just got to burn through all this stuff really quick. We had really great mentors, and it was really a fun time.

“And then Dennis Muren and Ken Ralston got a job on the night crew of Star Wars, and I was introduced, and helped work on the cantina scene and the chess set, and the chess set took off. So then there was Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and [giddy speeding-up effect noise]. I never worried about work at all, because there was no competition. I could usually see the projects stacking up, because there was so much demand. When there was a big lull, it was just a matter of time before somebody called. None of that stuff caused me any anxiety.”

Tippett’s studio continues to work on current movies and TV, including The Mandalorian, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and The Orville. But he himself isn’t interested in hands-on, primary effects-supervisor roles these days. “I just cannot stand it anymore. Too many micromanagers. It wasn’t that way when I did Troopers or Robocop, or was working with George [Lucas] or Steven [Spielberg]. It was pretty much one-on-one. You’re just working with the filmmaker, and trying to translate what’s on the page, and his direction. That’s the job. I didn’t get to do my own stuff, but the stuff I was working on for all these other guys’ projects was really exciting, because they were all different, you know? Space aliens for one, robots for another, and giant bugs for another. What the hell, you know? That’s a great job!”

Mad God certainly shows that hunger for variety. Virtually every scene introduces a new creature or scenario or setting, in a dizzying blur of horror and destruction and consumption. Asked who the movie is ultimately for besides himself, Tippett laughs.

“I have a lot of different ways of avoiding that question!” he chuckles. “But I think the best one, the most accurate, is that Mad God is an experience. It’s not like a movie. It really does come from the same place that Biblical visions come from.”

That approach explains a lot about Mad God’s freewheeling, stream-of-consciousness feel, and the way so much of its imagery appears to come directly from the darkest places of the id. “That film is from visions that I had, that I could see in my mind,” Tippett says. “I can see things in my mind as three-dimensional objects and rotate around them. It’s very easy for me to make things. I was very talented when I was younger. I’m 70 now, and I’ve just built up so much skill. I just do everything intuitively. I don’t even think about what I’m animating. I just know basically what it needs to do.”

Mad God is currently playing a series of film festival dates around the world. Keep up on the film’s further distribution plans at