Special effects innovator Phil Tippett worked with some of the biggest blockbusters of the 1980s and 1990s – including “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Jurassic Park.”
But even those enormous hits didn’t come close to last weekend’s $142.8 million opening for the “Twilight” sequel “New Moon,” with its snarling visual-effect wolves that were animated at the Berkeley-based Tippett Studio.
Tippett, whose creations include the AT-AT snow walkers from “The Empire Strikes Back” and the ED-209 robot from “RoboCop,” took a break from working on the movie version of “Eclipse” (next in the “Twilight” series) for an interview in his conference room – surrounded by models, memorabilia and movie posters associated with the films he’s worked on over the past three decades.
Q: Which movie had tighter security on the set, “Return of the Jedi” or “New Moon”?
A: For “Return of the Jedi,” I was totally oblivious to all the fandom. I didn’t notice anything, and most of the work was done on pretty secured sets. For “New Moon,” it was unbelievable.
It was like a CIA operation. Some of the locations we would go to, the production would be so concerned about fooling the paparazzi, they would take the arrows pointing to the location and turn them the other way. We were actually getting lost.
Q: Did you do much wolf-related research for the movie?
A: We nailed it down early that these were not going to be traditional beast-y horror movie things. ... We watched a lot of documentaries and looked at every single picture book out there on wolves.
My co-supervisor, Matt Jacobs, took a bunch of the art department and animators to a wolf preserve outside of Los Angeles. They got into a pen about the size of this room with about 10 wolves and just spent the afternoon with them.
Q: This sequel was made in less than a year. Was your workload insane?
A: It was actually kind of fun. ... It kind of harked back a little bit to the Roger Corman days. With the vast amount of money these things make, we don’t get paid much – and the speed with which you work, you have to rely on your skill and just get it done.
That’s actually a lot more of a creative kind of milieu to work in as opposed to these hundred-million-dollar movies, where there are 50 executives worried about everything.
Q: What’s your favorite Roger Corman memory?
A: I was working on “Piranha” and we were shooting all this mayhem, with all these swimmers. Dailies would go back to Los Angeles and Roger would call.
Joe Dante, the director, would be on the phone saying, (sounds exasperated) “OK … OK … OK, Roger … fine, Roger … OK, fine, thanks.” After the conversation was over, we would immediately ask what Roger wanted. Joe would say “He just said 'more blood.’ “ He wanted more blood on everything.
Q: What’s the last movie you’ve seen with no special effects or visual effects in it?
A: I don’t think they make them anymore. Probably “The Informant,” although I bet you there were visual effects and I just didn’t notice it. I thought that movie was terrific.
Q: Is there a movie that you did good work on that no one talks about?
A: Probably “RoboCop 2,” which was a terrible movie doomed from the very beginning, but I look back fondly now because it was the biggest stop-motion (film) since “Mighty Joe Young” in terms of number of shots and complexity. And Craig Hayes’ design was so cool.
Q: You have the full-size ED-209 in one of your warehouses. Has anyone offered to buy it?
A: Some British group came by and wanted to buy a bunch of stuff. And I actually thought about it for 20 minutes. It was a lot of money.
Q: And you didn’t do it?
A: No. It’s my junk. Plus, if it’s worth that much now …