BEHIND THE SCENES
He Creates Monsters
How Jurassic Park’s special-effects whiz brings AR beasts to life.
HoloGrid: Monster Battle AR
AR Tactical Strategy Game
Phil Tippett has been on the cutting edge of every form of physical and digital visual effects in filmmaking for more than 40 years.
You’ve seen his work in the Star Wars and Jurassic Park movies, and in Ted, and in the acclaimed independent film series he directed, Mad God. As an early member of George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic in the 1970s (and his own Tippett Studio, founded in 1984), he earned multiple Emmys and Oscars.
Tippett has been carving and sculpting otherworldly monsters in one form or another—sometimes with his bare, calloused hands—since he was in elementary school.
Among his most recent work: hand-forming all the creatures in the AR (augmented reality) game HoloGrid: Monster Battle AR.
Like other AR apps and games, HoloGrid uses the cameras and sensors on newer iPhones and iPads to let you view digitally rendered characters as though they were in the world around you. Think of the game as a mashup of chess, collectible card games, and turn-based strategy—with alien creatures running amok in your backyard.
Although Tippett downplays his contribution (“I am probably the least technically adept person in my entire company, and I had really little to do with the development of HoloGrid,” he insists), Mike Levine, the CEO of the game’s developer, HappyGiant, tells a different story.
“Phil’s work is at the very heart of this game,” Levine says. “We took the models he made and 3D-scanned them. But because he made each character by hand, the game has a handcrafted look rather than a polygonal look. It looks like nothing else out there because of his mastery and artistry.”
Because he made each character by hand, the game has a handcrafted rather than polygonal look.
—Mike Levine, CEO of HoloGrid developer HappyGiant
A monster of a job
At the Berkeley, California, headquarters of Tippett Studio (more than 100 employees strong), Tippett has turned his office into a conference room. Posters and props from RoboCop; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; Starship Troopers; and dozens of other movies he and his team have worked on cover the walls and surfaces. One of his Academy Awards serves as a doorstop.
Sitting at a workbench, he uses a syringe to inject a small mummylike creature with latex, plumping up its body before carving out its innards. The character is intended for Mad God, the film series Tippett makes in between blockbuster movies, TV ads, theme park rides, and projects in virtual and augmented reality. Some of these characters guest-star in HoloGrid—like Gamayun, an armless green reptile with bulging eyes and a sharp beak.
“There has really never been anything I wanted to do other than make creatures and movies,” he says, “and I’ve just never given up on that.”
After high school, Tippett studied art instead of film for practical reasons: The tuition was lower. “It was inadvertently the best thing I could have done,” he says. “Art can be anything that you can think of and put together, of any material or medium. It expanded my view, and it taught me how to actually build things with my hands.” Tippett went on to work for Cascade Pictures, a commercial house, where he used stop-motion animation and rear-screen projection to make TV commercials staring the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Jolly Green Giant.
Art can be anything you can think of and put together, of any material or medium.
—Phil Tippett, founder of Tippett Studio
“I didn’t know how I’d get from commercials to filmmaking, but back then there were far fewer people doing special effects,” he says. “I had some friends who got hired doing camerawork on Star Wars, and George Lucas asked if they knew people to make some Cantina creatures, and they suggested me, and suddenly I’m working on Star Wars.”
Tippett used many of the techniques he developed making those Star Wars creatures to create the figurines in HoloGrid: Monster Battle AR. For the game, he constructed bendable wire skeletons so characters could take on more lifelike poses, and used foam, plastic, cloth, wood, metal, and even glass—plus his expert eye for painting. Each creature is unique and built for battle.
Seeing the detail on these malleable sculptures begs you to move in for a closer look. You need to be there to see the lifelike detail, but HoloGrid: Monster Battle AR offers you the next best thing—an AR model of each creation to get as close to as you’d like.
Tippett doesn't spend much time admiring his work. “I look back at the stuff I did six months ago and it’s almost like I have no relationship to it,” he says. “It’s like someone else made it. I don’t think about the things I did in the past very much, really. I’m obsessed with what I’m working on now, and what I’m making next.”
Jurassic Park and Jurassic World are TM & © Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc.