Born for VFX
By Ian Failes
When director Paul Verhoeven looked to convince studio executives that a story about a war between mankind and vicious ‘Arachnid’ insects should be greenlit, he turned to Phil Tippett. The visual effects supervisor, known for his work on George Lucas’ Star Wars films and on Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, helped craft a gruesome computer generated bug test that ultimately gave Starship Troopers the go ahead and cemented Tippett’s reputation as one of the go-to creature effects supervisors.
Above: The Starship Troopers test that gave the film the greenlight
Indeed, having seen the finished product, George Lucas said Starship Troopers was a film Tippett had been born to do. “I was always trying to get directors to chop people’s heads off and squish people—George didn’t like to do that kind of stuff, but Paul did,” Tippett says.
And it was a key moment in another way, too, for the supervisor, having come from a world of practical effects that very quickly shifted to digital after the success of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park (it was on Jurassic that he was originally going to provide stop motion dinosaurs). But Tippett adapted to this new digital realm with full gusto first on Jurassic and then with Starship Troopers, where his studio employed sophisticated CG techniques and even hand-operated stop-motion-like digital input devices to help create the bug animation.
When I talked to Tippett, who I had chosen as one of 16 visual effects supervisors to feature in ‘Masters of FX’, he generously gave his time to recount stories from Starship Troopers and from his contributions to other seminal effects films The Empire Strikes Back, RoboCop, Jurassic Park and The Twilight Saga. The visual effects supervisor’s eventual credit on Jurassic Park as ‘Dinosaur Supervisor’ has long been the source of much humor for fans who suggest that, given the many deaths in the film at the hands of the dinos, Tippett actually didn’t do a very good job supervising them. Of course, Tippett actually attributes the credit to Spielberg’s ‘showmanship.’ “ILM, for example, got credit for full-motion dinosaurs and that was designed not to indicate one way or the other how it was done,” Tippett says. “Steven didn’t want attention called to the technology. He just wanted the magic of seeing dinosaurs and the audience coming away and not thinking how it was done.”
With that comment in mind, I was determined in ‘Masters of FX’ to not focus wholeheartedly on the technology behind some of the greatest visual effects in recent history, but on the artistry behind the work instead. In particular, though, I felt that the supervisors I had included in the book were responsible for so many key ‘moments’ in film history. Moments such as the mesmerizing Stargate sequence seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey or the image of a star destroyer flying over the audience in the first Star Wars. Moments like the appearance of a water tentacle in The Abyss, the shape-shifting cyborg in Terminator 2 or the rampaging T-Rex in Jurassic, which Tippett had helped to create.
Those last three films are in fact often identified as the game-changers in visual effects that then lead to even more advancements on the big screen with movies like Titanic, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Avatar, Transformers and Life of Pi, again all films that the effects supervisors included in ‘Masters of FX’ contributed to.
Of course, not all the effects covered in the book are digital ones. Practical effects and miniatures from the Bond and Batman films, plus animatronics and make-up effects in the Terminator movies, and even work completed using optical compositing techniques are all covered in ‘Masters of FX’.
It was incredible too, that James Cameron, a director who had worked with more than just a few of the supervisors I talked to, agreed to contribute one of the forewords to ‘Masters of FX’. For me, hearing his commentary on the art of effects and its part of the filmmaking process served as a great summary of the industry and was a highlight of putting this book together.
I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.
Effects supervisors and films featured in ‘Masters of FX’
John Bruno – Ghostbusters, The Abyss, True Lies, X-Men: The Last Stand
Chris Corbould – Goldeneye, Die Another Day, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception
Richard Edlund – Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, Multiplicity
Scott Farrar – Back to the Future trilogy, Minority Report, Transformers, World War Z
Paul Franklin – Pitch Black, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception
Karen Goulekas – Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC, Green Lantern
Ian Hunter – The X-Files Movie, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception
John Knoll – Mission: Impossible, The Phantom Menace, Pirates of the Caribbean, Pacific Rim
Robert Legato – Apollo 13, Titanic, The Aviator, Hugo
Joe Letteri – Lord of the Rings, King Kong, Avatar, Planet of the Apes, The Hobbit
Dennis Muren – Return of the Jedi, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, AI: Artificial Intelligence, War of the Worlds
John Rosengrant – The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, Iron Man, Real Steel
Phil Tippett – The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, RoboCop, Jurassic Park, Starship Troopers, The Twilight Saga
Douglas Trumbull – 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner
Bill Westenhofer – Babe: Pig in the City, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Golden Compass, Life of Pi
Edson Williams – X-Men: The Last Stand, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, Captain America
Ian Failes is a journalist with visual effects trade publication fxguide.com. Based in Sydney, Australia, Ian has a background in law, but found his passion watching and writing about films and visual effects.