Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters Review

A common complaint in film these days is that there is too much CGI. Computer graphics have not only diminished the effectiveness of monsters in genre films, but they have put practical effects and stop-motion artists out of work. While technological advancements have their perks and their place, many moviegoers believe that practical effects will always give off a more tangible viewing experience, arousing a deeper fear than any creature designed solely on a computer. Writer/director duo Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncets documentary Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters reintroduces audiences to a special effects legend while also spotlighting the impact stop-motion animation has had on the movie industry despite the emergence of CGI.

Following their first documentary, The Frankenstein Complex, which showcases the art of creature design in films like King Kong, Avatar, and The Lord of the Rings, Penso and Poncet are now exploring the specific career retrospective of one of the best stop-motion artists in the business. Their latest is a standard formulaic documentary which covers all aspects of Tippett’s life. The film starts out with commentary and footage on Tippett’s childhood as he was a shy kid who tended to be somewhat of a loner because his interests in art, monsters, and movies were not popular amongst his peers. From an early age, he would sculpt animals out of clay in his bedroom and sought out a career in animation after falling in love with Ray Harryhausen’s work on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Interviews with other industry legends such as Joe Dante, Paul Verhoeven, and Dennis Muren appear throughout the documentary’s 80 minute runtime. Dante lovingly recalls the challenges and innovation behind his 1978 aquatic horror film Piranha, while Verhoeven discusses Tippett’s instrumental contributions to ED-209 in his classic sci-fi action film Robocop. Some of the best interview commentary comes from Jules Roman, President of Tippett Studios. Her impulsive marriage proposal to Tippett is one of the sweetest personal stories within the documentary. Roman also discusses the business aspect of Tippett Studios and how the industry maintained a resilience to the emergence of CGI. It’s clear that Roman is the backbone of Tippett Studios and her contributions have been vital to the studio’s success as film changes throughout each decade.

The stories from all of the filmmakers and stop-motion animators speak to the complexity of their craft as well as the heart they put into their work. Jurassic Park was revolutionary with the marriage of stop-motion and CGI. It was noted that although the method had changed, no one knew animal movement and behavior like stop-motion animators. The frame-by-frame shots they take and meticulous movements needed to make an object come to life is a completely different way of thinking in terms of animation. While Tippett stayed on as a dinosaur supervisor, his time working on Jurassic Park opened his eyes to the way film animation is changing. Compared to the other light-hearted stories in the documentary, there is a slightly somber tone when Tippett speaks about CGI and how nervous he was about being out of work from the technology boom. However, the behind-the-scenes commentary on other films he’s worked on like Star Wars, Starship Troopers, and Howard the Duck, all support the fact that stop-motion animation and practical effects are at the core of movie magic and aren’t going anywhere.

Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters is an ode to practical effects and old-school stop-motion animation. Fans of practical effects will love the behind-the-scenes stories and each creator reminiscing on the challenges they faced on their films as well as the rewards. Tippetts career is vast and hes been credited as a director, producer, visual-effects supervisor, creature designer, and go motion supervisor. If that doesnt sell you on his talent, maybe his Oscar and Emmy wins will. While some of the commentary or historical aspects may be prosaic, there is still a passion that pulsates throughout the film meant to educate, empathize, and encourage artists and audiences alike. A wonderful glimpse into the man himself and the creatures Tippett created, this documentary is a beautiful homage to the timeless magic he brought to the film industry.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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About the Author

Marisa Mirabal is a writer living in Austin, TX alongside her dog and Stephen King collection. When she isn't conjuring up film criticism, she can be found spinning film scores on vinyl or sipping whiskey.