Phil Tippett’s stop motion puppets are unmistakable—their snarls and stomps, their heavy heaves and swings. Though tiny in reality, the weight Tippett’s models and marionettes carry in pictures alongside his brand of special effects have defined classics like Star Wars, RoboCop (1987), and Starship Troopers (1997). Even as a kid, Tippett aspired to carry the torch of his predecessors, which he saw in Ray Harryhausen’s movie work and the pages of Forrest Ackerman’s Famous Monsters magazine, and in doing so Tippett raised the bar for aliens and ghouls for generations onwards.
When Tippett was called upon to recreate Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope’s (1977) Dejarik holochess scene for The Force Awakens (2015), there were some complications. For one, he didn’t have the original monster models on hand. Some were mounted and gifted to George Lucas for letting Tippett’s team work on the monumental trilogy, some to Peter Jackson’s collection, others lost completely.
The creatures that could be recovered from the archives didn’t fare much better. The materials from the 70s weren’t made to stand the test of time, their latex joints were wearing away and disintegrating. The yellow porridge ghoul. The tunic-wearing reptilian. The gnarly parasitic worm. They were brittle, in no shape to move, nevermind battle.
Tippett’s whole career has been finding methods for the magical stop-motion of Harryhausen to merge with advancing technologies, and this dilemma was no different. The solution was to use photogrammetry. Tippett’s team created a 360-degree scan of the original puppets, which could account for not only their textures but their colors. They then 3D-printed those scans, created molds, and from them birthed new replica puppets made of silicone, identical right down to the goosebump. The latest round of holochess began where the last left off, the lizard-like hulking creature grappling with the sickly looking club-wielding pudge, though this time the latter managing to overtake its larger foe.
Despite being in the atmosphere for nearly 40 years, Tippett never imagined how a game of Dejarik holochess would actually play. He’s not a game designer, his job was only to make it look captivating. “My brain does not go into that realm at all,” said Tippett. “There was no logic in the design, the request was just to make something kind of cool, spacey, and round.”
The yellow porridge ghoul. The tunic-wearing reptilian. The gnarly parasitic worm.
“That’s probably the first question I asked him,” said Mike Levine, LucasArts alumni and president of HappyGiant. “When he told me that he didn’t know how holochess is played, I was like, okay, we gotta make our own game up here. At first it was a little intimidating, then when we researched it and saw that no one had any claim or idea, we went back to what made sense. If that was a game, how would it work? Through today’s gaming lenses, a CCG (collectible card game) tabletop grid experience screamed out to us.”
Levine and Tippett are now collaborating on HoloGrid: Monster Battle, an augmented reality realization of the game Tippett created, if only visually, for A New Hope. Inspired not only by the Star Wars scene but also Hearthstone (2014) and Magic: The Gathering (1993), HoloGrid will allow players to see creatures from Tippett’s zoo of an imagination come to life in their living room as they had a long, long time ago on the Millennium Falcon’s cocktail table.
Tippett has not kept up with games. He said he’d be scared to lose the time to them, though Levine assured me he showed Tippett Dark Souls (2011) and Doom (1993)—creature features of the videogame world. The art of making a good creature, Tippett says, is to listen to the context—the screenplay, the director, the requirements. On Jurassic Park (1993) he let history do the character design, meticulously studying fossils to resurrect long extinct beasts. With Star Wars it was almost like an auditioning process. “George, on my case, acted more like a documentary filmmaker in a way,” said Tippett. His team would make models of aliens and creepers to present to George Lucas, who would then cast the mock-ups in different roles. Tippett didn’t know who Admiral Ackbar was when Lucas pointed to one of his aliens and said, “That’s Admiral Ackbar.”
Levine was elated to be given the opportunity to audition Tippett’s creatures. He describes it as a kid in a candy store type of experience to be able to explore Tippett’s “wall of monsters,” archives of puppets, choosing the creatures that best fit the game. Many of them are sourced from a scattering of projects, including Tippett’s Mad God series—a surrealist vision set in a nihilistic wonderland based on American cruelty. And the team behind HoloGrid are hoping to use money from the Kickstarter campaign to create even more monsters for the game. Levine says that Tippett’s creatures are more game-ready than Tippett might have even known, that he could see how they’d function in a game or what their special attacks would be by looking at them. “He’s a game designer even though he doesn’t know it,” said Levine. “It’s just built into the DNA of the characters that he made.”
“[VR] is a whole different realm,” said Tippett, who compares the current VR blitz to a gold rush in the wild west. He went on to declare that there are huge differences between VR and cinema, but perhaps not the ones people immediately think of, such as guiding the audience through a space, and using 3D audio to do so. “Technology changes everything,” said Tippett. “Nobody really knows how this stuff is going to play out. But I wouldn’t mind working more with it. It’s pretty crazy. When I saw a demo of the game and I thought it’s kind of like magic.”
I asked Tippett to clarify if he meant the feeling of being overcome with a sense of wonder or the popular trading card game by Wizards of the Coast. He meant the feeling.