After obtaining a fine arts degree from UC Irvine in 1974, Tippett found work at Cascade Pictures in Hollywood. “That was kind of our school where we were mentored. There wasn’t anybody doing any stop motion in the United States really, except at Cascade. I knew that Jim Danforth was working there, so I arranged a tour and met with Danforth, Dave Allen and Dennis Muren, and we worked for Phil Kellison, who was our mentor. I was brought in initially as a model maker and then eventually a sculptor-animator. That was our graduate work. Most of the stuff we’d previously just done at home.”
Then, thanks to Tippett’s close connections to his animator peers, he became involved with the first Star Wars movie. A friend told Tippett that he knew a guy “who’s making a science fiction movie and he’s looking for people, so you should give him a call.” Tippett continues, “So I called Richard Edlund [ASC, VES] and he was looking for camera people. It was not my forte, but I gave him Dennis [Muren]’s number, and so Richard hired Dennis.
“George [Lucas] wanted to do some insert shots for the cantina scene [the dingy Tatooine dive bar],” says Tippett, “and Dennis hooked George up with Rick Baker, and Rick Baker hired me and three other out-of-work stop-motion animators.” Tippett worked on the cantina creatures.
“During that period George saw some stop-motion puppets that I had, and that gave him the idea for the [holo]chess set with stop-motion. This was right at the end of the schedule, two weeks to go before everything had to be done,” relates Tippett. “So George said, ‘Make me 10 alien monsters.’” Tippett, Baker and others spent about a week working on new creatures (as well as recycling some puppets Tippett had previously made) and shot them over a few days.
Tippett was head of ILM’s “creature shop” for Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and worked with Jon Berg and Muren to animate the AT-AT Imperial Walkers and Tauntaun animals with a pioneering stop-motion technique (“go motion”) with “motion blur” to make model movement more realistic and less jerky.
For Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983), Tippett designed the inimitable Jabba the Hutt. “Ralph McQuarrie, Joe Johnston, Nilo Rodis-Jamero and I all contributed designs, and George eventually picked the design that I came up with.” Initially, Lucas wasn’t finding what he wanted. “So I asked him, ‘If you were going to cast an actor to play Jabba, who would that be?’ And he thought for a moment and said, ‘Sydney Greenstreet’ [a corpulent English actor]. At that moment I got a flash and came up with the design.”