By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Phil Tippett.
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Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Phil Tippett.
While exploring the primordial manifestations of the subconscious mind that consist of tortured souls, decrepit bunkers and wretched monstrosities, stop-motion and visual effects icon Phil Tippett experienced his own mental purgatory during the 30-year journey to make Mad God. “My biggest challenge was my own mental stability,” Tippett admits. “I discovered on this movie that I was unipolar and when unchecked without medication you just go, ‘Whoosh.’ Like that. I ended up in the psych ward for a few days, and it took me a couple of months to recover. I ended up hating the project. It was just a matter of getting behind the wheel and finishing it. My friends and relatives saw me diminish and turn into this thing that was like a homeless guy. It was a religious experience and conversion. I don’t seem different, but I know that I am. It changed me to the extent that I don’t want to make anything with my hands anymore. I want to do something else with my mind.”
Dreams were the source of the narrative structure but not the actual imagery. “When I aggressively started to reboot Mad God close to 13 years ago, I dreamt proficiently and wrote down all of the dreams that I had,” Tippett explains. “I did it with an intention because, wow! It was just handed to me on a platter. I didn’t do it to mine for content. The content of the dreams had nothing to do with Mad God. What I was looking for was story structure. I suspected from all of my readings and whatnot that stories are indeed innate within mankind, and where do you think they came from in the first place? Through visions. You see things in your mind, and it’s very likely that those first visions were dreams. I pursued that angle and found that about 80% of dreams have a first act that is a statement, a second act that is confusing – it’s very much like the unconscious mind is grasping with what the first act laid out, and there is a resolution in the third act. Sometimes it’s big. Sometimes it’s like, holy shit! Sometimes the narratives are complete stories. That gave me some confidence, and what was surprising to me was that once Mad God was done, bam! The dreams disappeared.”
Providing a narrative throughline is the protagonist known as The Assassin who descends through the various levels. “At the beginning there were a number of variations [for him], and when I hit on the cyberpunk look, that stayed there,” Tippett states. “It was always the central character. The Assassin goes through a number of stages and processes; that character is our eyes throughout the story. He is our hero on this hero’s journey.” The hellish environment is essentially a junkyard of humanity. “I would read Dante and Virgil, and study the history of Hell, which is really interesting, as well as anthropology, geology and psychology, like Freud and Jung. That was during this 20-year period from the time that I made the first three minutes of Mad God and had to abandon it. There was some force that made me continue on during that 20 years where I built this thing in my mind that I could do anything with. Then I got all of these volunteers and said, ‘What the hell!?’ I got all of this equipment. I would hate to go to my grave not having used all of the resources that I have. I’m at this time in my life where I don’t have to go out on location all of the time or supervise stuff.”
Most of the volunteers were college and high school students. “You couldn’t let them go on machines,” Tippett notes. “It was like giving five-year-olds razor blades. You had to be really careful, but they were helpful doing a lot of the heavy lifting. During the week, I would figure out processes, and then on the weekends I would say, ‘You do this or do that.’ Then they would do all of that stuff which would have taken me hundreds of years to do. One set where there are these mountains of dead guys and The Assassin’s car goes through it; it took three years to build all of that stuff.” Talent did emerge from the volunteers. “Some local guys I mentored turned into really good stop-motion animators and now they have their own company; that was rewarding,” Tippett reveals. Professionals were also involved in the production. “Alex Cox plays this character called the Last Man, and he directed Repo Man, Sid & Nancy and Walker. We’re friends. Through him, I was introduced to composer Dan Wool and sound designer Richard Beggs, who goes back to Apocalypse Now and won an Academy Award. My directorial style is to involve the best people I possibly can and stay out of their way, which is what I learned from working with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Paul Verhoeven. That sounds biblical, doesn’t it?!”
There is no dialogue in Mad God; however, baby sounds were incorporated into the sound design. “That was all Richard Beggs,” Tippett reveals. “I had no idea that he was going to do that. I had some stuff that was on the nose. It was stupid. We did it in 10 or 15-minute chunks of time. I might in a spotting session have half a dozen things to say. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we did this?’ It would tend to be general. Then it was ready and we would go to the screening room and look at it. It was like I was looking at my movie for the first time. It was like, ‘holy shit! Who made this?’ For those baby sounds, I was laughing hysterically. It was so inventive and perfectly on the nose for Mad God.” The beginning and ending were shot right at the end of production. “It’s stop-motion, so you’re editing as you go along building the narrative. It’s like making up a story. Once upon a time, there was a little girl who wanted to eat porridge and there were bears. You go down that line and you’re building it. Just like you would make up a tale. But in this case, it is more like doing a painting or musical composition where you are working it and piecing it together like a jigsaw puzzle.” Various genres are represented. “As I built the narrative, such as it was, I tried to get different epochs of things that happen on Earth. There were dinosaurs, industrial mayhem and a war scene. That’s what it was going to be. I thought of this world as the ghost of history.”
Over the three decades, the only technology that changed was the digital cameras. “The whole point was to use these handcrafted techniques and not go digital, which I don’t like,” Tippett states. “Chris Morley, the DP, and Editor Ken Rogerson are good with color; they would lead the charge, and I would keep my eye on it and go, ‘What if we did this or that?’” Shudder acquired the exclusive streaming rights for Mad God, but success was not predestined. “The first two film festivals that we applied to were in Berlin, and they rejected it. At that point, it was like, ‘Oh, shit!’ Because I had shown it to a few friends and they liked it a lot and said, ‘But it’s not for everybody, Phil.’ I thought, ‘Okay, here we go. This is the “not for everybody” part.’ Then, once we premiered it at Locarno [Film Festival in Switzerland in August 2021], it exploded beyond my wildest dreams. It’s only going to be in that indie world.”
The future lies with writing for Tippett. “There are some prospects out there. I don’t even care. Where I’m at right now is like the same I ever was, which for the lack of a better term is essentially a hobby that I don’t know what it’s going to turn into.” In regards to the Disney+ documentary series Light & Magic, produced by Lawrence Kasdan, about the establishment and legacy of Industrial Light & Magic, Tippett remarks, “Never thought about it [as being my formative years]. Of course, they were. I was sent a screener which I binge-watched. It was very nostalgic. I really liked the way that Larry Kasdan put it together. It expressed the camaraderie of the people. It was like looking at a family album and watching your kids grow up. Generally, I don’t look back. I put things behind me.”