Phil Tippett doesn’t really care about his Oscar. In the 2019 documentary Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams And Monsters, the longtime animation head at Industrial Light & Magic and owner of Tippett Studios notes indifferently that winning an Academy Award is good for business. But in terms of personal satisfaction? Whatever. What excites the stop-motion legend behind Star Wars’ holographic chess set, RoboCop’s ED-209, and Jurassic Park’s innovative stop-motion/CGI hybrids is unbridled creativity—which, in his case, means a Slimer-type mutant with swinging udders and disturbingly human teeth chopping up a legless, squealing mummy with a butcher knife.
That particular tableau appears within the first 15 minutes of Mad God, Tippett’s magnum opus, which is currently traveling the festival circuit. A Boschian stroll through a subterranean hellworld of depravity and madness, Mad God begins, appropriately enough, with a descent. Tippett began working on Mad God back in the late ’80s, and abandoned the project for a couple of decades before re-launching it in the 2010s with the encouragement of Tippett Studios employees enamored with his ideas for the film. Chief among these was Tippett Studios VFX supervisor Chris Morley, who worked as the cinematographer of Mad God on the weekends while creating effects for Lucasfilm and Marvel Studios during the week.
Tippett says that Mad God, an anguished and cynical film, is “a reflection of the absurdity of the world I live in,” which he sees as a decrepit empire of base cruelty and greed. That’s in stark contrast to the generous and collaborative way in which it was made, as Tippett Studios invited volunteers to come in and work on the film in exchange for hands-on lessons from the master. These included students from San Francisco art schools as well as working professionals like Oscar-winning sound designer Richard Beggs, who designed the sound for Mad God for free. (One volunteer was hired on at Tippett Studios after displaying a gift for stop-motion animation, as Tippett proudly notes in the doc.) A Kickstarter campaign brought it to completion, a group effort whose spirit of community is in no way reflected in this film.
The film was animated with what Tippett, who grew up obsessed with King Kong and the films of Ray Harryhausen, calls an “old school” approach. In practical terms, this means that the animators used traditional stop motion animation, where a model is moved by hand and photographed in a series of still frames, rather than the machine-assisted “go-motion” technique or a blend of stop motion and CGI. Ironically enough, it was Tippett who pioneered both of the latter methods. So there’s a repudiation of the self in his stubborn insistence on doing things the way they were done before he came on the scene, as well as a desire to preserve the handcrafted origins of an increasingly digital field.
If nothing else, Mad God is a monument to the disappearing art of hand-rendered effects. Tippett’s creatures use expressive gestures that convey a sense of personality, a culmination of the decades the animator has spent studying animal movement. The textures, while often disgusting, are tactile. (There’s a surprising amount of blood and poop in this film.) Perhaps most impressive of all, each scene takes place in a different, exquisitely detailed hellscape, from a post-nuclear garbage dump to a grotesque hospital caked in filth.
Throughout, Tippett blends cyberpunk and industrial aesthetics with phantasmagorical visions that feel alien to the modern imagination, as if they were flung through time from the medieval era to today. The most mesmerizing of these is Tippett’s take on the plague doctor, a 17th-century costume that drapes a physician in black robes, a black wide-brimmed hat, and a mask with a long, avian nose stuffed with sweet-smelling herbs that were thought to keep sickness at bay. Mad God’s plague doctor comes with bone charms tied to its hat and ribbons that dance around it as it floats down into the depths. Its mission is to deliver an Eraserhead-esque worm baby made of matted blood and hair to an alchemist covered in pustules, so the cycle of creation and destruction can begin anew.
That’s not to say that there isn’t beauty in Mad God. Occasionally, the camera wanders through spaces that shimmer with benevolent wonder as well. There’s a moment toward the end of the film where we stop to rest in a miniature psychedelic forest that glows under black light. But in this macabre world, no innocent thing can live. So here comes a giant, hairy spider splattered with eyeball-singing neon to snatch up and devour the adorable clay creatures who live in this trippy oasis.
There’s no dialogue in the film, and the story, such as it is, is meandering and open-ended. This really is a pure artistic vision in that way, an act of creation that’s not hemmed in by any conventional rules of storytelling. In Mad Dreams And Monsters, Tippett talks about his creative process like a shaman does his rapport with the spirit world, saying, “I think [my designs] actually make themselves… the older I get, the more I stand back and really try not to influence things by intention, but just let things happen.” Based on how horrifying the imagery that falls out of his head can be, one might be concerned about Tippett. But his wife Jules Roman, who’s run the business side of Tippett Studios for decades, dismisses these concerns with a laugh in the documentary. “Mad God is who he is,” she says. And there’s no one else like him.