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Effects legend Phil Tippett on digging up old props & inspiring latest 'Poker Face' episode
Mad God creator Phil Tippett gets his flowers in the latest Poker Face episode, "The Orpheus Syndrome."
If you grew up on '80s and '90s blockbuster and sci-fi movies, there's an outsized chance that whatever movie magic captured your particular fancy has the hands of Phil Tippett all over it. As an animator, special effects pioneer, and director, Tippett was a member of the founding team of innovators who established George Lucas' visual effects house, Industrial Light & Magic. He created the Star Wars chess board sequence, animated Tauntauns in The Empire Strikes Back, made a dragon come alive in Dragonslayer, gave us the ED-209 in RoboCop and was integral in making the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park that still look amazing to this day. He's an animation and visual effects living legend, so why wouldn't anyone want to frame an episode around him and his amazing career?
The smart creative team behind Poker Face acknowledged the genius of that premise, and essentially wrote an homage to Phil Tippett in this week's episode, "The Orpheus Syndrome." Directed and co-written by Natasha Lyonne, three-time Oscar nominee Nick Nolte was brought in to play Arthur, a very Tippett-looking director and stop motion animator who connects with Charlie Cale (Lyonne). They bond over the disappointments of life, the sadness of their individual regrets, and their restorative love of cinema. Of course, for most shows that would be enough. But creator Rian Johnson actually asked Tippett, and his Tippett Studios, to be part of the episode... and "Voila!"
SYFY WIRE got on a Zoom with Tippett to get his perspective on the episode, lending his work to the set dressers, and his thoughts on the current renaissance happening with stop motion animation.
**SPOILER WARNING! Spoilers below for Poker Face Episode 8, "The Orpheus Syndrome"**
Let's start with how you first met, or worked with Rian Johnson?
It was when he was working with ILM on his Star Wars movie [The Last Jedi], we went out to dinner. We were both kind of fanboys and love stop motion work. We chewed the fat and and that was that. We established a relationship and who knows where that was gonna go. Then, I get a call from Rian that he's got this Poker Face series and he wanted me to be involved because the character that gets murdered was an aging stop motion animator.
Did you ask to read the script or just trust that you would be fine with it?
I just trust.
When did they tell you that they had cast Nick Nolte to play you?
I don't recall? Maybe at the point that they actually cast it, you know?
You've worked in this industry for so long. Had you ever crossed paths professionally before?
He was on The Spiderwick Chronicles. He played a character called Mulgarath. But I never worked with him. His work was not on the days that I was working.
Showrunners Lilla and Nora Zuckerman mentioned that you packed up the maquettes from your 30-years-in-the-making opus, Mad God, and sent them to be used in the episode. What prompted that impulse?
They needed props, you know? And so, why not? It seemed like that would be a missed opportunity. We just packed up a bunch of the Mad God puppets, the armatures and other kinds of paraphernalia, so they could dress the set with them. The set directors put it wherever. Then I went out there for a couple of days while they were shooting in upstate New York. I was Nick's hand model for some insert shots animating the mythological creatures that Rian wanted.
Natasha directed this episode and she's a huge cinephile. Did you get to talk much?
Yeah, it worked out really, really well. At some point in time, they wanted me to be in the gala scene, so I was getting fitted for a tuxedo. I missed lunch, so someone brought me lunch and I just went back to the set, which is this old barn, to eat my lunch. Natasha was there and we started talking and really bonded. We yakked for like an hour. And our experiences were very similar — hers on Russian Doll and mine on Mad God. Both of those shows broke us. It was just too overwhelming. And that's very rare — in that I've never known anybody else that has really gone through that kind of ordeal and come out the other end.
The last two years have seen a huge resurgence in stop motion projects, from your Mad God to this year's Academy-award nominees, del Toro's Pinocchio and Marcel the Shell with His Shoes On, amongst other examples. Does it feel like the technique is maybe on more solid ground these days?
Well, yeah, particularly at the nadir when CG was exclusively the flavor of the day. Like, it was curtains. But gradually, bit by bit, it really started with small television commercials and some independent things. Of course, Henry Selick has always adamant about making stop motion movies. Then the ascent of Laika Studios and blah, blah, blah. Interest has just continued to grow. And I was noticing on Instagram, there's a lot of hits that say "Anti CG." [Laughs.]
Mad God was your independent passion project. Is it exciting to think that it might get a whole new set of eyes because of a mystery series?
Oh, maybe a few. Mad God is such an anomaly and such a one-off indie movie that it's exposure is minimal compared to the rest of the industry. Certainly for those that appreciate that kind of stuff, it's like an Easter egg. But you know, really not much more than that.
How did they let you see the finished episode?
They didn't. But it's just fine because I'm watching the series weekly. And I know what we did.