VFX master Phil Tippett on returning to the Star Wars game in The Force Awakens

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Apr 20, 2016, 6:03 PM EDT
Director and visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett got an unexpected big break in 1976 when he joined the crew of Star Wars, one of his first movie effects jobs.
He worked on the movie's stop-motion animation, most memorably the scene in which R2-D2 and Chewbacca engage in a cutthroat game of Dejarik (or holochess).
Tippett returned to re-create that game in a brief moment of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, available now on DVD/Blu-ray, and spoke to us about his experience revisiting one of the best known scenes in sci-fi history.
What was your earliest experience with holochess, and how did it compare to work on the new film?

The way George [Lucas] did it in the first Star Wars, it was more a full scene which engaged the characters with the punchline: "Let the Wookiee win," whereas in Force Awakens, it was an easter egg. Finn hit something with his elbow and accidentally turned [the game] on, and then switched if off.

How did you approach it this time?

J.J. [Abrams] wanted to do it “old-school” with stop-motion animation, the way we did the first one. 

We went back to the archives at Lucasfilm and got the stop-motion puppets we used 30 years earlier, that were in a terrible state of disrepair, and so we reconstructed them. They were falling apart.

Having worked on just a short moment in The Force Awakens, what did you think of the finished product?

I went down to the gala opening in Los Angeles with George, JJ, Kathleen [Kennedy], and all these guys. I sat by the production designer, Rick Carter, and he asked me what I thought. I said “It’s not terrible, it's really pretty cool." (Filmmakers always worry it will be terrible, and that happens quite frequently.)

What got you interested in this line of work?

In 1955, I saw King Kong on television, then Godzilla in 1958, then the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad stuff was released and that kind of did it for me.

You've been in the business for 40 years working on RoboCopJurassic Park, and more. What are you most proud of on this movie saga?

The Star Wars movies were a lot of fun, and George allowed me to design a bunch of the characters, and [I returned to] Empire and Return of the Jedi I was lucky enough to work on.

George seemed to like a lot of my work. I designed Jabba and Bib Fortuna, his henchman, and a bunch of the characters in his palace. The tauntaun in Empire, a bunch of iconic characters [I’m proud of].

Watch Tippett Studio's behind-the-scenes video of the making of the TFA holochess scene below.

The Force Awakens - Tippett Studio Holochess Stop-Motion Reel from Tippett Studio on Vimeo.