Saturday, March 30, 2013

Tippett Studios Disturbance in the Force

[being rewritten, awkward construction]

There has been another event in the long saga of visual effects employment in this country. (1)

This time it involves Phil Tippett and his Tippett Studios which has laid off about 40% of their staff, roughly 50 people. In an article in the Hollywood Reporter, Jules Roman, CEO and President, predicted that the work was going up north to Canada and that they had to get a project by the end of the year or, the implication was, that was the end of Tippett Studios.

See the article here:

For those who do not know Phil, he is a brilliant stop motion animator whose studio made the transition from traditional arts to 3D / Computer Animation.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, when the first Star Wars came out, the film distinguished itself by showing rare enthusiasm in all its shots. A door would open with a bang. A spaceship was clearly an Empire Ship of the Line such as EE Doc Smith would conceive of it. A bad guy looked bad. A throwaway shot that most people remember is when Chewbacca is playing chess with R2D2 and a little chess piece destroys his opponent which was a stop-motion shot by Tippett.

Phil went up to Marin County to help set up the new ILM for Empire Strikes Back and then went off to run his own production company. Starship Troopers was their first big entry into computer animation and they did a spectacular job, imho.

Here is an interview with Phil from about the time he went up to ILM.

At deGraf/Wahrman we worked with Phil on Robocop II which was an odd film but a pleasure to work on. The screenplay was much better than the film itself for some reason.

Anyway, the producer, Jon Davison, had us collaborate with Phil's company on our 3D talking head of the bad guy, a scanned version of actor Tom Noonan. The computer animation was going to be played back a frame at a time on a laserdisk (thats how long ago this was), on a stop motion character that they were animating.   This would be a modern version of the idea of projecting an image inside a miniature, as one might find with King Kong (1933).

It can difficult sometimes for facilities to work with each other because of the traditional competitiveness of the industry and because so many people in this industry are immature. But not in this case. Everyone was great to work with.

For years now, Tippett Studios was one of the few other VFX companies in N. California besides ILM.

It is the nature of companies like this that they must grow and shrink to meet the production work that they have in-house. And they have survived now, even prospered, for many years, perhaps 20. Their excellence at character animation has always been a strong way for them to distinguish themselves and to get the work that was appropriate for their talents.

The point I am trying to make is this. Although it is normal for production companies to grow and shrink with the work, and even normal for production companies to go out of business after a time (they all do, eventually), losing Tippett would be a major loss of a company known for its excellent character animation, and a place of employment for animators.

Not all computer animation companies and vfx companies are the same. They have different styles, different bodies of work, different cultures. Tippett is a stop-motion animation culture in a computer graphics world. I would hate to lose them, and the vfx community would suffer a loss if they went away much bigger than the mere numbers of employed would indicate.

So lets ask the question. What exactly are the politicians in this state and the US Congress thinking while Canadian and UK subsidies and globalization wipe out the vfx community in this country?

My guess is that they don't care how many unemployed there are or whether the industry goes away as long as the Hollywood studios can save a buck.

Phil Tippett on IMDB

King Kong (1933) on IMDB

1. Visual Effects now means computer animation or computer graphics, but it did not used to mean that, of course.

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