Spotlight : May 1997

The Morphing Artist: From Stop-Motion to CGI
By Scott Essman

When George Lucas asked Rick Baker to create additional creatures for the famed cantina sequence in STAR WARS, few realized that the collection of artists that Baker recruited would become a "who's who" of modern special effects masters. In addition to Baker himself, who worked on several cantina creatures but was not present during shooting due to his commitments on THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, the young team included Jon Berg, Doug Beswick, Rob Bottin, Laine Liska, and Phil Tippett. This tightly -knit group, many of whom were stop-motion animators, and others from the STAR WARS effects crew, went on to revolutionize the course of special creature effects in many of the landmark effects-oriented films of the past 20 years, leading the way to computer graphic imaging (CGI) and digital effects.

A sizable portion of STAR WARS' special effects crew had worked together at fledgling production houses in Southern California during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Berg and Tippett had paid their dues at Cascade Pictures where they worked on TV commercials creating stop-motion animation with other luminaries including David Allen (who created new KING KONG animation for "Special Effects," a 1996 IMAX film), and future ILM visual effects impresario Dennis Muren. Meanwhile, Baker, Beswick, and future GREMLINS animator Peter Kleinow worked at cross-county Clokey Productions, where they animated "Gumby" and "Davy and Goliath." As Beswick remembers: "We were like a clique; we would all go to the beach or to a barbecue on weekends." Baker remembers them being "young enthusiastic guys, thinking 'someday maybe we can work on a real movie together.'" Shortly thereafter, Baker and Beswick created an amateur Neanderthal film and were hired to create the suit for the low-budget feature OCTAMAN. In the mid-1970s, Baker developed an unprecedented level of realistic primate work in John Landis' SCHLOCK and KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, and in the remake of KING KONG, before George Lucas called him in 1976.

The team for STAR WARS was recruited quickly and easily. Baker brought his team together from his old Clokey and Cascade peers, Liska among them, plus a young apprentice he had acquired named Rob Bottin. Originally, renowned creature designer Stuart Freeborn (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) had created characters that were shot in England for the scene, but Lucas felt more were required to give the cantina proper alien ambience. Hence, many of the noted creatures in the scene were shot as live-action inserts on a duplicate set in California in one day. By then, another Cascade staple, Dennis Muren, had joined the STAR WARS crew as well. He worked on John Dykstra's visual effects team with future Boss Films-founder Richard Edlund and a young mechanical equipment designer named Stuart Ziff.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACKThe wild success of STAR WARS simultaneously created both a new demand for effects and an industry to support it. Lucas immediately began production on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, which included one of the most stirring stop-motion sequences of the era: the Imperial Walker battle on the ice planet, Hoth. Tippett, Berg and Beswick, all ILM fixtures, created the animation under the visual effects supervision of Muren and Edlund, who again enlisted Ziff, this time to manufacture the optical printer that coordinated the compositing of stop-motion and live-action elements. During the same period, Bottin became the most acclaimed young creature designer in the field with films like THE HOWLING, THE THING, and LEGEND, giving Baker stiff competition despite his own makeup successes in AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and GREYSTOKE.

In 1981, a breakthrough arrived when Ziff, working with Tippett at ILM, created the Go-Motion Figure Mover, a device that allowed Tippett's animation to move more fluidly in DRAGONSLAYER. According to Ziff, "the machine eliminated the strobing and jitter which [had previously characterized] stop motion animation." The two again collaborated on the creature work in Jabba's palace for RETURN OF THE JEDI. 400 miles from the Northern California locale of ILM, Richard Edlund had formed Boss Films after JEDI to create the effects for GHOSTBUSTERS. He hired Ziff to head the "ghost shop" where he supervised a wealth of new creature designers, including animator Randall William Cook who created the stop-motion Terror Dogs. Tippett, still at ILM, created stop-motion creatures for Lucas "Ewok" TV movies and shot a stop-motion dinosaur film entitled "Prehistoric Beast" in his home garage. This project that would forecast a new wave of creature animation for the industry a decade later.

ROBOCOP 2Beswick and Tippett brought stop-motion to a new level on several projects in the mid-1980s. James Cameron brought in Beswick for two successive projects: THE TERMINATOR and ALIENS. Beswick had to match his Terminator "endoskeleton" designs and ALIENS' "power loader" character movement to those of full-sized beings created by makeup/character artist Stan Winston. Having formed Tippett Studio in the wake of independent assignments, Tippett developed the stop-motion ED-209 for Paul Verhoeven's ROBOCOP and the multi-faceted "Robocop 2" for the sequel, again collaborating with STAR WARS cantina designer Rob Bottin. At this time, Beswick built and stop-motion animated the Bat-Gremlin from designs by Rick Baker for Joe Dante's sequel, GREMLINS 2, and Stuart Ziff sided with Bottin, creating mechanics for Bottin's robotic designs in Verhoeven's TOTAL RECALL.

As the 1980s ended, at ILM, Dennis Muren's groundbreaking CGI water tentacle in Cameron's THE ABYSS was a portent of things to come. Most notably, Cameron's T2: JUDGEMENT DAY expanded on the concept of computer animation and changed the face of cinema thereafter. But one more project would vault CGI into the limelight even more exponentially than T2. Based on his lasting interest in animating dinosaurs, Tippett created test stop-motion footage for JURASSIC PARK, detailed treatments of the kitchen sequence with the velociraptors and the attack sequence with the Tyrannosaurus Rex. His work was comprised of stop-motion reference puppetry mixed with storyboards and resembled the animation in "Prehistoric Beast." After Steven Spielberg saw the footage, he inked Tippett to create stop-motion dinosaur animations to match Stan Winston's live-action mechanical beasts. Then Muren and ILM developed CGI dinosaur tests (originally meant for only a few shots) that were so convincing, it was obvious that they would eliminate the need for any stop-motion work.

JURASSIC PARKTippett felt as if he were becoming "extinct," but Spielberg was attached enough to Tippett's work to retain him as "dinosaur supervisor." In fact, Tippett's original animation in the two stop- motion test sequences was utilized by ILM's computer animators, in many cases identically. To achieve this, Stuart Ziff was again brought on board, in this instance to create a "dinosaur input device" (or DID). Ziff explains that "63 encoders were wired on each of two 2.5-foot-long DID puppets to input the position of the puppet's joints in a computer. The positions were then used to animate the computer-generated dinosaurs in the film." The collaboration between Ziff, Tippett and Muren's team at ILM produced the most memorable material in the finished film.

The impact of JURASSIC PARK decidedly influenced other stop- motion animators. Doug Beswick, with partners Kevin O'Neill and Kevin Kutchaver, set up Flat Earth, a production company dedicated to computer animation. At his new Burbank facility, Beswick, O'Neill, and Kutchaver supervise a team of six who build models, render them, and perform 2-D and 3-D computer animation for TV shows such as "Hercules" and "Xena." Richard Edlund's Boss Films still makes use of motion-control camera equipment similar to that used on STAR WARS, but much of his Marina Del Ray studio is given to digital computer effects for recent films such as MULTIPLICITY. The success of CGI in JURASSIC PARK was certainly not lost on Phil Tippett himself. Not one to become "extinct," Tippett has acquired an additional building for his Berkeley complex, housing over 100 workstations for the 80+ computer animators he has hired for the current STARSHIP TROOPERS. TREMORS 2Proving his competency with full-motion creatures in TREMORS 2, Tippett is going all-out for what promises to be the next level of CGI capabilities. Where JURASSIC PARK featured some 50 CGI shots, TROOPERS will require nearly 200 CGI shots. Nevertheless, Tippett predicts he will someday complete his stop-motion swan song when the time and situation are appropriate.

With major CGI releases this year including Tippett's TROOPERS, THE LOST WORLD (with Muren still at ILM after 20 years), and Cameron's TITANIC, for which a myriad of digital effects shots will be required, the level of computer animation is certain to reach new heights. Twenty years after STAR WARS release, even Rick Baker is utilizing CGI to complete "makeup tests" on actors without the need to make molds and produce foam latex. As for George Lucas, one cannot help but expect outstanding CGI material for the STAR WARS prequels which begin shooting this year. Still, the possibility lingers for a new version of KING KONG which would likely feature David Allen's stop-motion animation of Kong, which may merely serve as an homage at this technological point in time.

SCOTT ESSMAN ( is the author of "Creature People," an upcoming book, video and CD-ROM project about special makeup effects artists. He wrote career retrospective articles about Michael Westmore for Cinefex #68 and about John Chambers for upcoming Cinefex #71. Scott has also written and directed a documentary about a creature-oriented film, "Making Wolvy."

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