By now, anyone who would accept the label of “cinephile” knows the legendary Phil Tippett. Perhaps the greatest visual effects artist of the past 50 years (if not already), Tippett brought the dinosaurs of jurassic park and the creatures of Star wars while enriching a lot, numerous stellar visual treats like RoboCop, willow, and Starship Troopers. Damn, Starship Troopers Producer Jon Davison said he made this movie for one reason only: “I wanted to make a movie with Phil Tippett. I wanted to make a giant insect movie with Phil Tippett.”
Despite his long, award-winning career, one cinematic feat had eluded Tippett until this year: being the writer / director of a feature film. Tippett finally crossed that goal off the list with the arrival of Mad god on the festival scene (including its North American premiere at Fantasia Fest last month).
Tippett apparently had the visions and ideas behind Mad god for three decades. But this passionate project has always been on the back burner as he took care of all those very successful business ventures. This creative struggle has been recounted somewhat in two documentaries, the Career Review Phil Tippet – Crazy Dreams and Monsters and the Mad god backstage project Worse than the demon (which his daughter Maya directed for her undergraduate thesis). Recently, the visual effects legend told The Observer that he started working on Mad god after RoboCop 2, which means it dates back to 1990. (About three minutes of 35mm work by 2021).
It simply took years to find the time and some crowdfunding initiatives to help pay the bills, given how painstaking and time-consuming and time-consuming of Tippett’s favorite achievement styles can be. Just consider what he told Letterboxd it took to bring a scene to life:
I did a lot of talking around the San Francisco Bay Area. On Saturdays, I invited people from schools to come. They had no skills per se, so it was just to gain experience. I would advise them, and I would spend some part of the week figuring out processes for what they could do, and then they would accomplish those tasks, but in a very frigid way.
There’s a scene with mountains of dead soldiers, and I used thousands of little army men, and they were basing them on these wire structures. And it took three years, with six people working on Saturdays.
Ostensibly, Mad god has a plot. According to the official description:
Under a barrage of enemy fire, a fearless special agent in a suspended container is steadily lowered into a threatening pit. Downward, downward, inexorably downward, through the multiple layers of ruins and enigmatic remnants of time passing. Finally, the capsule lands on dry land and its occupant emerges, map in hand and mission in mind. The surrounding landscape is a shattered place of corruption and decay, occasional horror and degradation. Our hero will not be discouraged, even if the road ahead contains only more horrors, so much to see …
Yes, it does give a clear idea of the clarity, ease of following, and lore of the plot of Mad god turns out to be. Dialogue is just as minimal.
Instead, you watch this movie to bask in the exquisite grotesque that Tippett imagines and performs through a barrage of old-fashioned film techniques: mixed media, stop-motion animation, modeling, silhouettes and puppets, and more. The sound design includes spongy noises as a sinister surgeon digs through the intestines, and the screams of a real infant give voice to a distressed alien baby. Every subtle stream of our adventurer’s leather gloves and every breath measured through their gas mask sticks to your skin – the sound design equivalent of an earworm, I guess. And watching this movie on your couch (or in your theater seat for the lucky few) is like being guided through a gallery of lavish kinetic artwork. The enlarged environments themselves are wallpaper-worthy, whether Tippet created a war-torn landscape, a lightning-speed universe, or a room full of giants strapped to electric chairs zapped to the point of getting dirty without cease. This last sequence is really disgusting if you stop and think it over, but the sound design and visuals are mind-blowing in the moment.
Our hero set out to save mummy-like drones, and this being a project by Phil Tippett, they come across all kinds of extravagant underground creatures. At first, the adventurer encounters something I could best describe as a crossed whale with a dinosaur covered in boils and sores. Later, there are trippy polka-dot arachnids that you might find in a Guillermo del Toro version of Alice in Wonderland. Some sort of octopus spirit creature has a hint of Raiden’s Mortal combat to him because he demands that we give him an extraterrestrial child. “It’s a reflection of the world I live in and its madness,” Tippett said of his visions in the documentary. Crazy dreams and monsters. “But I have to find some kind of expression to make sense of things that don’t make sense to me.”
Mad god won’t be a story you’ll remember as fondly as Luke and Vader, but his sensory gifts will stay with any admirer of Tippett for as long. There’s a reason this film won two Fantasia Fest Audience Awards, one for Best Animation and another for Most Groundbreaking Film. Remember, Fantasia Fest is a heavy, heavy genre festival with an audience that knows it – adjust your expectations accordingly and point all the kids to something from Aardman Animations (Farmegeddon, Wallace and Gromit) instead if they fancy a stop-motion adventure.
Mad god continues to play the festival circuit, including hosting its next US premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX. The most recent screening information is available on the film’s website, which also has VOD options..
Listing Image by Fantasia Fest / Tippett Studios