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GDC 2004 Visual Arts Keynote: The History of Animation

March 26, 2004
Phil Tippett

Phil Tippett, founder of Tippett Studio, presented a detailed history of animation from early human cultures to special effects sequences from upcoming films. Tippett integrated his study of pioneering stop-motion animators, and included samples of his work on the Star Wars trilogy, Dragonslayer, Robocop, Jurassic Park, and Starship Troopers in a video presentation.

Building on the conference's theme of "evolve," Tippett began his visual arts keynote yesterday evening with an evolutionary perspective. He recalled early cave paintings discovered in France, and the detail and accuracy of those early artists. He noted that some repeating animal figures suggested a pose chart, while blurring around the limbs of other animals suggested motion. Tippett pointed out that "pictures are coincident with the growth of culture."

From Caves to Pixels

Tippett then rolled a video montage of examples in the history of animation, which included chapter stops during which he contextualized the material.

The first section consisted of still images showing early African, Asian, Eskimo, and other early art, in the form of figures, vases, wall paintings, and so forth. The subjects of the images included animals, people, mythical creatures, and gods. The slides advanced to include more modern landscapes, fountains, dinosaurs, spaceships, and robots.

Tippett then walked the audience through early stop-motion animation from
Georges Méliès (specifically his 1914 film A Trip to the Moon), Willis O'Brien, and others, pointing out how their methodology involved complete individual control over their processes, animating miniature models one frame at a time. The solitary nature of this technique worked against these artists, since studios were loathe to rely on a single person for significant aspects of theirs films. After O'Brien completed King Kong in 1933, he would have to wait until 1949's Mighty Joe Young to make another feature using his table-top stop motion animation technique.

The next breakthrough came from the work of Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, whose short Superman films involved the creation of a virtual world, and not just the shots and scenes needed for the story. George Pal's films, such as The War of the Worlds, continued this trend with large scale miniature sets. Jim Danforth and Ray Harryhausen went on to refine the stop-motion process, and achieved a degree of studio buy-in through personal connections.

While these artists were enjoying great success, lesser-known artists such as Jan Svankmajer were developing dramatic animation techniques involving lithographs, etchings, puppets, and live action.

Tippett then introduced the computer-controlled go-motion system he developed on Star Wars, to shoot the alien chess scene on the Millennium Falcon. This system advanced through numerous iterations, including the tauntaun from The Empire Strikes Back, the dragon from Dragonslayer, the ED-209 robot in Robocop, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and the alien arachnids in Starship Troopers. This sequence led naturally into his presentation of computer-generated animation, featuring clips of the Genesis planet proposal from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the stained-glass knight from Young Sherlock Holmes, the water tentacle from The Abyss, and the T-1000 from Terminator 2.

Tippett then cleansed the palate by showing a return of classical animation in the films of Henry Selick and Tim Burton, with scenes from The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach.

A Call to Arms

Tippett explained that one of his pet peeves is that the large-scale mass-market animation in the U.S. is virtually always cute, involving anthropomorphic animals and so forth. Only Square's Final Fantasy tried to break the mold, although Tippett considered it "a debacle on many fronts." He noted that the Japanese animated film Akira has influenced much of modern film, and he hopes that it will one day lead to more "artificial art forms." With the success of Pixar, and the new Star Wars films, the Lord of the Rings films, and the Matrix films, in which effects are blended into storytelling, Tippett sees potential to "do more than just shoot at spaceships." He suggested horror would be a great first step, due to the lower budgets and current mass market interest.

Tippett concluded the presentation with video of his work on The Matrix Revolutions, Hellboy, and his directorial debut with Starship Troopers 2.

The audience responded with boisterous applause and a deluge of questions, that Tippett cheerfully entertained.

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