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January 8, 2007

star wars @ omsi: phil tippett - stopmo god

by sven at 8:42 pm

the OMSI Star Wars exhibit

OMSI -- the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry -- just ended an exhibit of props from Star Wars. I managed to squeeze in a visit at the last minute, on Dec. 29.

Thanks to Linda Womack, encaustic artist extraordinaire, for reminding me about this! I'd been meaning to go for months -- but the xmas crunch had completely wiped my memory banks...

Phil Tippett

A huge thrill for me was getting to see some of the puppets that Phil Tippett animated. Among stopmoes, Tippett is widely viewed as the heir apparent for Ray Harryhausen's crown as greatest living puppet animator. ...Well, at least that was the case until Jurassic Park decapitated the tradition of photo-realistic stopmo monsters interacting with live actors.

Tippett's style has sometimes been referred to as "hyper-Harryhausen." He helped pioneer innovations such as go-motion, where tiny stepper motors move the puppet a little while the camera takes a shot, adding a more realistic motion-blur to the photo. He has his own company now, and remains one of the kingpins of the special effects industry.

[Incidentally: Marc Spess has a photo gallery with shots of Tippett and his works that I recommend. Also, Mike Brent has a collection of video clips to go see.]

the taun-taun puppet

Phil was the animator who put life into the taun-taun in The Empire Strikes Back. My understanding is that he also did of much of the work constructing the puppet, too.

Luke Skywalker puppet

The taun-taun puppet can't be more than 18" tall -- but the detail is phenomenal. Everything about the Luke puppet looks properly in scale, including the texture of the fabric. ...I've no idea what they used to make that fake snow.

Luke's legs

Look carefully at the edge of the saddle. You can see a little bit of 1/16" aluminum wire poking out. That gave me a thrill: to see a material that stopmoes use now, there in the taun-taun.

taun-taun face

The taun-taun's face has amazing texture. The skin is pockmarked and pitted. I have to guess that we're looking at cast foam latex there.

under the taun-taun's head

Underneath the taun-taun's head, you can see some decay in the puppet. It looks to me like rotting latex... But I'm not familiar enough with foam latex to say whether it was originally foam, or if it was liquid latex there.

taun-taun's legs

Here you can see that there was a little taxidermy going on. The animal pelt's seams are hidden on the insides of the legs.

taun-taun foot

The feet look eerily real. Like they were cut off a real animal, dried, and sutured on. I'm sure that's not actually the case...

AT-AT walker

Phil also animated the AT-AT ("All Terrain Armored Transport") walkers in The Empire Strikes Back.

AT-AT walker's head

For me, part of the excitement with the AT-AT walker was trying to figure out how its armature was constructed. Tom St. Armand -- another god of stopmo -- built the armatures here.

AT-AT walker legs

On the insides of the ankles, there were little... handles? I've never noticed these in photographs before. My best guess is that they helped give the animator a good place to grab the puppet. However, they might also be spring-loaded -- releasing tension on the feet joints so they can be re-positioned.

AT-AT walker knee

Ah-ha! As I looked closely at the AT-AT walker, I began to notice hexagonal holes here and there. That's where you insert a hex key to tighten a joint. Screws with hexagonal sockets are generally preferred to slotted or philips head screws -- no risk of stripping the screw.

AT-AT walker foot

I was absolutely fascinated by the AT-AT's feet. See that half-circle of metal that forms the walker's ankle? I'm certain that's a piece of milled aluminum. You can see a slot in its center that allows it to rotate, and then be fixed in place with the tightening of a screw. In some of the other pictures you can see that there's a slit in the side, too, also for tensioning purposes.

[to be continued]

posted by sven | January 8, 2007 8:42 PM | categories: exhibits & events, stopmo