Mad God (Phil Tippett, 2021) – Fantasia International Film Festival 2021

READY YOUR EYES. READY YOUR SOULS. PREPARE TO MEET YOUR MAKER.

AV_Inferno_DVD_.inddFollow the Assassin, Mad God’s silent soldier, on his mysterious mission through Miltonesque worlds filled with grotesque monsters, mad scientists, and savage war pigs. This darkly surreal realm where nightmares roam free is forged from the subconscious mind of legendary visual effects and stop-motion craftsman Phill Tippett (contributor to the original Star Wars trilogy, RobocopJurassic Park, and Battleship Troppers). Commenced over thirty years ago and later resurrected at the behest of animators at Tippett’s Berkeley studio, this ambitious personal project employed hundreds of puppets, dozens of environments, and a crew of more than 60 artists who painstakingly animated every set, creature, and effigy in this macabre masterpiece.

Each element of Mad God is independently created and hand-crafted from its creator’s heart. At times, that heart bursts with love for its craft, while at other times it is morbidly gruesome, punctured and left bleeding. Altogether, Mad God is a testament to the power of creative grit and an homage to the timeless art of stop motion animation.

Limited Edition Contents:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio
  • Introduction by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro
  • Audio commentary by filmmaker Phil Tippett and special effects artist Dan Martin
  • Fantasia International Film Festival 2020 live-streamed tribute, masterclass, and Lifetime Achievement Award with Phil Tippett, hosted by Rupert Bottenberg
  • Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters, Alexandre Poncet and Gilles Penso’s 2019 documentary on the life and work of Phil Tippett
  • Worse Than the Demon, a short film by Phil Tippett’s daughter, Maya Tippett, on the making of Mad God
  • Dammit Phil, You Had One Job!, Phil Tippett on his infamous meme
  • Nightmare Music, new interview with composer Dan Wool on the music of Mad God
  • Trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Frank
  • Double-sided fold-out poster
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Sam Ashurst and a gallery of exclusive production writing and artwork by filmmaker Phil Tippett

By all rights, Phil Tippett and his stop-motion opus Mad God (2021) had a pretty great August. The film had its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival with Tippett receiving the festival’s Vision Award Ticinomoda which honours behind-the-scenes contributions to the cinematic landscape. Later that same month, Mad God made its North American debut at the Fantasia International Film Festival and Tippet received FIFF’s Lifetime Achievement Award for “his original vision and his contributions to the advancement of the craft.” Plenty of ink (real and digital) has been spilled lately discussing Phil Tippett and Mad God and so MMC! proposes celebrating the film by taking a lesson from Tippett’s creative process, repurposing some of the standard observations on Tippet and his film much like the animator has done to create Mad God’s pageant of monstrosities.

[Obligatory Introduction: You Don’t Know Phil Tippett,
But You Know His Work.]

As a behind the scenes creative contributor, it’s understandable how the average film-goer wouldn’t know Phil Tippett, but you have been dazzled by his work. If you’ve become quietly obsessed by the holographic chess game in Star Wars, looked in wonder at marching AT-ATs and sprinting tauntauns in The Empire Strikes Back, sought cover from Robocop’s ED-209, or been terrified by Return of the Jedi’s rancor, you’ve basked in the glory of Phil Tippett’s magic. Tippett’s fascination with monsters and stop motion animation began after seeing Ray Harryhausen’s work at age seven. His career broke in 1975 when he was hired by George Lucas to contribute to Star Wars and a decade later Tippett was winning an Oscar for Jedi and an Emmy for Dinosaur!, an animated documentary for CBS. He was hired by Steven Spielberg to work on Jurassic Park but the director’s decision to employ CGI struck Tippett at his core. In the moment, Tippett exclaimed, “I’ve become extinct.” Spielberg kept the animator on the project for his knowledge of animal movement and behaviour. (You might also know Phil Tippett by the “You Had One Job” meme inspired by his credit on Jurassic Park as “Dinosaur Supervisor.”) To Tippett’s unbelievable credit, he successfully pivoted Tippett Studios to CGI animation, most notably creating the Bugs for Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers.

An ambitious personal project that would allow him to explore the dark and surreal recesses of his imagination, Tippett began production on Mad God in 1987 following his work on Robocop 2, but he put it aside after shooting only three minutes of footage. Times were busy at Tippett Studio and the scale of his vision made Mad God seem like an impossible endeavour. Production resumed in 2000 when a couple of animators at the Studio came upon boxes of Mad God’s props and puppets and convinced Tippett to create a just few more shots with them. From there, Mad God was reborn with Tippett growing the project from a small group of volunteers working weekends to a crew of more than 60 artists. Hard work and a successful Kickstarter campaign produced three short films that eventually made up about half of the finished feature. The end result is a film unlike any of Tippett’s studio work and falls into the lineage of filmmakers like Ladislas Starevich, Jan Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay, and more recent works like Takahide Hori’s Junk Head and Joaquin Cociña and Cristóbal León’s The Wolf House.

[Obligatory Observation: Mad God Isn’t For Everyone.]

Mad God opens with an unnamed figure (credited as “the Assassin”) descending through various nightmarish wastelands and dystopias in a dieselpunk diving bell. He is eventually set down on solid ground and departs from his transport which rises back up, abandoning him to his work. The Assassin is more an emblem than a person, hidden under a bowler hat, a thick trench coat, and a World War I-era gas mask. Armed with a tattered map and a bag of explosives, he descends further through worlds of depraved industry and cruel appetites. The film seems limitless in the horrors it can imagine. Electrocuted giants, crushed garden gnomes, and a sexually-serviced Minotaur only hint at Mad God’s gallery of atrocities. Reduplicating operating rooms of live animal vivisections are seen and passed over by the Assassin. Mindless shit-men work ceaselessly until crushed under or splattered across unforgiving machinery. The Assassin’s unspoken mission will eventually end, revealing him to be one of many Assassins sent down into these underworlds by a wild, long-nailed scientist played by filmmaker Alex Cox in a bizarre and welcome cameo. (Cox is a longtime friend of Tippett, having known each other from a potential Mars Attacks! project before it went to Tim Burton.) Mad God then follows another Assassin on another unspecified mission, suggesting an endless cycle of torment and a clandestine war fought perpetually against it.

The muck and mulch of Mad God’s 83 minute monstrosity parade would naturally stand as something of an endurance test for the average film viewer, however Tippett’s film goes beyond challenging the stomachs of its audience. The film has no dialogue, no named characters within its diegesis, no explicit rationale for the Assassin’s explorations or sabotages, and its treatment of space is highly disorienting, if not logically confounding. In the lacuna of classical Hollywood conventions, Tippett has created a masterwork of craftsmanship. Mad God blends stop motion animation, CGI, and live action performance with stunningly complimentary dissonance and Tippett brilliantly employs motivated light sources within his miniature world to dazzling effects. A multitude of creatures and landscapes populate Mad God and Tippett gives them full tribute with a multitude of jaw-dropping tracking shots. Few films are as tactile as Mad God, stuck together with slime and hairballs and reeking of leather, rubber, and metal, loaded with the body horror disgust of leaking boils, pendulous breasts, and defecating asses. Tippett has called the film his reflection of the world’s absurdity and, as such, it is his film and not your film. In fairness, Tippett knows as much and has suggested seeking assistance in watching Mad God, remarking, “I would recommend either taking a gummy, smoking some marijuana, drinking a bottle of wine, or bringing a vomit bag to watch it.”

[Obligatory Criticism: You Don’t Know What Mad God is About
(And Neither Does Phil Tippett.)]

Ironically, while Mad God has little hesitation over revealing its bodily contents, some critics take issue with a lack of connective tissue linking the film’s mud-coloured vignettes, wondering whether the film would benefit with some additional explication on the Assassin’s mission. They ask, “Who is the Mad God?” and Tippett denies it is him, claiming to only be (at best) its abbot. Creatively, Tippett describes his process as being akin to that of Bach or Mozart – “Well, I just transcribed it you know, God told me what to do. I wasn’t thinking … That’s my process.” Mad God was developed from a 15 page script that functioned more as a document of its tone than a blueprint of its narrative and the film was built out of inspirations taken over its decades of production. With no one to answer to but himself, Tippett had the luxury of never falling behind in his work, never missing a deadline. He could allow himself the luxury of working intuitively, finding meaning as it came to him. (“I’m a prolific dreamer.”) For Tippett, the end product is designed to inspire a mental state rather than express a conventional story.

The final form of Mad God isn’t the film itself, but the memory after you watch it. It’s bringing you to that moment just after waking up from a dream, frozen, exploring fragments of your feral mind before they fade back into the shadows. That’s the moment. Mad God is just a way to get you there.

As Sachin Hingoo observes, Mad God may be best approached like a symphony rather than a traditional movie, with episodic movements playing with themes and sensibilities, and there are certainly preoccupations being expressed by Tippett’s subconscious through Mad God. Early on, as the Assassin descends into and initially explores the film’s hellscapes, we see Tippett’s work and his inspirations laid to waste. Dinosaur bones, Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot, Ray Harryhausen’s Cyclops, and the ED-209 appear as detritus on scorched landscapes. In their place is a world filled with monstrous desires, misshapen bodies, and meaningless, brutal industry. The Assassin, a wily saboteur on a mission to destroy these worlds (or at least parts of them), stands in contrast by his small size and his ability to act with intended strategy. Later, it is revealed that the Assassin is an agent of Alex Cox’s mad scientist who aims to tear down these worlds of inhumane commodification and singularly bespoke malformation. And where one Assassin fails or dies while succeeding, Cox’s long-nailed mastermind has many more in line to send down in his sarcophagus-like diving bell. Mad God’s ongoing conflict is hardly a meaningless accident or an excuse to craft abnormal physiognomies. For an artist like Tippett, who claims that 1997’s Starship Troopers is the last movie he was proud to have worked on (“and everything else was, ack, I’ve got to earn money”), Mad God seems fairly clear in where its anxieties lie and what side of the filmmaking line it stands on.

[Obligatory Quote: “If You Want to Take a Good Shit,
You Have to Eat Well.”
]

When asked about his influences, Tippett falls back on advice given to him by Miloš Forman back when Tippett’s wife worked on Amadeus. Forman succinctly told Tippett, “If you want to take a good shit, you have to eat well.” It’s no criticism to observe that Mad God does often look like it was crafted from one epic shit, and so it should be no surprise that Tippett took Forman’s advice to heart and spent the following decades gorging his mind on art history, archaeology, and theology. He studied Dante Alighieri, William Blake, and Carl Jung, and their influence can be seen in Mad God’s biblical references (its opening Leviticus quote, that Babel-like tower, the Assassin’s Inferno-esque descent through various underworlds). The film’s array of unnatural creatures points to the acknowledged influence of painters like Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Of particular interest is Tippett’s admiration for Joseph Cornell, an American artist influenced by the Surrealists and best known for his shadow boxes that would contrast cast-off bric-a-brac. Tippett, himself a master of repurposing items for his own use, seems to channel something of Cornell’s spirit by celebrating that junk heap aesthetic in his film.

The influence of Cornell appears to run deeper in Mad God than the look and feel Tippett’s fabrications. Tippett has been explicit about using Mad God to explore other narrative possibilities than those to which we conventionally default. In seeming acknowledgment to Cornell, Tippett has discussed his desire to bring a collage mentality to his story-telling. In this regard, Mad God could be seen not as a series of vignettes, but as a series of Cornell-like shadow boxes that collect characters, actions, and settings which are then placed alongside each other as discrete entities but also for inevitable comparison. Tippett goes further by straining conventional cinema’s conservation of space, suggesting that his Assassin may be exploring a kind of multiverse by notionally stepping through wormholes rather than the literal hatches and escape trunks that appear onscreen. Thoughts of Dante’s tour through the nine circles of Hell come to mind, but so does the triptychs of Bosch, where diverse worlds stand alongside each other, or the paintings and panels of Bosch, Bruegel, and Brueghel, where the immensity of their detail describes a confluence of narratives. Certainly the influence of Jung and his attention to the dreamworld becomes apparent, giving consideration to a plane of sublimated meaning and disrespected linearity. Mad God may be the perfect encapsulation of Forman’s sentiment with its foul and fetid look and its ambitiously conceived construction, both material and conceptual.

Mad God PosterMMC! would love to see Mad God get the Arrow Video treatment. AV podcast men Sam Ashurst and Dan Martin have already begged for the same on the label’s podcast and Tippett is certainly an appreciated figure to loyal Arrowheads given his associations with a number of their favourite films. Tippett already has something of a relationship to the label, having already found representation in the extra features of Arrow’s release of Robocop. If a truly stacked edition of Mad God was an option, it might behoove Arrow Video to strike quickly as Tippett has made numerous comments about wanting to put the film behind him. Reflecting on the experience of making Mad God, the filmmaker has frequently noted his mental breakdown that resulted in him spending a week in a psychiatric ward and being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Even more, the film has left Tippett feeling like the victim of a “violent crime.” Far be it for me to ask Phil Tippett to refrain from moving on with his life, but a great edition of Mad God needs his insights and so MMC! proposes asking the master for one last go around with his epic project for posterity’s sake.

Credits: This imagined Arrow Video editions has incorporated the currently existing content of Alexandre Poncet and Gilles Penso’s documentary, the short film by Maya Tippett, and the Fantasia Q&A, and has added various invented extras – an introduction by Guillermo del Toro (on the basis of his quote on the Mad God poster), an audio commentary discussion between Phil Tippett and special effects guru/Arrow Video podcast co-host Dan Martin, a feature on Dan Wool’s music for the film, a cheeky nod to Dinosaur Supervisor meme, and an essay by Arrow Video podcast co-host Sam Ashurst (who offered on a recent podcast to contribute a visual essay to an Arrow Video release of Mad God). The cover summary was adapted from various synopses of Mad God used by Tippett Studio and Prodigy Public Relations.

This post was greatly informed by the 2012 episode of Adam Savage’s Tested which went behind the scenes with Phil Tippett at Tippett Studio, as well as by Gabriel Sigler’s interview of Tippett for Bad Feeling MagazineRafael Motamayor’s interview for Observer and his review for IndieWire, Sachin Hingoo’s article for Biff Bam Pop!Kristy Puchko’s review for IGN, Jacob Mouradian’s review for FilmBook, John Bleasdale’s articles for The Guardian and Sight and Sound, Kyle Anderson’s review for Nerdist, Spencer Perry’s review for ComicBook, and Elisa Giudici’s Locarno Diary entry for The Film Experience.

Finally, a big thank you to the Fantasia International Film Festival! More imagined editions of Fantasia titles are still to come, so be sure to check back!

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