By Mark London Williams
Trios in trouble are a Jungian staple of children’s literature, including the threesome leading the Harry Potter stories, the siblings in A Series of Unfortunate Events, and now the three Grace children in writer Holly Black and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi’s popular Spiderwick Chronicles, wherein the Graces move to Spiderwick mansion, discovering a world of goblins, fairies, and other night creatures.
Brought to life by director Mark Waters (Freaky Friday, Mean Girls) with a script co-credited to John Sayles, the world encountered by the Graces was also realized in a more literal sense by character designer Phil Tippett.
From his Berkeley, Calif., offices, Tippett has worked on various critters for films like Cloverfield, Enchanted, The Golden Compass, and before that, some Bay Area work with the Lucas folk on various Ewoks, Jurassic-y dinosaurs, and other iconic beasties.
He’s used to working from a script, and conceiving his digital beings with words that begin unfurling after being introduced with “Fade In.” Was it different this time, having source material in the books themselves – each tome heavily illustrated by DiTerlizzi?
Well, sort of, inasmuch as he was “dragged into to the project by some of the guys at [my] studio” who were already big fans of the book. My wife was talking to the CEO of Paramount [its Nickelodeon Films was involved] and was pitching the Tippett gang to do the character work. Kathleen Kennedy, with whom Tippett had worked before, was involved in the project, and he got the job.
Tippett contrasted his Spiderwick experience with Jurassic Park, where “dinosaurs are already designed” over millions of years of evolution. The conceit in Spiderwick is that “Tony’s drawings are the field observations of Arthur Spiderwick,” played in the film by David Strathairn.
“The work,” he continues, “was split between my studio and ILM,” with his studio getting the lion’s share of “the goblins, who are kind of the equivalent of the winged monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.” Yet even winged monkeys need to get their marching orders from someone – or something – the “thing” in this instance is Mulgrath, voiced by Nick Nolte. There were also various trolls, along with Hogsqueal, voiced by Seth Rogen, whom Tippet describes as a “raunchy, booger-eating, butt-scratching kind of guy.”
Tippett also credits sound designer Mark A. Mangini’s work with helping to shape the characters, especially the way he’d “very subtly manipulate” the voice tracks, especially “little beats of snorts and snuffs.”
“The design process works in steps and stages,” he says, noting that for some of those stages, in addition to using Autodesk Maya, RenderMan, and other software packages, the team used its own tools for additional textures, like feathers.
Tippett enjoys what he does. “Everyone’s after this Holy Grail of making a [digital] human being,” he observes. “But why have the work of 30 stupid animators do the work of one stupid actor?”
Or in the case of Tippett Studios, some very smart character animators.
Written by Mark London Williams