'Star Wars' VFX Vet Phil Tippett on Holochess Then (in 'A New Hope') and Now (in 'The Force Awakens')

The Force Awakens is filled with callbacks to the first Star Wars. One of the most delightful for us was spotting the reappearance of Dejarik, the holochess game that R2-D2 and Chewbacca first played on the Millennium Falcon back in 1977.

Phil Tippett, a veteran visual effects supervisor, worked on that original sequence in the ‘70s, making those tiny monster chess pieces move through the magic of stop-motion animation. For The Force Awakens–available on digital HD on April 1 and on Blu-ray/DVD on April 5–Tippett rejoined the Star Wars team to re-create the game, using the same stop-motion techniques. He spoke to Yahoo Movies about the differences between the two experiences, the value of practical effects, and – because why not? – the bear fight scene in The Revenant.

I’m guessing a lot of things were different about doing the holochess scene for The Force Awakens vs. creating the one for the first Star Wars. What made it easier to do that type of scene now compared to back then?

Nothing made it easier.

In the first Star Wars, it was almost kind of an after-thought of George [Lucas]. He initially was going to do the chess set with people in masks and he just happened to see a stop-motion puppet that I had made when we were doing the cantina creatures, and that gave him the idea to do the chess set in stop-motion. It was at the very, very end of post-production and I think the chess set was one of the very last things that was shot. So Jon Berg, my partner, and I had to create these characters in just a matter of weeks, because the film was going to come out.

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George directed me, “Make me a bunch of monsters.” There was no real design, period. It was just like, this stuff needs to be made. So Jon and I made these little stop-motion characters and took them to ILM and Dennis Muren set everything up and shot it over a period of three days. And that was it. Everything happened in a matter of, like, three or four weeks.

But for The Force Awakens, J.J. [Abrams] and Kathy [Kennedy] wanted to re-create the actual chess set, which had pretty much fallen into disrepair. They were over at the Lucasfilm archives, so we went over there and engaged in a pretty protracted reconstruction process where we used a process called photogrammetry to capture the disintegrated puppets in their current state, and that allowed us to put them in the computer and to reconstruct them. Those went to the 3D printer and the molds were made and cast in the various rubber and plastics. That’s where a tremendous amount of time went, was in the reconstruction.

I watched a video in which you talked about working on the scene and you mentioned that in the ‘70s, you had to wait for the dailies to come back before you could see how the stop-motion looked, whereas now you could see more immediately whether what you were doing was working. I would guess that made things a little easier.

I mean, technology has changed significantly since we did the chess set. The way stop-motion animators prepare to do a scene is very different from the way computer graphics animators prepare because in the computer, you can always change things. But with stop-motion performers it’s like a live theatrical performance: you get what you get and that’s that. If you don’t like what you got, then you’ve got to go back and re-shoot it. So you put a great deal of effort into your planning to make sure it’s going to work the first time.

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It seems like there’s been more emphasis lately, in this film but also more generally, on going back to practical effects and doing things the old-school way. Why do you think that is coming back into vogue?

I think it exists in a certain demographic with certain kinds of people that appreciate these kinds of films. I don’t think you’ll see a huge resurgence in practical effects unless the directors and producers absolutely insist on it because the way films are made now, it’s a lot easier to go back and change things along the way, so you don’t have to commit. If you’ve got everything in the computer, you can kinda sorta fudge your way through it and change things. But with miniatures and stop-motion, you absolutely do have to commit and there’s a great deal less commitment going around these days.

They easily could have done the Force Awakens holochess scene purely in CG if they’d wanted to. What do you think would have been lost if they had decided to do it that way?

It would have looked like a computer graphic. The best response to that is, I think it was Roger Ebert who said, “Computer graphics looks real but feels fake, and stop motion looks fake but feels real."

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I think that’s what has renewed the interest in practical effects. I think there’s some nostalgia around those older movies and that authentic approach.

It’s a different look. Even though computer graphics are closer and closer to becoming almost indistinguishable from photographic images, there’s still a feel that you can immediately see, except for a few instances. Like in The Revenant, the whole bear scene: that’s an example of something you could never really shoot practically, being done digitally in a way that you were never pulled out of the moment of what was going on. With a lot of these other franchises that use computer graphics, there’s just kind of a look that is a computer graphic look.

Do you remember seeing the original Star Wars for the first time? Can you talk about what that was like?

George invited all of us that worked on it to the cast and crew screening in Los Angeles and although we were aware of the scenes we had worked on that were really cool that George had screened for us in editorial, I don’t think anybody was really prepared for the impact of the first impression of that movie. So that was a huge, very singular, climactic moment in a lot of our lives. That can’t be replicated. That’s a phenomenon that lives in its own time zone.

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ on Blu-ray/DVD: Watch Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren show off their lightsaber skills in this behind-the-scenes clip: