MutantLand: from the mind of Phil Tippett

Visual effects supervisor and director Phil Tippett, and his team, talk to fxguide about MutantLand, a Tippett Studio short that leaves cute animals behind and tells the dark and twisted tale of creatures struggling to survive.

– Watch the short film ‘MutantLand’.

‘Something for the Pixar kids once they turn teenagers’

Having mastered the art of stop motion animation on films such as The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Dragonslayer and RoboCop, Phil Tippett entered the digital animation era with Jurassic Park and Starship Troopers. Since then, Tippett Studio has been responsible for incredible and diverse visual effects in many films, from Cloverfield, Charlotte’s Web, to the Twilight films and most recently, Immortals. MutantLand was developed internally by the Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor, producer and director as a foray into feature animation.

“I’ve been interested for a number of years in doing a full-length computer graphics feature,” says Tippett, “but not necessarily in the style of Pixar or Dreamworks. So I came up with an outline and started fleshing out something I thought was produce-able and more like the kind of thing I wanted to see. It was something for the Pixar kids once they turn teenagers.”

The film follows the fate of a motley crew of MutantLand creatures who are hunted for food – most notably by an over-sized creature dubbed ‘The Butcher’ – in a strange, crazy and almost post-apocalyptic world. “I characterize or pitch it as Tex Avery meets Hieronymus Bosch,” notes Tippett. “It has that kind of frantic craziness and the density that Bosch created in his paintings.” There is also next-to-no dialogue in the short, something Tippett says he craves in other work, too. “I’m a big fan of silent movies and I like to use the approach they use. I like directors like Guy Maddin who actually does use sound but approaches the work as if it were a silent film.”

The project came to the fore when Phil Tippett was faced with a mini-dilemma after a visual effects show on which the studio was gearing up for was put in a short-term hiatus. “The situation came up where we were working on a show, hired a huge crew and were getting ready to produce the visual effects, and then all of a sudden the green light turned into a blinking green light,” says Tippett. “There was a hiatus for 4 to 6 weeks. We were left in a position of sheer terror – if we let the crew go then we might not have them if they brought the movie back. But if we held onto them, what were they going to do?”

“My wife is the CEO of the company and she just started yelling at me, ‘Do something!’ So I just got some of the guys together and rifled through some of the assets we had in the company that were available. I spent a day laying out the storyboards and we did as much work as we possibly could in those six weeks. The show ended up coming back on and I lost the crew, but over the next two years we kept hacking away at MutantLand bit by bit until it was finished. We were literally stealing ten minutes here, 15 minutes there, and doing a little bit of weekend work.”

Making MutantLand

With an ever-changing crew and a complex film to create – the studio took a wide-ranging approach to the crafting of MutantLand. “There was no way we could jam that much into the film and create that level of density without using assets we already had,” says Tippett. “So we re-purposed some existing models. For example, the thing that attacks at the end is the Beverly Hills chihuahua, the big rat thing is Templeton, the mouse from Charlotte’s Web and there was a fly we used from a Sam Raimi movie.”

Art director and visual effects supervisor Mark Dubeau was tasked with bringing the disparate elements together, including storyboards Phil Tippett had completed, and finding a way to make the film by twisting and changing the characters to suit the film’s aesthetic. “Phil basically looked at me and said, ‘Finish it’,” says Dubeau. “And I was like, ‘Alright, we’re going to get it done.’ The producer John Dunlap was instrumental in keeping everybody together and I got to work with the CG supe Ben Von Zastrow as well.”

“Phil’s also really good at finding an area or a wall or corner of the studio and then plastering it with reference,” adds Dubeau. “It was almost like Phil having his brain explode on the wall. There was artwork and textures he would bring in, pictures of destroyed buildings or animal autopsies. More than anything, he was taking the approach of showing everyone the film he wanted to me but he wanted to inspire us as well.”

The dense environments and sheer volume of characters, even if they were sourced from various places, still made the task a challenging one for Dubeau. But it was this style of filmmaking that drew many artists to the project. “Phil really wanted to approach this in a way that was duct-tape/rubber band, which I liked,” says Dubeau. “And the great thing about having Phil around was that he remembers how hard it is to do this stuff. Back in the good old days you did a shot with puppets and you were piping in smoke frame by frame and the lights had to maintain their consistency, and Phil was trying to find ways to get things to look motion-blurred even though they were stop-motion single frames. Now we’re on the computer, there’s a certain tendency towards ‘Oh it’s so easy to fix, easy to change.’ We wanted to go back to that kind of previous approach even with the amazing tech we have.”

MutantLand’s creatures were generally modeled in ZBrush (and was one of Tippett Studio’s first major use of vector displacement into their pipeline) then brought into Maya. At the time artists relied on an in-house projection paint tool but have now moved onto Mari. The short was also one of Tippet’s initial moves into ray-tracing at the time of production, and the studio has since made major developments to its area lighting tools. Environments were worked up in Maya or as matte paintings where parallax was not an issue, and relied on some lightweight textures to add significant grimy detail (see below for a discussion of the shaders).

Many practical smoke, dust and volumetric effects, combined with CG effects in the comp, added to the dark atmosphere. “It was kind of like a Frankenstein effect,” comments Dubeau. “We’d just layer it on and on and at a certain point I’d look at it and say, ‘Well we’ve got enough,’ and if Phil thought the same thing then it was done. At no point did he think of this as something that had to be polished as to blow the budget out of proportion.”

Hand-crafted animation

Tippett Studio is, of course, renowned for its animation skills. Lead animator William Groebe led this work, and also happened to voice The Butcher. “I was working with one of the animators on it and he was actually going to be the voice,” says Groebe, “but he’s this French dude, so his voice was always sounding [puts on French accent] a little French! So I kept trying to tell the animator, ‘Make it sound like this‘. So I just started recording myself instead and we ended up using one of those tracks.”

Although the studio has now delved into motion capture, most recently on Immortals, MutantLand was entirely hand-animated. The animation style as conceived by Phil Tippett was to be less cartoony and more realistic-looking. “It couldn’t pop into different poses,” says Groebe. “A person moves like a person, and a monster had to move like a monster.”

For major visual effects shows, Tippett Studio usually allocates one entire scene to a single animator, but the nature of production on MutantLand and the number of characters in the scenes sometimes necessitated splitting shots. “It starts off very small, with just three characters,” notes Groebe, “but then ends up being a million monsters. Phil’s motto basically became, ‘Fill it up with more monsters! Add some more here!’ Some of the shots are such quick little cuts, like 30 frames or something, and there’s 30 creatures in the frame. Originally it was going to be just a very simple short with eight monsters in the frame!”

One of the most interesting characters for Groebe, was, fittingly, The Butcher. “He actually has a hand growing out of his head,” says Groebe. “He speaks like a man, but he has very womanly hips and breasts, so he’s kind of a creepy androgynous character, building off of Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I think the fingers even move on his head as he’s talking – an animator would have it flex and pull on the face.”

The Butcher required both core animation and additional work for his blubbery skin and apron by the animators. “We didn’t have as much support from our effects department as we would normally have on a show,” says Groeve. “So there are also those flying characters with all the tentacles – they’re all hand-animated with FK animation – there’s no IK spline along them and no automatic movement to the tentacles.”

The winged characters ended up being some of Groebe’s favorites, too, especially for a shot of the female ninja character running away with rats chasing her. “Then this winged character picks her up and starts pulling at her,” says Groebe, “but the rats are pulling her down. That shot is 15 seconds long. This great animator, Hans Brekke, animated that and he did not want to split it up. I was thinking it was a lot of work, but he’s like, ‘No Will, I gotta do this one myself.’ I think it really sums up how messy and creepy it is – our main characters don’t actually survive the short.”

Texturing the MutantLand world

MutantLand’s cityscape is a decrepit and destroyed environment. Early artwork for the buildings showed fungus growing over the structures – scenes that would normally be accomplished by texture painters. But with no artists available to do the painting, CG supervisor Aharon Bourland, working with Ben Von Zastrow, was called on to write some procedural shaders instead.

“I came up with a procedural shader that involved a number of co-ordinates that could make fungus grow, or give it weird organic destruction and blisters to form up the building to a certain point,” says Bourland. “They would taper off and then there’d be rust-like structures underneath that. Then it would go into dirt and dust. It was an elaborate displacement, texturing procedural system for it all.”

Bourland, who also designed the opening titles for MutantLand, created the displacement RenderMan shader using a defined co-ordinate system. “You would place a bunch of locators in the scene and it would sample different heights and control the growth of the decrepit-ness based on where you positioned the locators in the scene. You could raise them or lower and it would get more eaten away if you raised the locator, say. If you brought up the dirt locator it would feel like there was more dirt built up on the base of the building.”

“It was all octave noise and Voronoi noises,” adds Bourland, “just all these noise functions compiled together into one big massive crazy thing. All of that fed into a surface shader that would do the colors. The displacement shader would drive the displacement but then all the values would get piped into a surface shader that would change colors. That environment would have taken weeks to paint, but we were able to throw that on everything and let it just happen.”

Not so cute animals

For Phil Tippett, MutantLand was a chance to showcase his studio’s wares and break out of the traditional Hollywood mold. The director has also – at this stage unsuccessfully – pitched the short around town as a feature. “We’ve been doing so many cute animal movies for a while,” he says, “that it was just such a great thing for the guys to do. It was great to break them into horrors. I guess the problem with these things is that they cost so much goddam money, and in the minds of the studios it’s a risk to do something that hasn’t been done before.”

Let’s hope they change their minds soon.


Director: Phil Tippett
Story: Phil Tippett
Producer: John Dunlap
Executive Producer: Jules Roman
Voice: William Groebe
Original Music: John Dunlap, Neal Hoover, M Stevens
Editor: Shannon Hullender
Sound Mixers: Julian Kwasneski, William Storkson
Art Direction and VFX Supervisor: Mark Dubeau
CG Supervisor and VFX Co-Supervisor: Ben Von Zastrow
Pre-Production Look Development / CG Supervisor: Aharon Bourland
Lead Animator: William Groebe
Senior Animator: Hans Brekke
Senior Animator: Tom Gibbons
Lead Character Setup: Eric Baker
Lead Modeler: Jack Kim
Layout: Kirk Larkins
Lead Lighting: Dave Gutman and Cory Redmond
Lead Compositor: Chris Morley

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