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Behind the Scenes of "Robocop 2" at Tippett Studios and how "Jurassic Park" Changed Special Effects Forever

A depressingly large percentage of Hollywood movies boast a gratuitous amount of potential and possibility and yet, for one reason or another, often fall far, far too short to live up to the films they seem to have the potential of being. Although it’s a shame that many of these films have a stupendous level of production value and talent but are often often overlooked, as production value and talent are seen as secondary and supplementary to a quality story – the special effects work done on such second-rate films sadly go unrecognized the most often. An immutable fact stands strong – mediocre films, no matter the level of talent and amount of time poured into producing their special effects, are seen and remembered as nothing but wasted potential…or worse. Yet few box office bombs have had special practical effects work as groundbreaking, especially in the stop motion realm, and yet unfortunately remains unrecognized in every respect than the 1990 film Robocop 2, both an irrefutably shoddy sequel – full of half-baked ideas amplified by its rushed production schedule – and also a magnificent gem for its usage of practical effects.

Phil Tippett animating the psychopathic robot, ED-209

The special effects for Robocop 2 were helmed by Tippett Studios back in 1990. The film was released three years before the release of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, the special effects for which were also helmed by Phil Tippett. Yet the effects work on Jurassic had a far different legacy than its infamous predecessor, both in how much Jurassic raked in at the box office and how it affected the special effects industry at large. Yet, purely in terms of its special effects, Robocop 2 is nothing but a tour de force in its usage of practical effects, stop motion animation being one of the most frequent techniques to be employed in the film, elevating the medium to new heights.

The first Robocop 2 behind-the-scenes resource I recommend to you – also the resource that I consider to be the centerpiece of the making-of material, situated among several accompanying tomes – is a series of four behind the scenes videos, each ranging from 6 to 14 minutes.

Filmed by one of the special effects artist working on the film at the time, these videos document several days of Tippett Studios during the production of Robocop 2. The documentary does a wonderful job in rooting the viewer in the reality of the Tippett Studios special effects crew at the time. My biggest revelation in watching them is the sense of panic and distress felt by the whole crew while working under the infamous nose-to-the-grindstone deadline which the film was given. Because of this, the videos lack any pretense of a veil of romanticizing the job special effects artists have when working a big budget film, rose-colored glass through which the vast majority of featurettes shroud themselves in. As the crew feverishly works to produce some of the most incredible stop motion effects of the decade for the film, the documentary captures several conversations from among the crew that are remarkably banal. An example of such a conversation can be seen near the end of the first video where several crew members discuss which movie they’re going to see after they get out of the studio later that day. These kinds of details provide a wonderfully intimate, honest, and rare look at the special effects industry. Even though the videos are twenty-seven years old, this look at the industry remains quite relevant today.

You can go view the films by clicking the subsequent links: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.

The second behind-the-scenes resource I’m going to recommend is a 1991 issue of the special effects magazine Cinefex, issue #45, The issue includes some really great interviews with many of the heads of the production as well as a scene-by-scene walk-through of the film and how-to explanations for each of the shots that involved special effects. You can go here to buy a physical copy of the issue, or you can go here to download the Cinefex app for the iPad where you can buy the issue for a significantly reduced price.

Other various behind-the-scenes Robocop 2 resources in video form can be found below. They range from several interesting making-of featurettes as well as an interview with Phil Tippett in which he discusses the project in-depth. You can view them by clicking on the following links:

A Brief History of Phil Tippett’s 
Work in the Special Effects Industry and of the Recent Resurgence of Stop Motion:

As an anecdote, it’s interesting to note that one of the techniques pioneered for Robocop 2 was, in fact, an early form of go-motion – a technique that was originally optioned by Tippett, while working on Jurassic Park, to bring to life the famous the dinosaur characters for the film. However, the go-motion approach was eventually scrapped when the special effects company Industrial Lights and Magic instead chose to use CGI to bring these dinosaurs to life. This fateful choice made such an impact on blockbusters that it ultimately led to the preference of CGI over traditional practical effect like stop motion, an age in which we still live in today. This fact is one which Tippett himself has admitted to feeling an immense amount of guilt for, saying in an interview with the multimedia production house Vice, “Jurassic Park was actually the shot in the head that killed stop motion. It was a very big deal for me that the tide had totally gone out in my department. It was actually very emotional for me…I got like really sick. I got pneumonia and had to stay in bed for two weeks and it was like [mimes swallowing a bullet]…I thought I was out of a job and that was – you know – the tipping point where it looked like everything I knew – you know – had no value. And – you know – so how do you process that?” (If you’re interested in watching some of the original stop motion and go-motion techniques used in the conceptual phase for the effects on Jurassic Park, you can go watch clips of the original animation here.)

In stubborn refusal to end this blog post on a sad last note, it should be noted that Phil Tippett is still producing stop motion films of his own such as his series of dystopian silent films entitled, Mad God. He is currently in the midst of creating the third film in the series, aided by a small group of committed young animators interested in learning the craft of stop motion, eager to work in tactile handmade animation and to get away from CGI.

However, what Tippett said concerning Jurassic Park being the “shot in the head” that killed stop motion is certainly true in terms of the use of stop motion to create the effects for live action blockbusters that are heavy on special effects. However, the medium, now twenty-seven years since the release of Robocop 2 (twenty-five since Jurassic Park), still employs a workforce of individuals highly dedicated to the medium, although it is relatively small when compared with the number of animators working in CGI. Thus, there remains a hunger for the medium that cannot quite be satisfied with CGI effects. The recent golden age of television in which we are still living has given an avenue for several stop motion shows, such as Amazon Prime’s Tumble Leaf and Aardman’s cultural phenomenon Shaun the Sheep. Aardman and Laika stand as the two biggest stop motion studios in the industry producing feature-length stop motion films, although several independent studios also provide evidence for the stop motion industry being alive and well, such as Rita Productions who, in partnership with a few other studios, made last year’s Oscar-nominated feature-length stop motion film, My Life As a Zucchini. As one last note, the incredible popularity and universality of the internet has proved to be perhaps the best thing to have ever happened to stop motion, as it has allowed for many thousands of filmmakers – professional and amateur alike – to share their stop motion creations with the world in a very way that’s incredibly easy to access and share. So, indeed, stop motion, although perhaps presumed dead in the ‘90s, has seen a great revival in the past few years.

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