Unless you're a film buff, you may not have heard of Phil Tippett, arguably the greatest visual effects artist of the last 50 years. He's the creative talent responsible for some of the most memorable and influential effects in cinema history, having designed sequences for Paul Verhoeven on 'Starship Troopers' and 'RoboCop', Industrial Light and Magic on the first 'Star Wars' trilogy, and even 'The Twilight Saga'. He's the guy who brought the dinosaurs of 'Jurassic Park' to life. During that time, though, he's been busy on his stop-motion passion project: 'Mad God'.
Stop motion is an animated filmmaking technique in which objects are physically manipulated in tiny increments between individually photographed frames so that they will appear to move independently. Most audiences will be familiar with it via a subgenre, called claymation, used by Aardman Animations to create 'Wallace and Gromit'. Wes Anderson's 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' and 'Isle of Dogs' were also pretty popular. It's a gruelling, lengthy process - Tippett started creating 'Mad God' back in 1990 after a lull in his schedule following work on 'RoboCop 2'.
The plot follows a character called The Assassin through a disturbing biomechanical world of mutants, freaks, radioactive wastelands, dank bunkers, torture chambers, scientific laboratories and other nightmare fuel dredged from the subconscious mind. It's a non-verbal film - there are grunts and shrieks, but no dialogue, no narration, and no subtitles. Jettisoning this stuff gives 'Mad God' an advantage over something like Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King's 'The Spine of Night', another love letter to an underappreciated animation technique (rotoscoping). Tippett takes his audience on a journey through vision, sound effects and music alone.
Since much of what's happening in this film is incomprehensible, 'Mad God' is hard to describe ... which make explaining why I loved it so much (and why you should watch it) a tricky proposition. A lot of it comes down to how utterly jaded I am regarding movies at the moment. Special effects have become less and less immersive in this era of comic book blockbuster films. Did you watch the last half of Marvel Studio's otherwise fine 'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings'? I was lightly dozing in my recliner while the dragons and tentacle monsters were whipping around the HOYTS Xtremescreen.
It's not just a matter of visual effects companies cruising and getting sloppy. As films have come to rely on complex VFX, the creative agencies behind them are overworked, underpaid and, at times, battling to stay financially solvent. These factors have led to a decline in overall quality, even while some studios continue to push new boundaries, like WETA.
The creature design, world building and overall atmosphere is unlike anything you can find in a cinema today.
You also need to take into account how ubiquitous CGI is in 2021. Big-budget films used to require between 500 and 1,000 VFX shots, but that number is now somewhere around 1,000 to 2,000. Case in point: 'The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring' had a measly 480 visual effects shots in 2001, while the 'Hobbit' films each had a staggering 2,000. There are over 1,750 visual effects shots in 'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings', a film rooted in the real world for a big slab of its running time. Do more effects lead to a better movie? The evidence speaks for itself.
While modern CGI often deadens films with homogenised visuals, stop motion is an animation technique that continues to breathe life into art. Consider the herculean creative effort it must have taken when Emily dissolved into butterflies at the end of 'Corpse Bride' - it's not hard to visualise the hard work behind every movement we see on screen. Each small facial expression, each painstakingly teeny item of clothing, fixed into place, has a magical allure.
'Mad God' may not have the refined polish of a studio like Laika ('Caroline', 'Kubo and the Two Strings', 'Missing Link'). Think more along the lines of Dave Borthwick's 'The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb' and the gritty work of the Brothers Quay, Jan Švankmajer and Władysław Starewicz. It's a completely raw, unfiltered expression of a man who is not only amazingly talented at his craft but also a fantastic and creative storyteller. 30 years in the making, the creature design, world-building and overall atmosphere is unlike anything you can find in a cinema today.
A limited promotion and relegation to a festival release nationwide will mean that the majority will go on unaware of the existence of Tippett's film. But if you want a gorgeously chaotic and visually rich experience that will wash over you, 'Mad God' is worth seeking out.