?What do the films RoboCop, Dragonslayer, and Empire Strikes Back all have in common (other than being defining films of 80’s cinema)? All of them employed the then-groundbreaking animation technique coined “go motion” — co-developed by legendary visual effects artist Phil Tippett and Industrial Light and Magic. Inspired by the special effects of Ray Harryhausen in the film The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, a young Tippett knew where his destiny lay and quickly pursued a career in special effects animation, eventually finding himself working in Industrial Light and Magic’s animation department and bringing to life creations such as the AT-ATs and tauntauns of Hoth. By the mid-80s, Tippett ventured out on his own and founded the Tippett Studio to create animated sequences for both film and television; his work garnering numerous awards and nominations for his innovation and the incomparable skill of his craft.
As revolutionary as go motion was, its legacy was sadly short-lived having lasted less than 15 years. By 1993, the release of Jurassic Park and its use of CGI over go motion was the final nail in the coffin for Tippett’s animation technique. Even though Tippett Studio would shift focus and work primarily with CGI to keep with the times, modern cinema lost a technique that harkened back to the days of Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien, with no one stepping up to the plate to use go motion once more for old times’ sake. But just because go motion is no longer in favor with modern filmmakers certainly doesn’t mean that the creatures that came to life because of it are any less memorable or inspiring. Check out 8 of the best go motion monsters (and robots)!
8) Dark Overlord, Howard the Duck
I know, I know. Howard the Duck. It’s awful, an unforgivable blemish on George Lucas’ filmography, and a hard lesson learned on why not to make a movie no one asked for based on a comic book character that the general public didn’t even know existed. All that aside, the only redeeming factor during the 110 minutes of schlock was the appearance of the Dark Overlord. Unlike most go motion monsters, the Dark Overlord leans towards the cartoonish in regards to design and facial expressions, matching with the comedic tone (and I use that term very loosely) of the film regardless of its monstrous appearance. Plus, if we can disregard the creature’s name for just one second, the Dark Overlord is probably one of the greatest heroes in cinematic history in that he was trying to kill Howard the Duck! Naturally, the forces of evil behind this film’s creation had the absurd notion that Howard should come out on top and the Dark Overlord laying defeated beneath his webbed heel. But in a perfect world… we’d have Howard’s head impaled on an interdimensional monster scorpion’s stinger!
7) T-Rex, Prehistoric Beast
The golden rule when it comes to making anything that can generate a potential profit: If it has dinosaurs in it, more often than not, they will come. And when it came to putting his go motion animation studio on the map, Tippett took no chances and created the short film Prehistoric Beast to promote his company and animation prowess. Prehistoric Beast is a pretty straightforward mini-movie: A lone Monoclonius, who’s wandered away from its herd, comes face to face with a T-Rex — the terrifying star (and villain) of the film! The moment it makes its grand on-screen appearance, you know that Tippett was definitely showing off his attention to detail and scientific accuracy: Glistening teeth, accurate proportions, and fluid, natural movements that even the most jaded paleontologist would approve of. The best part of all is that the T-Rex foreshadows Tippett’s trademark style that would soon be seen in Jurassic Park, even if it was entirely done in CGI by then. While the T-Rex isn’t inherently evil (it’s just doing as nature intended), you can’t help but take note of the sinister aura that surrounds the beast.
6) The Eborsisk, Willow
Willow isn’t a film for everyone — especially for those in the mainstream — since it requires an unbiased mind to appreciate its odd, yet very enjoyable, charm. Which is really a shame because the movie showcases some really fantastic visual effects. Namely, the appearance of the Eborsis (a portmanteau of the names of film critics Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel) during the film’s climactic battle. Blasting a troll with a bit of unpredictable magic from Cherlindrea’s magic wand, Willow watches as his magical ineptitude turns the hirsute horror into a giant, bloody wad of phlegm and then into the Eborsisk once the aforementioned phlegm made contact with the water in the moat. From there the battle goes from bad to “Do something, Val Kilmer!” Kilmer — er, I mean Madmartigan — jumps into action and slays the Eborsisk by impaling one of the heads with his sword, causing the fire inside the dragon to build up and explode. As a result, the Eborsisk holds the prestigious honor of being the only monster on this list to have been slain by Kilmer, who seems to be slaying entire boxes of Hostess Ding-Dongs these days…
5) Deinonychus, Dinosaur!
In 1985, CBS aired the award-winning documentary Dinosaur! hosted by the late Christopher “Superman” Reeve, and featured insightful interviews with luminaries in the field of paleontology. But the real reason kids of the time tuned in to the nonstop dinosaur bliss was to watch the stunning go motion sequences created by Tippett. There were many of these segments peppered throughout the special (one even used footage from Prehistoric Beast), but perhaps the best of all was the scene where two crafty Deinonychus pursue a thieving and defenseless Struthiomimus after stealing an egg from a Hadrosaur nest. For a primetime special meant for the whole family, the Deinonychus segment is surprisingly gruesome, showing the two predators biting into their hapless — and still breathing — prey repeatedly and then taking in bloody gulps of meat with gusto. Prehistoric Beast didn’t even show that much carnage — and that was a T-Rex! Brutality aside, this entire segment is remarkable since the animation looks as though it had markedly improved from Prehistoric Beast and the camera movements and cuts are superb, capturing the tension of the moment. Nowadays, this footage is very rare, but luckily it can be found on Tippett’s 1993 demo reel on YouTube.
4) RoboCop Prototypes, RoboCop 2
RoboCop 2 was a tough call in regards to choosing who was the best go motion robot. RoboCain certainly has a lot going for him (it?): A unique design and meticulous and complex attention to detail, among other factors. But, for all those things, RoboCain lacked the macabre humor found in the unsung heroes of the film: The RoboCop 2 prototypes! The moment you hear the cornball fanfare of trumpets during OCP’s demo reel, you know absolute disaster is sure to ensue, with a minor character ending up six feet under due to the R&D department’s malfeasance. The first prototype is purely tongue-in-cheek in that it takes down the two researchers with its handgun and then — in a somewhat disturbing fashion — immediately ends what can barely be called a life with a bullet to the head. The second, on the other hand, is more gruesome since it rips its own head from its shoulders revealing the bloody, and screaming, skull underneath. The prototypes really make you wonder, who were the poor schmucks willing to forfeit their humanity for the sake of science? It can only happen at OCP!
3) Vermithrax Pejorative, Dragonslayer
Dragonslayer was considered a commercial failure by many critics when the film was released in 1981, as it didn’t com close to meeting its estimated $18,000,000 budget. But that was yesterday. Today, Dragonslayer is hailed as a cult classic and a prime of example of a studio pushing the envelope, and setting a standard, in on-screen special effects. Spending nearly a quarter of the budget on effects, the design and animation teams worked hard to create what many consider a milestone in go motion animation. Their collective efforts created a never before seen cinematic monstrosity: Vermithrax Pejorative! Just from the footage alone you can see how smooth the movements of are, not once looking superficial or cheap (take note of the natural quality and complexity of the wings flapping). Also, the designers of the puppet didn’t sacrifice proportion in order to make it functional and vice-versa. In myth, the dragon was the villain in any good story since it was mankind’s fears and conception of biblical evil given form. While most studios tend to lack the imagination and care when creating a dragon for their fantasy flicks, the team behind Vermithrax knocked it out of the park and set the bar for special creature effects pretty high at the time of Dragonslayer‘s release.
2) ED-209, RoboCop
RoboCain may have had all the bells and whistles, but it’s his predecessor, ED-209, that takes a well-deserved place at #2. ED-209 is pretty simple in terms of design, nothing more than a pair of arms and legs attached to a faceless body. But detail doesn’t matter when it’s the machine’s presence and cold, computerized brutality that make it stand out; not to mention that it embodies OCP’s callous disregard for the lives of its own employees. Possessing a gait akin to a giant, flightless predatory bird, and growling like a lion when one fails to comply with its demands, ED-209 is the prehistoric apex predator made mechanical by the prey it once stalked: Man. There’s no greater villain in movies, TV shows and books than the ones that don’t need a showy display to prove that they’re evil — and ED-209 certainly delivers in that respect. For all it’s intimidating presence and ruthlessness, however, it’s funny that the ED-209 suffered an egregious defeat at the hands (or steps) of a common staircase. Note to Detroit’s criminal element: Conduct all illicit activities in stairwells whenever possible.
1) AT-AT Walkers, The Empire Strikes Back
It’s an established scientific fact, you can’t think of The Empire Strikes Back without immediately playing the epic and groundbreaking Battle of Hoth scene in your head. While George Lucas may not be a fan of what is, quite possibly, the strongest entry in the entire Star Wars Saga, the guy has got to at least have a place in his Wookiee heart for the AT-AT walkers that menaced the Rebels holed up in Echo Base. On paper it probably seemed like an awkward idea at the time having an army of mechanical beasts representing the war elephants of yore to act as the battle’s insurmountable adversaries, especially when trying to win over a public that expects nothing but space battles in a film called Star Wars. But the final result speaks for itself and the AT-ATs have become one of the most popular vehicles in the entire Star Wars universe, as well as representing the might and resolve of the Empire. But while the audience was enthralled by the sheer majesty of the AT-ATs, they probably didn’t even realize these war machines were actually small puppets, tirelessly operated by animators in trapdoors no less. As time went on, there were more additions to the “AT” family thanks to the subsequent films and other related fiction, such as the AT-STs and AT-TEs, but the AT-AT is by far the greatest of them all!