'HoloGrid: Monster Battles': How Creator of Chewbacca's Chess Game Brought It to AR

Legendary creature creator Phil Tippett brings his skills to video games for first time

Legendary creature creator Phil Tippett brings his skills to video games for the first time. Credit: Glixel

If the gruesome creatures in HappyGiant's AR-enabled card game HoloGrid: Monster Battles evoke a sense of uneasy familiarity, it's probably not a coincidence. They come from the mind of Phil Tippett, the legendary visual effects genius who breathed life into some of the most memorable monsters in the history of cinema. He was the dinosaur supervisor on Jurassic Park, a role that earned him an Oscar and inspired a popular meme. (“You had one job, Phil!”) He designed the hideous flying lizard from the 1981 film Dragonslayer, which both George R. R. Martin and Guillermo Del Toro have singled out as the best movie dragon of all time. He was the head of Lucasfilm’s creature shop during the making of Return of the Jedi, and he even created the violent little game pieces on the Millennium Falcon’s holographic chessboard.

Now, at age 65, Tippett is blazing new trails in visual effects. He's collaborating with HappyGiant to create what is essentially a real life, playable version of that infamous holographic chess set. HoloGrid: Monster Battle, out later this year, uses virtual reality and augmented reality techniques to bring a gruesome menagerie of monstrous game pieces – each painstaking handcrafted by Tippett – to life.

First, a quick primer on VR and AR. Virtual reality aims to convince you that you have been transported to another realm by presenting you with images and sounds that perfectly match your head movements. On the other hand, augmented reality overlays the real world you see around you with simulated images. When people playing Pokemon Go hold up their phone and see a Zubat or a Squirtle cavorting on their lawn, they are experiencing AR.

HoloGrid: Monster Battle is being designed to work with AR headsets, but you can also play it with a phone or a tablet. The game comes with a deck of cards and a stand that you can balance your device on. It uses your device’s camera to scan and recognize each of the cards, and as you watch on your device’s touchscreen, you’ll see a three-dimensional versions of Tippett’s characters pop out of each card.

“The actual card game is kind of like Magic the Gathering,” says Michael Levine, president of HappyGiant. Each card in the deck represents different characters and spells. He demonstrates how a match unfolds, scanning in several cards to select a champion and several minions that he will take into battle. A gruesome character pops out of each card and gestures menacingly. Then Levine selects cards with the spells he will use in the match. A hail of fireballs rain down onto one card as soon as he places it in front of his iPad’s camera.

Levine places another card down, and an elaborate game board pops into existence on his iPad screen. It looks like a grid of squares that have been carved out of volcanic rock, and the play area is surrounded by bubbling pools of lava. Levine positions each of his characters at strategically advantageous places on a grid, and launches a sortie against his foe. (You can play against a human or computer opponent.) He repositioned the game board by twisting the card that represents it. (People who play the game on augmented reality devices like Magic Leap, CastAR, and HoloLens can circle around the board as if it was actually there on their kitchen table, or wherever they choose to place it.)

Tippett is not much of a gamer himself. “I mean, I used to play checkers with my grandfather,” he says. But he created each of the bizarre creatures in the game, and offered input on how they would move and what their special powers and abilities would be.

The creatures started life as small puppets and sculptures that Tippett had crafted for various personal projects and unrealized studio pitches over the last three decades “I let HappyGiant go toy shopping in my archive,” he says.

The models for the HoloGrid creatures are on display in Tippett’s studio in Berkeley California, surrounded by props and models from his work on films like Starship Troopers, Robocop, and Hellboy. They range in size from a few inches to a foot in height, and each one of them is pure hyperconcentrated 200-proof nightmare fuel.

One looks like a colorful mutant parrot with its wings torn off. Another resembles a pale glistening maggot that has sprouted muscular arms and legs. The centerpiece is a shriveled naked zombie creature with sagging breasts, a misshapen potato head, beady lidless eyes, and an enormous set of discolored teeth.They’re an actual set of dentures that used to belong to the great aunt of one of Tippett’s friends. “She’s dead now, so she didn’t need them anymore,” he quips.

“I’m suspect of technology,” Tippett admits. 

HappyGiant digitized each of Tippett’s horrifying creations using a technique called photogrammetry, capturing images of each puppet from a variety of angles to create a highly detailed 3D model.

“I’m suspect of technology,” Tippett admits. He was initially unprepared for the film industry’s move from handmade stop motion animation to computer graphics. He had been hired to create the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park using the venerable old technique with miniature puppets. When he learned that Spielberg had opted to instead create the dinosaurs with computer animation, he thought his career was over. “I think I’m extinct now,” he quipped.

Tippett was able to make the transition because early digital animators were used to working with cartoonish Pixar-style characters, and it was hard for them to realistically portray the lumbering movements of ten-ton T-rexes. He went on to become a highly sought after visual effects supervisor, helping filmmakers plan out how to shoot their films so that CG monsters can be added in after the fact. Nowadays, his Tippett Studio provides CG effects for many movies, but Tippett himself doesn’t spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer.

Still, he’s extremely excited about the potential of augmented reality and virtual reality. He says that people who are used to designing films and games for monitors and TV screens will have to unlearn all of their assumptions. “There’s not a lot of crossover between this and cinema, because it’s all around you, there’s all this new fuckin’ real estate that can be developed,” says Tippett, “I try it out and I say, ‘Holy shit, I totally get it! I see how I can use a 360 degree sound field as a narrative device!’

“The whole VR and AR experience is such a great place to tromp around in right now, because nobody knows nothin’ yet,” Tippett adds. “Creatively, it’s like the Wild West. You can try a whole bunch of stuff, and nobody can tell you that you’re doing it wrong.”

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