Phil Tippett is a renowned stop-motion animator who worked on some of the most famous movies of the 80s and 90s, including Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and RoboCop. He was considered a master of his craft. Still, when Steven Spielberg hired him to work on Jurassic Park, he faced a new challenge – creating realistic dinosaurs using new digital technology.
Tippett and his team had been working for months on stop-motion animation for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park when Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the special effects company founded by George Lucas, showed Spielberg a test of a digital dinosaur they had created using computer-generated imagery (CGI). The test showed a fully rendered T-Rex walking across a field in daylight. Phil was floored when he saw it.
Suddenly, Tippett’s stop-motion animation techniques, which he had spent years perfecting, seemed old-fashioned compared to the new digital technology. Spielberg decided to go with the digital dinosaurs, and Tippett was devastated. He had spent months working on the project, only to have his work become obsolete almost overnight. Tippett describes Speilberg as being a very compassionate guy. After screening the first digital shot of the T-Rex, Spielberg asked how he felt. Tippett replied, “I feel extinct,” and Spielberg said, “That’s a great line; I’m putting that in the movie.”
As we hear about ChatGPT and the increased use of artificial intelligence, it is essential to reflect on how we define ourselves and identify what truly makes us great. When it comes to disruption, it is easier to be disrupted if your expertise lies on a “how” than on a “what”. Let me explain why.
Those who specialize in a “what” is focused on a specific domain or industry, and they have a deep understanding of the subject matter. They have accumulated knowledge and experience that allows them to provide valuable insights and expertise in their field. For example, a medical doctor specializing in a specific area of medicine may have a deep understanding of their field, and it would be challenging for someone to disrupt them.
On the other hand, those who specialize in a “how” are focused on a particular process or method of doing things. They have developed expertise in a specific skill or technique that can be applied across different domains. For example, a software developer specializing in a particular programming language may have developed expertise. Still, their expertise may be easier to replicate than someone specializing in a specific domain.
It is easier to disrupt those who specialize in a “how” because their expertise is often tied to a specific technology or methodology that can become obsolete as new technologies emerge. For instance, if a new technology comes along that can perform the same function as the one they specialize in, their expertise may become less relevant. In contrast, those specializing in a “what” have a more profound understanding of their domain, and it would take a more significant change in the industry or sector to disrupt them.
Those specializing in a “how” are more vulnerable to disruption than those specializing in a “what” because their expertise is often tied to a specific technology or methodology that can become obsolete as new technologies emerge.
In the end, what matters to Tippet is that he was defined by what he did, not by how he did it. He was recognized as an animator. What he did was animate and direct animation. How he had done it, up to that point, was through stop-motion.
However, Tippett was not entirely out of the picture. Spielberg recognized his talent and asked him to stay on as the “dinosaur supervisor” for the film. He oversaw the creation of the digital dinosaurs and ensured that they looked as realistic as possible. Tippett worked closely with the ILM team to help them understand the movements and behavior of the dinosaurs so that they could create accurate animations.
Ultimately, Jurassic Park became a huge success, thanks in no small part to the groundbreaking digital effects created by ILM. Tippett went on to work on many other films, but the experience of being disrupted by new technology left a lasting impact on him. He later said that the experience taught him to stay open to new ideas and never to become complacent in his work.