Quick Quotes Quill : Behind the Scenes: Animatronics in Film
Original date: 6/3/2006
Can you describe a little bit of the process for our readers, who might not be familiar with animatronics?
Animatronics encompasses a wide range of skills, Sculpting, mould making, foam/silicone lab, fabrication, mechanical engineering, electronic & computer engineering and art finishing. An animatronic creature usually starts life as a concept drawing produced by a concept artist based on the character in mind. Once the character design has been finalised, the drawing is handed to the sculptor who will then create a 3D sculpt from the drawing. Once the sculpt has been accepted by the director and producers, it will be sent to the mould shop where it will have an inner core produced and a fibreglass mould made from the sculpt. Once the core is produced, a copy is handed to the mechanical engineers, so that they can see how much space they have to fit the various actuators in to produce the movement required for the creature. While these engineers are working on the mechanics of the creature, the foam lab will be producing the latex/silicone skin using the mould and core supplied from the mould shop. When the internal workings have been finished, the animatronic head is passed to the electronics department (This would be where I fit in). The electronics department fit the necessary gadgets needed to operate the various actuators, along with the wiring loom and batteries etc. Once all the electronics are in place, the animatronic head would be hooked up to the computer performance system, where limits for all the separate actuators would be programmed. Now the animatronic is sent back to the mechanical engineers, where they will glue/fit the skin into position, once in place the animatronic will be tested once more before being passed to the art finishing department. Here the skin will be painted and any fur/hair will be added to give a life like look. When the art finish has been accepted, the animatronic is passed back to the electronics/computer department for further programming/setup and rehearsal prior to being filmed.
How did you get involved with the Potter films specifically? Which film is your favorite?
I had contacted a colleague Chris Barton who had worked on the first two HP movies, who suggested that I should come in and meet Nick Dudman. An interview was arranged and I went along with some of the equipment I had developed of the previous few years. One of the items I took with me was my Hexapod robot. Nick was particularly interested in the Hexapod and my computer performance system. However, at the time of the interview I was still working for another company, and Nick was not looking for crew as they were at the end of the second HP film. About 4 months later, I decided to leave my current job and go travelling for a couple of months. It was then in the last week of my work that I received a phone call from Nick’s department asking me if I was still starting on Monday morning! Obviously I was shocked as I hadn’t heard anything for the last 4 months. However, as I was already leaving work, of course I said yes. 🙂
My favourite film so far would have to be “The Goblet of Fire”.
I noticed by your resume that you’ve worked on several great characters such as Buckbeak, Fawkes, and Voldemort, in addition to others. Which character has been your favorite to work on? Which was the most challenging?
By far the most challenging and in my opinion the best character would be Fawkes. Fawkes was originally seen in the earlier films, but was re-built for the “Goblet of Fire”. The re-build was very different from the original, as the mechanical engineers Josh Lee and Andy Roberts now had the opportunity to control Fawkes using my Xpress performance computer. Previously Fawkes was controlled using a combination of R/C equipment and cable controls which took several puppeteers to coordinate. With the aid of the computer system, Fawkes could be controlled by a single operator, and complex moves such as taking a step along the perch could be pre-programmed and executed using a single button. The new mechanism combined with computer control and Val Jones’ fantastic feather suit took Fawkes into a league of its own, and yet we barely see him in the final cut of the movie. Such is the life of animatronics!
If you could choose any characters in any books to do as an animatronic, what would you do next?
I would love to get involved in the Philip Pullman trilogy. Its a great book and there are many amazing creatures! However, as with many films these days I expect the majority of the creatures will be CG visual effects.
Will you be doing any work we can look forward to in Order of the Phoenix?
Unfortunately not. Nearly all of the creatures in the “Order of the Phoenix” will be CG. Even though Fawkes is in tip top shape and ready to go, it was decided to make Fawkes entirely CG. I’m told this is partly due to difficulty’s in matching the animatronic Fawkes to the CG Fawkes.
Are there any words of advice/tips you can give readers who might be interested in a job like yours?
I studied as an electronic engineer, and became qualified before I started to look for work within the film/tv industry. I would say it is very important to get qualifications in whatever area your are studying first, before looking for work within the industry. Start building a portfolio of your work while your are studying, that way you will have something to show possible employers as well as qualifications. Work within animatronics can be sporadic, so its good to have several strings to your bow!
Thank you Matt for taking a moment to answer these questions for us!