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17 September 2014
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Animatronics

Putting feathers in one at a time

Putting feathers in one at a time.

Animatronics is the process of building robotic models of humans or animals, or in this case, beasts. They are programmed to perform intricate, lifelike movements in time with a pre-recorded soundtrack.

Our animatronic beasts were made and operated by Crawley Creatures and Associates and below they describe the process of working on Walking with Beasts.

Dinosaurs versus beasts

After working on Walking with Dinosaurs we thought Walking with Beasts would be a little easier, but it wasn't. The creatures became bigger and bigger, and in contrast to the dinosaurs, hairier. The process became more complex: as well as covering such large beasts with fur, we had to do more animatronic work to produce a greater range of facial expressions than the dinosaurs, as the mammals have to be more believable to our critical eyes.

Travelling with the animatronics

Finally came the difficulty of getting the animatronics ready to be transported to locations in the far-flung reaches of the world, trying to avoid a rainy season in one place or a winter in another.

We headed for the snows of the Yukon in Canada with a full-sized mammoth, only to chase the snow across the territory as it melted. All of these things made the animatronic build schedule difficult to stick to.

There was so much work that our core team of seven grew to eighteen, with additional support from several specialist out-workers. The majority of the team had an art college background - the experience of life drawing and figurative sculpting provided a good knowledge of anatomy.

Creating the models

First, we used the reference material provided by the BBC research team to sculpt the creatures in water-based clay or Plasterlene. The sculptures were then moulded in silicone and/or glass re-enforced plastic (GRP), to provide negative moulds. From these moulds we produced a foam latex or silicone skin, an under-skull and a body-form.

The under-skull and body-form went to the animatronics "mechy" department, where radio-controlled mechanisms to move eyeballs, eyebrows, noses, ears whiskers, arms and legs were built from scratch. All these movements are combined when the model is operated to create snarls, snorts and blinks, and other facial expressions.

Model andrewsarchus head

A member of the crew operating a model andrewsarchus head.

Moving the models around

Larger engineering work went into producing Steady Arm rigs, (similar to a Steady Cam rig worn by cameramen) that support the smaller heads during puppeteering.

The mechys also produced the Sand Dolly, a counter-balanced arm with universal movement. The Sand Dolly could be quickly assembled and positioned onto a light-weight framework with Quad Bike all-terrain wheels, and was used for operating larger heads such as those belonging to the mammoth, Woolly rhino and Entelodont.

Making the hides and pelts

Meanwhile another team transformed the foam and silicone skins into hides and pelts with flocked hair and fake fur. This had to be dyed to the correct colours, pattern cut and applied to the skins by a special process to keep the skins flexible.

Often the technicians had to apply the hairs one at a time, which was extremely time consuming and required a lot of patience. The full-sized mammoth took several months to make with several thousand pounds (Sterling) worth of Yak hair applied to the skin. However, some of the beasts weren't hairy and needed only a hide, which required a skilled paint job and a few whiskers, with some guard hairs punched in for good measure.

When the skin and mechanisms were completed the two elements were brought together with the skins being adhered to the mechanised skull and body. Once final touches and mechanical checks had been done, the completed animatronic beasts were shipped to location for filming.

Over 40 animatronic elements

Over the one-and-a-half year duration of the project, the team made and operated over 40 different animatronic elements. There was a wide range of beasts, most of which were animatronic heads. For example the two Smilodons, the sabre-toothed cats, who fight it out in Episode five, and the giant hopping, shrew-like creature Leptictidium, which features in Episode one, were all made for filming in close-up.

Waterproofed electronics were needed to help achieve the skilful underwater puppeteering of the early type of elephant Moeritherium. This enabled the film crew to achieve the close-up shots of the head interacting with the surface of the water and feeding on the seabed around the Florida Keys, USA.

Several full-sized bodies of creatures were also made for shots involving interaction. For example, bodies being dragged along or falling to the ground and moving the dust or water, or being eaten by other creatures and having blood and guts dripping from them. This can be seen in Episode six when a full-sized Cro Magnon tribe and the Neanderthals butcher a mammoth carcass for food.

Neanderthals

The actors playing the Neanderthals wore prosthetic make-up appliances designed by our make-up team. Prosthetics were used on their faces, also wigs, bad teeth (dentures) and beards for the men were added to complete the look. A prosthetic make-up appliance was also used on an actor for an extreme close-up shot of the male Australopithecus. The actor also wore full-sclera contact lenses that cover the complete eye.

Most of the animatronics creatures were filmed in real landscapes on location, and our work didn't stop with the completion of the build and the packing of the crates. All of the creatures were puppeteered by two of our creature operators, often in difficult conditions. An array of beasts travelled from Florida to Mexico, Java to Arizona, Brazil to South Africa and to the frozen Yukon Territory in Canada, where they made to walk the Earth again.

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