Manipulating mechanical marsupials manually

Like many production houses, Monrovia-based Alterian Studios recently added some major digital machinery and talent to its creative arsenal. But unlike a lot of his colleagues, Alterian co-owner Tony Gardner hasn’t turned his back on the analog world. Far from it. Known for his groundbreaking animatronics work, Gardner spent the past couple of years developing ever-more sophisticated creatures that walk and talk as if they were the real thing.

“Having something tangible live on the set gives you a quality you can’t quite get with CGI,” says Gardner, whose latest creations can be seen in MGM’s live-action “Warriors of Virtue,” now in wide release. While CGI can create complex dragons, as in last summer’s “Dragonheart,” Gardner says having actors act with a character they can touch and react to makes a big difference. “It gets something ticking emotionally behind the eyes,” Gardner says.

Shot over five months in Beijing early last year, “Warriors” features animatronic characters capable of subtle body movements never before seen. To create a creature that seems to live, breathe and think, Gardner and his crew packed the heads of the film’s kangaroo warriors with 32 motors attached to pulleys, spring steel and fiber form. That’s twice as many motors as any previous animatronic head, and the results are impressive: The audience sees what it hears.

In the past, the audience would see a lot of lip flap when animatronic characters were talking. In closeups in “Warriors,” they’ll see a humanlike mouth producing phonetic mouth shapes. The mouths of the kangaroos and other characters are capable of full articulation of the lips, tongue and cheeks. “Film audiences today expect to see complete realism,” says Gardner, “so we’re committed to creating a true-to-life look.”

Alterian Studios was formed in the late 1980s by Gardner and his wife, Cindy. Since then the company has been on a roll, working on projects including “The Doors,” “Forrest Gump,” “Daylight” and “The Rock.”

Earlier this year, Elliot Worman joined the company as head of the new digital-effects department. Having both practical effects and CGI under one roof offers a big advantage, Worman says. “On most jobs I’ve worked on, we would have to wait days for revisions from the physical-effects people,” he says. “Now we can walk into the next room to discuss any problems.”

But the emphasis on “Warriors of Virtue” was on the mechanical rather than the digital. Alterian’s 60 employees built five kangaroo warriors, one Rhinoman character and one wildebeest. The creatures are operated by the combination of an actor literally inside the characters looking at a TV monitor attached to a lipstick cam and a team of three puppeteers manipulating the facial expressions and mouth movements by wireless controls.

Alterian computer engineers had written complex software programs to run the creatures’ mouths, but on the set, Gardner quickly realized manual manipulation was better. “After a couple of days, the actors inside the creatures and the puppeteers went into a Zen mode,” he says. “Everybody was in sync and improvising.”

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