Archive for March, 2015

Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach

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Lying on the waterfront at long beach is the actually rather well hidden Aquarium of the Pacific. Exactly as with the LA Zoo, for me the great thing here was the quality of the exhibits and in particular the combination of rare species I’d not seen before, and those I’d come across at various times but never seen properly, or got good photographs. As a result, the collections here were superb and coupled with a few impressive outdoor tanks (again, the local weather means you can keep tropical species in the open air) made for an interesting collection.

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In part I did well here because the lighting seemed to be superb. Even the very dark tanks provided sufficient light I could get decent pictures (and just generally see) the species on display. In most aquariums, even the well-lit tropical tanks can be dark, so this was refreshing, but nothing was too bright, and the animals and plants did seem to be doing well, so it wasn’t any kind of negative on the welfare front.

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As with a couple of other aquariums, it really did need a few places to sit and take a breather which would have helped and later in the day it was rammed with people making it a bit awkward. Indeed this was the one thing that I had an issue with, as with any number of places, there were a couple of large touch-tanks, where small sharks, rays and some other fish roamed in shallow waters and people could interact. There were a host of staff on hand to control these and keep things gentle, but at peak times there were so many people I can’t help think the animals were stressed and at least on shark had some damage to the dorsal fin that I can imagine came from too many people stroking it as it went past.

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This really was my only issue, and at least some animals very obviously enjoyed the experience (one ray made a beeline for people every time anyone appeared at the tank) and in every case there were some out-of-bounds areas the animals could use to get away and none seemed to take advantage. Still, cutting down on the numbers at peak times would probably help a lot here.

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On to the actual exhibits though. Inside there were the usual mix of a few giant tanks with larger species and hosts of small ones and then lots of smaller dedicated selections. There was a superb deep-water area with low lighting with some great novelties – hagfish (my first), giant isopods (only seen once, partially hidden and with no good photos before), lantern fish, tons of interesting crabs, chimera, and various other oddballs and with a great mock-up of a decaying whale for them to clamber over.

1 isopod

The big Pacific tanks were also superb and accessible from multiple angles and again had lots of species that were new to me. Overall there was a nice emphasis in places on invertebrates (and not just crabs) with selections of jellyfish, tunicates, ctenophores (always a highlight for me), giant sponges, various molluscs and others. There were some large animals too (sealions and seals, sea otters, penguins) and one outdoor tank had the largest sawfish and stingrays I’ve ever seen, and by some margin. There were also some more terrestrial species, as well as crested auklets (my first ones, and something I’ve long wanted to see thanks to mentioning them in my sexual selection papers), puffins, and indeed non-marine animals with various birds including in particular the super rare Guam kingfisher.

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The highlights for me were some rarely seen favourites – leafy and weedy seadragons, both present in large numbers in superb settings, and then to top it all off, a krait. Despite having been to some major collections all over the world, this was the kind of thing I never expected to see and so to have one at all (and then I was lucky enough that it sat alongside the glass for a good time) was incredible.

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The place as a whole lacks the raw impressiveness of the giant tanks of somewhere like Osaka, but more than makes up for it with the setting and arrangement of tanks, as well as the variety of species and real rarities and very special animals. It was an instant classic for me, and something I absolutely loved visiting. I could easily have gone back the next day, not because I’d missed anything, but some many species were out and active and behaving naturally, a second visit would not have been anything like a repeat or dull. I can only hope I get another chance to go again in the not too distant future.

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LA Zoo

tapirFollowing a recent trip to LA and the surrounding areas I’ve got a stack of photos and local reviews to get through. In addition to the local Museum of Natural History, I made it to the zoo, aquarium, the La Brea tarpits and across to the Raymond Alf Museum, home of palaeoblogger Andy Farke. Typically for a zoo review, I’ll try to sit back and let the photos do the talking, though there were some more things to comment on here than usual which makes a change.

harpy

The most striking thing for me was simply the number of animals that are basically permanently outside. Thanks to the local climate, tropical species that in the UK (or indeed most collections) and would need an indoor area were year-round species. Thus alligators, false gharial, koalas, and a number of others had large outdoor areas and nary a heated room or glass panel was to be seen which was really nice and very refreshing.

koala

Overall the zoo was huge in area and it’s a good long hike around it and especially up the numerous hills. This was compounded by some poor signage and the fact that a number of areas are being redeveloped. It’s annoying enough that quite a few large enclosures were shut and off limits, but still more annoying that it often took me quite a long walk to get to the right are, longer to find it because of the maps, and then fit it was closed was very irritating.

gerenuk

The new reptile house was absolutely superb, one of the best I have ever come across and was enhanced by the careful use of natural light for much of it (again, something that is facilitated by the location, not many places could copy this if they wanted to) and the snake collection in particular was superb. The enclosures generally were very well structured and huge (the elephant paddock is truly colossal) and there was some clever integration of them into the environments, with the aviaries on the hillsides working well.

colobus

For me though, the best thing was the huge number of species I had not seen before. Two duikers (my first ever), gerenuk, a number of snakes, less kudu, chaco peccary, both mountain and Barid’s tapirs, and red headed uakaris. On top of that, there were a number of things I had seen before but never got a good look at, or decent photos, including giant otters, harpy eagles, giant salamanders, black and white colobus, Prevost’s squirrel and servals. Generally the zoo was a superb mix of ‘classics’ (giraffe, tiger, gorilla, elephant) and real exotics and rarities, and all superbly curated. The only real frustration was the closed areas and I’d love to go back when it is in its full splendour, but it was a superb visit and ticked a ton of boxes for me, especially on the new species front.

duiker

Interview with Jez Gibson-Harris

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To those interested in palaeoart and the world of dinosaur reconstructions, the name Jez Gibson-Harris might not be familiar at all, and yet I can guarantee that almost everyone reading this has seen a number of his models and puppets since he and his crew put together all the live-action animals used in Walking with Dinosaurs and various subsequent sequels (and you’ll also know his work from the Dark Crystal not to mention Star Wars). Jez was kind enough to answer some questions about building model dinosaurs and getting them on screen, and he also handed over a nice pile of photos of various creations for me to share (though as ever, please don’t use these without his permission).

 

What is your background in model making?

I always made stuff when I was young, kits, sculptures, toys, jewellery then at College in Richmond in the late 1970’s I did a one year Art foundation course: so much fun, so many different techniques to experiment with. I then started a Jewellery and Silver Smithing course which I left after a couple of terms and joined a special effects makeup company that had just finished working on The Empire Strikes Back. I worked on The Dark Crystal and Return of the Jedi, building the famous Jabba the Hutt and later worked on Greystoke the Legend of Tarzan, The Never Ending Story 1 & 2, Willow, Tomorrow Never Dies and many more.

In 1986 I set up Crawley Creatures Ltd. in the Oxfordshire village of Crawley near Witney with a partner, Nigel Trevessey. We worked closely with Oxford Scientific Films working on Natural History films, documentaries and commercials and made models and animatronics for commercials and TV shows all over Europe. Nigel returned to freelancing in 1992 and went on to supervise the fantastic model build of Hogwarts for the Harry Potter films.

Lost World Iguanadon

How did you get into recreating dinosaurs and prehistoric animals?

In 1996 I was approached by a BBC researcher to make a pilot documentary film for ex-Horizon Producer, Tim Haines. The pilot was Walking with Dinosaurs. We built a couple of maquettes a half scale Liopleurodon head and close-up body parts, including a large pair of feet to make footprints.

Tim Haines documentary background and exacting standards ensured that the real, grassless, backgrounds, the animatronics, models and CG all worked together to create a truly believable natural environment. The series was one of the most popular TV programmes at the time and won multiple awards including a Millenium Products Award, an Emmy and Baftas.

The success of this series spawned a genre of programmes over a ten year period depicting early life; Walking with Beasts, Ballard of Big Al, Sea Monsters, Walking with Early Life, The Giant Claw, Walking with Giants and Prehistoric Park. We also worked on the first three series of Primeval and more recently on Prehistoric Autopsy with Dr. Alice Roberts.

We made a T. rex head for a TV pilot of the Lost World, when we worked ay OSF, the series started at Pinewood Studios but was cancelled after six weeks into the build. I think our link with documentaries and OSF and our background of realistic looking work got the attention of the BBC researcher and as is often the case with the TV and Film industries you get pigeon holed, but what a nice area to get pigeon holed into!!

I am fascinated by natural history and paleontology, I have always loved museums, so much so that I have now designed a range of fossil chocolates (I have to admit that I love chocolate just as much as dinosaurs!). So we do a lot of dinosaurs for museums now as CG takes over more of the film and TV work. We have worked for The Natural History Museum London, Oxford University Museum (my favourite), The Eden Project, Gondwana das Prehistorium in Reden, Saarbreuken, Germany and the yet to be opened Dinosauropolis in Athens.

Beasts Smilodon passive

How do you start a new animal?

Usually we will receive a brief from an Art Director and we will do our own research for the latest museum reconstructions, or artists visuals, trips to museums to photograph fossils or skeletal reconstructions. We have a library of books that utilise as well as looking at internet sources.

A production company will usually have a researcher available who will look for the most recent scientific papers and studies and look to key palaeontologists whose field the beast we are reconstructing falls into, to provide us with feed back to images we send as we start to build our creatures.

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What are the major techniques that you use?

We will start off with an armature, usually a metal framework, covered in chicken wire, hessian scrim and plaster all coated with shellac. The armature will be smaller than the intended finished surface, allowing for a layer of water based clay or wax based modelling material that will be sculpted to the smooth or wrinkled and textured skin surface that is required.

If we are making a large creature or model, we will usually sculpt a smaller scale maquette, (usually 1/10th scale). The maquette will enable us to create the pose and proportions of the creature quickly and get feedback from our client and any scientific advisers before the full scale figure is tackled.

When making a very large model we have the facility to laser scan the maquette, surface the scanned data in GeoMagic software, which allows us to manipulate the model in CAD. These files can then be sent to a 5 Axis machining company where we can get a full sized armature machined in polystyrene.

When the full sized armature is returned to us we can then begin the clay sculpture. The finished clay surface is then sealed and a GRP (glass reinforced plastic) layer is applied, usually the mould is made in several joining sections and once cured this will for a hard jacket mould that will have all the surface texture from the sculpture embedded into its surface. When the mould has cured the parts are removed and cleaned and the sculpture is destroyed. Casts are taken from the mould in various flexible elastomers such as silicones or polyurethanes.

Stegocerus mid (Large)

 

What do you have to consider from scientific sources and how do you decide where there in uncertainty such as with colours?

We will always aim for our models to be the best and most up-to-date reconstructions around so we encourage critical feedback especially at the sculpture stage when it is relatively easy to make alterations. We will produce a colour scheme based on discussions and this will be changed until an agreement is made.

Skin texture, colour schemes and feathers etc. on dinosaurs are tricky, there is no information on colour or sounds or behaviour and scant fossil evidence, as far as I am aware, of skin texture and feathering on larger specimens.

Scientists are able to argue the case for their views and understanding as to what the colour, feathering styles etc. may have been but from a filmic or TV point of view a creative decision has to be made to get the visuals on the screen and it is often a ‘best guess’ approach. The ‘best guess’ decision will usually be based on a modern analogy of the creature, our understanding of the environment that the creature may have lived in, whether the creature is a herbivore or carnivore, it’s size, whether the creature is bird, reptile, marine-reptile or crocodile like in its make-up, all this will be factored into the decision.

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What to have to consider from the perspective of filming?

Time is usually very short on a production so after discussions and hopefully a story board from the production company, we know exactly what we need to build and what the camera will need to see. Time and materials are very expensive so ideally we will only build what needs to be seen which is why a storyboard is so important. Sometimes we can build models to a smaller scale if there is no referenced give away in the shot. If we are filming at a studio or on location we have to think ahead about logistics of moving a large model or for freighting and crating and the logistics of moving and operating in the environment on the shoot

How many people would be involved in a typical build?

Because of the nature of the contacts for film, TV and museum work the deadlines are usually very short and labour intensive. So, as well as using our fulltime staff we rely on a network of Freelance Specialists to assist in delivering the models to the screen.

At present we are building a well known, very large, full-sized creature. We have three sculptors, seven mould-makers a mechanical engineer, and a CAD engineer in addition to the two office staff. Shortly we will be hiring two body fabricators. Fabricators really make soft mechanics, using specialist foams and lycra fabrics they will design and make a flexible under-structure that the sculpted skin surface will attach to, but still enable the skin to bend and flex realistically in all the right places, similar to the under-structure of costumes used in programs such as the Telly-Tubbies and their ilk.

Later in the process we will bring in a couple of Art-Finishers to prepare and then paint the assembled finished creature skins.

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What is the creation from your team that you are most proud of?

This is a difficult question for many reasons. One of my first jobs in the industry was working for the Jim Henson Company on the film the Dark Crystal and I was making Mystic characters. The team of people we were working with was so creative and exciting that I will never forget it.

Jabba the Hutt has to be one of my best achievements, working with a small team of six people we made one of the most famous villains in cinema and for such a prestigious film, I still get asked for autographs by Star Wars fans.

Greystoke was my next film and our supervisor Rick Baker won an Oscar for the work we all contributed to. The quality of the ape suits and the performances of the costume wearers was very special.

But those three films were in my freelance days and so the creations I’m most proud of from Crawley Creatures point of view is the work we produced for the BBC/Discovery Channel series of Walking with Dinosaurs. It was a very bold concept at a time when animatronics and CG had not been used a great deal in TV. With a small budget, from a special effects point of view, a very small build crew and production crew we felt very much part of the whole process from start to finish and that involvement was very creatively rewarding. The series was a huge worldwide hit and it got a lot more people very interested in dinosaurs and we won several awards for our work, which was nice!

Celeophysis 1 cu2 (Large)


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