Posts Tagged 'movies'

Interview with Jez Gibson-Harris

Big Al 1

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.

Opthal2

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.

beasts austral male 4

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.

sm turtle uw day5 (Large)

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)

A few thoughts from Saurian Saturday

So as I mentioned a few days back, on Saturday I hosted / presented a full-day event at a London Cinema on dinosaurs in the movies. The idea was to try and combine some history of dinosaur research with their various appearances on film and the changing techniques used to bring them alive. As such we touched on Owen and Mantell, The Lost World and One Million Years BC, stop-motion and rubber suits and everything from the Dinosaur Heresies to Reptilicus. All of this was bracketed by showings o the 1933 King Kong and Jurassic Park on the big screen.

For me, it was exhausting. basically a 12 hour day and I was talking for more than half of that. I’m not doing that again in a hurry, or at least I need to space it out better, but it was certainly an experience and in terms of presentation I think I learned a fair bit. Chatting to various people I do think the pitch was about right for the audience and they seemed to keep up with what I was saying and absorb things. They seemed engaged and I got some good questions (though not too many).

King Kong really hasn’t dated too badly at all. The introduction was much longer than I remembered (and Peter Jackson drew it out still further), with things only really kicking in and getting exciting in the second half with rather too much lead in time. There was also very little chemistry between the leads, or for that matter, Anne Darrow and Kong – something that the Jackson version did improve on massively. The effects were great though – there were some nice details I’d missed before and the way the layers were put together was excellent. Only a couple of moments really jarred which given that this is some 80 years old is very impressive.

On the other hand, Jurassic park does seem to have dated rather badly. Sure I loved it when I first saw it, and have fond memories of it. While for a long time, I’ve thought of it as being actually quite a poor film with some great moments and great effects, I have to say that some of the CGI looks really ropey in hindsight. Sure this it also getting on and it was brand new technology when created, but I did watch JP just a couple of years ago on the TV and it looked fine – in full cinema size, less so. The T. rex attack especially, there are parts where the whole animal seems glossy and with a sheen, that’s only apparent when it’s computer generated, and it looks much more natural and ‘dusty’. In short, I’d probably rather watch KK again tomorrow than JP.

Oh yes, and I got to meet Himmapaanensis too, who brought along a lovely card of a hadrosaur he gave to me which was lovely.

Overall it was fun, but also tiring and stressful. I hope people enjoyed it and learned something, that’s about as much as you can wish really.

 

 

Dinosaurs on Film (again)

A while back I put up a post about dinosaurs in film and got some great responses on films I’d missed or not seen. I didn’t say at the time as things weren’t certain then, but this was for a project I’m doing with a London cinema chain to talk dinosaurs, films and the like for a day. In fact, it’s this Saturday. Anyway, I suppose I should advertise the thing now we’re this close, so here’s the link to the event.

I appreciate that few readers are in London and at least some bits of the talks might be pitched a bit low, but well, there will be dinosaurs, films, King Kong on the big screen, and lots and lots of me. And yes, I fully appreciate that the last part of that is unlikely to be the biggest draw / will be the most off-putting, but at least there will be dinosaurs. So, if you’re interested or know people who are, do sign up.

Dinosaurs on film

I’m currently engaged in a little side project to my research and as part of this I’m trying to make a list of films that feature dinosaurs. This only includes films focused directly on on dinosaurs (so sadly ‘Pterodactyl’ loses out) and things that either are obviously dinosaurs, or are identified as such in the films (so ‘Reptilicus!’ survives despite it really not being very dinosaur like at all). I’m also sticking to those which had a cinema release (bad luck ‘Dinoshark’) and I’ve generally avoided sequels (or this would just include a list of Godzilla flicks) or remakes though some exceptions are made. I’m also trying to stick to things where dinosaurs are a major part of the film (so ‘Journey to the centre of the Earth only just scrapes in and ‘Fantasia’ loses out). I think I’ve actually got the majority of them but if you know of any I’ve missed out on, do please add them in the comments.

Gertie the dinosaur – 1914

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain – 1918

The Lost World – 1925

Creation – 1931

King Kong – 1933

The Cave Dwellers (One million BC) – 1940

The Unknown Island – 1948

The Lost Continent – 1951

The Beast from 20 000 Fathoms – 1953

Godzilla – 1954

The Beast of Hollow Mountain – 1956

The Land Unknown – 1957

The Giant Behemoth – 1959

Journey to the Center of the Earth – 1959

Dinosaurus! – 1960

Reptilicus! – 1961

1000000 years BC – 1966

The Valley of Gwangi – 1969

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth – 1970

The Land that Time Forgot – 1975

The People that Time Forgot – 1977

Planet of Dinosaurs – 1977

Caveman – 1981

Baby, the Secret of Lost Legend – 1985

The Land Before Time – 1988

Carnosaur – 1993

Prehysteria – 1993

Jurassic Park – 1993

Dinosaur – 2000

King Kong – 2005

Land of the Lost – 2009


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