'Dumbo' (12 kb) The last time an elephant soared through the air was in 1941, in Walt Disney's animated feature, "Dumbo". Well, Disney has done it again in this summer's release, "Operation: Dumbo Drop." The film includes a scene in which an elephant is dropped out of an aircraft, in free fall, at an altitude of 8000 feet! Of course, this couldn't be done with a real animal, so to take on the incredible feat of duplicating one animatronically, Disney turned to special effects wizard Rick Lazzarini and his company, The Character Shop, who created remarkably lifelike full-size replicas of the film's largest and heaviest star, Tai the Elephant.

"Operation: Dumbo Drop" is actually based on true events which took place 1968, in the tiny Vietnamese village of Dak Nhe. After the village's prized elephant is caught between the cross-fire of the American and the North Vietnamese soldiers, and accidentally shot, the villagers threaten to withdraw their support for the Americans. Captain Sam Cahill, played by Danny Glover, and Captain T.C. Doyle, played by Ray Liotta, decide to lead the project, in a race against time, in getting a new elephant to the village before the town's sacred holiday. Thwarted in their efforts to move it by ground, they decide to drop it in by parachute. Sounds easy...

For three months Lazzarini and his crew worked diligently, constructing eight life-sized elephants for the film, using state-of-the-art materials and technologies. "This is literally the biggest project we've worked on to date. Finding room in the shop to work around eight full-sized elephants was a little tough!" At the end of three months (an incredibly short amount of time for this type of project) The Character Shop created 2 animatronic and 6 fiberglass versions. The animatronic replicas had real-time controlled movement of their heads, ears, eyes, blinks, mouths, tails, and remarkably life-like, sinuous trunk movements. They also had soft skins and incredibly realistic paint jobs, with thousands of whiskers individually hand-punched into them. The fiberglass versions were hollow shells, with floppy ears, trunks, and tails. Lazzarini says of a visit by Tai to his workshop "The replicas looked so realistic, they fooled the real elephant!"

'Falling Dumbo' (5 kb)
Once the replicas were created, Lazzarini and a small crew traveled to Thailand for six weeks of shooting. Two fully animatronic elephants were controlled by a custom-configured computer playback system, and programmed using Lazzarini's proprietary Waldo® input devices. The animatronic elephants were tethered to either a helicopter or crane for shots that the real elephant couldn't perform, but that still required full movement of the animal. The six static elephant replicas were actually dropped in free-fall for wider shots. It's a good thing that multiples were made, as the parachute failed to open on three of them, sending them crashing to the ground! "Hey," Lazzarini laughs, disavowing responsibility for the pulverized pachyderms, "I just build the elephants, I don't pack their chutes!"

'Crashed Dumbo' (11 kb)

Pondering packing a pachyderms' parachute poorly?
Pity. Prepare for pure peril!


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