L.A. Times (4 kb)

How to Drop the Big One

Movies: Disney makes a leap of faith with 'Free Willy' director Simon Wincer-and two life-like, animatronic elephants-in 'Operation Dumbo Drop.'


So who's the biggest star in Hollywood right now? Stallone? Carrey? Streep? Sorry, but those puny humans, with barely a quarter-ton between them, could hardly tip the scales against the undeniably huge star of Disney's new Operation Dumbo Drop: Tai, the 8,000-pound elephant.

'Falling Dumbo' (5 kb)
Mechanical elephants and truck-sized
shock absorbers made "Drop" possible.

Smaller members of the "Dumbo Drop" cast include Danny Glover, Ray Liotta and Dennis Leary, but it is Tai who is at the center of all the action in this elephantine star vehicle. All the action that is, save for the actual, climactic parachute "Drop," for which remarkably lifelike, full-sized animatronic elephants were substituted.

The greatest logistics problem of the film involved shooting an elephant making a sky-dive from 10,000 feet with Liotta's character. That's where creature-builder Rick Lazzarini's pair of computerized animatronic elephants-painstakingly detailed doubles of Tai-were put to use. His pair of mechanical elephants came equipped with a truck-sized shock absorber in each foot, and were powered by generators hidden inside the creature's torso, accessible through what was known technically as "the butt flap."

"We were filming among Thai villagers who had never seen a movie, let alone participated in a production," producer Diane Nabatoff says. "They thought we were all crazy in general, but I think they were particularly puzzled by Rick's habit of reaching into an elephant's rear-end to get a motor started."

A boy and his elephant  (15 kb)
Creature builder Rick Lazzarini, right, oversees fine-tuning
of a computerized elephant before the drop.

Using a gigantic parachute that took a team of four people six hours to pack, Lazzarini's creatures were dropped a total of 18 times - occasionally crashing through trees or sinking into mudholes - to get footage for the film's attention-grabbing finale. He and his crew of puppeteers used radio controls to keep the faux-elephant looking alive, and understandably surprised, during its free-fall. A professional sky-diver stood in for Liotta, who says he's afraid enough of heights to avoid glass elevators.

Lazzarini says he felt proudest of his animatronic work when it passed a real elephant's inspection. "I think I bonded pretty well with Tai, and I know that she actually bonded with her double. We brought her into our workshop in Thailand and her trunk was sniffing all over our animatronics. She's an intelligent animal and you could almost see her thinking, 'Hey, wake up! What's wrong with you?'"

Rick's note: Journalists seemed to really home in on the "butt-flap" angle!
Article from Los Angeles Times Calendar section, July 10, 1995
Article © Los Angeles Times, 1995. Reproduced for review purposes.

For more about TCS and "Dumbo Drop", see:
Theatre Crafts International | Entertainment Tonight | The Disney Channel | TCS' Press release

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