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9 kb The Character Shop, a special effects company based in Canoga Park, CA, has provided reindeer for Tim Allen in The Santa Clause, chickens for Foster Farms, and tongue-slinging frogs for Budweiser. But the company's biggest project so far is the creation of eight full-sized replicas of Indian elephants, two of which were animatronically equipped for lifelike movement, for the Walt Disney movie Operation Dumbo Drop.

"We made an 8' tall buffalo for Radio Flyer, so a lot of the massive animatronic stuff was worked out," says company president Rick Lazzarini. "Some of it translated, and some of it didn't. But we only had to make one of those. On this project, our workshop was like an elephant graveyard with all the parts strewn about. And as if that weren't enough, then we had to ship them and our tools and support equipment to Thailand, and shoot there for six weeks."

All of the Character Shop elephants were duplicates of Tai, the four-ton live elephant who costars with Ray Liotta and Danny Glover in Operation Dumbo Drop. The movie is based on a true story about the US Army attempts to deliver a new elephant to a strategically located village during the Vietnam War. Many stunts were required of Tai's character Bo-Tat - including a climactic parachute drop. Understandably, she needed several stand-ins.

When Lazzarini's shop got the job he sent a crew to collect Tai's measurements and study movement and physical attributes. "We got everything you can imagine, including circumferences, diameters, lengths, widths, circumference of the globe of the eyes," he says. "We went in with this 8' long pair of calipers, which when stretched out, could go to almost 16', and that's what we used to get around the elephant's bulk. We took massive amounts of photographs from every angle, and videotaped her movement from front, profile, and so on. We also took silicone mold castings of her skin, so that when we did a full-scale sculpture, we had reference samples to sculpt from.

"To sculpt the full-sized elephant," he continues, "we built a steel armature that came apart in a number of pieces - trunk, head, tail, body, legs, and ears were all separate, so we could take those pieces apart and sculpt on them separately, but also put them together to see it in total." Green urethane foam was added to the armature for bulk, and then water-based clay was used for sculpting, except for the ears, which were sculpted in a more crack-resistant oil-based clay. "It took 12 people four weeks to sculpt," says Lazzarini. "And I kept people rotating, so that no one sculptor's interpretation would become discernible in any one area.

After the sculpting, a massive silicone mold was made, backed up with lightweight fiberglass and syntactic foam jacket to give it shape. "And then we pulled off the mold and destroyed the sculpture." Lazzarini says. From the molds, we made the eight elephants." Six were simple fiberglass shells (weighing in at 400-600 lbs) with floppy polyurethane ears, tail, and trunk; these were the models that were dropped from an airplane. The other two, used for more complicated movement, were animatronics controlled by a custom-configured computer playback system. and programmed using Lazzarini's proprietary Waldo® devices.

"We used computer playback during shots where the helicopter would pick up the animatronic and whisk it out of sight range, so there's no point in doing a real time control, since you can't see what you're doing." he says. "So we would pre-program five minutes worth of movement into the computer, and just before the helicopter took it away we would open the elephant's butt flap, yank a pull cord that started the generator, and start the playback going."

The animatronic capabilities on both models included "full trunk movement, head up and down and side to side, flapping ears, blinking eyes, eyes up and down and left to right, brow movement, mouth movement, and swinging tail." Further, "one of the animatronics had a spring system in its legs to allow it to bounce back and forth passively, and the other one was equipped with a hydraulic mechanism for swaying side to side." The animatronics weighed approximately 1,800 lbs - "about what a Volkswagen Bug used to weigh, certainly less than a real elephant."

Tai, who also appeared in "Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book", was a real pro during her modeling sessions with The Character Shop crew, but the resulting simulacra gave her pause. In Thailand, it was decided that the replicas needed some cosmetic touchups, so Tai was brought in, in makeup, as a reference. "Here were eight elephants made in her likeness." Lazzarini recalls. "She ran her trunk up and down sniffing them, as if to say, come on, wake up. She was smart enough to know they weren't real, but she was very curious about them."

Rick's note: TCI is a great magazine, loaded with lots of in-depth technical info. Pick it up at Samuel French's or Larry Edmunds!

Article from Theater Crafts International, October Issue, 1995
Article © TCI 1995, reproduced for review purposes.
Photograph by The Character Shop

For more about TCS and "Dumbo Drop", see:
The L.A. Times | Entertainment Tonight | The Disney Channel | TCS' Press Release

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