The Science Centre: Here Be Monsters

by Gregory Beatty

How to Make a Monster

How To Make A Monster!
Saskatchewan Science Centre
Until Oct. 20

If the Science Centre is looking for a marketing gimmick to promote its current touring exhibit from the Academy Award-winning Creature Workshop of Aussie animatronic expert John Cox, it should consider drafting a medieval-looking map of Wascana Centre. Landmarks like the Legislative Building, Conexus Arts Centre, Candy Cane park and Trafalgar fountain could all be identified, but the Science Centre would be represented by the terra incognito designation “Here Be Monsters.”

In medieval times the phrase, along with accompanying illustrations of sea serpents and dragons, embodied the sense of mystery and danger involved in charting unexplored waters beyond the boundaries of the known world. A visit to the Science Centre typically provides similar thrills.

And until Oct. 20 it literally is home to monsters ranging from reptilian aliens to giant crocodiles, roaring dinosaurs and creepy werewolves.

If you’re a big fan of movies and TV, some of the monsters might be familiar to you. The crocodile, for instance, was featured in the 2003 movie Peter Pan, while a gorilla suit that’s on display is from Disney’s George of the Jungle 2 (2002). Through a mix of videos, static displays and interactive exhibits, Cox and his crew offer a fascinating behind-the-scenes look into the art, science, engineering and technology of monster-making.

Earlier this year, you might recall, Hollywood special effects whiz Ray Harryhausen passed away at the age of 92. During his long career, Harryhausen pioneered a stop-motion animation technique called Dynamation in which he would construct miniature models of monsters and then painstakingly film them in proportionately sized sets. Then he’d use different editing techniques to integrate the monster footage into live action scenes.

Special effects have come a long way since then. Now, most big-budget movies and TV shows rely on sophisticated computer graphics programs to create visual effects. But not all special effects are done through CGI. Cox and his team specialize in creating animatronic monsters that physically exist and move on set, permitting actors to interact with them in real time instead of acting against a blue screen and then having the creature digitally inserted into the scene later on.

The first step, obviously, is to design the proper monster to fit the demands of the script. If the creature actually exists, like the aforementioned gorilla or a komodo dragon that Cox built for a 1998 film, then detailed study of the animal and its physiology is done to recreate it as a 3-D model. Even when the creature is a mythical one, designers typically study nature for inspiration.

Concept drawings are done and plasticine maquettes made to test different prototypes. The prototypes are then photographed under different lighting conditions to further refine the skin texture, musculature and other design elements so that the creature appears as realistic as possible once filming starts.

From there, a life-size sculpture of the monster is created using a silicone mold and fiberglass. At least that’s the way Cox used to work. Now, with the emergence of 3-D printing, sculptures like a baby ankylosaurus that’s on display can be built using a 3-D geometry file. Once built, the fiberglass sculpture is carefully painted to achieve the desired skin tone and texture.

Outward appearance is important, of course. But to complete the illusion, Cox’s creations need to be capable of moving in a realistic way. Most times that’s accomplished through the construction of a robotic skeleton called an atron that’s installed inside the sculpture and is equipped with servo motors that can be controlled through a computer program — although in one instance Cox was tasked with building a dinosaur immersed in water, so he devised a simplified system of gears and levers that could be powered manually.

An astounding level of precision is required to achieve the type of fluid movement that creatures are capable of in the real world. In George of the Jungle 2, for example, 22 motors were used to manipulate a single gorilla face. The logistics of replicating other types of action, like the thrashing of a crocodile’s tail or gnashing of a carnivorous dinosaur’s teeth, is equally intricate.

If required, additional effects like eye blinks can be added through CGI in post-production. Some monsters are built to interact with actors on set. Others designed for nature documentaries are built to interact with other animals. On one project Cox and his team worked on, a real-life joey was filmed inside the pouch of an animatronic kangaroo.

I visited the Science Centre on a rainy Saturday morning. A sizeable number of people passed through How to Make a Monster! when I was there. Overall, I think children and adults alike found the exhibit engaging and fun.

At some of the stations you can manipulate monsters through push button and lever controls. At other stations, using paper and pencils and plasticine, you can design and build your own monster. You can even name it if you want. All in good fun, of course. No riffing on a despised ex-girl/boyfriend or younger/older sibling unless, you know, they really were a monster.