It may not be as common in our uber-CGI world of today, but back when digital effects weren’t so realistic, using animatronics and puppetry was the best way to get a fictional or non-fictional beast into your movie without having to train it.

The velociraptors in Jurassic Park, Gremlins, Yoda from Star Wars – these were made by artists and designers who literally brought these mechanical characters to life with tools, glue, electronics and a lot of time.

Using a gorilla head as an example, Lustre Effects, a China-based special effects studio, gives us a closer look at how these animated creatures are made from start to finish:

1. Sculpt The Clay Bust

Lustre Effects gorilla head

Bringing something as complex as a gorilla head into the real world takes a lot of effort, so it only makes sense to sculpt every wrinkle, fold, and flaw. Using a digital model as a reference, the team painstakingly adds every crease, crack, and crevice onto the clay gorilla head.

Lustre Effects gorilla head
Lustre Effects gorilla head

2. Craft The Gorilla’s Skin

Lustre Effects gorilla head

The team can now start crafting the different parts of the gorilla’s head using the hardened clay bust. They create the grey skin using special foam latex which is painted different shades to give it an extra level of realism.

3.  Add The Eyes And Hair

Lustre Effects gorilla head

It wouldn’t be a proper gorilla without bulging eyes and mangy hair, so they add them in as well. As if the detailed sculpting wasn’t a time-intensive effort, this takes it to another level. Using a picture of a gorilla as a reference point, the eyes are painted to match before it’s polished and fitted into the sockets. As for the hair, each strand is hand sewn into the mask with a needle to make it look like a real gorilla. The whole mask is them combed down to get the gorilla ready for the big screen.

Lustre Effects gorilla head
Lustre Effects gorilla head

4. Make The Mechanical Skeleton

Lustre Effects gorilla head

This is where art meets tech. Using various MCAD/ECAD software, the team creates a slew of internal mechanisms that control various parts of the gorilla’s head from tongue to eye and all the various facial muscles. If you think the moving individual parts are creepy, you should see the overall face.

Lustre Effects gorilla head
Lustre Effects gorilla head
Lustre Effects gorilla head

Instead of using a single skeletal plate, the entire gorilla skull is comprised of a series of moving plates which push and pull the latex in place of actual muscles. Even the eyes and mouth have their own moving parts. In a way, it creates an even greater appreciation for the actual muscle and motion of a gorilla.

5. Put on The Mask

When you cover up the eerie skeleton with some skin, however, the finished head looks just like that of a real gorilla. Also interesting is how the gorilla is worn by one person to provide the larger movements, while a technician controls the fine motor movements with an off-camera controller. Altogether, it’s an amazing process.

Lustre Effects has a lot more animatronic works on their webpage, along with tons more projects which will delight fans of popular fiction.

Author

Carlos wrestles gators, and by gators, we mean words. He also loves good design, good books, and good coffee.