When I tell people I worked on the Chucky puppet for Childs Play, I get one of two reactions. Either the person takes a physical step back away from me, their face darkens, and they mumble something like “I hate that movie and everything in it!” or….their face lights up, they squeal with delight, and (occasionally) ask for my autograph. Now, I should qualify that with the information that the latter group consists of boys from 9 to 14 years of age. But if you are working with preteen boys and you are a woman who is old enough to be their grandmother ,having worked on Chucky buys a much needed measure of respect.
Childs Play was the brainchild of producer David Kirshner, a writer/producer who built his reputation on creating the animated children’s films: An American Tale and Fieval Goes West. While working with David Kirschner, I often heard him voice his fear that Chucky might ruin his image. David Kirschner did, in fact, have at least one fan track him down at home to ask him if Chucky was real. According to Tim Lawrence, Kirschner sat on his front porch with the man and explained it to him. Chucky and Childs Play may have changed his image, but he certainly didn’t lose money and Childs Play went on to become a horror film classic.
For the film, Childs Play I built the walk around costume, and the costumes for the various sizes of puppets and dolls. The fabric for the overalls was screen printed and the shirt fabric knitted in 3 scales, the smallest was used for the dolls and the puppets which were about 30 inches tall. Costumers Martha Trujillo, Dorothy Bulac and I made 70 sets of overalls in this size (about half of them were used for puppets and the rest for dolls in boxes). The Chucky puppet is put through a lot of action, such as burning and being blown up. Each take of a scene had to start with the costume matching the previous shot for continuity. Next in size was a full body costume and head worn by Ed Gale (Howard the Duck and Oh Brother, Where Art Though?) which was shot on an oversized set to show the flaming Chucky breaking out of the fireplace.
The largest was for the walk- around costume that I built with Steve Sleap and Dorothy Bulac in my shop. It was used for a commercial within the film before Chucky turns evil.
The puppets were built at Kevin Yeagher’s shop in Burbank, CA. There were many versions of the puppet built for different purposes .One full body servo motor powered puppet was used for walking and wider shots. Servo motors are the motors used by hobbyists for model airplanes. There was one puppet with cable-controlled arms and legs for shots that called for faster movement. Additionally, there were: a stripped-down stunt version, a shaking version powered by a cordless drill motor for the shots where Chucky is set on fire, a charred version that had its arm, leg, and head blown off, and for the final death sequence, the charred head all by itself
Chucky evolves over the course of the film, from a sweet harmless seeming doll to an evil serial killer.
Brad Dourif (Dune, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Lord Of The Rings) played the killer, Charles Lee Ray performed the voice for the puppet.
With animatronics, often the mechanical movement detracts from the realism. For Chucky, this actually worked in the animators’ favor. Since Chucky was supposed to be a doll, the less than fluid movement made him more believable. It took 2 people to work the head – one wearing a harness on his head to work the jaw and working two control boxes to sync the lips, and a second with 2 more control boxes to work the eyes, eyelids, and brows. Puppeteers on Childs Play included: Allan Coulter, Brock Winkless, Loren Soman, William Bryan, Steve James, Dave Nelson, Howard Berger and Marc Tyler.
I asked mechanical designer, Allan Coulter what the greatest challenges were. He said, “Selling the idea of doing a puppet this way was probably the most difficult thing. I give Kevin Yeagher a lot of credit for trusting our mechanical design team as much as he did. A lot of what we were trying was first-ever; complicated, expensive hardware meant to do things a puppet hadn’t done before. The only way to answer the demand ‘show me how it works’ was to spend the time and money to build it – and not everything we tried worked out. We built an elaborate dolly rig meant to make it possible for Chucky to walk and jump, but in the end the servo motors weren’t strong or quick enough and the rig was too heavy and slow, so we set it aside, clamped the puppet to a metal rod, hand held by a puppeteer, and got on with it like that.”
According to Al Coulter, another challenge and the source of some humor on set was the scene where Chucky has to club Chris Sarandon with a little baseball bat. Coulter said, “It is not easy to remotely puppeteer a character swinging a baseball bat, so we kept missing, and Chris kept acting like he’d been hit, and praying for the take where we would actually hit him. We did finally make the connection, barely grazing him, and he sold the gag, dropping to the floor like he’d been clubbed proper by a psychotic, possessed doll.
Childs Play is the only horror film I worked on, but it was a great experience. Some of the most creative designers, fabricators and puppeteers in the special effects industry were involved in bringing the puppet to life (so to speak) I am grateful to Allan Coulter, Tim Lawrence and Marc Tyler for their input and photos.
Here is a terrific video of the puppet behind the scenes.
Video from United Artists “Chucky: Creating the Horror“