The Puppets and Creature Suits Of Animal Firm
Often when an animal is used in a film, TV show or a commercial, there will be scenes that wouldn’t be practical to do with a real animal. Maybe the action could hurt the animal, be something that an animal cannot be coaxed or bribed into doing, or require an ability to act. In that case you might want to call in the experts at Animal Firm.
I would like to introduce you to some dear friends, Marc and Heidi Tyler, two of the most talented people I know. They are the 2 halves of Animal Firm.
Marc and Heidi met while working on Gremlins for Rick Baker. Both studied fine arts in college. They married in 1992
Heidi started Animal Firm in 1994, when she found herself unable to work in special effects shops due to health issues. A year or two later Marc joined her on Animal Firm projects, as well as continuing to work at effects shops in the LA area. In 1998 they moved to Texas.
According to Marc, “We saw the digital writing on the wall, and realized that we would never be able to afford a house in L.A.” Moving to Texas was a leap of faith for them. Most of the creature work was in LA. However over the years they had built strong relationships with shops like Chiodo Brothers and KNB in Los Angeles, who valued them and were willing to work with them from a distance.
Animal Firm built a reputation for doing excellent realistic animals. According to Heidi, “The work is always challenging. Real animals are incredibly subtle in their forms, colors and textures. Matching fur color and texture is especially difficult because we are limited to those artificial furs on the market – we never use real pelts.”
The puppets and creatures Animal Firm builds have to make the viewer believe they are looking at a real animal. Their creatures projects range from tiny; such as putting fur on 100 life-size static mouse figures built by Chiodo Bros for the film Dinner for Shmucks, to enormous life-sized baby elephants and cows.
The link below shows the fitting for the above baby elephant.
According to Heidi, “The most challenging animal to make has been cats. It’s almost impossible to make them slender and delicate enough”.
Another challenge Heidi mentioned is the plumage for birds. They use real feathers because there is no plausible artificial substitute for them. Marc and Heidi even raised some small chickens for their plumage, which can be harvested without harming the chicken.
Marc said that one of the most challenging projects for him was a Pelican they made for the film You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.
He said “We knew it was going to be a tough job; it needed to be very realistic and it had to be pose-able. It had a giant ball and socket armature like an over-sized animation puppet.” This is a video of Marc operating the pelican.
Marc and Heidi are both skilled artists in many areas. When they are doing a project, each specializes in different aspects of the creature build. For example, when they had to make a realistic “attack vulture” puppet with full feathering, rod-operated wings and a trigger-operated mouth, Heidi did the sculpting and finishing. Marc did the molding, lab work and the mechanics.
Marc told me that many of the puppets built by Animal Firm are pretty simple, with the emphasis on looking realistic. However, sometimes the job has called for something a bit more complicated. According to Marc, “Usually these are cable actuated things, like a breathing sheep, or a humping dog. We’ve had to do a couple humping dogs. Actually one of those was operated by a cordless drill motor. The glamour of Hollywood!”
Though most of their work was in building realistic animals, occasionally a job would come along that called for cartoonish characters.
Heidi said that one of their favorite projects was creating the rabbit puppets for Scott Nash Productions, for a fire safety promotion. According to Heidi, “Marc designed the puppets and I did most of the construction. These were simple hand puppets but the design was so much fun to work from; I love working from Marc’s designs!”
Here is a video of the fire safety campaign.
Sometimes when they build puppets for a show, the customer is not trained in working with puppets. Marc told me a story about a puppet they built for a PBS children’s show.
“We have made some costumes and puppets for a local PBS kids’ show “Catpaws in Motion”. It’s to get kids active, a laudable goal for this overweight city. There is lots of singing and dancing. As the “Catpaws” name might imply, the mascot is a cat, named, simply “Gato”. We made a walk-around first, and then a glove puppet. The puppet turned out really cute but the host of the show is definitely not a puppeteer. She wears Gato on her hand, gesticulates with it and handles props with it, but Gato is never a fellow cast-member. It kind of freaks me out to see it”.
Recently Animal Firm has been concentrating on making the realistic bear costumes that they have become known for.
Heidi filled me in on the bear costumes: “Some of my best experiences have been with making these realistic bear costumes we’ve specialized in, mostly Black Bears. One of our bear clients, whose real name is Black Bear (he’s Native American), uses the bear suit we made for him to promote protection for wild bears, through the Great Bear Foundation.”
Animal firm also built several bear costumes for a company called Animatronic Bear. They made several Black Bears, a Polar Bear, a Brown Bear, and a Giant Panda for him.
Recently Marc and Heidi have been branching out into different areas. Marc told me,
“As fake animal jobs have become harder to come by we’ve been looking into other pursuits. A few years ago I decided to try making miniature figures for hobbyists, mostly having to do with mid-century motor sports. It may sound radically different, but we can use much of the same infrastructure and skill-set that we use for making puppets and figures. Heidi sculpts likenesses of famous drivers. I make a 3D scan of them, add clothes, helmets, etc. and get 3D prints made at popular scales. I make silicone molds from the prints, and resin castings are what we make available to hobbyists. It doesn’t pay the bills yet, but it broke even last year.”
I look forward to seeing the new directions this talented family of artists pursues in the future.
Thank you, Marc and Heidi for all your help in putting this together!
If you would like to contact Mark and Heidi, here is their email:
Marc Tyler, Designer – Animal Firm