How to Make a Monster

Video killed the radio star, but the list of casualties continues. A 40-station interactive show opening Dec. 21 at Telus World of Science explores the craft of realistic puppets that populated Hollywood films for decades — until high-definition computer graphics came along.

“We’ve been thinking of renaming the show The History of Animatronics,” its 54-year-old Australian producer John Cox says cheerfully of his How to Make a Monster show, which has toured more than 20 cities. It runs though April 21 in Edmonton.

“The one thing about the show that’s different than all the others is we don’t try to hide a single thing. The outsides of the creatures — there’s lots of that to look at, and they’re all beautifully finished. We’ve got gorillas and unicorns where every hair is hand-punched into the skin. But we also strip all that away so you can see all the guts and mechanical components work. So it is very much STEAM — science, technology, engineering and math.”

Raised on Saturday-morning cartoons and not-so-scary B-movie horror, Cox was blown away by Ray Harryhausen films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, with its jerk gods wreaking petty, jealous havoc. The 1933 King Kong energized him, as did another little film you might have heard of. “Star Wars was Grade 12 for me. I went and saw it and I came out with this giant hole in my stomach. And I thought, ‘Man, that really is what I want to do’.”

The Australian won an Academy Award for his team’s lovable creatures in 1995’s Babe, created gooey monsters in Pitch Black and his work was crucial in the fantastic Korean cult action-horror The Host. But the rise of CGI and Australia’s strengthened dollar dried up much of the work the self-taught artist-engineer had mastered through fun and fulfilling trial and error.

“It really had no impact on the practical side of things until about 1995. When the guys saw Jurassic Park we thought, ‘Ok, we’ll never do dinosaurs again, but that’s Ok because they can’t do fur’.” Laughing, Cox describes how soon animators were doing grass, which quickly led to being able to do fur, then wet fur, then, well, everything.

“It was all over.”

But an interesting thing happened, as practical versions of creatures created digitally were still needed — for example, to have on a film set to experiment with lighting. While members of his team went on to create jaw-dropping creatures in Walking with Dinosaurs, the John Cox Creature Workshop invested in a five-axis, digital-brained router and branched out into other worlds, including this show.

He now designs entirely on a computer. Besides creating and installing versions of How to Make a Monster, Cox also creates public art, including 21 stationary koala sculptures back home, and makes site-based creatures, for theme parks, for example. He even made a five-metre six-year-old girl for a candy commercial. “When we stood her leg up, we realized we couldn’t reach her knee,” he laughs.

Cox’s How to Make a Monster is a combination of art — drawings, sculpting, painting — as well as mechanics, including programming, and playful opportunities to puppet the monsters, including a stripped-bare, colour-coded four-metre dinosaur named Junior, using simple control panels. “They can see it right in front of them and go home and start making stuff. That was one of the prime reasons we wanted to do this, to get kids to go from just watching stuff to actually making and doing things.”

He talks of children, but I admit I want to play with the puppets too. Cox laughs. “We get so many retired engineers, and you can see what’s going through their heads is that what they did for a job, repairing cars or trains or whatever, is exactly the same as the stuff they’re looking at.

“Only our stuff’s in the shape of a dinosaur.”