Thursday, April 14, 2016

How to Build an Animatronic Talking Dog

This post is one in a series of (I hope) many where I outline the creative process and choices behind the short film Limbo, starring Raul Castillo and Sam Elliott.

This entry goes into detail about the animatronic, wish-granting dog voiced by Sam Elliott, which could have been played by a live dog. So...

Why An Animatronic Puppet?

If you grew up in the 80s like I did, then you know exactly (or mostly) why!

But if not, let me break it down.

Before the age of CGI, classic films such as Labyrinth and The NeverEnding Story used practical special effects and puppetry to tell their stories. Though the audience was aware that the characters were puppets, you accepted them as living breathing creatures and there was a simple charm and magic to their physical presence captured on film. These days, though CGI has become incredibly advanced, I still find myself drawn to practical special effects over digital, especially when it comes to monsters and fantastical creatures. There is something more tactile and "real" about their presence on camera.

Part of what initially got me excited about adapting the comic was the interaction between the main character and the wish-granting dog-- very early on I knew I wanted to recall a classic special effects aesthetic to help accentuate the fantasy of the story. Beyond the aesthetics, though, there would be a number of practical benefits as well. 

Atreyu talks to his Luck Dragon companion in The NeverEnding Story

For one, the actor would have something physical and present to act against. Many times in CGI-heavy films, actors are forced to perform with tennis balls or other random objects. Consequently, their performance (and the film) suffers. Additionally, with a puppet we would have full control over every nuance of the dog's performance; no need for a handler or applying make-up to a live creature. 

The thought of using animatronics on Limbo was a lark-- but the more I thought about it, the more self-evident it became, the more excited I was to make it happen.

The only problem: I had no idea how to do it. I don’t possess any of the skills necessary to create realistic-looking 80s throwback fantasy creatures and I don’t know anyone who does.

Enter Mike Honeck, my friend and roommate, who is an Imagineer at Disney Studios and erstwhile puppeteer. I mentioned my initial plan to him and he took an interest in helping spearhead the effort to find a designer.

Pictured on the wall: Mike Honeck

The first step for us was discussing about what the dog should look like and how it should behave. We determined that our initial budget was going to be between $2,500 and $5,000. After reviewing the script, we decided the puppet should have the following features:

  •       Fully controllable eyeballs/eyelids
  •       Lip curling/snarling
  •       Controllable tongue
  •       Moveable head
  •       Breathing rib cage
  •       Moveable legs

Using LA411 (essentially the Yellow Pages of the film world), we researched a wide variety of companies including ones that looked to be well above our budget level. We contacted those high-end companies first in hopes that maybe someone would connect with our story and be willing to work within our budgetary restraints. We received incredulous but polite responses. To do what was described in our design packet (LINK HERE), they said we would need a budget between $35,000 and $150,000.

It was incredibly tough to hear those numbers. I felt like I was way out of my depth. At the time, the budget of the entire short was roughly $10,000. Even the low end quotes of $35,000 were astronomical.

We began to scale back our expectations of what could be done-- which was painful. No one wants to compromise; I certainly didn’t, not that early in the game. We contacted companies that did simple animatronics for museums and explored options of renting existing puppets. Unfortunately, the compromises on that front were so significant as to be prohibitive. I had no idea where to turn next.

A composer friend of mine, Greg Nicolett, recommended that I contact a special effects artist named Tim Martin who had worked on a low budget sci-fi film he composed for. Tim had designed space suits in the film in addition to having fabricated many of the sets. I had seen the film and remembered thinking the suits and the set design were impressive. Because my options were limited and time was running out, I decided to contact Tim in the hopes that he, or someone he knew, might be able to help.

What does this image have to do with our little indie comic short film? You'll find out soon enough...

To my surprise, when I called and pitched him on the project he was immediately receptive. And, as it turns out, he worked at one of the most revered special effects houses in Los Angeles, Amalgamated Dynamics Inc., and had an impressive resume that included the X-Men films and Hellboy 2 among many, many others. At the time he was looking for a challenge, something that he could use to expand his skill set and also make some money on the side. We had adjusted our budget figure to $8,000 (still not industry standard, but the most that I could afford). I cringed when I told him the number. But, he did the unexpected: he said yes. I was so unbelievably surprised and relieved. We met for dinner, I handed him a down payment and he was off. We had two and a half months with the clock ticking to get the dog ready for our shoot date. The next step was agreeing upon the design.

Designing the Beast

When discussing the look of the dog, I felt it was important that it strike a balance between realism and fantasy. My initial conversations with Tim were that the dog can be macabre (emaciated, sickly, pus-encrusted) but should not appear to be a zombie; it shouldn’t ever slide into full horror. It was also important to me that the fantasy of the creature be felt but that it also seem grounded enough that when it speaks with Raul it doesn’t feel silly. Tim was immediately on board to tackle that challenge.

For inspiration, I gave him some pictures from the comic. Mike and I had decided the dog was somewhere between a Setter and an Australian Shepherd:

Once we had agreed on the breed, it was time to start creating a mock-up. Tim and I both worked full time jobs so most of our collaboration was over the phone, either via text or calling. First we had to roughly determine the size. He sent me a picture with a water bottle and ruler for scale:

It came out to about 3.5 feet x 2.5 ft in length, but to be sure that all of the dog’s features would register on camera, I asked him to make the mock-up closer to 4.5 feet wide and scale everything else up accordingly.

The next step was for him to carve out the body in foam core, leaving interior space for a plastic bladder that would inflate to simulate the dog’s breath.

The sizing now felt right to me so the next step was for Tim to begin sculpting the dog’s facial features and head out of clay. These are some photos leading up to his initial sculpt:

Though I liked his initial sculpture, I felt like the nose was too long and that consequently the breed looked too much like a bloodhound. In order to best communicate changes I drew on the photos he sent:

He then sent this picture back:

In response, I drew:

I indicated that I wanted the eye to be lower on the head, so to verify that the positioning was OK, he sent me this photo, which I approved:

It was looking more like a retriever at this point, but I wasn’t necessarily opposed to that breed. I asked him to flatten the top of the head and the jaw as a final change to streamline the head.

Which then became the below image. He warned me that it might look strange without the ears, but he needed to remove them in order to properly make the mold.

Tim then created a mold into which he poured latex that would become the dog’s skin. So the image below…

Yielded these latex masks that would stretch over the 3D printed bones of the dog’s facial structure:

Tim is a sculptor by trade and with special effects puppetry such as this it is normal to have multiple people from separate disciplines collaborate. We were lucky that Tim brought on Dave Penikas, who is known for his animatronics work on classic films such as Gremlins 2 and Alien vs. Predator among many, many others, to create the moving parts of the dog.


Using a 3D printer and design software Dave printed a skull that fit the proportions of Tim’s sculpture and latex mask (the eyes are temporary mock-ups):

Now that the head was partially constructed we began discussing what the eyes should look like. I decided I wanted the dog to have piercing blue human eyes— I felt human eyes would add a surreal quality that hinted at the entity beneath the surface. This is what Tim sent back:

The eyes were hand painted by Tim. I was really happy with them, so he plugged them into the rough animatronic assembly that they created, and he sent this video:

I was incredibly excited when I saw this—and to be clear, many steps of this process I couldn’t actually believe this was happening. Quite literally, creating a puppet like this this was a dream come true. The next step was for Mike and I to come into the ADI workshop to see the animatronics in person and approve them. Here’s a video of that visit:

There were two bike brake levers that operated the jaw and the neck and a remote control, pictured below, that operated the lips, eyelids and eyes.

Freaky looking, but awesome:

The next step for Tim was placing skin over the entire dog. Alejandro Wilkins (our DP) and I returned to ADI to take some video and test out some of the shots we had in mind:

Full disclosure, in seeing the dog in this state, partially airbrushed and purple looking, I was genuinely concerned. The dog looked much more cartoonish than I would have liked. We were only a week away from our shoot date but Tim reassured me that it was still in process. I took him at his word and we moved forward.

The next step was fur flocking, which is grafting individual sections of hairs (and sometimes individual hairs) to the skin on the dog. It’s an extremely time-consuming process. These are pictures he sent as he progressed:

I’ll be honest—at this point I was still nervous. But Tim had yet to airbrush (paint) and trim the dog’s fur so I staid my nervousness. He invited me to come into the shop for a last look and changes before our shoot day.  I took this video below:

Here are some pictures of the 95% complete dog:

Seeing the dog in action, fully designed and performing, was surreal. I was incredibly happy with Tim’s work, to the point where he had to tell me to stop hugging him. The expressiveness of the puppet was more than I ever could have hoped for and the artistry that went into the final puppet, especially working within the restraints of our budget, was simply unreal.

Here are some shots of the dog from the finished piece:

For a refresher and for comparison, here are some references from the comic:

Thanks for reading and if you’d like to know more about Tim Martin and Dave Penikas, you can find information about them on their IMDb pages:

If you still haven't seen the finished film, you can watch it here:

LIMBO from Will Blank on Vimeo.

Hope you enjoyed the film as much as we enjoyed making it! Thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping make it a reality!


  1. Brilliant. It's moving, perfectly paced and it looks amazing. Good job!

  2. Somehow I missed this comment. Thanks so much!

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