This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #146 (April-May 2012).
Like magicians, content creators are illusionists. They create powerful works to entertain the viewer and make them believe what they are seeing on screen is real. So when you watch Aussie soap Home and Away, don’t be fooled if you see a 27-week old premature baby – it’s all animatronics.
The 30cm baby was created by Sydney company Creature NFX. Led by Paul Trefry, the inner-west company spent about two months late last year on the project.
“It was really nice to be able to do something like this – because there’s been so little of it done the last couple of years,” Trefry says. “It’s just refreshing to go back to doing something ‘old school’ instead of sitting in front of a monitor and rendering it in 3D. The beauty of it is it’s tactile and the actors have got something to react to and something tangible to touch as opposed to a couple of green tracking markers on the end of a stick.
“So I’m hoping that there will be a slight resurgence in it and they’re definitely getting better performances out of actors [Lisa Gormley and Dan Ewing] when there’s a physical entity in front of them.”
Creating such a realistic baby required much research – Trefry looked at online resources, stock footage, and even visited local hospitals. After it was sculpted from clay, Seven’s art department wanted the nose changed and umbilical cord shortened.
Two molds were then made – a silicone case mold and an inner fibreglass core mold. These were then pulled apart and the original clay sculpture removed. The molds were then bolted together and a very soft silicone injected into the molds and left to dry.
Once dry, the silicone baby was removed and the seams cleaned up before being fitted into the mechanisms which controlled the baby’s arms, legs, hips, feet, hands, wrists, fingers, neck and face. For the facial movements, paddles were built to simulate movement such as a frown or a surprised look or to move the mouth.
A bladder was also inserted into the stomach to simulate the baby breathing. The servo motors used for both the legs and hands/wrists/arms were mixed together using two 12-Channel RC radios and then tested.
The aluminium mechanism – also known as the “mechy” – was then covered with the silicone skin, sealed back up and painted, before the hair and fingernails were applied.
The scenes featuring the animatronic baby were shot between February and mid-March. Three operators brought the baby to life – one to control the head and face, one to operate the body and the other for the breathing.
The baby appeared so real that it allowed the camera operators to shoot it in full-frame.