Making the Shrek Dragons
This is our first official project blog post, and what better project to start with than the one that got us off the ground…the Shrek dragons. Many of you have been watching our progress from the beginning via Facebook, but those posts were mostly our key moments. Between those moments were hours upon hours of work and R&D. Now I’m not trying to make it sound like it wasn’t fun, because it was. There were many nights where we started out focused and committed and we ended up slap happy and needing to be committed. Every little success brought on a happy dance of sorts, every failure brought out the drawing board. It was exhausting, but worth every minute.
The history on this project goes back to November of 2013 when we were approached to make a dragon for Riverside Children’s Theatre. Russell immediately went into research mode and started drafting up concepts and ideas. After hours and maybe even days of drafting and digging through the interweb, Russell had a design concept. The dragon was going to be based on the London East End, and U.S. National Tour dragon puppet, designed by Michael Curry. We immediately began mocking up components in scale.
Modeling out a scale wing
Scale Wing Mock Up
The entire wing mech was made from scratch
The first thing we attacked was the wing mechanism. It was going to be the most complicated part of the puppet. This is what we knew – we wanted it to flap, we wanted it to fold, and we wanted to do it all with a single action lever. Using multiple levers would get complicated (and frankly clumsy) for the operator. We had lots of ideas, but execution was going to be the biggest challenge. From paper, to 3D model, to scale functioning model we had the wings themselves figure out. Russell’s concept worked right out of the box. But how do we flap and fold them in one action? There was no way a scale mock up was going to help us with those mechanics, so we started on the full scale mechanism.
Weight was going to be a global issue, and the wings and their mechanism were going to be a good chunk of it. With that in mind we went straight for aluminum, fiberglass, and carbon fiber for our building materials. We felt that these materials had the perfect balance between weight and strength. We started with an idea in mind and failed over and over again from there. It wasn’t until some night/morning (it was dark and we were tired…that’s all I remember) that we happened upon a very simple mechanism that worked brilliantly! It was definitely a happy-dance moment.
Now that the wing mech was figured out, it was time to build this bird. We enlisted the aid of our friend Tamara Griffey to help with skinning the dragon. She generously worked her tail off for us all while working full time as a school teacher. There were countless times that we all worked until sunrise.
The dragon skeleton
After carefully choosing a fabric that would look good, take paint, and be durable enough to withstand the rigors of showbiz, she began draping, pinning and sewing 20+ feet of dragon skin together. Again, we took care to use light weight, flexible, and durable materials to build the body. We “joked” about making it inflatable, but at one point, I think we all actually considered it.
The skinless dragon
We moved on to building the skeleton and fitting the fabric as we went. It was a time consuming process. Thankfully, we have friends like Mario Sanchez who came in to give us a hand with the build as well. (Mario was also gracious enough to build the crate that the dragon would ultimately spend its days traveling in.) After fitting and refitting, we were making serious progress. We built appendages from a lightweight medium density foam, and covered them with fabric to match.
1/4″ scale mock-up of the dragon head
Not that there wasn’t enough for Russell to do, there was also sculpting the head. Keep in mind that this process was on-going throughout the build. Russell started by sculpting a one quarter scale maquette of the head from clay. From that we were able to extrapolate the size and details to build the full scale head.
We didn’t have a block of foam big enough so we improvised
Laminating foam to make a dragon head
The rough shape of the dragon head
We started by carving the basic shape of the head out of foam. After roughing it in and mounting it to a stand, the entire thing was covered in clay. Every little scale and detail was tediously carved in by Russell. Once the sculpt was complete, it was covered in No.1 Pottery plaster to make a mold. Not going to lie… that’s a terrifying process. The shear weight of the sculpt did nothing to help. All of the hours put into sculpting could be lost if the molding didn’t happen carefully. And once the sculpt is molded in plaster, the clay is destroyed, so there’s really no going back.
Applying clay to the foam carving
Russell sculpting the details into the clay
Molding the dragon head sculpt
The finished mold drying in the sun
What we would ultimately end up with is a giant latex mask, but we still needed a structure to put it on. Initially we made the skull out of our lightweight foam. However, after a couple of rentals we were beginning to see that the skull was beginning to look deformed from the weight of the mask and all the hardware that was inside. We eventually moved to a vacu-formed ABS skull, which is what resides in her now. (You can see the video here)
The latex mask for the dragon head
The foam dragon head without the latex mask
Kerry painting on the scales to the dragon
With the bird built and the sculpt wrapping up, it was time for all of the details to come together. From day one, we knew who we wanted to have paint the dragon. She was quick, efficient, and simply a brilliant scenic artist. We hit up our friend Kerry Jones to come in and make the dragon look less like fabric and more like…well, a dragon. She free-hand painted every scale on the body,and treated all of the fabric so it didn’t look too shiny.
This was the prototype for the eye. No, they’re not actually heart shaped
Another detail we couldn’t leave out are the lighted eyes. Our buddy Raymond Couture came to the rescue with a super bright, battery powered LED set-up. The eyes required two colors to represent the dragon’s mood. We opted for white to bring out the natural details that Russell had applied to the eye glass. Green was selected for the second color…the color of her eyes when she falls in love with Donkey. A power switch and color toggle switch were added to one of the puppet poles that the “head” operator manipulates. Originally, the batteries were install inside an already crowded skull. This worked, but made the head that much heavier for the operator. We ultimately ended up building rechargeable batteries that fit inside the puppet pole. This helps by putting the extra weight low and in the puppeteer’s harness.
We had ourselves a working dragon puppet. We were quite pleased with the end result. We know that there were things we could improve upon, but for the first project right out of the gate, we were otherwise happy. All of the bits and pieces came together as we screamed into the finish line. It was a tad stressful at the end, but we made it.
There was one minor issue…we had just spent months designing and building this massive puppet, and we barely delivered the finished product right before the show opened. We now had a second dragon to build that had to be delivered in less than two weeks. No rest for the Monkeys!
Needless to say, we made the second delivery. Coming off the heels of the first dragon, it was all still fresh in our heads. Now we are proud parents to 2 rather large puppets. They have been traveling all over the U.S. (and now Canada!) performing one Shrek after another.