Magazine article American Cinematographer

Sculpted Dolphins Swim through Splash, Too

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Sculpted Dolphins Swim through Splash, Too

Article excerpt

It seems that many effects artists these days tend to specialize, not necessarily by choice, but because they happen to be particularly gifted in designing one type of gag. Some create mainly monsters, others apes. Donald Pennington may go down in history as "the Dolphin man" simply because he's had the opportunity to bring these agreeable creatures to convincing life more times than you can shake a flipper. Pennington's dolphins passed for the real thing in such visible films as Cocoon and Where The River Runs Black, but they had their greatest exposure ever, in Disney's Splash, Too, which aired on television in May.

Though Pennington's approach to creating dolphin effects hasn't changed that much since he first entered the field with Cocoon, he feels that with each generation his dolphins are getting better. "These dolphins are smaller than the ones I made for Cocoon," Pennington says. "Although we sculpted them the same way, used the same tooling and construction techniques and mechanical techniques, this time I've refined them even further. The dolphins are considerably lighter and their mechanics are much better simply because of all the experience. This is the third time around for me, and everything worked super."

For Splash, Too, Pennington was asked to make three mechanical dolphins to double for the two live dolphin stars. "We made one 7 ½ footer with limited articulation as well as a close-up upper body of the same animal that was fully articulated," Pennington explains. "We also made a 3-foot 'fresh born' size to match to the live baby dolphin they had at the Dolphin Research Institute in the Florida Keys."

One of the major challenges Pennington faced on Splash, Too, which set this project aside from both Cocoon and Where The River Runs Black, was that the artificial dolphins had to match exactly to the live dolphins they were supposed to double. "We didn't have to match anything in either of the other films," Pennington affirms, "but in Splash, Too, our dolphins had to match exactly to the real thing because they might be seen side by side in interconnecting shots. In order to be as accurate as possible, I asked Living Seas for a lot of reference photos of each of the dolphins. Unfortunately, the ones they sent didn't show the complete bodies from both sides and from top and bottom. We did our best with what they sent to match the shapes and all the predominant markings on each of the real dolphins to our own."

Once the photos of the real dolphins were in hand, Pennington and his sculptors, Tom Prosser and Leo Ryn, began the arduous task of recreating the animals in clay. Using two pound urethane foam cores, they cut and shaped the foam until it roughly matched the sizes and shapes of the dolphins they were to sculpt. The cores were then covered in wet clay and fine sculpted. Once the sculptures were perfected, lightweight fiberglass molds were made of each.

Pennington has always relied on BJB's Skinflex material from which to make his ultra-realistic, flexible dolphin skins, and he's never had a problem. Thanks to Los Angeles' record cold spell last December, which coincided exactly with Pennington's work schedule, getting the Skinflex to cure properly became an overriding consideration for the dolphin crew. "Those were some of the days that got really long," Pennington recalls with a shudder. "You have to have an ambient temperature of 70° (plus or minus 5°) for these chemicals to work properly, but when we were casting, we had ten days of temperatures in the low 20's! Even using space heaters and radiant propane heaters, at best we were pouring our chemicals in 50° temperatures. Consequently, we had very long cure times and some questionable cures. BJB gave us terrific support - the problem stemmed from the fact that we were really pushing the chemicals beyond their design capabilities."

Once the skins were finally cured, Pennington and his crew slipped them over fiberglass skeletons outfitted with Pennington's brand of no-nonsense, extremely simple mechanics. …

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