By Dave Barton
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Over the years, CGI effects have stolen much of the thunder of in-camera special effects, stuffing our minds with elaborate junk-food images of cartoony green superheroes and giant apes or brain-numbing, car-flipping, train-crashing gunfights. “How to Make a Monster: The Art & Technology of Animatronics” at the Muzeo shows off the kind of movie monsters you can actually see—and even touch—without the benefit of a screen.
This touring exhibit focuses on the work of Oscar-winning animatronics designer John Cox and his company, John Cox’s Creature Workshop. Cox specializes in complicated electronic and mechanized robots/puppets of everything from sea turtles, zebras and jumbo-sized crocodiles to dinosaurs, unicorns and man-eating aliens. The exhibition is also chock-full of costumes, statues and storyboards, complete with easy-to-understand videos detailing the life of various creations from sketch to maquette to finished monster, all on display or featured in film clips from their individual movies.
Granted, one could make the argument that many of the films Cox has worked on are hardly revelatory, but there’s a real life in Cox’s creations, all painstakingly created by hand, by artists, as opposed to soulless digital fakery.
Not that Cox and co. are running around like Dr. Frankensteins in their laboratory, screaming, “It’s alive!” In a filmed presentation at the center of the exhibit, Cox modestly goes through the rigorous steps the work requires in a warm, accommodating Australian accent. As he details the joys and eventual disappointments with candor, one can’t help but feel there’s a Sisyphean aspect to the Hollywood grind when how much of your hard work is actually seen by audiences is wholly dependent on so many aspects—financial or aesthetic—completely out of your control. For example, the remarkable, movable, giant crocodile head and tail designed for Peter Pan took four months to build and was scheduled for a five-day shoot. In the end, it was only used for four hours and only the eye is seen in the movie for a disappointing six seconds.
In the short walk through the full-to-bursting exhibition, you can see rows of those reptilian eyes in various colors; gorilla heads and bodies designed to hide the very different skull shapes and skeletons of the human beings wearing the costumes; aliens from a Vin Diesel movie; Abominable Snowmen; elaborate mechanical skeletons that bring to life mermaids and raptors, including several that you can maneuver with just a push of a button or the flick of a lever. Despite a long video explaining the several painstaking steps involving the werewolf’s construction, I completely expected the monster—posed on a rooftop amid broken shards of glass—to blink its eyes or swipe out a claw at my face. I was unnerved enough that when I turned my back on it to look at a storyboard, I turned around from time to time to make sure it hadn’t gotten any closer.
Most enlightening is the handful of exhibits showing how simple adjustments in the lighting or density of shadow on a face, the volume of a sound cue, or how and where the camera is placed affect the viewer’s mood and perception of reality. My only disappointment is that it would have been nice to have had a few more accompanying details to these specific displays, which are pretty bare-bones. The power of lighting is something that any decent photographer, painter or theater practitioner can explain to you, but the casual viewer doesn’t understand the effect it has or how easily an audience can be manipulated with just a few notes or a sound effect.
As you head out the exit, the last exhibit is the tiny metal skeleton of a stop-motion puppet from the original 1933 film of King Kong. It’s a fitting tribute to the dazzling show you’ve just walked through and a silent declaration of how, despite the encroachment of all those ones and zeroes all these years later, the magic we create with our hands still has an ineffable power.
“How to Make a Monster: The Art & Technology of Animatronics” at the Muzeo, 241 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 956-8936; www.muzeo.org. Open daily, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Through Sept. 6. $9; children 3 and under, free; half-off tickets available online.