insight - Jez Harris
Written by Ron Toft
Occupation - Animatronics & Special Effects
It was a chance encounter that irrevocably changed Jez Harris’s life. One day in 1979, after watching the sci-fi movie Alien, Jez bumped into a former schoolmate who had just finished working on the Star Wars epic, The Empire Strikes Back, at Shepperton Studios.
“My friend remembered I had always been good at making things and invited me to visit the company for which he worked, Make-Up EFX Ltd, to see what they were doing.”
Nineteen-year-old jewellery and silversmithing student Jez didn’t need asking twice. “They were looking for people, so I took with me a portfolio of life drawings and plastic jewellery I had made.”
Much to his surprise Jez was offered a job, albeit a lowly one. But soon he was putting his jewellery tools to good use making rudimentary animatronics for film and other projects.
“I never regarded what I was doing as being a career at all. I was just glad of the opportunity to earn some money, even though it meant leaving college.”
Jez made useful contacts and a year later left to strike out on his own. “I was very lucky in that lots of films were taking off at that time. I rang around, showed my growing portfolio to various people and ended up getting a freelance job working on The Dark Crystal – my first major feature film.”
After that, Jez worked on a string of big-name movies, including Return of the Jedi, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, and NeverEnding Story. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, 52-year-old Jez owns and runs his own animatronics and special effects business – the Emmy and BAFTA award-winning Crawley Creatures – which he founded in 1986, based in Buckingham, England.
Amazingly, Jez has never received any formal training in the field in which he is now a major player. “I’ve been good at making things since I was a child. I think that comes from my mother, who was always knitting, sewing, enamelling jewellery and so on.”
Probably the biggest, and certainly the most challenging, job to date was working on the BBC’s highly acclaimed blockbuster TV series Walking With Dinosaurs, which set new standards for dinosaur realism.
Half-a-dozen or so various-sized dinosaur body parts were created by Crawley Creatures for each episode. One was the head of a T.rex-like carnivore called allosaurus. “They wanted to show the dinosaur’s head, teeth, and gums as its jaws snapped down on and crushed bone, so we not only had to craft the head but rig up a pneumatic device inside that operated the jaws.”
All the dinosaurs were made using a combination of fibreglass and foam latex. “Heads were basically lightweight fibreglass shells, while moving parts, such as the mouth and eyes, were made from foam latex.” Acrylic paints were employed to colour the fibreglass and latex creations, medical glue was mixed with paint that was to be applied to soft, moving areas.”
Top UK and US palaeontologists were consulted for their advice on what dinosaurs probably looked like and how they moved, based on fossil and other evidence.
The biggest dinosaur made for the series was a pterosaur – a flying reptile with a 12m wingspan. “A whole body was required for this creature for sitting and other shots. It was pretty big and took a couple of people seven weeks to assemble.”
Walking With Dinosaurscombined close-ups of animatronic heads and static models with computer-generated images. Dinosaur maquettes were laser-scanned to provide digital data from which computer-generated moving images could be produced.
Nowadays, Jez and his colleagues are doing less TV and film work – “the money doesn’t seem to be there anymore” – and more static or limited movement dinosaurs and other displays for museums all over the world.
A host of dinosaurs were made by Crawley Creatures for the first phase of Germany’s Gondwana – Das Praehistorium museum – everything from a mechanical dragonfly that flaps its metre-wide wings and a giant scorpion with moving tail and claws to hand puppet dinosaurs with blinking eyes and moving jaws used by staff to interact with child visitors.
“Now we have a new batch of work to do for the second phase of Gondwana, which entails reconstructing a lot of early humans, such as the Australopithecines, as well as some more hand puppet dinosaurs.”
Crawley Creatures recently worked on displays for a prehistoric zone planned at Athens Zoo, made silicon prosthetic faces for a fashion client, and is bringing Neanderthal Man and other precursors of modern man to life for a new BBC series called Prehistoric Autopsy.
“The demand is for increasingly life-like creatures – be they dinosaurs, early hominids or simply moving heads or bodies,” continued Jez. “They not only have to look like the real thing but they have to move like it as well.”
Artificial silicon skin adds a lustre and translucency to a manikin that is almost indistinguishable from living, breathing skin. Real hair is needle-punched into heads and torsos.
An increasingly important area of work entails making heads and full-body manikins for the UK’s Ministry of Defence and similar clients to be used as platforms for testing uniforms, respirators, goggles, and helmets.
A spin-off business called i-bodi, set up by Jez to conduct R&D in this sector, has launched several patented products, including a computer-controlled, sweating, heated, head form called FARSS (Fogging & Respiratory Simulation System) and FASTman (an anthropometrically designed carbon composite manikin with a heated surface and the ability to sweat).
“Our knowledge of and expertise in robotics and prosthetics has enabled us to expand, experiment, develop, and use the latest technology to move into new and challenging markets.”
Added Jez: “It’s a fascinating and exciting business and one in which you never know what you are going to be asked to do next. Essentially we are problem-solvers. Given time and a reasonable budget, there’s virtually nothing we can’t do.”
One Walking With Dinosaurs scene involved making a giant salamander-like creature look as if it was swimming and surfacing in a New Zealand river. “The river, which had been slow flowing, was a raging torrent when we turned up,” recalled Jez. “We built a scaffold tower that extended from the bank out over the water and I ended up hanging on as best as I could while I surfed this metre-wide head in and out of the waves!”
Meet the celebs
Jez has met various movie stars, including Harrison Ford and Pierce Brosnan, and even made a miniature, limb-wriggling animated model of Brosnan for a wide-angle sequence in Tomorrow Never Dies when 007 and his female co-star seemingly abseil down the side of a skyscraper by grabbing a banner attached to the side of the building.