A helicopter shot gives us a view of a tiny island in a sapphire blue sea. A couple of the island's natives sun themselves on the beach; they just happen to be a pair of huge tortoises. Two hardy environmentalists saunter into the scene , their day's work done, and they set out a couple of Buds to enjoy. While they're not looking,however, one of the tortoises suddenly springs up on two feet and RUNS over to them! Still oblivious, the two guys don't notice that thetortoise is rapidly plucking their bottles of Bud and tossing them over his shoulder to his partner whose shell opens up to reveal an internal ice chest, just waiting for those frosty bottles! Quickly, our twitchy terrapin zips back and skids into his former spot, acting as if nothing happened. As the two tree-huggers look around open-mouthed, wondering what could have happened to their cold beers, the tortoises smile slyly as if to say: "Well, don't look at US!".

(Just click for a 3.1 mb Quicktime movie of the spot!)

In this clever and fast-paced :30 second spot, HSI Director Dave Merhar got the most out of his crew, locations, actors, and animatronics. The spot was shot on location in Florida just prior to Christmas 2000. Four weeks of prep, however, were needed to create the stars of the spot. Real tortoises were considered, but obtaining real ones of the proper size was only one of the obstacles in the way. Live transport of the animals would have been time-consuming and expensive, and most important of all, real tortoises DON'T DO WHAT YA TELL 'EM TO DO!

Realizing that most other puppeteers and animatronics shops don't do what you tell 'em to, either (that's a joke, son!) Merhar and his producer Grayson Bitthell came to The Character Shop with a giant wheelbarrow full of money and an open-ended schedule, with the instruction to take all the time that was needed, and let them know when it was all done... oh, wait, that was just a dream I had!

It was a given that realistic animatronics could be created to stand in for the Galapagos-sized tortoises for most of the spot, but the action sequences involving leaping up, running, standing upright, and skidding back were at one time considered to be done by CGI. It was up to Character Shop President Rick Lazzarini to prevent that folly:

"Even if you give a very talented CGI company all the money and all the time in the world, matching between live-action and CGI creatures is still not ready for prime-time", Lazzarini opined, "What I wanted to do was show them that we could create an incredibly realistic (yet slightly whimsical) pair of tortoise characters that could be shot in real time, with opportunities for on-set spontaneity and variety, without any stylistic "gaps", and at a cheaper cost than CGI." What helped tremendously was the fact that Director Merhar was very sympathetic to this approach...but only if he could be instilled with enough confidence that it could work.

To accomplish this, Merhar and The Character Shop team did a series of mock-up tests using different sized and statured actors, and had them run, jump, and move within a mockup tortoise shell. They found the perfect performer for the role with Michael Munoz, a 4 1/2 foot powerhouse who had the attitude, the strength, the stamina, and the performing ability to make the "action turtle" come to life. Once the size of the creatures had been established, TCS crew went to work creating the sculptures and molds of the heads, legs, shells, and tails. Two "hero" puppets, and one 'action suit" would be created, as well as various insert pieces. In a particularly striking bit of luck, TCS discovered an actual Galapagos shell that was 4' long; the perfect size. Los Angeles biologist/naturalist/lecturer Dana Bleitz just happened to have the shell of a creature that was, at the time of its' death at the San Diego Zoo, the largest Galapagos Tortoise in captivity.

The shells, lightweight and thin, were duplicated in fiberglass cloth and polyester resin, and painted to perfection. The puppets were designed to accommodate two puppeteers; one for the front legs and shell, and one to handle the head, neck, breathing, and mouth movements. Off screen puppeteers operated the tortoise's eye blinks and movements via radio control. While the latest advances in synthetic prosthetic skins favor silicone (see our Realistic Human Project), the TCS team decided to go with foam latex as the material of choice for the tortoises' skin. The reasons? "Translucency wasn't an issue", Lazzarini (who puppeteered the head of the lead tortoise) explains, "These tortoises had a very matte finish to them. The other benefit was that the skins ended up being lighter, which is a saving grace. Anyone who's ever had an animatronic puppet head at the end of their arm ...horizontally...can appreciate the difference that the elimination of even two ounces can make." Finally, foam latex had the ease of paintability, and the stretchability needed to simulate realistic tortoise skin.

Having four puppeteers underneath the tortoise required digging a large hole in the sand; a difficult task, since the "perfect' location just happened to be above a foundation of sharp, hard-to-dig coral. Once excavated, the pit was then covered with plywood, reinforced with vertical struts, and covered with sand. Joining him under the puppets were TCS puppeteers Erik Shaper, Stephen Blandino, and the mercifully compact Michael Munoz. "Escape" hatches were provided in case of an emergency, and "I was ready with my pee bottle, just in case it turned out to be a long haul" laughs Lazzarini. Equipped with video monitors, the puppeteers were able to do numerous takes, and give Merhar and the client plenty of material to choose from. Then it was Munoz' turn; he showed he had the mettle and the energy to run across 50 feet of sand again and again and again...a tiring feat even *without* having to wear a hot, stuffy tortoise suit!

Originally scheduled to show at this years' Super Bowl, its' debut was delayed until this Spring, but the wait was well worth it!


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