What makes the creature crawl?

Written by: Tim Fryer | Published:

As we start the hunt for industry's finest for this year's British Engineering Excellence Awards, Tim Fryer talked to Mike Franklin, Designer of the Year in 2014, to find out what makes a winner.

Not everybody gets to make a dinosaur when they go to work but that is what can face the staff of Crawley Creatures – a special effects company specialising in static and animatronic models. Primeval, Lost World, the Flintstones, Return of the Jedi, Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Beasts are among the company's most recognisable projects, with the last two winning BAFTAs.

Mike Franklin is head of mechanical design at the company and was bought into the company to do a project for DRDC – the Canadian defence research agency – who wanted a mannequin for testing chemical and biological protection equipment. "I came here for this three month project," explained Franklin, "and haven't been allowed to leave since."

Franklin started out as a tool maker specialising in plastic injection moulding and high pressure die casting, before going on to make tools for shoe manufacturing equipment at Griggs. However, when manufacturing was shifted to China, Franklin, and thousands of others, were made redundant. It was at this time when it helps to have a hobby, and Franklin's hobby was making things, most specifically robots. "I was doing Robot Wars and I knew a few of the people at the BBC Special Effects Department by this time so I thought, I'll go into the non-adult world of special effects," said Franklin "I managed to wheedle my way into the BBC Special Effects Department, which closed a year and a half later, moved to another special effects company for a year and then came here."

That first project, the Canadian mannequin, was intended to test clothing designed to protect against mustard gas attack. While it presented challenges in terms of sensor and materials technology, it also had to be lifelike in its movement."That's where the special effects side of the business comes in," said Franklin. "Purely from an engineering point of view, if somebody asks you to make something move from A to B that's fine. But now make it do those things and look like a human and be lifelike. That's the other side of the business - looking at studying videos of people running and walking, looking at how limbs move, and also the artistic point of getting sculptors in to sculpt body shapes and get the body to not only look like a human but be the right sizes for their anthropometric data."

But every project is different and usually the models are not required to have any longevity, as Franklin demonstrated by sticking a finger through a hole in a disintegrating liopleurodon's head. If a model was destined for a museum rather than a film set it is designed using more durable materials.

Designing from scratch for every project takes considerable creativity and versatility. And, as Franklin says, even the starting point is not always clear: "It's a bit chicken and egg.If it was dinosaur head and the customer said we want the jaw to open, we want the head to sweep left to right, rotate, we want eyes that look around and blink, you've got to have some sort of grasp of how much room you are going to have in there because that makes a big difference as to how you are going to articulate it.So if it's big enough you can fit servo motors and drives inside the head. If it is really tiny you have got to look at remote actuators and cables and push rods and some very tiny pneumatics probably to articulate. We've got some little tiny chicks - they've got the actuators virtually all built in."

The chick, pictured opposite with Franklin, was created for a Swiss milk advert, but was later used in another commercial alongside a harrier hawk – which took exception to the chicks and attacked them.

However, talented designer as Franklin is, there are other aspects to his career which made him stand out when the judges were looking at the finalists for Designer of the Year.

One of these aspects is the need, in such a small company, to be multi-disciplinary and lead a team that can grow considerably when big projects come in. "It was probably something of an advantage for me in that the initial grounding at my apprenticeship covered all bases," commented Franklin. "I was already interested in everything in any case, even from my hobby I'm doing electronics and I'm doing mechanical systems, hydraulics and pneumatics. I'm probably no expert in any of the fields but I do know enough of them to be able to pull in the relevant knowledge."

Not that design engineers in special effects are necessarily 'disciplined' in the same way that ordinary engineers are. Franklin explains: "If you ask them to make you something they will make it, but they couldn't make two exactly the same. There are some extremely brilliant mechanical engineers that come and put mechanisms in animals - I've got great admiration for some of them but they never design anything on paper.They're sort of craft engineers, they'll cut a bit of tin and bend it and do fantastic things with it. They are very skilled in what they do."

Another string to Franklin's bow is his proven willingness to inspire the next generation, having worked on 'Techno Games', a spin off from Robot Wars, and BBC Learning. Both were aimed at getting schools involved in technology. Franklin also went to China with the British Council to help set up a robotics project with Chinese schoolteachers.

However, in this country Franklin believes that the current education system is missing a vital ingredient.

He commented: "I think we need to invest more in engineering [in education]. The trouble is schools now are very focussed on design technology, without anything that goes below it. There are people out there who don't want to just design, there are kids out there who enjoy making things. Kids just love making things that move and go bang. They are very risk averse now schools – I don't know if that is right or wrong. They were very unsure about building robots to fight – was it too dangerous? Well if it's not dangerous it's not fun. Unfortunately a lot of teachers don't share my enthusiasm for slightly dangerous things."

Information about the 2015 British Engineering Excellence Awards is on the website: www.beeas.co.uk.

Mike Franklin - CV

Franklin started his engineering career making 'everything from cannon to turbines' as a teenager. He combined a lorry turbocharger and parts from a central heating system to build a gas turbine which 'sounded like Heathrow on a bad day and ate up my dad's lawn'.

He did an apprenticeship in tool making and did a further decade making tools for the Griggs show manufacturing operations. He switched to the world of special effects with the BBC and later joined Crawley Creatures where he is now head of mechanical design.

In 2014 he won the Designer of the Year award at the British Engineering Excellence Awards.


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