Creature Creator: Interview with Crawley Creatures' director, Jez Gibson-Harris

From leading prosthetics and animatronics company for the entertainment industry to supplying the defence industry with test equipment has not been as big a leap as one might imagine. Paul Fanning reports

The borders between art, entertainment and engineering are fairly well defined, one might have thought. However, one company that has always blurred them is Buckingham-based Crawley Creatures. Jez Gibson-Harris, Crawley Creatures' director, makes it very clear that he has no engineering background. "In fact I studied silversmithing at art college", he says, "but I had a friend in the movie industry and that was really my start." This work in the film industry was initially as a freelance sculptor and his most high-profile job was as part of the six-man team that created the huge animatronic model of Jabba the Hutt that featured in the 'Return of the Jedi' instalment of the Star Wars saga. Gibson-Harris then went on to found Crawley Creatures in 1986, working in the feature film industry making models, animatronics and prosthetic make up 'FX'. However, while Gibson-Harris is not an engineer, he is clear that the company's success relies heavily on the engineering talent he has gathered around him. He heaps praise on his chief design engineer Mike Franklin ("an evil genius") and his robotics engineer Matt Goodliffe, saying: "I've been lucky in being able to attract people with huge talent and genuinely inventive minds." Although the company was originally envisaged as being largely about prosthetics and sculpted models, it soon became apparent that the demand was going to be for animatronics and that meant engineering. Says Gibson-Harris: "The business has become more and more 'engineering-heavy' over the years to the point where, if anything, it's more dominated by the engineering than the aesthetics." Probably the high point for the company as far as its work in the entertainment industry is concerned was its work on the BBC/Discovery Channel programme 'Walking With Dinosaurs', which garnered it plaudits as various as a Millennium Products Award, an Emmy (and three more nominations), two BAFTA wins (and four nominations) and two Royal Television Society awards. However, as Gibson-Harris makes clear, this success was very much the crest of a wave, as the industry was changing and with it Crawley Creatures' business model. Says Gibson-Harris: "The fact is that CGI [computer generated imaging] was taking over the special effects business, so there was less and less need for animatronics." Having seen the writing on the wall, however, Gibson-Harris had already been making moves to apply the company's expertise in other areas. These have included exhibits for museums, trade stands and models for teaching purposes. In fact, Gibson-Harris describes the company's output as including "dinosaurs, early human reconstructions, a nice line in mammoths and medical models". More recently, however, the company's predominant market has become the defence industry, for which it produces bespoke equipment for the evaluation of respirator and headgear design, as well as the testing of CBRN (Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence) suits. This first came about in 2002, when Crawley Creatures was approached by DSTL (Defence Science and Technology Limited) based at Porton Down to produce an animatronic head to help in their evaluation of respirator and headgear design. The result was 'The Porton Head', which is anthropometrically correct, with a soft polymer skin and is servo-controlled with complete head function (including jaw and lips) and even mimes to a passage of prose as it runs through its movement regimes. Subsequent, to this, the company has picked up a range of work in these areas. So much so, in fact, that in 2005, Crawley Creatures was reincorporated and the name i-Bodi Technology was formed as a name to cater for those areas of defence in which it now works. This change has not signalled a change in the company so much as reflected a change in the market. In fact, as Gibson-Harris concedes, the company is and remains essentially project-based, meaning that it is both difficult to categorise and extremely hard to plan for long-term. "Everything we do is basically bespoke and every customer wants something different. So, while we are able to apply our existing skills to these solutions, there's always something new." To meet these demands, the company is investing in new technology and in-house resources, including various 3D CAD packages, 3D printing, 3D laser scanning. It also intends to take on more staff in the product design and 3D sculpting areas. Says Gibson-Harris: "Our origins are from a creative and inventive background and so much of our work is bespoke, so innovation and problem solving are what we do." Having an effect For more than 25 years Crawley Creatures have been making animatronics for film, TV, commercials and exhibitions. From life sized dinosaurs to dragonflies, pigs to penguins, mammoths to mice and sparrows to spiders, the company has used its in-house sculpting, 3D CAD design, laser scanning, 3D rapid prototyping, engineering, casting and artwork finishing. It has won many awards, including a Millennium Products Award, an Emmy (and three more nominations), two BAFTA wins (and four nominations) and two Royal Television Society awards.