PANDA BEAR - Animatronic Costumes.
Three- 36" tall Panda suits, one hero suit, one stunt suit, and one black suit.
Four way stretch fur, foam, plastic, glass eyes, and animatronics.
Eyes, eye lights, blink, brows, ears, mouth, lips, and extend snout.
Our Panda Bear was created to fight to the death with Ben Stiller for TROPIC THUNDER. To make a funny idea even funnier, we chose to make him a small Panda Bear, and we brought in Gabriel Pimentel, an amazing suit performer who is 35 inches tall. Gabriel had worked with us plenty in the past, as the ESPN Answers, as aliens, and in various product costumes. Because their fight needed to be very realistic and dramatic, but not reveal what Ben was fighting with until it was over, we also made an animatronic Panda suit that was identical except for being covered entirely in black fur, so as they fought in the shadows, you wouldn't be able to quite tell what was going on. At first, the black suit is fleetingly seen behind trees, and you can't make out what it is. We also made a special stunt version of the panda suit, without any animatronics in the head.
When it came time to atttack, Gabriel really rose to the occassion -as he always does- he didn't hold back, and he gave Ben a real run for his money. fiercely attacking and wrestling with Ben. It looks like Ben is in real trouble at first, but he makes a comback and heroically stabs his attacker repeatedly until a flash of lightning lights up the scene and reveals this ferocious beast that has attacked him to be... a cute little panda bear. But a panda bear full of bloody holes -a dead panda.
We brought a lot of extra features to the panda suits, based on the script, and made the eyes capable of being back lit, for the classic glowing eyes in the dark effect. We also created the Panda bear's jaw to stretch out and enlarge dramatically, in an homage to Rick Baker and Rob Bottin's werewolf transformation effects. Ben Stiller was very enthusiastic when I explained the extra features we added to the animatronics, it turned out that he is a big fan of Rick and Rob's werewolf transformations. A very strange thing happened while I was explaining the features of our animatronic suit to Ben- when Ben came over, he was followed by a friend in army fatigues who he introduced as Robert. Robert didn't say a word as he shook my hand, and he quickly looked away, over at Gabriel in our panda suit creation. He went immediately over to Gabe in the suit and knelt down to get a better look. As I explained things to Ben, I could see this Robert guy, quietly but very intently grabbing the snout, squeezing it, looking up into the mouth, checking out the eyes, and silently giving it a real intense looking over. It was very distracting as I made sure to recall the list of things I needed to tell Ben about our work. Somehow I managed to get through it. It wasn't until I saw the movie that I figured out who Ben's eccentric friend Robert was- he was Robert Downey Jr, in his blackface makeup. And he was completely unrecognizable. After my encounter with Robert on the set, one of my friends told me I should go over and have a look at this great office set nearby, and that I should look for Tom Cruise on the set too. I went over, and it was between takes and there was no Tom Cruise to be seen on set, just a few prop guys and lighting crew wandering around, and an actor with his sleeves rolled up exposing the hairiest arms I have ever seen (next to our panda bear suit that is). I figure Tom Cruise must have gone back to his trailer between takes, and it wasn't until I saw the movie that I realized that I had seen him after all- he was the hairy-armed actor, with a comple facial makeup transformation, into his gross Grossman character. Wow. Boy was I fooled. It just goes to show, you never can be sure of what you're looking at on set. But I have no shame about being fooled by these particular makeups- both Robert and Tom had both been made up by some of the very best in the makeup effects business- Rick Baker, Barney Burman and their crews.
Additional versions of Panda Bear-
We also created the Panda bear head and pelt that Ben wears after he kills the panda bear, when he goes deep into the jungle, and deeper into his demented character. While we created the Panda suit, we were also asked to create some extra critters- some silicone leeches they have to peel off their bodies after wading through the river, and some tiny mosquitos for a scene where Nick Nolte grabs them out of the air with chopsticks and swallows them. I carefully warned them that under no circumstances should the mosquitos be swallowed, that we had to use very fine steel wire to create the mosquitos' legs and proboscis. Of course when they shot the scene and passed on my warning to Nick, he just cheerfully swallowed all of the mosquitos, and assured them with a big smile it was no trouble. I can't say that I haven't worried about Nick since then, imagining our mosquito wires hooked into his gut somewhere, rusting and putrifying inside him. Fortunately, quite a few years have passed and Nick is still kicking, so I guess I can rest my worries.
PANDA BEAR - Credits
'TROPIC THUNDER.' Ben Stiller, director.