NHM Successfully Fills 73-lb Cat Costume Puppeteer Role

Congrats to the Natural History Museum for successfully finding someone to fill this August 2010 job description:

Must carry 73 pounds on back in a crawling position, supported by arm stilts for periods of 20 minutes multiple times a day. Weight distributed on forearms, shoulders and back. Restrictive straps at chest, waist, arms and thighs. Extremely hot, claustrophobic full suit puppet with limited sight range.

No details as to the actual performer’s name(s) in the below press release received from the NHM camp today, but we do wish the nameless performer(s) the best of luck. It is assumed the performer(s) will report to Jennifer Bloom, NHM Performing Artist Supervisor. Full press release continues after the jump.


Show’s Star, Smilodon fatalis, Brought to Life through Collaboration Between NHM Paleontologists and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop™

LOS ANGELES—On weekends this December, and through the week starting January, visitors to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) will be educated and enthralled by the latest addition to the museum’s puppet troupe — a life-sized saber-toothed cat — one of the Los Angeles’ most ferocious extinct predators. The new Ice Age Encounters shows are Saturday-Sunday, 1:30 and 3:30 p.m.

In August of 2008, the NHM premiered Dinosaur Encounters. Hailed as part science and part performance, the show’s two life-sized juvenile dinosaur puppets — a Triceratops and a T. rex —were operated by a newly-hired group of museum performance artists. Dinosaur Encounters quickly became one of the most popular programs in NHM’s history: More than 300,000 visitors have seen the shows so far. In response to its success, the NHM went to work on another “Encounters” — an adult-sized Smilodon fatalis, also known as the saber-toothed cat.

The new puppet — 73 pounds without its puppeteer inside — was created through a unique collaboration between paleontologists at the NHM and its sister institution, the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop™, the outfit responsible for creating the Muppets, Fraggle Rock, and animatronic effects seen in films like Where the Wild Things Are and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

Family friendly and interactive, but realistic enough to take a spectator’s breath away with its realism, the new puppet brings audiences back to the late Pleistocene, when saber-toothed cats roamed the area now known as the Los Angeles Basin. Though familiar depictions of the cat show a sleek body, the fossilized bones excavated at the La Brea Tar Pits reveal a burly, solidly-built cat — about the size of a modern-day large male African lion. “These were linebackers, huge Rottweilers,” says Jennifer Bloom, NHM Performing Artist Supervisor.

Museum paleontologists including the Page Museum’s Chief Curator Dr. John M. Harris, Collections Manager Chris Shaw (now retired, after four decades on staff), and Assistant Lab Supervisor Trevor Valle, as well as the NHM’s Curator of Terrestrial Mammals, Dr. Xiaoming Wang, consulted on both the puppet design and movement, as well as its behavior in the show.

While the animal’s skeletal anatomy was never in question — and components like the cat’s 6-inch teeth were made from casts on loan to the Creature Shop from Page Museum collections — the puppet’s fur coloring was decided through educated conjecture. “Based on habitat, and what we see in modern living cats, if saber-toothed cats had any kind of markings on their fur it was probably spots and not stripes,” said Shaw.

The fur went through several drafts of color, length and density before a final coat could be produced. It took several weeks for a team of synthetic fur weavers in New Jersey and one very talented painter, a Henson artisan (actual title: “Fur Technician”), to create the finished product.

Another challenge, according to Henson Creature Shop Production Manager Michael Oosterom, was making a believable cat out of a person. “Creating a four-legged suit for a bipedal human, and making those proportions match with feline anatomy while masking the notion that there’s a person inside was difficult,” he said.

Eye movement and facial expression are manipulated via a remote control outside of the puppet. A sound system located inside the Smilodon, also operated via remote control, broadcasts a variety of vocalizations adapted from the sounds of living cats such as leopards and lions.

During the show, audiences meet a mother cat (the new puppet) and her two-month-old kitten, a realistic marionette created by puppet master Robin Walsh (Team America, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer). The show’s script touches on Smilodon behavior, predatory theory, movement, social interaction, and extinction and life in the L.A. area 10,000 to 40,000 years ago. It also notes where audiences can see the fossils that the puppet is based on: Both at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits (where saber-toothed cats are the most commonly preserved large animal after the dire wolf) and in the NHM’s new Age of Mammals exhibit.


About Ice Age Encounters

Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. in the second floor North American Mammal Hall at the NHM. Free with general museum admission: $9 adults; $6.50 children 13-17, seniors, and students with ID; $2 children 5-12. USC students and children 4 and younger are admitted free. The Ice Age Encounters schedule expands in February; check the nhm.org calendar for program updates and special appearances.

About the Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County was the first dedicated museum building in Los Angeles, opening its doors in 1913. It has amassed one of the world’s most extensive and valuable collections of natural and cultural history — with more than 35 million objects, some as old as 4.5 billion years. The Natural History Family of Museums includes the NHM (Exposition Park), the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits (Hancock Park/Mid-Wilshire), and the William S. Hart Park and Museum (Newhall, California). For more information, visit the museum’s website at www.nhm.org or call (213) 763-DINO.

NHM Next

The completed renovation of the Natural History Museum’s Beaux-Arts 1913 Building sets the stage for the NHM’s rollout of new visitor experiences leading up to the museum’s centennial in 2013. The milestone re-opening of the 1913 Building began in Summer 2010 with new exhibitions inside its iconic Rotunda and Age of Mammals. In Summer 2011, the museum will open its new Dinosaur Hall. An exhibition focusing on the Southern California environmental history, as well as 3.5 acres of nature experiences and their indoor component, the Nature Lab, will open in 2012.

Smilodon fatalis, the star of Ice Age Encounters. Image © Karen Knauer / Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

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