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How to make a T-Rex

Way back in 2000, we were working out of a theme park in the south of England. It was a dream job building animatronic dinosaurs; we could build what we wanted, when we wanted, but of course Nimba being Nimba we wanted more, bigger and better.

We suggested to the owner that we leave the theme park and as an independent company, we build a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Full size, animatronic and the most realistic in the world. At first the owner balked at the sheer scale and cost of the project, so we mocked up a model of a smaller concept – a ‘captured t-rex’ where only the head and neck was visible with the ‘body’ hidden inside a vast trailer, but, after seeing a vision of what we wanted to create he simply couldn’t resist the idea of a full size, free standing Tyrannosaur in all its glory at the entrance to his attraction.

Animatronic T-rex
Nimbas largest project to date

Once he agreed, we actually had a mild feeling of dread – how exactly do you make a full size animatronic t-rex in North Devon?

The first task was finding a vast workshop not only big enough to house one t-rex, but three; the sculpt, the mould and the castings. We found an old meat packing factory on the outskirts of Barnstaple and started assembling a crew. We found a fantastic gang of FX newcomers in Andy Colquhoun, Charlie Bluett, Javier Aliaga and Simon Hall (who turned out to be so good that they subsequently went on to work on the likes of Dr. Who and Harry Potter).

For the sculpt, the only sensible choice was polystyrene. The cost of building an armature and sculpting in clay on this scale would have been astronomical, so instead we modified a scale model by Tony McVey, bread sliced it into 5mm thick slabs and used a projector to scale up those slices to full size onto vast pieces of polystyrene. These were then cut out with a hot wire tool, reassembled and supported with scaffolding to produce a rough sculpt at full size.

T-rex sculpt
Reassembled slices made a rough sculpture at full size

Over the next few weeks, the crew used sandpaper and wire brushes to refine this rough shape into a beautiful sculpture. Oil based clay was used on the head to create intricate bumps and scales as we knew this would always be the focal point.

T-rex head sculpt
A lot of work went into detailing the 13ft long head sculpt

With the sculpt complete, it was time to make the mould. The only feasible way to create such huge moulds was to use a spray rubber system to capture the surface detail followed by a spray plastic system to create a shell or ‘mother mould’ to hold the shape. We then handed most of these moulds to a local boat maker to turn out fibre glass castings. The sections we cast in house were the flexible ones; the neck, arms and a section of the tail (which, considering the neck section was a 6ft long tube that needed to be cast in mesh infused silicone, was no easy task!)

t-rex moulds
Just a few of the huge sculpt sections being moulded

While castings were being created, we started on the animatronics. The legs were constructed out of 4 inch box section, the neck was a triangular ‘space frame’. From the start we knew we needed to over-engineer the whole structure as it was so huge we couldn’t risk a breakage that could hurt someone. The hydraulics and pneumatics were driven with systems similar to those used in Jurassic Park; the heart of the hydraulics was a unit the size of two washing machines, but a lot more pricey!

The only way to support such a vast structure standing on two legs at the theme park was to pour a huge, deep, concrete pad into a hole in the ground to balance out the weight of the animatronic above ground. The concrete was reinforced with steel mesh and two heavy steel struts were carefully positioned to stick up out of the concrete to meet with the legs of the t-rex. Because this was the only way of supporting the huge model, it was never fully constructed in the workshop. It was transported to the park in several sections on the back of flat bed lorries (much to the surprise of the motorists who passed our convoy that day).

T-rex base
The support structure being encased in concrete on site

Once on site, there was no way of getting vehicles to the patch of grass that our t-rex was going to live on, so everything had to be carried by hand (well, by many hands) from the entrance of the park to the concrete pad. Using only a single scaffold tower and a pulley, the pieces were attached and welded one by one, building up the animatronic to a height of 16ft at the hips.

Animatronic T-rex
Tom and Andy finalise the power system

While it was wonderful to see the creature coming to life after 8 months, the miserable weather was a constant hindrance. Pouring rain may have set the scene well for a full size Tyrannosaur, but having to weld in puddles is not the best way to work. At one point on closing the door to the control panel, the t-rex suddenly became self aware, woke up, raised its head into the air and jammed it down with full hydraulic force into the nearby scaffold tower which drove a metal pole inside the mouth then out through the muzzle of our shiny new dinosaur. Miraculously the damage was only cosmetic, and half an hour with a little fibre glass fixed the damage and the mend was invisible. Rain and electricity do not mix – who knew?

Despite all of our trials and tribulations, the t-rex we created still entertains crowds to this day. Sometimes you have those projects where, if you fully understood the magnitude of what you were undertaking, you would never have done it – but the sense of achievement you feel when its done is immense and lasts a lifetime. Naivety can be a useful ally at times.

Robots Book
Our T-rex build featuring in the book ‘Robots’ by Daniel Ichbiah

The t-rex has gained attention for Nimba Creations all over the world, appearing in newspapers, magazines, various special effects books and even on the cover of a sci-fi novel. We even showed a photograph of the finished piece to a very young Daniel Radcliffe when we met him on a business trip to Scotland and the second Harry Potter was being filmed nearby, and he loved it. Even wizards are excited to see real dinosaurs.

Our T-Rex fighting a shark (?) on the cover of the novel ‘Meg’.

It wasn’t the last animatronic we would ever make, but it was certainly the largest and the one we are most proud of to this day. Now we focus on our online shop and the production of thousands of prosthetics, there is no sculpt, no mould, no matter how complex, that phases us. We literally created a monster.

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