Tank Girl poster  

Meet the Rippers ...
From Drawing Board to Silver Screen



When director Rachel Talalay came to the dynamics of putting Tank Girl’s famous Rippers on screen, she suddenly understood the difference between comics and film. How was she going to match the outrageousness of comic book writers Hewlett and Martin’s warped imaginations?

It fell to Stan Winston and his amazing group of artists and technicians at the Stan Winston Studio to bring the Rippers alive, although Talalay had at first been sceptical about using the award-winning team. She was convinced that the cost would be well beyond Tank Girl’s limited budget – but she underestimated the excitement the film had generated in Winston and his team.

“They came to the meeting and said they loved the project so much that they were going to make it work, no matter what, within our budget. They cut their prices in half! I was still sceptical and Stan took me aside and said – ‘I really want to do this, my guys are desperate to do this. These are the best characters we’ve had the opportunity to do.’ So I said okay!”

Winston’s team set to work.

'Crash' McCreery's final rendering of Doug
as one of the Rippers

The first designs and concepts were done by Mark ‘Crash’ McCreery: “To translate a character from a comic book to real life is one of the most difficult design problems. Comic characters are very expressive. What we wanted to do was capture the personality of each Ripper in a neutral pose so that even without the movement of facial features you had an immediate impression about who the character was. We didn’t want them to look too cartoonish because they still had to be believable as living things, but we still wanted them to come across as very animated … we decided that the tail and the ears were the most characteristic aspects of kangaroos and we worked from there.

“As far as the cultural influences on the Rippers, there is a very spiritual, Australian aboriginal feeling from the comics, so we used a lot of authentic aboriginal tattoos and designs to give the characters a tribal look.”

From the initial designs by McCreery, Shane Mahan (Art Dept.) and Alan Scott (Mechanical Dept.) went ahead with the task of physically creating the Rippers. It was then that the reality of shooting an extensive make-up film in the Arizona desert began to sink in, and that special considerations would have to be made.

“Everyone knew that it was going to be a very hot, dry and dusty environment.” Mahan said. “We tried to create the make-ups to be as comfortable and quick as possible. Since the actors were wearing teeth, a head full of rubber, animatronic ears and very hot costumes, we decided not to use special contact lenses for the Ripper eyes. In a make-up show like this, there’s more than usual for an actor to concentrate on – their main job is to always deliver a good performance. Adding contacts to the mix could have been one step too far. But in the final design, the make-ups weren’t affected by the lack of contacts one bit. I think it makes them more charming because real eyes come through these strange, mutant faces.”Of course, it wasn’t as simple as creating a sculpture and gluing it to an actor. The Rippers were to have articulated ears and an articulated tail – they also had to be able to run, jump, fly and fight at great speed, and it was important to know the technical and mechanical implications before the make-up could be made.Alan Scott, mechanical supervisor for the Rippers, explained: “We had to decide how we were going to mechanise the ears and faces and whatnot, so I created a block which would accommodate the servo monitors I would need and put them on lifecasts of the actors’ heads – the creative team would sculpt over that.”

Once the creative team was happy with the look of each individual character, the sculpture was broken down into pieces by mould makers and foam runners into the actual prosthetic parts which were to be worn by the actors.

Doug halfway through the make-up process. Note the servo motor pack on his back for articulating the ears

“I broke down the head make-up into a muzzle and upper lip piece, then a left and a right cheek, a forehead piece, a front and back of the neck and a re-useable headpiece that had the mechanical ears with cables which ran from the back of the skull cap.”

Meanwhile, Scott was also working on the technical side to ensure that the Rippers’ ears and tails would come alive without being so cumbersome as to make acting impossible: “All the actors had fully articulated ears. Two of the background Rippers (including Doug) had extended mechanical snouts that could be controlled by the actors’ lips. The snouts were operated by servo motors. Because this was prosthetic make-up and was glued directly to the actor’s face, this was going to be difficult. In the end, we attached very fine cables to the actor’s lips linked to a potentiometer, so that when the actors moved their mouths it would trip the potentiometer and activate the servo motors. The motors were also on remote, so if we wanted the Ripper to snarl or to speak, all we had to do was hit a switch.

“Then we had the tails. We sculpted tails for all the Rippers – articulated ones which would be poseable, made of honeycomb aluminium and light graphite. They had to be light because the actors would be wearing them for eight hours at a time, but they had to be durable for the action. We also had stunt tails which were lighter, made of polyfoam. In all there were eight principal tails and sixteen stunt tails, and one fully operational articulated tail which would be used for inserts and other shots.”

But as Scott explained, everything did not go according to plan, especially when it was discovered early on in the make-up tests that the actors had problems with the servo motors on their heads. They were too cumbersome and, in the desert, the actors were too hot and no heat was able to escape through the headpiece.“So, we took the servo pack and shifted it back down onto their body and ran cables from the skull cap down to the servos. This had another problem; how to disguise the servo pack. There were ten servo motors, five for each ear, and we created a prosthetic hump to cover the motors so you couldn’t see them. It worked out very well because it helped with the look – before, you had this huge head and a huge tail, and with the hump it created a gradual curve which linked the head and the tail and made the characters more real.”

The problem was solved – or was it? The prosthetic hump looked convincing when the Rippers were in street clothes, but when designer Tony Gardner came to fit the battle armour for the Rippers it wouldn’t close over the servo pack.

The Rippers are ready to rumble! Doug is far right, front row

“When we tried to fit them with armour,” continued Alan Scott, “a lot of the actors found it too tight and it was difficult to breathe, so we had to find another way to disguise the servo pack. We designed a large canteen – after all, they were out in the desert, they would need water – so we built the canteen big enough so the servo motors would fit inside there.”

So, from a technical and creative point of view, the Rippers were finished. The Stan Winston Studio had created eight very different characters, each linked to the personality of that character. They had stayed true to the spirit of the comic, but created something that was real.

Stan Winston was happy: “The Rippers are set up as very terrifying characters. In fact, they are the most loveable characters in the script, in the movie – well, loveable is a hard call, because there is a certain edge to this movie, but they are extremely loveable characters and they’re tough. They’re not evil by any stretch of the imagination.”

If you wish to read more about the film, why not try The Making of Tank Girl by Frank Wynne, published by Titan Books, from which all of the above information was gleaned.

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