Humans, Rooz and Animatronics too!


Five experienced costume actors – whose virtue was undeniably patience – endured some of the most gruelling costume work ever conceived as the Roo-Warriors. Hidden beneath pounds of urethane, spandex, denim, foam and wires are: J. Todd Adams as Chi, Adrienne Corcoran as Tsun, Doug Jones as Yee, Don W. Lewis as Lai and Jack Tate as Yun.

The performance of the Rooz was actually a collaborative affair, involving not only the actors, but a large team of gifted animatronic engineers and puppeteers headed by Tony Gardner of Alterian Studios.

Tony Gardner has been immersed in the Warriors of Virtue from conceptualization through to realization. In the beginning, the only thing he had to go on were costume illustrations done for the Law brothers [producers] by a local fine artist in Denver. His first conversations with the producers had the Rooz looking more like literal kangaroos, but they quickly recognized that the bottom-heavy figure of the real animal wasn’t conducive to the kung fu fighting style of the characters.

The contours of the body were changed to a more muscular and dynamic V shape and the head and tail were adjusted to stay in proportion to the new body form.

Gardner then set about sculpting a miniature bust of each of the Roo-Warriors from which he could eventually design the heads. “I tried to come up with visual metaphors for their individual personalities,” he offers. “I gave each one a distinct personality in miniature form, and then I presented them to the Law brothers to give them a sense of what could be accomplished as far as making each character unique from a visual standpoint.

“We pushed one prototype forward,” Gardner continues, “so we could do a film test and confirm the way everything looked – the fur, the colors, the body proportions, etc. Then we refined it all and finalized concepts for the other four. It was a long and involved process.”

The prototype was completed in October 1994, and manufacturing of the costumes began in March of ’95. By December of that year, the costumes were packed and shipped to China in time for the start of production in January 1996, but the work was far from over for Gardner and his team.

For the many scenes involving the animatronic Rooz and other creatures, more than 25 additional people would be needed on the set, each carrying four-way joysticks around their necks, dragging all sorts of wires behind them, talking at the same time over their headsets and leaning over the director’s shoulder trying to see the monitor. It was controlled chaos.

“I had never worked with animatronics before,” Ronny Yu [director] states. “I’ve worked with temperamental actors, but working with animatronics and the many people needed to control them was more difficult than directing any prima donna. Organization was the key.”

Three puppeteers controlled each and every mouth movement, eyebrow lift, nose twitch and tail sweep of the Rooz. Gardner offers, “The facial ‘muscles’ were all connected, so everybody had to be in sync. The key to believability was the phonetic mouth movements with vowel and consonant shapes – not just the lips moving up and down. We had to know and rehearse the dialogue of each character from a mechanical standpoint, as well as from the perspective of the performance, in order to accomplish the accurate lip sync, as well as to make them not just be talking, but have personalities.”

The labor-intensive process of dressing each of the costumed actors took from 30 minutes to up to an hour and a half. A fibreglass helmet went on the head, mounted with motors and cables that went down the actor’s neck into a backpack. A second mechanical underskull attached to the first, and the head and face were then covered with a foam skin, a layer of paint and a graduated layer of fur. The hands were foam latex gloves over spandex substructures, and the main body was a muscle suit made of urethane, spandex and denim. The tail, constructed from aluminium, urethane and spandex, was harnessed to a mechanical backpack, and the feet were big foam boots with inner soles and arch supports. The fur was a combination of fur fabric and flocking, as well as individually hand-punched whiskers and hair.

“We pretty much buried them in all that stuff,” understates Gardner.

To design the high-flying, rapid-fire kung fu moves of the Warriors of Virtue, the Law brothers turned to veteran Chinese stunt coordinator and action choreographer Siuming Tsui. “I set out to show audiences an East-meets-West style of martial arts with all of its sky-high leaps and swift, sequential movements,” describes Tsui.

The elaborate costumes of the Rooz, weighing over 60 pounds, were an unavoidable factor in the choreography of the stunts. “The stuntmen’s abilities were greatly reduced by the heavy suits, large tails and masks that obscured their vision,” Tsui acknowledges. “Some stunts required landing into or jumping out of water, which meant uncomfortably soaking the suits.Thanks to the stunt people’s talent and commitment, my vision was fulfilled completely.

Warriors of Virtue was filmed almost entirely in Beijing, China, with some sequences also accomplished in Vancouver, Canada.

Beijing is a surprisingly international city, and most of the extras turned out to be from Europe, the United States and elsewhere. Adding to the mix, the crew hailed from Australia and America, as well as Hong Kong and Beijing.

“Fortunately, I speak English and two Chinese dialects, Mandarin and Cantonese,” director Ronny Yu notes. “I gave instructions in three different languages, but sometimes I would get all screwed up and didn’t know what I was saying. I sometimes resorted to hand signals.”

For the actors in the animatronic costumes, understanding wasn’t merely a matter of communication. “When I was in my kangaroo costume, it was necessary to have an English-speaking person within earshot,” confirms Doug Jones, who played Yee. “When you’re saying ‘If I don’t get some air soon, I will die,’ you don’t have a lot of time for them to run for a translator.”

Copyright © 1997 IJL Creations Inc. and Law Brothers Entertainment International, Ltd.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Ltd.

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