Martin Crowther – Interview


MATRIX: The APU alone is a massive undertaking, and is just one part of this production.

MARTIN: Yes, I’ve been told that it’s probably one of the biggest props that has actually been made in Australia that is a mechanical prop, in as much as it works. I don’t know how true that is, but it’s pretty big to me. Four-and-a-half meters tall [4.8 feet]. I started on this project in April 2001, which is over fourteen months ago. The first thing I built at that stage was one of the guns, and then the APU itself kicked in around about June last year [2001], and we’ve been on it ever since.

MATRIX: Initially, did you anticipate the scale of the APU?

MARTIN: No, not until a couple of months in when the storyboards started getting dished out and we actually saw what we were getting into. Some of the first things we saw were the Geof Darrow [Conceptual Designer] sketches, and at that time I think Sergei [Chadiloff, CAD Computer Modeler] was in the process of converting Geof’s drawings into a 3D model, which we then had to interpret and correct anything to make it work at the end of that.

The process was that we had Geof’s artist’s impressions that Sergei then converted into a 3D model as closely as he could, keeping to the original design. From that 3D model we then got drawings of most of the components and where they are in relation to each other. From that my main job was to make sure that the legs could move, the knees could pivot, all the shocks moved, and that he could twist at the waist and arms and all those sorts of joints. Inside the APU is a steel armature, and on that steel armature we’ve got all the pivot points and all the shafting – everything that it takes to support its own weight – then Adam [Grace, APU Foreman] came along and made all the dressing pieces. It really is a team effort; I make the inside skeleton and he has skinned it. The detail factor on the outside – what you actually see aesthetically – has to be made as good as possible. You make it pristine and then it gets cut back with all the aging because nobody knows at the early stage just what it’s going to be like.

MATRIX: Why did it have to be made in such a solid way?

MARTIN: Because it had to be able to support its own weight, otherwise it would’ve had to have lots of props or cables supporting it. We also have to remember the actors and people are climbing up and acting on it, so whatever else it has to be strong enough to support them. We don’t want any actors getting damaged, obviously, so that’s the main reason for its strength. Basically we can climb all over this, and we won’t damage a panel or anything because it has all been foam filled and everything.

MATRIX: What was the time scale?

MARTIN: This whole thing could quite easily be built in six months without any problem, but all the way along the line – as it is in the movies – things get changed and decisions have to be made so time gets stretched, what is normally a six month job at the outside because of all the stops and starts it takes twelve months.

MATRIX: How big is the crew for the APU?

MARTIN: In the building of it, three of us did the engineering and then Adam and his crew worked on the dressing. It varied a lot, but at the most there would have been twenty people all up doing pattern making and things like that. It doesn’t take a lot of people because it’s a progression thing, so you might only have half a dozen at one point.

MATRIX: Was weight your main priority in building the APU from an engineering point of view?

MARTIN: My main priority here was actually safety, the weight has never been an issue. The weight comes from the fact that it has to support itself over such a small footprint in relation to its height and width. However strong it is, it’s going to have to weigh that much to stand up, and we had to make sure it’s very strong so it doesn’t fall over and kill somebody.

MATRIX: What was an issue you were relieved you did not have to address?

MARTIN: The main one was making it walk; with the balance of this thing you could never make it walk. If you wanted it to walk you wouldn’t make it wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. Walking on two legs is always such a hard thing to do anyway, because we walk by falling over, basically, and catching ourselves, so to make this thing walk it would have been a nightmare. It was never designed to walk, and it couldn’t anyway, but I think this is a good example of where CG and mechanical props can actually work well together. There’s too much CG in the world really… they’re doing me out of work with the animatronics.

MATRIX: The cords and wires and springs – what kind of materials are they made from?

MARTIN: All the dressing pieces are hoses from off the shelf covered in springs. The fake shocks we actually made because they’re structural; they actually allow us to increase the width of his footprint. Otherwise he was only relying on two points in the center of his feet. By making these structural we’ve increased his footprint so there’s less chance of him falling over.

MATRIX: How is such a huge ‘prop’ brought onto set?

MARTIN: It was basically brought in in two pieces. We fitted the guns after we got it onto set. It was craned in through the back of the set, and then with winches the torso is put on, it’s all bolted together, and the guns are slipped on and we walk away. It’s first shot is on Monday, and is actually quite a simple one where it’s not moving at all, it’s just static. The interesting stuff starts later on in July when we’ve got some movement happening, some shaking and arms moving.

MATRIX: What is your role now that it’s out of the workshop and into set?

MARTIN: My role is pretty much finished, but if they want some last minute changes mechanically, I can do those. We’ve basically handed it over now to the Special Effects Department because they’re in charge of moving it around on set and laying it over, so basically it’s now their project. Adam will be on it for quite a while because he’s in charge of looking after the dressing pieces and keeping continuity on all of that.

MATRIX: Has there been more than one APU built?

MARTIN: There’s only one hero, but there are other parts of APUs. There’s a foam APU, a lightweight version of this, which won’t be standing it’ll be laying down or in any position the Directors want, and various bits and pieces of broken APUs scattered around sets. This is the only hero one, so if they break it there’ll be no third film!

MATRIX: Thanks Martin.

Interview by REDPILL

November 2000