In 2018, The University of Texas at Austin Scenic Design Studio was commissioned to build three animatronic velociraptor costumes for the theatrical production of Enron by Lucy Prebble. This was the first interdisciplinary design project of its kind at the university and piloted a Scenic Design Production Lab that is still running today.
I worked with a team of two design leads, two professors of theatrical production, and thirteen students to complete this project within a semester-long timeline. The final result of the work served as my thesis for a bachelor’s degree in Arts and Entertainment Technologies within the School of Design at The University of Texas at Austin.
Design Briefing, Organizational Chart Mapping
Design Lead Caitlin Noel Graham debriefed the fifteen-person design team with project inspiration, goals, and design constraints. We completed a hopes and concerns exercise, made documentation plans for organization of design artifacts, and established a flat management hierarchy. As a senior design student, I took responsibility as coordinator for the construction of the raptor’s legs.
Prototyping, Comparative Research
Each anatomical segment of the raptor team placed materials orders and began prototyping small-scale models of the raptor’s structure. We established a bi-weekly standup model of communication to ensure a seamless integration of the design’s segments as fidelity progressed.
My research at this stage revealed that people understand velociraptors not as they scientifically known to have appeared, but as portrayed in popular media. A study of the dinosaur movement in Jurassic Park allowed me to re-create the effect using a finger-sized model that could imitate the motion with the incongruous movement of a human’s gait.
Iteration 1, Design Review with visiting artists Joe Rial and Darcy Weber
The first set of visiting professional production, costume, and industrial designers offered design critiques on our initial prototype and shared valuable work experience.
The head team created a helmet-based apparatus, the body team settled on the skeleton of a hiking backpack for weight-bearing support, the hand team experimented with joint articulation using string and foam, and I created the first scale leg prototype out of industrial foam rods.
Iteration 2, Design Review with visiting artists Mikela Cowan and Ben Bays
Another round of visiting artists offered critiques into our initial design. At this stage, we relied heavily on this feedback for best practices and esoteric construction techniques (such as rattan soaking and bending) to troubleshoot rapidly multiplying complications.
Each team entered a week of breakout work to iterate on existing designs or start over with new information on constraints. I assisted the head team with making a vacuum-seal on a person’s head to support the weight of the costume’s neck, but spent most of my time using AutoCAD to scan and measure the proportions of a toy velociraptor. These measurements were necessary to solution a connection between the body and legs of the life-sized costume.
Iteration 3, Usability Test with first ballet dancer user
With our first sturdy, mechanically viable prototype, we hosted a user testing session to decide on candidates for driving the wearable animatronic costume. After testing a variety of users, the team settled on ballet dancers for their size, relative strength, and impressive control. Our first dancer/user offered key feedback on increased range of movement, weight, and backstage concerns for wearing the costume for up to hours at a time.
I worked with the dancers to develop a comfortable and manageable walking gait that imitated raptor movement. We recorded movement from a variety of angles and exchanged information on the structural design of the skeleton and the fundamentals of movement to refine a realistic method of moving the costume’s head, shoulders, hands, and legs for lifelike motion—even going into detail on the rhythm of breathing.
Design Review with visiting artist Ron Pardini, Materials Testing
Combined feedback from Ron Pardini and dancer users necessitated a drastic redesign of the costume. I changed materials from foam to wood to steel and reimagined fasteners from studs to nails to staples to zip ties. I tested materials for sturdiness using mallets, sanders, and wenches to imitate load-ins and studied the script to plan for chaotic onstage activity.
With two more ballet dancers of different heights and dimensions entering the user pool, I made the legs fully adjustable with the help of custom-made 3D printed sliders. In addition, the foot design was finalized and attached to the dancer’s shoes, finally allowing for a seamless integration of components.
3D Printing, Electronics, Coding
All teams were disassociated from their anatomical segment of the project to focus on the wholistic visual effect, audience experience, sound design, and lighting for the raptor’s use in a theatrical setting. After inquiring about the theaters involved in the show’s run, we added aesthetic details to hide the dancers in the costume and planned to allow the raptors to roam among the audience, emphasizing exactly how lifelike and terrifying they had become in line with both our work and the show’s theme.
The electronics team took point to guide us in installing LED lights, the opening/closing mechanism for the raptor’s jaw, backlight eyes (made out of Christmas tree ornaments), and speakers embedded in the suit. The skin team also led installation of musculature, coloring, and presentation.
Final Fitting and Usability Test
We tested the raptors in context, running several scenes of the show with actors and set in place. Crises was narrowly avoided thanks to the 3D printed sliders, which could be adjusted to tighten the raptor’s legs to fit in the set’s narrow doorways.
In early sizing, we elected to finalize one raptor’s design to ensure viability before building the remaining two. This front-loaded design pipeline allowed us to churn out two more raptors in a single week using existing processes.
Adding Fidelity and Final Touches
I worked with one other designer to monitor the three raptors' integration into the show’s rehearsals, taking notes and relaying director, producer, and crew feedback to the team to make last-minute changes as needed. Skin textures were added in response to requests for added realism.
We worked with sound designers and Bass Concert Hall staff to arrange a staged event of the final product. Journalists, sponsors, and contributors were invited to the fanfare to promote Enron’s release.
Lucy Prebble’s Enron ran for a limited release of 12 national showings in 2018. We kept in touch over email and phone with the dancers and crew to answer questions and discuss wear and tear of the costumes, which held up without complications.
Since the completion of Enron’s theatrical run, the raptors have been employed as promoters for UT’s Theater program and the show’s affiliates. Notably, they appeared at SXSW in 2019 and an exhibition in Bass Concert Hall.