Santa Claus the Movie
An Alexander Salkind Film

How we made the Reindeer for Santa's Sleigh  1983 - 1985


This is the most complex, and least publicised, animatronic project I've been responsible for.  I ran the workshop, together with Richard Padbury, for Malcolm Stone (Art Director).   Richard and I worked on the heads and bodies respectively, for a Falling Rig and the Animatronic Reindeer used for all the front projection shots of the sleigh.  We also used the heads, and puppet bodies, for shots in Santa's stables.  The only difference between our animals  and the real reindeer  was that the animatronic animals moved about a lot more.  Christmas lasted for18 months !

Crew List

Jean Bolte (hair/artwork)    Bob Bromley (engineer)   Harry Bryce (SFX trainee) 
John Drosihn (engineer)   Ricky Eyres (drawings/sets)  Derek Frampton (taxidermy)
Dave Hayes (miniature models)   Sue Higgins (foam lab)   Graham High (animatronics)
  Tom McLaughlin (foam lab)   Mick Milford (animatronics)  Jonathan Powell (taxidermy)
 Gus Ramsden (animatronics)   Cliff Schubert (SFX trainee)  Dennis Wu (animatronics)



The Falling Rig





This rig was essentially a scaled-up version of the old fashioned toy animal on a base with a button beneath: You pressed the button, its' strings went slack and the animal fell down - - -

The reason for building it was to have control of the two reindeer on set, and not to have to knock out any live animals.  The actors were  playing the part of freezing to death, in a blizzard, at temperatures of 110F +, and real reindeer would not have survived such cruel treatment - - -

The live reindeer were used for a first quick shot of the sleigh coming into view, then were replaced with our animatronic versions.  The whole set was built up to allow our operators to work underneath.

Of course it was not quite so simple as the toy version.  The rear feet had to slide forwards as the reindeer fell and their bodies were weight-balanced with springs; to fall gracefully and be easy to winch up again for the next take.

The initial head movements were made using radio controlled servos (Heavy duty units built for remotely piloted drone aircraft).  Then, once the animals were down, puppeteers took over from under the set for the more subtle movements of their dialogue.




The 'Steam Horses'



This was the most complicated animatronic set-up I can
remember being attempted at the time.  And we had to be
'invisible', as all the best effects are !  Even so we got on
the front page of one paper, for using real reindeer skins.
The truth was we sent a team of taxidermists to Norway
to skin animals after they had been slaughtered, and the
animal trainers saved twelve beasts for the 'chorus line'.
[These animals were 'retired' to Scotland after filming.]

We decided to use air rams, rather than hydraulics, and
got Bob Jackson and Gary Wiles, of Festo Pneumatic,
involved in the project.  They were amazing; giving up
evenings and weekends to make the rig work properly.
They treated the whole job as research and development.

The programmable controller used 10th sec. intervals,
for firing the rams, which was much too slow !
But Gary found a way to use the timing pulses; giving us
100th sec. intervals to adjust our rams.  So we could tune
the legs, as the foam and skins adjusted, and get the best
movement, without the reindeer damaging each other.

The whole sleigh and reindeer rig ran on tracks on the set.
So running it was like a scene from 'Mad Max'.
We fired up compressors, laid out control cables and air 
lines, punched numbers to adjust the rams and called up
encouragement to the performers.  They laid just below
the flying hooves, using radio to control the expressions
and movement of the heads.  Good, mad fun for all !