FISH, FOALS & GOBI DESERT CUBS – The Creative Creature Challenges of Heartland

In every season since the pilot episode in 2007 of CBC TV’s Heartland our main focus has been practical special effects.  But this past season provided some extraordinary opportunities to exhibit our skills at making creatures of the animal kind. While the beautiful real horses of Heartland are always front and center, the script writers this season included a number of scenes which required combining the use of real creatures and their artificial duplicates, also called stuffies.

To ensure safety and control, realistic looking creatures are frequently created to stand in for the live ones being used.  Ever since we designed and fabricated a life sized male animatronic lion for a zoo exhibit, we’ve prided ourselves on building realistic looking animals.  Before the fabrication process begins extensive research is done, starting with the observation of the live animal. Close attention is paid to all the details of the creature from its skeletal structure to the look of its fur or skin.

Our newborn foal stuffie ready to go to the Heartland set for the birth scene.

For Heartland this year we began with the birthing of twin foals. Predicting the timing of the actual live birth with the pregnant mare and scheduling the shoot to coincide was a logistical challenge. But it all came together to create a beautiful birth scene. We utilized the newborn stuffie emerging from its amniotic sac that we created to simulate the birth on screen and then featured the live newborn foals afterwards.  We learned some amazing facts like the nature of the natural hoof coverings that foals are born with to protect the mare’s birth canal and uterus from injury.  These coverings are nibbled off by the mare shortly after the birth and the foal is able to stand and nurse within an hour. Here’s a behind the scenes test we did in the shop as part of the process in determining what we needed to do and what changes were to be made.

The twin grizzly cubs we were privileged to meet.

The scenes of the Gobi desert bear cub were a favourite of ours this season.  The cub footage featured twin grizzlies that had been orphaned and arrived in Alberta.
This gave us the unique opportunity to observe the cubs at close range with their trainers and use this research to create a stuffie bear cub with fully articulated limbs which is almost impossible to tell from the real thing. We can’t wait to see the final episode for this season on January 15 – when you’ll find out what happens to the injured cub.

Oh yes and the fish – we created adult rainbow trout from silicone. img_5433 About 14” long, these little beasts gave ultimate control of the fishing shot and ensured that no biological issues would arise in the waterway where we were shooting.  The jaws were reinforced for fish hooks, they were weighted to float or swim and one was realistically floppy so the actor could interact with it in a lifelike manner.

Though not of the creature variety – in late December Heartland’s cliffhanger episode 9 aired. We were pleased that the truck and trailer crash was so frighteningly real. To storyboard it, we built a scale model of that scene including the truck and trailer with the goal of creating the most realistic sequence of events. The results on screen made that attention to detail very worthwhile.  And how did you like our boulders? They are super fun to play with as they weigh less than 5 lb. each.

For more pictures of our creatures, visit our photo gallery here or if you’re interested in renting any of them, visit the Creatures + Prosthetics section of our rentals site here.

Did you see the episodes that showed the above creatures? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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