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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Heartland horse blog VIII

We often get called in to make horses appear sweaty without having to run them off their feet to make real sweat. We have tried numerous techniques and products to achieve this look; ultimately, it depends on so many variables. What was the horse doing to get all sweaty? What colour of horse is it? Will it be inside or outside? Will we have time for a proper clean up? Will the horse be saddled? Depending on the answers we get, we can use a plethora of materials to stage sweat. Different formulas of corn syrup-based sweats, glycerine and even simple uses of powdered dyes and dirt with water. Without giving away all of our secrets – a sweaty horse can be harder to make up than you think!



This is our final Heartland horse blog posting for the season. Thanks for following and for the comments and we’ll be back for Season 8. For more information on the series, click here.

Heartland horse blog VII

Sometimes we get called out to Heartland to make a horse look like it has been abused or neglected. In one particular episode, Scott and Ty come across a horse that had been abandoned in an old barn and left for dead. Let me tell you, it’s no easy task turning a fat-bellied, well fed horse into a skinny emaciated one! The ribs had to be painted on, as well as the shadows to create depth in the skin. Sometimes I feel bad making the horses look like this and then I remember – oh yeah, they’re going to be stars!



Heartland horse blog Part VI

Sometimes we have to paint one horse to look like another. In this case, it was two grey horses that had to match the lead. The dapples (spots) on the horse were matched and painted on with water-based paints for easy removal. You may be thinking “how hard can it be to paint a horse?”. Well, the real challenge is matching them. Like people, no two horses look EXACTLY the same as each other so we’re compensating for dark or light spots, mane and tale length, feet and distinctive markings. A lot of horses don’t like you up in their eyes, nose and ears so you have to be patient and know what works for the horse. We have come up with different non-invasive techniques that won’t stress the animal out, require a lot of clean up or be any burden to the wranglers. In the end, painting horse hair is unlike painting anything else. Every time is a challenge but also an opportunity to develop a new approach. Let us know – now that we’ve been posting some behind the scenes blogs of the special effects make-up done on the horses, do you watch them a bit closer and the make-up effects that may have been done?

Heartland horses


Heartland horse blog Part V

When it comes to delivering a realistic wound, we have to do our research. In this case it was tough. This episode’s plot contained horses that are part of the Tennessee Walking world (if you missed last night’s show – a Tennessee Walker is a breed of gaited horse known for its unique four-beat “running walk” and flashy movement). The horses are being abused and treated horribly to benefit a selfish showman. The horses pasterns (a part of the leg of a horse) are rubbed raw, and caustic materials such as paint thinner and battery acid are applied so it is too uncomfortable for the horse to use pressure to push down with its hooves, resulting in a showy, unnatural walk. They then use weighted straps and chains to chew through the animal’s skin. This type of abuse is soaring. In order to simulate the effect, we had to create various stages of “burning” on the horses legs; the green colour simulates the battery acid mix that is slopped on. The biggest challenge is getting three completely different looks for different scenes in one day. If you’re in Canada, click here to watch the episode.

blog pic


Heartland horse blog part IV

Those aren’t meatballs! It’s not all glamour being an animal make-up artist; sometimes it’s really crappy…literally. We were asked to make fake chicken and horse poop that would be used as a prop. The chicken poop was meant to look like someone had shoveled some up and thrown it all over Ty’s vintage truck. Although we spent time trying to formulate a realistic looking product, I’m glad I had back-up poop with me on set. We used what we had made in shop on the set but it was a little dry. So we had to “pipe” chicken poop onto the door, mix in a few feathery tufts, some straw and voila: soft, sticky and very realistic.

The horse manure was another fun challenge. It had to look real, feel real, track some footprints and not ruin the actor’s shoes. So we came up with a formula that had a similar texture (to the eye, nobody wanted to volunteer to feel the real stuff for exact accuracy…gross) using colour, grass clippings, enough “schmear” and was removable with water. I pre-rolled a bunch of poop and dropped (every pun intended) it wherever it needed to be. The jokes didn’t stop; I was horse poop girl for a while. But it was something different, challenging and fun. And if you closed your eyes…you could almost smell it.

Faux manure balls

Heartland horse blog part II

For this particular Heartland episode, a colt was caught in a rope snare trap. The animal was trapped for so long and was under so much stress, it had rubbed its neck raw trying to escape. Amy and Ty rescue the colt and bring it back to a camp where they treat its wounds with a “homemade” poultice made from honey, charcoal and a few other natural ingredients. For us to prepare for the scene, there were two untamed colts with their untamed mares. The colts needed identical make-up done on their necks. We ran some test make-ups on other horses to see how well our prosthetics would stay on. Here were some of the challenges we came up against:

Challenge #1: Two identical wounds on two colts that had never been used on film before nor been around a lot of people and equipment;
Challenge #2: Two untamed mares that wanted nothing to do with us, trying everything under the sun to keep us away from their babies including nipping, whinnying in my ear, kicking and shoving, all while we were in the confines of a trailer and trying to work under the clock;
Challenge #3: Gluing down pre-made silicone prosthetics to an animal with course, dirty, oily hair, and trying to keep it on for the scene; and
Challenge #4: Changing the wounds throughout the day to match the timing of scenes showing the horses healed, partially healed, and cleaned up and fresh.

So how did we manage?

Reward #1: The colts were very well behaved and took to the make-up well without any problems. It didn’t seem to bother them that we were there; the same can’t be said of their wild mares.
Reward #2: The wounds look realistic on camera, weren’t too repulsive and were relatively easy to manage when we were adjusting the healing process.
Reward #3: Just check out the pictures below…itty bitty baby horse heaven! The colts were tired, took a deep breath and relaxed. I told them stories as I cleaned them up. The wrangler that day was flabbergasted that I was able to make them so calm while I cleaned them up that he took a picture to send to John Scott (the owner of the horses) because he didn’t think he would believe it!

Amanda calming and cleaning one of the colts.
Amanda calming and cleaning one of the colts.

Mare and colt with make-up applied.
Mare and colt with make-up applied.