John Nolan on the enduring attraction of animatronics

As an 80s kid, John Nolan grew up on a diet of animatronics amid the golden age of practical effects. Having spent much of his childhood immersed in the worlds of filmmakers such as Stephen Spielberg (the director behind ET and the Gremlins, among many other cult films) and Jim Henson (the creator of the Muppets and the Dark Crystal), it wasn’t long before he was bringing his own animatronic creations to life as well. “It sounds really nerdy, but I was going into model aeroplane stores, buying servo motor components and starting to build stuff at home,” he tells CR.

While he dreamed of being a director one day, Nolan decided he didn’t want to spend three years studying how to use a camera. Instead, he joined the hair and makeup degree course at London College of Fashion, with a view to finessing his animatronics skills and, specifically, creating skin. “I didn’t know anything about skin and how to actually create skin, so I went to LCF and they taught me about foam latex and pumping injection foam into silicone moulds,” he says.

By the time Nolan was graduating in the early noughties, however, visual effects were becoming rapidly more sophisticated and, as a result, increasingly popular among filmmakers. “The second lot of George Lucas Star Wars films had just come out and were very, very heavy in VFX. People were like, why are you getting into animatronics? We’re a dying breed, it’s all CG now,” he says.

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