Museum of the North creates life-size dinosaur puppet
By Eric Bennett
UAF’s Museum of the North has a few displays of dinosaur fossils in the main gallery, but the ancient creatures are not quite the focus of the displays that rarely change. However, the museum will host a special exhibit titled Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs, which opens May 23 that will be nothing but dinosaurs and will feature a special guest star.
“It’s Alaskan dinosaurs, what we’ve found here, what we know and what we can guess of how they lived here,” Steve Bouta, the museum’s exhibition and design coordinator, said
Most of the items on display will be very old, one of the most notable being a fossil of an ichthyosaur that was discovered in 1950 in the Brooks Range. The fossil, which is a complete body and spans almost 25 feet long, took several decades to extract from rock, transport, clean up and research. Now it is ready to be shown to the public for the first time. On the other hand, one main feature will be very new. In fact, it’s not entirely finished yet.
Snaps, the tyrannosaurid, is a life-sized puppet built mostly out of PVC piping and foam and designed to be worn kind of like a mascot suit. Hannah Foss, who does CGI animating and modeling with some sculpting and drawing on the side, originally pitched the idea for a dinosaur puppet when she heard that a dinosaur exhibit was being planned. Foss got the idea from an online video that shows a workshop building large, realistic dinosaur puppets for the “Walking With Dinosaurs” stage show. “I watched that when I was like, 15, and ever since then I’ve wanted to do something like that,” Foss said. “I was like, this is beautiful. The character it had and the realism excited a lot of people and they said it would be really cool to use for education and outreach.”
The structure of Snaps was reversed engineered from a similar video that showed how an actor moves inside inside such a costume. It was only the frame work without any skin or coverings, so they could see how it was built and went from there. Snaps went through a couple redesigns to strengthen joints and keep it from becoming too heavy. “After we started building it, Hannah started relaying stories about when she was in the mascot, Nanook, and kids started coming up and tackling her,” Bouta said. “So, we had to engineer it for having a six year old hanging off of it.” Even in its most early, skeletal form, Snaps has had a positive reaction from kids and adults when it has been taken out on test runs.
“[An Alaska tourism company] had its reception at the museum, but it was a PVC pipe structure at that point with just the head on it, the mouth didn’t even open and close. It had paper eyes,” Bouta said. “Some of these adults were standing there kissing it on the nose, petting it and posing with it. And then we had it out for
the open house and it was still, some of it was covered, but still had paper eyes. Some kids were afraid of it and some kids wanted to run up and hug it and follow her.”
Foss picked up the skills to be Snaps during the three to four years when she was Nook, UAF’s sports mascot.
“I would argue reading people is the number one priority when you’re a hockey mascot,” Foss said. “It’s really important to pick up when kids don’t want to be around you or when adults don’t want to interact with you.”
Now mostly skinned up and textured, Snaps is almost ready for its debut at Exhibition Alaska: Dinosaurs and is sure to be a worthy representative of dinosaurs everywhere. There’s just a few little more details that need to be added.
“[When ordering glass eyes] I did ask for a similar pupil size, so hopefully it won’t be too terrifying, but it’s definitely going to look more like Eye of Sauron,” Foss said. “And put teeth in it. That will probably up the scary factor.”