SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — For much of the country, holiday preparations have barely started, but at the Aerostar International balloon plant in South Dakota, the seasonal frenzy is in full swing.
Aerostar's employees are scrambling to put the finishing touches on the last of four large inflatable figures that will fill the sky as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade meanders through the skyscrapers along the streets of Manhattan.
The parade, long the traditional harbinger of the Christmas holiday season, is noted for its comic balloons of popular cartoon characters.
Aerostar, a division of Raven Industries, is home to the "elves" who produce the helium-filled characters, which are mainstays of the New York extravaganza.
Macy's has commissioned the Sioux Falls company to produce the lighter-than-air specialty balloons since 1984, when Raggedy Ann and Garfield balloons made their debut in the Big Apple, after months of painstaking assembly.
This year, Aerostar is producing four balloons for the annual Macy's event, the most ever for one parade.
"It's a big year for us, and a big year for them," said Cindy Smith, a sales representative for Aerostar's commercial products division.
No matter how light and cute a balloon looks, creating the floating characters is no simple task.
Each balloon takes the equivalent of three months work by four full-time employees, although various teams are involved in the three production phases of pattern drafting, assembly and painting, said Roger Wood, an Aerostar production supervisor.
Smith said Macy's Special Productions, a department within the retailer's parent R. H. Macy & Co., sells its ideas for each year's featured balloon to a sponsor.
The sponsor is usually the cartoon syndicate, or the character's creator. Charles Schulz, for example, sponsored the production of the Snoopy balloon.
Macy's guards the identity of each new balloon until it begins the promotional events leading up to the annual event. One of the balloons initially cloaked in secrecy this year was Snuggle, the cute, cuddly bear that serves as the mascot for a brand of fabric softener and is featured on television commercials for the product.
After each character is chosen, Macy's sends Smith an artist's rendition of the balloon in flight. The production teams also receive two fiberglass models, one painted, one plain, to help in the design process.
Bear Is Well Suited
"The Snuggle model was cast and painted for us by Macy's Special Productions Studio," Smith said. "We've worked without the models before, like for Garfield all we had was a stuffed animal; but we've found that the hard fiberglass model is the best way to go."
The unpainted model is cut into sections that pattern drafters use to plan the cutting of the fabric.
Smith said a bear's simple shape is particularly suited to a balloon, given its overall roundness and soft lines.
"A balloon always naturally wants to take a rounded shape, so whenever you're trying to achieve anything with corners, or flat surfaces, it's much more difficult," she said.
"And we not only create a shape by the cut of the fabric, but we also have some internal structures that you don't see," she added.
Smith said there is little room for the artistic license one might expect in creating a balloon for the parade. Consider the case of Snuggle the bear.
"He's a very particular kind of bear, Macy's told me. His snout and eyes define just what kind of a bear he is, and we cannot stray from that at all," Smith said.
The bear's "hair" presented a particular challenge, as designers scrambled to come up with a highly textured, fuzzy appearance on the balloon.
"His hair, it's not hair, and it's not fur, and it's not wool; it's a combination of all three. We have to achieve something that looks in between," Smith said.