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Animatronic Kingdom : Ventura County Firm Specializes in Making Animal Replicas for Movies and TV

March 24, 1997|JASON TERADA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWBURY PARK — A few blocks away from the largest biotechnology firm in the world, a local company is producing sheep, rats, dolphins and beavers that are virtually identical to each other.

Some of the animals created by this company--whose operations are concealed from the public's eye in one of many look-alike industrial buildings--even talk, dance, make faces, drive cars and do a variety of other disturbingly human things.

About the only thing Jim Boulden's animals don't do is breathe. However, a team of designers, craftspeople and master puppeteers on hand could easily accomplish that task if the job called for it.

As the proprietor of Animal Makers Inc., the ex-advertising executive and his staff specialize in manufacturing artificial and animatronic animals for use in commercials, movies and television shows.

They may not have the budget--or the cloning capability--of neighboring biotech giant Amgen, which clones genes as it develops medicine.

But many of the shop's creations are instantly recognizable to anyone who has watched prime-time television for more than 10 minutes: from the Budweiser frogs and alligators to Salem, the talking black cat on "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."

Other creatures emerging from Boulden's shop--which looks like a cross between a natural history museum storeroom, a bike factory and a hobby supply store--end up as stand-ins for well-known animal stars. They've filled in for Lassie, Flipper and the crafty raccoons on "Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls."

"To me, these are my stars," said Boulden. "The Marlon Brandos of my world are Lassie, Flipper and the Budweiser frogs."

In Boulden's world, the rooms are stacked to the rafters with fake animals and parts of them. A catalog of his firm's wares lists everything from insects, gorillas and hedgehogs to dog legs, elephant trunks and monkey paws--all available for rental or purchase.

In one storage area, dogs of all sizes and breeds sit silently on shelves alongside scores of calico, tabby and Siamese cats. Elsewhere in the shop, perched on the roof of a room that functions as a business office, a life-size rhinoceros and hippopotamus oversee workers assembling animatronic birds.

"There's all kinds of little animals stuck in shelves--hamsters, rats, butterflies," Boulden said. "You go up those stairs right there and I've got chimps stacked up in the corner that we used in a spot for HBO."

Boulden, 41, has come a long way since he founded his company more than 15 years ago in an Oxnard garage, making and marketing--with his former wife--stuffed animals for store window displays.

Before establishing Animal Makers Inc., Boulden worked for more than a decade as a fix-it guy for Hollywood productions running into troubles with four-legged, furry and feathered actors.

"They'd call me up and say, 'Hey, we've got a problem--this dog is in a dangerous situation with a car, so can you make us a dog?' " Boulden said.

Among the animal doubles created in Boulden's early days was Tom Hanks' canine partner in the cop/buddy comedy "Turner & Hooch," which takes a bullet while attempting to subdue a villain.

"When animals get into dangerous situations, it's among the most impactful scenes in many shows," Boulden said. "We create those scenes here, and the live animals stay in their trailers or cages."

"When we did 'Turner & Hooch,' they literally had an air-conditioned trailer for the dog," he added.

Another Animal Makers creation, a mean-looking bear standing about 10 feet tall, fought with Brad Pitt in "Legends of the Fall" and wrestled Steven Seagal in "On Deadly Ground." It was operated by seven puppeteers and Boulden himself inside the suit.

The same bear, albeit in a more cheerful mood, appears again in a televised beer advertisement sipping suds on a dusty porch.

In 1992, Boulden decided to build an entire business around his unique specialty. He began recruiting artisans and puppeteers, and moved the shop to Newbury Park, settling at the current site on Turquoise Circle.

Animal Makers Inc. employs about 15 full-time workers but can quickly expand to as many as 40 to handle a large project on tight deadlines.

Now Boulden's own animals are getting the VIP treatment and generating their share of fans.

Eyeing one of several Salem cats mounted on what look like blue wooden fruit crates packed with cables, levers and other machinery that control each one's movements, Boulden says, "That's a star. He gets fan mail. A lot of it."

Dharla Jo Curry, the production coordinator at Animal Makers, said one attraction for many of the company's clients is the need for fewer takes when using animatronic puppets, which keeps costs low and projects on schedule.

"Where it might take a real animal all day to do this one thing, we can usually do it right the first or second time," she said.

The spark of life for many of Boulden's animals comes from hundreds of feet of black cables, much like the kind that switch gears on 10-speed bikes, and pistons powered by compressed air.

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