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Spurred on by realism

Keeping the riding action believable means putting the art before the horse.

April 02, 2006|Susan King

Bruce Larsen

Mechanical horse designer

Larsen creates artificial horses for sequences in films and TV that are too dangerous for real racehorses and stuntmen, such as when a horse takes a fall while racing.

Recent assignments: the 2005 film "Dreamer" and the upcoming ESPN horse race movie "Ruffian," for which he is creating a full-sized puppet horse he'll operate from the inside.

Previous credits: "The Patriot," "Planet of the Apes," "Stephen King's The Stand"

Horsing around: "I have never really spent much time around horses. The first time I got on a horse, the saddle came off and I wound up just hanging on for dear life. I generally just watch films. I watched 'Seabiscuit' for 'Dreamer.' There is a lot of good footage there of horses racing and the way their muscles ripple, that sort of thing. I watched that in slow motion and figured out the movement from there."

The art of fake fur: "Usually, I start out with a frame that's made of metal and a substructure of fiberglass and foam over that and then fake fur. The fake fur is made by National Fiber Technology. They can make it out of yak hair and it's on a four-way stretch backing. There is an art to gluing. If you glue it in the wrong place, then it will wrinkle. You have got to almost let it ride over the body -- you've got to know where to put it and where not to tack it. You can spend a long time learning how to fur a horse. It's a real art."

Time: "I could spend months on a horse, but I never have enough time. That is the problem with this business -- time. I have had about a month to crank out these four horses [for 'Ruffian']. On 'Dreamer,' there wasn't enough time. There, the special effects crew helped me. They helped me hold fur and pull the fur over the horse."

Artistic recycling: "I do a lot of fine arts. I do large-scale sculpture. I am in the Mobile [Alabama] Museum of Art and in very prominent collections. My fine art is really growing right now. I am kind of a junk artist, so I have got large quantities of metal that I reclaim, and I use some of that in what I do and in the horses."

Beginnings: "I went to Auburn University, and in my senior year I was in illustration. Then I saw the movie 'Alien,' and it just set me on fire. It just made me want to do movies -- the biomechanical nature of the aliens just pushed buttons with me.

"I made this alien costume out of duct tape; I won a pound of gold for it at a costume contest. That is how I got started freelancing. I lived in Atlanta, and I was in animation. I was doing a lot of commercials and some movie work. I was doing a lot of work for TNT and TBS, building a lot of their props. Then I got a call to do four fake dead horses for a CBS miniseries. I got some big pieces of Styrofoam and started to carve. They were full-sized, and I only had three weeks."

Problem solving: "It's all problem solving. I built a horse for 'Nomad' in Kazakhstan. I spent three months over there. I had to go into the Chinese flea markets to find old motors. They had piles of motors, but I couldn't find a DC gear motor to save my life. I had to wind up using pneumatics."

Residence: Fairhope, Ala.

Age: 46

Union or Guild: Doesn't belong to one.

-- Susan King

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