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ZOOKEEPER

Gorilla My Dreams
Though the filmmakers opted to use real animals wherever possible, one instance required movie magic. "Gorillas are endangered,” says Mark Forbes. "No private party can own a gorilla. So, we used an animatronic gorilla suit to play the role of Bernie.”

The first step was to capture Bernie's voice, and the filmmakers turned to NICK NOLTE. "Nobody has muscles like Bernie, and nobody has the voice of Nick Nolte,” says Coraci.

How did he capture a gorilla's distinctive growl? "I kind of have a growl to my voice anyway,” says Nolte. In the movie, Bernie has been isolated from the other animals and most other people, and Nolte was determined to express the character's loneliness in his vocal performance. "I played that detached feeling,” he says. "That started working right away – ‘Keep going,' they said – and we decided to do the whole movie in that first session.”

With Nolte's voice recorded, the filmmakers turned to a company called Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. (ADI) to create the character. The company's founders, Academy Award® winners Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., created Bernie, a gorilla that could portray all aspects of the character's arc. "In the movie, Bernie has been put in solitary because supposedly he hurt somebody a long time ago,” Coraci explains. "As the story unfolds, we find out he's a sweetheart gorilla and he actually isn't a bad guy. The gorilla has to be scary and threatening, but also capable of revealing who he really is on the inside.”

Behind the scenes, who Bernie is on the inside, literally, is Woodruff. The suit was created for Woodruff to perform. "Tom wore the head, which had 33 servomotors in it controlled by puppeteers off screen. We also had a motion-control computer that pre-recorded the performance, so we get a very life like performance out of Bernie's face.”

Woodruff adds, "The little mechanical motors inside the head allowed us to pre-record all of the lip synch so it matched the vocal tracks that Nick Nolte had already recorded. Because of that, Bernie appears on screen as a very realistic, normal talking gorilla.”

Formed in 1988, ADI's first feature film was Tremors and then they went on to Alien 3, for which they received an Oscar® nomination. That same year they won the Oscar® for their work on Death Becomes Her. They were also nominated for an Oscar® in 1997 for Starship Troopers. More recently, they worked on the Alien vs. Predator movies and the Santa Clause series. But Zookeeper represents their most expansive work to date. "This is definitely a big role for an animatronic character, especially a big role for us,” says Woodruff. "We've done gorillas and animals in the past and I've been doing suit stuff for twenty years. This is definitely the most integrated character that we've done in a movie.”

Zookeeper was a great opportunity for ADI to "push the gorilla technology envelope,” according to Woodruff. "When we designed Bernie, we did something that I've wanted to do for years and years that hasn't been done before. To really copy a gorilla's physique, you have to have very short legs, very long arms, but also a very long torso. If you put a person into a gorilla suit, the person's legs would be too long.”

Normally, the way around this is to extend the arms, allowing the performer to walk on all fours – but this is not a perfect solution, as the torso becomes too short. But Zookeeper presented a unique solution. "A good portion of Bernie's lines play while he's seated. So, we cut a hole in a fake floor and I stood in the hole. We attached small puppet legs, and now, in any of the seated scenes, Bernie could be the correct proportions.”

But Bernie also has to walk in some scenes. This is where Stunt Bernie comes in. "Even with arm extensions, my legs are too long, so we had Garon Michael play Bernie when he's doing his walking and his running. Garon has the properly proportioned legs, so when we add the arm extensions and he gets down onto all fours, he's the right size package.” The stunt suit also has a much lighter head – capable of fewer actions, but giving the puppeteer better vision and allowing him to move around more freely.

Working with an animatronic character has real benefits that show up in the performances, says Gillis. "Tom performed opposite Kevin James, and that allowed for a wonderful spontaneity and physical contact when they wrestled each other, riffing off each other,” he says. "It adds something, rather than shooting the actor by himself and then somebody adds in the other character months later. The producers were really excited about taking a practical approach to Bernie – I can't think of another animatronic character, short of E.T., that has as large a part as Bernie does.”

"Zookeeper is a little bit of an unusual film for us,” admits Gillis. "We got to run around the streets of Boston with Kevin James and a man in an animatronic gorilla suit. It's kind of a strange thing when you have a half-dressed gorilla and you've got to cover him up with a big raincoat or something so he can walk to the set without people taking cell phone pictures. Once he was suited up, the reactions of the people in the streets were really fun to watch. Who expects to see Kevin James running down the street with a giant gorilla?”

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