Valerie Jones, animatronic designer, on a bird’s wing
GB Tell me why you chose this.
VJ I think a bird’s wing is perfectly designed. Not just the feathers but the way each feather interacts with the others. There are all these muscles around each feather to spread them out or close them up. It all fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. A wing can be so small when it’s folded and yet open up into a ten-foot wingspan. There’s something really magical about it. Owls fly silently and each one of their feathers is covered in tiny hairs. If you look at one through a microscope or a magnifying glass you can see these beautiful little hairs and if you stroke them, it feels like silk. Those hairs actually deaden noise so when it flaps its wings the prey can’t hear it.
GB So if you had to pick a particular bird, you’d pick an owl?
VJ I think so. I’ve made a few. There are several in Harry Potter. Hedwig is a snowy owl so I made several of those and there’s one called Errol, a great grey owl.
GB So when you make them do you get a complete understanding of how they fly or is there still a bit of mystery there?
VJ There’s definitely still mystery. I don’t do the mechanical part. I’ve had a constant struggle with the mechanics I’ve worked with to make things feel organic. Mechanics like things to work with straight bits of metal, but when you look at the bones in a wing, they’re curved and they twist rather than just moving in one direction.
GB Do you think it’s impossible to replicate that perfectly, with all the muscles and bones and feathers?
VJ It is quite hard. We came the nearest to perfection with the Phoenix in Harry Potter. We managed to have three goes at it because it was in three different films. The final time we made it I worked with Joshua Lee, who co-designed BB-8 in Star Wars. He was fantastic to work with. The wings opened and closed really gracefully and he made a little device that made the Phoenix move along its perch.
GB So for you, a lot of the beauty in a wing is in the function?
VJ Yes but the markings are incredible too. Look at the ones in the new David Attenborough series. The eagles are just amazing?
GB Do you like raptors best?
VJ Well they are spectacular, but we also made a hornbill, and I loved making ostriches for the Louis Vuitton windows in Bond Street. The bodies were very realistic but the necks were extra long so the extended neck could carry on from one window to the next – with Ostrich handbags hanging from it. I made some birds a while ago called bower birds. The male makes a bower of twigs and leaves and decorates it to attract a female. Some of them collect only blue objects so they’ll have piles of blue plastic in their bower. One had a whole load of plastic soldiers.
GB Maybe that’s where our own impulse to create art evolved from. Have you found birds beautiful for as long as you can remember?
VJ My dad was always interested in birds and we did a lot of walking as kids so we learned to recognize the birds. The first bird I ever made was a chicken for Return to Oz. The wings particularly, have become more beautiful to me. On Potter we had an animal department so I could go down there and open up a wing. The birds were quite used to being handled so they didn’t mind.
GB So you think that bird wings are universally beautiful?
VJ Definitely. Look at hummingbirds with those tiny wings that move so fast you can hardly see them. My husband is Mexican and we met when we were working on a film in Australia. We went on holiday to Mexico afterwards and there were hummingbirds outside our window.
GB Do you think humans could ever add to what nature has made and come up with a more efficient version of a wing?
VJ I don’t think so. Many years ago, when we were making a parrot for a film, one of the mechanics who is considered to be something of a genius, spent ages making the flight version of the parrot. He made a mechanical wing and all the mechanics were amazed by this beautiful polished steel wing that he’d spent hours making and polishing. I offered them some feathers to test it out. We taped one little flight feather to his mechanism and it wouldn’t work. It was quite funny. The boys were so upset though.
GB But do you find the mechanical side beautiful too?
VJ Yes, there’s a guy working in our studio working on the inner mechanism of what will eventually be a baby and it’s so beautiful, it’s a work of art in itself. I think I’m really lucky to do this job. I went to the Royal College and studied textiles. I finished college with two daughters and no husband, with textiles that weren’t very commercial and was offered a job on the Dark Crystal straight away. The Hensons were based in Hampstead and my kids were at school in Hampstead. It paid more than I expected in a million years. It was perfect.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
VJ I have an emotional rather than a critical reaction to things so it’s very immediate. But wings become more beautiful as you start to realize the complexity of the structure and how incredibly well designed it is.