Life-Sized Saber-Toothed Cat Puppet

photo by ©Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging, courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Smilodon prowls around his compound uttering eerie growls, imparting lasting impressions on mesmerized young audiences.

The What

In the distant past, before it became extinct 10,000 years ago, a fierce predator named Smilodon fatalis stalked the brushy habitat of what is present-day Southern California. This formidable creature has been immortalized through skeletal remains discovered in Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits.

Today, thanks to a collaboration between L.A.’s Natural History Museum and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, a remarkable life-sized Smilodon puppet transfixes visitors at the Page Museum adjacent to the famed Tar Pits. Prompted by its trainer, Smilodon prowls around his compound uttering eerie growls, imparting lasting impressions on mesmerized young audiences.

Spoiler alert: he won’t bite! This Smilodon is actually a skilled puppeteer moving about in a quadripedal body suit, while a second puppeteer operates its animatronic head from a remote location.

The Why

This masterful fusion of science, art and technology reflects the Natural History Museum’s mission to inspire young learners. Through watching it, children learn about the prehistoric cat, the Ice Age, and the fascinating ways scientists conduct research.

The How

Phase One: Using Bones to Flesh Out the Animal.

Getting started, our designers spent hours with the Museum’s paleontologists fine-tuning the big cat’s appearance. Smilodon was a robust animal, and much attention was paid to getting his physical proportions and body shape just right. To achieve the most realism, we decided on a quadripedal suit with an electro-mechanical system that allows the puppeteer to walk on all fours convincingly.

We then turned to Smilodon’s animatronic head and external markings. For the eyes, jaw and other facial characteristics, we used a well-preserved Smilodon skull to guide us – much like the forensic recreations on a TV crime show. The situation was different for the Smilodon’s coat, since the Tar Pits have yielded no traces of fur. In this case, the Museum’s experts made educated guesses about color and patterning based on Smilodon’s habitat and present-day relatives.

Phase Two: Coming Alive after 10,000 Years.

We began the fabrication process by creating a cast of a suit model who was standing on all fours. Then we built the suit around the casted form, layering the skeletal frame, boning, and foam pieces that made up the musculature.

For the puppet’s head, our engineering team fabricated the animatronic components utilizing servos, pulleys, and custom wiring.

This intricate system powers an open and close mouth feature that simulates roaring, an eye blink mechanism, and neck movements.

Throughout this complex process, we communicated frequently with the Museum’s experts to make sure Smilodon was coming to life authentically.

Phase Three: Walking on all Fours.

For the final step, the Museum put out a casting call seeking puppeteers with athletic skills to perform in the body suit and technical talent to operate the animatronic head. Once hired, we worked with the Museum’s artist supervisor on training them in movement, animatronics and puppet care.

A Lasting Commitment: To ensure Smilodon’s ongoing well-being, we set up a customized care plan for the Museum that includes periodic maintenance and refurbishing by the Creature Shop.

Besides seeing children’s awed response when Smilodon performs live, our greatest reward from this project has been the amazed reaction of the Museum’s paleontologists. For them, seeing such a realistic imagining of this long-extinct animal has been a dream come true!

Photos provided by ©Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging and Karen Knauer, courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.