Behind The Scenes

Channel Islands Pygmy Mammoth, "Chippy" Walks Again over 10,000 Years After Extinction - Thanks to Animatronics

Interview with Ron Pardini of CIFX who built "Chippy" an animatronic recreation of a Pygmy Woolly Mammoth, for the Channel Island Kayak center.

Sep 13, 2013

Photo by Anthony Plascencia,VENTURA COUNTY STAR.


By Mark Sawicki

I am always pleasantly surprised to find people creating creatures everywhere I go. In this case I found a creature just down from where I live at the Channel Islands Harbor named Chippy.  Chippy is the brainchild of Mike Lamm who owns the Channel Island Kayak center out here in Oxnard. Mike is a former pro surfer who converted his surf store to a Kayak center to take advantage of tourists wanting to explore the fabulous Channel Islands. As Lamm learned more about the islands he became fascinated with the fact that huge pre-historic mammoths once came to the islands in search of food. Some of the creatures stayed behind but over time, due to the limited food supply, the offspring of the original mammoths evolved to pygmy-size--a variant that only existed on the Channel Islands. 

Mike, finding that Winter was a challenging time for his tours due to weather conditions, wanted to create an attraction that could be explored near shore on the mainland, hence "Chippy" was born. Chippy is an acronym of sorts for Channel Islands Pygmy Mammoth. Chippy is a 5-foot tall animatronic recreation of the pre-historic animal. Creature wizard Ron Pardini of CIFX built it. Ron was generous enough to share his experience in an online interview along with some cool pictures. Here are Ron's words of wisdom.

Pictured above: Ron Pardini (in the hat) and Dana Namen (no hat) at CIFX pose with the mammoth they call, "Chippy" a near acronym for Channel Islands Pygmy-Mammoth.


RON PARDINI: I accidentally entered the field of special effects while in college. I was heavily involved in the drama department at Whittier College, at the time it was an extremely small department and I was basically running the props department. We were doing THE BACCHAE, an ancient Greek tragic play, and the director wanted to have a severed head for the end of the play. I thought it would be cool to try and make a head that resembled the actor rather than use some make-up/hair practice dummy head. I got a book, purchased some materials and proceeded to "wing it." The faux head ended up turning out pretty cool and one of my friends approached me after the show and asked if I knew of "the special effects guy" who had a shop in Uptown Whittier. I wandered down to "the guy's" shop and proceeded to work my way into an internship with Steve Patino (PREDATOR, THE MONSTER SQUAD, PUMPKINHEAD) of SPFX, Inc.

Whittier College was really cool and allowed me to design a program wherein I could work for Mr. Patino and learn the trade and turn in a sort of diary of my experiences and earn credits towards my degree. From that point on I spent the next 10 years working in the movie industry. Then, in the mid 90's, CGI was sort of starting to take off and the movie industry was no longer supporting as many special effects artists, so at that point I jumped over to the theme park industry. Currently I work on theme parks, an occasional movie, create custom work for churches, and am heavily involved in the haunted attraction industry. 

Pictured above: A selection of images from The Haunted Vinyard, an annual Halloween experience that ran from 2002 through 2005 with effects by Ron Pardini's CIFX.


MARK SAWICKI: How did you first hear about this project?

RON PARDINI: I met Mike Lamm through a friend Mike Traxler. Mike Traxler owns a custom plastics and tooling company and Mike Lamm had approached him looking for a couple of skulls to enhance a kayak tour he had created. Mike T. sent Mr. Lamm to me because he knew I created really authentic looking faux skulls. Since then Mike Lamm has continued to grow his harbor tour and CIFX has been there to help him with each expansion. 

Pictured above: Step one: the finished urethane foam-carved sculpture of Chippy, the pygmy mammoth.


RON PARDINI: The biggest challenge with creating Chippy was designing and creating a prop, which could be mobile so that he could be moved into a safe location every night and then set-up each day for the tours. Normally, a prop of this sort would be permanently installed. Since we were creating a creature that actually once existed, we wanted it to be a "true-to-life" example of the pygmy mammoth. We researched both the pygmy and normal versions of mammoths from this area. We looked at photos of skeletons, renderings, and even found some pictures of actual mummified mammoths. We also visited the La Brea Tar Pits to view samples of other artist's versions of mammoths. In the end we chose specific aspects from several differentpictures/illustrations and created a composite mammoth that we felt best depicted the pygmy mammoth.  

From the get go, we knew we wanted to include some sort of animation to help bring Chippy to life. Originally, Chippy was designed to be mobile so that he could be pushed out and set up in the morning and then pulled back into a safe and secure location in the evenings. Normally we use pneumatics or hydraulics to create our movements, but due to the location, the necessity to keep Chippy mobile, and our desire to keep the project within the established budget, we ended up having to use small electric motors to provide our animation. Since we knew that Chippy would be a fair distance away from the viewers, the movement had to be sort of blatant to ensure the viewers would see it (hence no eye blinks, or other subtle facial movements). We felt a head turn would be the best motion that we could achieve within the given parameters.  

Pictured above: Rather than do a sculpture in clay, Chippy's form was achieved through foam fabrication. Here, Dana Namen sculpts urethane foam. Ron Pardini also sculpted.

RON PARDINI: Chippy was sculpted from a big block of urethane foam. Once sculpted, we applied a detail coat (catalyzed automotive primer) to seal the foam and provide a protective "candy shell". We then had FRP (Fiberglass-Reinforced Plastic) tools made from the sculpture and followed that up by having FRP parts pulled from the tools.

Chippy is primarily constructed of FRP (Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic). The final version of Chippy is a hollow Fiberglass figure with a welded steel internal structure. This is a pretty common way of creating figures. Because Chippy is located in a marine environment, we took several steps to minimize corrosion of the internal structure. We sealed all of the structural metal, utilized stainless steel hardware, and housed all of the electronic equipment in a watertight box. 

Pictured above: A synthetic fur discovered in Los Angeles' renowned garment district provides a lifelike surface to the fiberglass structure of the creature.


RON PARDINI: We spent a lot of time trying to locate appropriate fur for Chippy. We ended up using a synthetic fur that we discovered in the Fabric district in downtown LA. 

The look of the segmented sections of Chippy's trunk partially covered with fur was actually an artistic detail that was added to emulate pictures from a mummified mammoth that we came across. On the real mammoth carcass, the trunk was not completely covered in fur, but rather had fur growing out from between the creases on the trunk. 

MARK SAWICKI: What kind of maintenance is involved for Chippy?

RON PARDINI: We tried to keep Chippy relatively low maintenance. Pretty much just the main concern is the motor and we chose a pretty heavy-duty motor with the hopes that it would not need a lot of maintenance. As for the outer look of Chippy...eventually his fur and paint will need touch-ups, but we expect it to last a good five or more years before that is needed, besides Chippy is a mammoth after all, so if he gets to be a little ratty it will just help make him look that much more authentic!

Pictured above: Welder Henry Perez looks on as Armondo Estrada makes an adjustment. Ron Pardini and his crew chose a heavy-duty motor to drive this custom prop. With luck, Ron says, it might last "a good five or more" years.


RON PARDINI: The sculpture took a couple weeks to complete. The tooling and fabrication portion was an additional couple of week’s worth of work. Another week to fit/clean-up the FRP, fabricate the frame, and install the electronics. The figure finishing (paintwork and hair) took another 3-4 days. All in all, it was a little over a month worth of work, but due to scheduling difficulties and navigating through a couple of unexpected "issues" along the way it ended up taking about three months from start to finish. 

Pictured above: Henry Perez from CIFX welds the steel undestructure that support the Pygmy Mammoth as well as the internal mechanisms that give the prop movement. 


MARK SAWICKI: Were toxic materials needed to withstand the environmental challenges?

RON PARDINI: Yes, though only to protect the steel under structure. We would have used FRP regardless. It is always unpleasant to work with FRP. Whether it is creating the tools, laying-up the parts, or cutting and fitting the finished pieces, you have to be protected from head to toe. We wear jump suit cover-ups, latex gloves, protective eye gear, and chemical respirators at all times. It is nasty work, but the end result can last for decades. 

Pictured above: Detail of tusk, fur and eye for Chippy the pygmy mammoth as his creator, Ron Pardini, gets him ready for a rugged role as the main winter attraction in a Channel Islands Kayak tour.


MARK SAWICKI: When Chippy moves is he on a pre-programmed track or is he manipulated live with radio control?

RON PARDINI: Chippy's movements are pre-programmed and activated via a remote control switch.

MARK SAWICKI: Are you seeing more of these types of attractions taken on by small to mid size companies?

RON PARDINI: Well, yes and no. Many of the "smaller" themed parks (water parks, goofy golfing, etc.) seem to be looking to increase their theming, but this was definitely a first. Mike Lamm is breaking the mold on what people expect from a kayaking company. He has a clear vision of what he wants to create and has the ambition to go out and make it happen "one baby step at a time" as he likes to say. 

Pictured above: The finished head of Chippy, the pygmy mammoth...ready to make his debut on the Kayak Tour.

Chippy can be found at the Channel Islands Kayak center at 3600 S. Harbor Blvd. suite 213 in Oxnard, CA.  You can also find the center on Facebook.

Ron's effects shop, CIFX Corp, is at located at 9830 Jersey Avenue, Santa Fe Springs, CA 90670. Ron even has an Esty shop Macabre Creations where he sells his custom Halloween themed goodies.

- Mark Sawicki

Mark Sawicki is the author of  “Filming the Fantastic” and “Animating with Stop Motion Pro” published by Focal Press.  He is proud to be a lesson creator for the Stan Winston School of Character Arts.

CLICK here to see Mark's lesson on Stop-Motion Character Performance and Rear Projection.

CLICK here to see Mark's lesson on Mirror-Magic - Visual Effects Using Reflections.

More SWSCA BLOGS from Mark Sawicki:

Axtell Expressions - Puppet Performance and Puppetry from Design to Delivery

Stop-Motion bread monster aka "BREADWICH" terrorizes puppet-town for TOGO's