Dave Nelson - SMB Archive Interview: 11/14/2010 by Steven Applebaum
Dave Nelson, the engineer behind the mechanics of Yoshi, was kind enough to do an interview for us and speak to Steven about his experience on the film. One of the coolest parts about Yoshi in my opinion is how much work went into turning the dinosaur animatronic into a believable creature--just check out the Yoshi crew photographs below!
Steven Applebaum: How did you and your company gain the commission to work on Yoshi for the movie? We know that MEL was vying against other companies to develop the Goombas and pitched a "prototype" head, which landed them the contract. Did you have to do something similar?
Dave Nelson: I was recommended via Patrick [Tatopoulos] to create the mechanical side of Yoshi. I had just come off building full mechanical puppets for 'Childsplay' and 'A Gnome Named Gnorm,' a Stan Winston-directed movie which was used as my 'Bio'.
SA: At what point in the production were you and your team brought on to build Yoshi? According to several articles, Mark Maitre came in to sculpt Yoshi very early, perhaps even during one of the earlier scripts.
DN: What I do remember is me and Mark interviewed together for the job with Fred Caruso, the producer, and we were up against Henson's [Creature Shop] to build Yoshi. So I don't know if Mark did any design maquettes before that, I didn't see any.
SA: Patrick Tatopoulos, the lead creatures designer and supervisor for the project, designed the Goombas and other creatures, including Yoshi. Was it difficult realizing his Yoshi designs through animatronics? Did you have to make any changes as far as size or shape to make it work practically?
DN: Patrick's designs were put into 3D sculpts by Mark Maitre so that is where the Shape took place. We had a little input but very little. [It was mostly] in the form of "Add a little more skin crease here" and "Make this joint a little thicker."
SA: What was it like trying to balance the mechanical side of your work with Patrick's artistic side?
DN: Once the sculpt was done by Mark we put in what any 'animal' would have movement-wise.
Color schemes for Yoshi after his use in SMB. The one on the left was seen in the Movie Magic segment
SA: We've spoken to Hank Carlson and know that he built the extending tongue used in one scene. Was this a separate part? Was the structure of the head build in consideration of being able to remove or integrate the tongue, or was it built-in?
DN: I don't recollect the name of Hank Carlson, but we built the tongues that came out of the head and really long tongues that came through the head via a hole that passed trough the center of the neck mechanism.
SA: Had you worked on an animatronic with Yoshi's size or body-type before? How difficult was it to make the creature work considering its unusual structure?
DN: Yes, as mentioned above. The biggest challenge was the walking and the head movement [with] a relatively thin neck, but at this point in the development of full-cable puppets [Yoshi] was cutting-edge.
"At this point in the development of full-cable puppets, [Yoshi] was cutting-edge."
SA: Can you briefly speak on how many individual puppeteers were required to control Yoshi at any one time and what their roles were?
DN: It took a total of nine to fully operate the puppet:
Dave Nelson - Head / Neck
Mark Maitre - Facial
Stacy Maitre - Facial
Rob Capwell - Facial
Brock Winklass - Body
Tim Ralston - Arms
Charles Lutkis - Hands
Mecki Heussen - Legs
Mike Elizalde - Tail
Chris Hunt - Dolly
SA: Since Yoshi had to be lifelike in its movements, how much work did you put into allowing for careful, accurate puppeteering? Could the puppet be used for precise movements or was it clumsy?
DN: No, it was very precise. It took some rehearsal with 9 guys but it did move well. The tail was amazing. Mike Elizalde could put the tip anywhere and curl it around objects with great precision.
RH: What were the technical limitations of the Yoshi puppet? In other terms, what could it not do? How fast could it move?
DN: We could only walk at the speed you see in the movie and the head movements had to be nice and steady so as not to have that 9lb head get 'out of control', but the other functions could be moved very quickly.
From left to right: Stacy Maitre (Facial), Dave Nelson (Head/Neck), Chris Hunt (Facial), Tim Ralston (Arms), Paul Barnes (Facial), Mecki Heussen (Legs), Rob Capwell (Dolly movement), Brock Winklass (Body), Mike Elizalde (Tail). Center: Mark Maitre (Cosmetics/Skin)
SA: Do you know who made the skin that fit over Yoshi? Do you know what it was made of and how durable it was? Were backups created in case of wear-and-tear?
DN: Mark [Maitre] made all the skins and they were really good. It was foam latex. We had some backups but none where used.
SA: Early development photos and a special aired on the Discovery Channel show “Movie Magic” featured an early version of Yoshi with a different skin design and color-scheme from its final appearance. Do you know why they changed its look for the final movie?
DN: No, I don't know.
SA: The early appearance had red talons and a more greenish skin-coloration. This color-scheme is reminiscent of Yoshi’s actual appearance in the games, in which it wears red shoes and has green skin. Do you know if that was an intentional allusion?
DN: No, I don't know.
[Interviewer's note: Dave sent a follow-up E-mail to clarify his answers for the preceding two questions. It read as follows:
"The two pictures are of Yoshi AFTER we changed him into a 'T-rex' for a McDonalds commercial.
Thats why I didn't understand the questions below. The Movie Magic spot was filmed quite a while after the end SMB.
We sculpted and re-skinned the mechanics for the Micky Dees spot."]
SA: Were additional scenes featuring Yoshi filmed or attempted but ultimately cut, or do you know of additional scenes cut or trimmed from the script before filming took place?
DN: On the contrary: after they saw Yoshi in action they added scenes. Every bit is in the movie; not much, but that was it.
"On the contrary: after they saw Yoshi in action they added scenes."
SA: What did you think of the film when you first saw it, particularly in terms of your work?
DN: I liked the film for the subject matter and Yoshi came out looking OK.
SA: How do you feel Yoshi compares to MakeUp and Effect Lab’s Goombas? Do you feel there was a different sensibility in designing and creating the prosthetic body and skin for the different creatures?
DN: I thought the Goombas were great. Yoshi was like Chalk and Cheese compared to them.
SA: Many people compare Yoshi to the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park which was released the same year as Super Mario Bros.. Do you feel this is a fair comparison, especially since the Jurassic Park dinosaurs rarely interacted with the actors and their appearance were enhanced quite a bit with CGI?
DN: All the producers of Jurassic Park came by the shop to look at the puppet during the [development] and at one point they were considering splitting the build up of Jurassic Park [into] different shops, which we [would have been] up [to do the] little dinos in the script.
Ultimately, Yoshi was the last of the cable puppets before CG took the industry by storm.
If I remember correctly the raptors were the featured smallest puppets and were a combination of suit and puppet and quite a bit larger, so I think the comparison is a stretch with a 34" cable puppet.
"Ultimately, Yoshi was the last of the cable puppets before CG took the industry by storm."
SA: Wow. Can you expand on that? What exactly were the Jurassic Park producers interested in your shop doing and why didn't it pan out for you guys?
DN: As I remember they were visiting a lot of the shops in town, and when I say 'They' [I mean] about five or six people came by the shop. It was great timing for us as we were in the final stages of the mechanics, so we had lots to show and they were quite impressed as I remember with the walking, the range and amount of movements.
As I remember in the script there were some little 2' - 2.5' tall dinos, which is what they were looking for us to bid on, but it really never got that far. I was told that Spielberg wanted it done by one shop and didn't want to split the build up.
SA: What do you think of Yoshi now? How does it compare to modern practical effects and CGI?
DN: Today's effects are way better for different reasons but we are very proud of the work on Yoshi.
SA: What became of Yoshi after the production ended? Were you allowed to keep it for your company or was it sent to one of the film companies, such as Disney?
DN: No, I have the full cable puppet and some bits an' pieces.
SA: Do you know what became of Yoshi’s head and other pieces of its body and skin once the production ended? Was it archived or thrown out, perhaps?
Dave: "Here he is, a little rotted but looking fine for his age."
SA: Was the Yoshi puppet ever re-used in another production? If so, what changes to its look or tweaks to its operation needed to be done to re-tailor it for the new project?
DN: A couple of years after SMB me and my partner Norman Tempia got a job for McDonald's to build a T-Rex. The production company didn't have a huge budget to completely change Yoshi so we finished up re-skinning him with a much thicker, muscular body, which was painted greenish. [We gave] him two fingers [rather than] the three of Yoshi, but we had to leave the huge Yoshi eye in place. Not very dino-like, but time and money ruled the day.
SA: What are you up to these days?
DN: Just after SMB I started a company called AnimatedFX with my partner Norman Tempia and we are still making puppets and tend to specialize in animals.
SA: Any final thoughts about the film or your work on it?
DN: I have fond memories of working on SMB:
• It was the first film [I worked on] on my own, after working in and later heading Mechanical departments for loads of Shops in town
• I made some great friends on the movie that have lasted to this day
• Playing golf with the great Dennis Hopper
• Watching Bob Hoskins work, who has always been one of my favorites