“There’s no metal filing in my eyeball,” Michael Ridge happily reports upon returning from a visit to the eye doctor. This is good news — Ridge was worried that he’d incurred an unfortunate work-related injury. Fully functioning eyeballs are pretty useful when you spend your day creating giant motorized sculptures of demons and cartoon characters.
Ridge, 35, lives in Montpelier and works at Advanced Animations in Stockbridge, where he sculpts fantastical animatronic figures. His job is probably more fun than most.
Now at the upper echelon of his profession, Ridge has come a long way from drawing orcs on restaurant napkins and using crumpled newspaper, masking tape and paint to craft a replica of one of the titular creatures from the film Gremlins 2. He used the same materials in his “gore phase” to sculpt “intestines and hearts and brains,” then shifted gears a bit when high school art classes introduced him to the medium of clay.
A lifelong interest in fantasy and science fiction — Ridge says Return of the Jedi “made a huge impact” and that The Lord of the Rings novels “blew [his] mind” — spurred him to develop his technical skills. By high school, he was experimenting with making latex masks. “I made life casts of my poor twin brother,” he says.
As a fine art major focusing on sculpture at Syracuse University, Ridge was frustrated that he couldn’t incorporate his love for genre entertainment into his studies, and he considered heading to Hollywood to seek a job in the special-effects industry. After graduation, though, he distributed his portfolio widely and landed a position with Brooklyn-based Art Asylum, which makes collectible action figures. What started as an unpaid internship turned into a full-time job at which Ridge learned a great deal about making molds with silicon, a process that’s now integral to his work.
What Ridge calls a “perfect” situation presented itself in 2003: A job at Advanced Animations allowed him to develop his skills, further his career and move to Vermont, where his girlfriend — now wife (Kristin Carlson, an anchor at WCAX) — was living. Despite its location in a tiny Vermont town, the company where Ridge has worked for the last decade is a leader in its industry.
Most of the figures that Ridge sculpts at Advanced Animations find homes at theme parks and museums all over the world. Since he frequently builds models of trademarked characters that are worth billions in licensing fees, he’s unable to disclose his client list. “Secrecy is a big deal,” Ridge says. “The stuff we’re working on is a big moneymaker for these parks, and the draw is that the only way to see this stuff is to go to the park and pay your admission.”
Chances are that if you’ve been to a major theme park, or seen animatronic figures in a museum exhibit, you’ve seen Ridge’s work.
Creating animatronic figures is a highly specialized niche, even within the special-effects industry. Every wizard, robot and instantly recognizable creature produced by Advanced Animations passes through the hands of numerous skilled artisans before it can greet theme-park patrons with its uncannily lifelike gestures.
The process begins when a client invites the company to bid on a proposed project. If Advanced Animations is awarded the project, the engineering and computer design departments set to work designing the figure’s mechanical innards. At the same time, the design team — on which Ridge, a sculptor, has played a larger role lately — draws up thumbnail sketches. A full-size drawing is the next step — which is saying something, since some of these figures top nine feet. The finished drawings are transferred to sheets of urethane foam, which Ridge then carves and shapes using hand tools.
After the client approves the 3-D version, the sculpture is sealed with resin, primer and paints, depending on the desired finish. A negative image of the whole object is then cast using a mold, which, when layered with silicon and fiberglass, becomes the shell of the finished figure. The last step, before painting and detailing, is for the machine shop to install the figure’s complex mechanics — the devices that make these characters “come to life.”
You might think that moving sculptures such as these would be ideally suited for movies, but, as Ridge points out, cinematic special effects require a “different sort of construction mentality.” Advanced Animations’ creations are built to last; a contract with a client might require that a figure function for 10 years or longer. Mechanical special effects that are created for even the biggest-budget films are far more ephemeral. If a Hollywood animatronic figure were to run all day, every day, as Advanced Animations’ figures do, Ridge says, “it would fail very quickly. Its skin would tear, and its servos [motors] would break down.”
Ridge’s work may not show up on multiplex screens, but it is found in another type of venue: museums. Advanced Animations has crafted mechanical figures for many exhibits, including the popular “Grossology” series that has traveled the science-museum circuit for years. (The exhibit played at Burlington’s ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in 2006.) “Grossology” uses mechanical, bigger-than-life, interactive sculptures to graphically illustrate the many icky features of the human body: foul odors, vomit, poop and the like. Ridge built several devices for the popular exhibit’s sequel, “Animal Grossology.”
“[My job] is a perfect outlet for my creative energy,” he says. “If I weren’t employed at Advanced Animations, I would be making very similar things on my own.”
In fact, Ridge does make those things on his own time. A creepy, gory piece that he designed and built, titled “Concept Art of Jenny,” is currently on view at Burlington’s S.P.A.C.E. Gallery in the annual “Art of Horror” show. (See review in this issue.) Though initially designed for a film project that never came to fruition, the piece — a macabre sculpture of a semi-decayed ghoul — not only fits perfectly with the show’s theme, it stands on its own as an accomplished piece of craftsmanship.
Ridge, who also paints monster-free watercolor landscapes in his free time, looks forward to participating in more gallery shows, in part because Advanced Animations’ nondisclosure agreements legally require that his best-known works remain anonymous.
“A lot of people see my work, which is gratifying, but at the same time, my name is not attached to it,” Ridge says. “Showing something in a gallery is a good way to actually be attached to a piece I made.”
In collaborating with Michael Nordstrom, a Burlington artist, writer and musician, Ridge has found another outlet for his work — one that you may well see roaming the streets of Burlington for Halloween next week. “Garamike” is part costume, part homage to Japanese monster movies, part performance art and totally nutty.
In Japanese, the word kaiju literally means “strange creature,” but it has come to refer to the man-in-a-rubber-monster-suit cinematic subgenre, as well as to those fantastical beasts themselves. Godzilla, or Gojira, is the most famous. There are scores of kaiju, many of which have developed cult followings.
One such cultishly adored creature is named Garamon, an autumnal-hued, fish-faced oddball with two arms that dangle uselessly from the middle of his chest. Garamon — and his later incarnation, Pigmon — appeared in the 1960s Japanese TV shows “Ultra Q” and “Ultraman,” respectively. Though instantly recognized by Japanese citizens of all ages, Garamon is comparatively obscure in the West. But Nordstrom, Garamon’s No. 1 fan, is on a mission to boost the creature’s reptilian profile.
Nordstrom describes Garamon as “cute in his way, but incredibly grotesque.” Struck by the character’s bizarre appearance, he has not only written extensively about Garamon, but has, with Ridge’s help, designed and created a highly detailed Garamon costume, which looks far better than the original rubber suit ever did.
The costume made its debut as part of a gallery show called “Garamaniacal” that Nordstrom curated at FOE Gallery in Northampton, Mass., in 2012. “I decided I wanted to become this fusion creature, ‘Garamike,’” says Nordstrom, who then remembered that he’d often driven past a roadside sign for Advanced Animations. Cold-calling the place, he contacted Ridge, and the two struck up a kaiju-riffic collaboration.
The two Michaels share a love for sci-fi and fantasy, and they quickly hit it off. Nordstrom’s idea was for a foam mask; Ridge suggested that a silicon creation would last much longer. On New Year’s Day 2012, Ridge poured alginate over Nordstrom’s head in order to create the lifecast that he would use for the basis of the silicon Garamon mask. While Ridge worked up the silicon parts, Nordstrom crafted the foam headpiece; the two sections weren’t conjoined until just hours before the opening of the gallery show.
The detail on the mask is especially astonishing considering that it was Ridge’s first time sculpting a silicon mask. “Mike is an artistic gem,” says Nordstrom. “He’s not just technically proficient but so deeply creative, and so humble about his talents.”
Tom Ring, 51, of Quechee, is Advanced Animations’ art director and has worked closely with Ridge on numerous projects. Ring says that, back in 2003, Ridge’s portfolio stood out from all the others for his obvious skill with textures and unusual forms. Whereas other applicants submitted portfolios that bespoke classical training in sculpture, Ridge’s enthusiasm for “taking reality and pushing it to the level of fantasy,” as Ring puts it, was a major plus for a top-tier animatronics company.
Bob Crean, 65, of Pomfret, Advanced Animations’ vice president of operations, calls Ridge “a talented sculptor, whether it’s humans, animals or inanimate objects … He’s great at what he does.”
Is Ridge an artist, then? An artisan? A technician? He puzzles over this one a moment. “Hmm. The work I do is entertainment, and it does require a lot of technical skill,” he muses. “I think it’s art. Yeah, it’s art! Sure it is. It’s creating a vision for other people to see and enjoy.”
One fan of Ridge’s artwork is his 2-year-old daughter, who is completely inured to the ghouls and goblins scattered about her home. “If she’s asked what [“Concept Art of Jenny”] is,” says Ridge, “she’ll just say, ‘That’s Daddy’s monster.’”
The original print version of this article was headlined "Monster Mash"