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How They Really Built Those Terrifying Animatronics in the Five Nights at Freddy's Movie
Director Emma Tammi and Robert Bennett of Jim Henson's Creature Shop on the "diva" needs of their animatronic performers.
If you're a gamer who has played any version of the Five Nights at Freddy's video game series, then you know from experience how difficult the murderous animatronic antagonists can be. Digital Freddy Fazbear, Bonnie, Chica, and Foxy exist to make your gaming life miserable. And surprise, surprise... in Five Nights at Freddy's film adaptation, director Emma Tammi (The Wind) quickly figured out that their real-world prosthetic and puppetry counterparts made for the movie also had the same intentions.
"I will say these animatronics need a lot. These characters are divas," Tammi joked to NBC Insider about her animatronic menaces. "But they deserve a lot."
Making Five Nights at Freddy's animatronic army of four
One of the very first decisions Tammi made in adapting Five Nights at Freddy's was committing to using practical effects as the way to bring the animatronic antagonists to life. Because the film is set in the 2000s (like the game), and the scares are meant to come from watching these restaurant robot performers stalk their human prey, Tammi said she knew CGI wasn't going to work. So she turned to Jim Henson's Creature Shop in Burbank, California to figure out how to translate the now famous video game characters into menacing, physical adversaries for security guard, Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson) and his sister, Abby (Piper Rubio) to battle against.
Taking point on the assignment was Robert Bennett, the lead supervisor at Jim Henson's Creature Shop, who told NBC Insider that he first created small-scale, yet highly detailed maquettes of each animatronic character so Tammi could work out overall design aesthetics and mobility preferences before full-scale fabrications.
"We had to make multiples of each character so that when we're on-site, on the day, if Chica needs to be in this shot, but then the next shot is doing something completely different, we can build another one before that shot. Or we can take this one apart, and reassess it to get it to do what we need it to do," Bennett said, noting how they built the animatronics to be plug-and-play as needed during production. "In general, there were duplicates of each character. We built kits, so there weren't just two arms. There might have been six or 12 arms for one character, same with the legs and all the extremities. All the fittings were universal so that we could switch out really fast on set."
What director Emma Tammi worried about most while making Five Nights at Freddy's
Tammi acknowledged one of her biggest learning curves on Five Nights at Fredy's was adapting to the presence of new technology to her, and directing puppeteers to get the performances she needed out of Freddy, Bonnie, Chica, Foxy, and others.
"For all of the characters, there were multiple puppeteers operating at all times on them," she explained. "It was this huge team collaboration alongside me as I was directing actors in the scenes if they were in the same scenes as the animatronics. So that was like a whole other muscle to start flexing. But it felt so fun and collaborative and something I really would enjoy doing again down the line."
Sounds like Bennett was a little more stressed about it, though, as he had to make sure all of the complicated animatronics were operating when Tammi called for action. "We'd be setting up a specific shot and look at it, and would [adjust] even if Chicka's arm gauntlet was just a little off," he explained about their obsessive attention to detail.
Tammi confirmed, "Bobby was still tweaking the puppets alongside the rest of the team throughout all of production, even up to the last day. I feel like you did one of your most massive works on your last day."
But worrying about technology possibly failing you is a big part of making movies, regardless, as both Tammi and Bennett confirmed.
"Most film sets feel like every day is a mountain to climb and everyone's racing against the clock, always," Tammi assessed. "[For this], I would say the days where all of the animatronics were up and running on the stage, in wide shots, where we needed to see them all at the same time, those days probably created the most sleepless nights for certainly Bobby, but me as well," she laughed. "My anxieties were that we would just go down because something wouldn't work and we'd just lose a bunch of time, but that really never happened, And that's a testament to how great the puppeteering team was."