During my recent visit to LA I stopped by the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum again and this time I made sure to take in the Ice Age Encounters stage show where the audience is transported back to the prehistoric past to meet one of its most fierce and well-known predators – a life-size adult Saber-Toothed Cat.
The Natural History Museum (NHM) and The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, worked together with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to recreate and bring to life this long extinct animal. The result is an entertaining and educational live performance that is great for people of all ages and, I will admit to being as excited as some of the youngest members in the audience upon seeing the Saber-toothed Cat (Smilodon Fatalis) puppet, or creature, for the first time.
The puppet is undoubtedly the star of the show so it could be very easy to overlook the fact that it takes a team of people to bring her (in case you were wondering the creature is a ‘she’ and her nickname is Cali) to life.
To find out more about what goes into the show what is it like to be the creature I interviewed puppeteer and member of the performing arts team Betsy Zajko, who literally walks in the paws of the cat. Betsy has been puppeteering the cat for just over six years and is part of a team of performers who work at both LA’s NHM and the La Brea Tar Pits.
Q How did you end up puppeteering Saber-Toothed Cat for the Ice Age Encounters show?
BZ I saw the job listing on-line where a lot of performers go to look for work and the job posting had a list of skill sets that fit everything I could do. They needed someone who could host, work with kids, operate heavy machinery without much visibility, and who doesn’t have a problem with claustrophobia. With a background in circus arts, theater, hosting, writing for NPR and CBS I had all the skills that matched to the job description, so I put together an audition.
Q What was the audition like for this role?
BZ At that time we were asked to write a short show under five minutes and they gave us less than a day to put it together and to demonstrate physical stamina. I did a presentation on centrifugal force, because at that time I was doing fire dancing in LA on the side, and I used this tool called poi to demonstrate centrifugal force and spinning cups of water around in the air without water falling out. It was a short presentation and then the physical skill set was mainly strength and flexibility. This is the first puppet I ever operated but with my training and background, which included trapeze, fire dancing and stilt walking, I thought I could handle her. I got the job and then learned how to puppeteer.
Q With limited visibility how did you learn to operate the creature?
BZ The space we perform in is a small stage and like any performance space you learn blocking. We can vary the blocking but the basic points are set and once I learned my space, I could probably do the show with my eyes closed because I know so well how many steps it takes to get to certain places on stage… as long as the set pieces are in the same place. There is some visibility though, imagine crawling on all fours on the two front legs of the cat (which are my hands) I can see in between the paws on the floor and, about a foot more in front.
Q Did you study big cat movements in order to make the performance more realistic?
BZ Yes, we took several trips to the zoo to study big cats, took video, used YouTube as resource to watch animal movement and also practiced with people who specialize in creature performing. There is actually a person in town who taught the full suit creature performers in films at one time and also people on staff like Eli Presser our Technical Coordinator who is also a creature performer.
Q What was the greatest challenge learning to perform as the cat?
BZ The greatest challenge is when you are new to the creature, but after 6 years I am comfortable inside of her. Initially the hardest part was trying to figure out what that creature is capable of and what your body can sustain. The first time I climbed inside before she had skin we were trying to figure out what type of stilts would work on the arms because they were still working out how to design the arms. They had a couple of prototypes but we eventually ended up with ones that were most ergonomically easy to work with. We work together with the person (Remote Control Operator) who operates the animatronics in her face, I do the body and the second puppeteer operates her face, this is different from other creatures that we operate at the NHM where the person inside operates everything.
For me learning to operate the animatronics in her face was another challenge and since I had no experience in gaming or using remote controls, as many of my colleagues do, I had to learn that along the way.
Q Was the creature designed around your body?
BZ They have to make a mold in order to create the creature and my body was used to make the mold. Although I am partial to her, as I also love cats, I can’t claim her as my own, but I have seen a mold of my body at the Jim Henson Creature Shop! When the cat was being built getting the mold of my body took a long time, and the plaster heats up around your body so it gets really hot, but you couldn’t move or you would crack the plaster.
Q Why do you think they picked a Saber-Toothed Cat to represent Ice Age animals?
BZ She is the star of the Ice Age, the most ferocious creature and when you think of the Ice Age she is pretty iconic. Although kids refer to her as a Saber-Toothed Tiger there where in fact no actual Tigers back then, so one of our teaching points that we try to reiterate here at the Tar Pits is that she is a Saber-Toothed Cat.
Q Was it important to educate yourself about the science behind the subject?
BZ It’s important when you are a performer at an institution like a natural history museum as you want to be able to answer the questions people have. So I got a list of what the basic questions might be like her scientific name Smilodon Fatalis, the fact that the saber teeth were eight inches long and how fossils are preserved, and made sure to study them. With the cats appearance, and since we have no idea if they were spotted or stripped, we do comparative anatomy with creatures that are similar phenotypes today and we make a best guess based on foliage of that time of what she may have looked like
Q Why do you think the Ice Age Encounters show is a good way to educate people on prehistoric animals?
BZ Whenever we do a show you can always tell there is an impact based on how the audience reacts with surprise when they see the cat for the first time and also when they hear scientific information that the host presents. I remember seeing a puppet show in elementary school as a child and can still recall that show, the puppet and the name of it. Art is a great way to teach and it lasts and, art forms that teach kids about science stick.
Quick facts about the puppet:
- The person, puppeteer or Quadruped Performer, inside takes up about two-thirds of the cat. The final third, the neck and head, are the animatronics part which are operated by the Remote Control operator
- Jim Henson’s Creature Shop created the cat but mechanical repairs are now done by the museum’s Technical Coordinator Eli Presser and, the pelt is maintained by Quadruped Performer Betsy Zajko
- While it is called a ‘puppet’ it is a very technically sophisticated piece of engineering. The remote servos inside are military grade, the same type which operate drones
- The man who designed the technical part of the puppet was recruited by the military, but he preferred making creatures
A big thank you goes out to The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum for granting behind the scenes access at the Ice Age Encounters show; to puppeteer and Quadruped Performer Betsy Zajko for taking time to talk to me; and, Supervisor Brian Meredith for helping to arrange the interview.
As mentioned there is a whole team of performers that work to bring the Ice Age Encounters show to life, upfront and behind the scenes which is worth noting. Each member of the performing arts team listed here play different roles at both the Tar Pits and at the NHM.
- Ilana Gustafson – Manager
- Brian Meredith – Supervisor (T.rex performer)
- Eli Presser – Technical Coordinator (T.rex performer)
- Jamie Lozano – Remote Control Operator (T.rex performer)
- Quadruped Performers – Betsy Zajko, Jonathan C. K. Williams, Brittaney Wyszynski, Lisa McNeely, Baxley Andresen, Shannon Fitzpatrick,Tara Spadaro, Mark Whitten, Jaquita Ta’le; (T.rex Performers) Robert George, Brett Horn, Carlos Jackson, Andrew Eldredge