Related: Costumes and Mascots: Rainbow Productions – Kobi created for PPA award winning indoor park, Kidspace / Attractions Industry – Happy Bubbling with Samsam Bubbleman / Special Venue Media: Mario Kamberg and the Dragon Kings / The Creature from the Black Lagoon returns, in a new attraction at Universal Studios Theme Park Hollywood
Character costumes have been with us since the earliest societies; ancient cultures would worship dancing tribal members dressed as animals in order to encourage their gods to bring about a good harvest or fertility. The use of live animals as team mascots became popular in the 1800s, later replaced by character costume performers who were cheaper to feed and easier to control. The word mascot derives from an old French word for luck and mascots have always been deeply imbued with symbolism; today mascots have evolved to represent not just sporting teams but brands. Very powerful communication of key brand qualities can be achieved by using the right character, an association that can be enhanced and made accessible by a live appearance of that costumed character.
The role of the character costume performer in the Attractions Industry is well established, perhaps most famously at Disney with the legions of Mickeys and Princesses that have been meeting and greeting and parading for awestruck children for decades. The chance for children to meet and interact with their screen heroes (and villains) brings a sprinkle of magic to their experience.
RAINBOW PRODUCTIONS was formed 25 years ago and is widely regarded as the European leader in the creation of bespoke costume characters. Based in London, Rainbow has approximately 800 commissions for mascots and brand characters a year. The company offers meet and greet experiences for over 90 licenced characters as well as bespoke design and production of characters and shows. Blooloop talks to Simon Foulkes (Rainbow Production’s Sales and Marketing Director) about the particular challenges of creating character costumes performances.
How did you get into the Attractions Industry?
I trained at Rose Bruford College of Theatre & Performance and in April 1991 made my debut personal appearance for Rainbow, performing as Captain Scarlet. During this period I was accompanying Edd the Duck to events too. My full-time career with Rainbow started in October 1993 when I joined as a Sales Executive eventually rising to Sales & Marketing Director in 1999. (See right: Simon performing as Chirpy circa 1995, the mascot for Tottenham Hotspur F.C..)
Why do attractions use character costume performers?
Our key services to clients in the attractions industry help to boost visitor numbers, at the same time generating family entertainment and creating branding and merchandising opportunities. Benefits associated with booking a licensed character for personal appearances at leisure venues include added value for your guests and encouraging higher footfall on the day.
All characters appeal to slightly different demographics of children so popularity depends upon the nature of the client’s event and target audience, but current A-listers include Peppa Pig, Fifi Forget-Me-Not and Ben 10 aliens such as Humungousaur and Four Arms in addition to established favourites like Scooby-Doo and Homer Simpson.
How do live character appearances remain relevant when competing against the latest high tech attractions?
A costume character helps to bridge the gap between the product and the consumer, irrespective of whether it is a virtual product or a real-life product.
We can also incorporate elements of technology into costumes. An example is Fred and Ed who were created for Food Sense in Holland. These costumes feature GPS tracking systems to help fans track their presence on line. In-built plasma screens and a touch-screen notebook on the front display SMS and emails, making it a more interactive experience and merge the boundary between the internet and real life experience.
How have the costumes evolved both in terms of materials, style and technology?
Over the years there have been an increasing number of European regulations relating to fabrics, adhesives and foams and the company has had to adapt. As a result, the Production Department has been sourcing more sustainable products and there has been increased pressure on suppliers to prove that they have more ethical policies.
Currently, the production team is prototyping new costumes using filter foam and power net. Benefits associated with using these materials include enabling the costume to have greater dexterity of movement, as well as creating better air flow for the performer wearing the costume.
In terms of the style of costumes, we have noticed that clients’ demands are becoming more sophisticated – reflected in technical artwork of the design supplied to us. Generally speaking, a few years ago consumer demands were for relatively simple costumes, compared to some of the phenomenal artwork we now receive. This broad change in style plays a positive role in the evolution of the company because it challenges us to keep ahead of the game in production techniques.
As a response to demand from clients in the leisure industry for the company to supply animatronic costumes, Rainbow developed software to create costume characters featuring movements such as blinking eyes and moving mouths. We offer three key ways of gaining movement in costume, with the choice of design solution depending on the environment in which it will be used:
• Auto-Talk which works by a remote control system to deliver facial movement (moving / winking eyes ad opening / closing mouths), activated in synchronisation with the voice.
• Audio Synchronization Unit translates a voice-track into a synchronised moving mouth / blinking eyes. The software translates the signal it receives; the sound feed is split so that it activates the voice movement. The other part of the split feed plays out and is what the audience hears. This is done remotely.
• A Cable Control Mechanism which allows the actor to operate the character’s mouth movements.
To gain eye movement we use two hemispheres on the actual costume, for the eye to go back over itself when the eye blinks. For the mouth to move, the costume head has to be built with a separate, protruding lower jaw. A major consideration with this is the character performer’s view as the mouth is the main vision point for costume characters. Where a costume features mouth movement, then the design is adapted to reflect that the artiste’s vision will instead be through the character’s nose.
The technology we use enables up to eight movements. An example of a TV character featuring eight moving sections is Chapman Entertainment’s property, Roary The Racing Car. Roary’s eyes oscillate and other movements and features include sound and a moving exhaust, cap and foils.
Please tell us about the process of design and manufacture
Rainbow either designs a character or the client supplies existing artwork to be replicated. We work with clients in whatever way suits their individual needs. They can chose to be as involved as they feel is necessary in the manufacturing process: reviewing fabric samples; visiting the studio to see the costume as it is being created; approving stages of production (covering, layers of clothing etc).
As part of the production team, Rainbow has two in-house Production Managers: Matthew Chapman and Crispin Lowrey. Matthew graduated in ‘Theatre Design Costume Interpretation’ from Wimbledon School of Art and is now responsible for over-seeing all in-house production. Crispin’s background includes attendance at a puppeteering workshop run by the Jim Henson Company and working on various Jim Henson productions. Crispin has helped us to expand our services to include the creation of puppets, props and stage productions.
The lead time for the manufacture of a costume character is typically 4-6 weeks, from the confirmation of order. Where a client has a more imminent deadline we have the infrastructure, equipment and personnel to be able to deal with quicker turnarounds. For example, a major European Football Championship decided at the eleventh hour that they would also like a costume character mascot in attendance at the press launch the following morning. This resulted in 10 members of staff working through the night to manufacture the mascot, following the client’s design brief. By 6.30am the following day the sports mascot was being checked into a flight in order to arrive in time for the 11am press launch.
What are the suits like to wear for the performer? Is there any variation in design for different markets?
Through R&D investment to source new fabrics, materials and manufacturing processes, we are able to produce very light-weight, durable costumes. For clients based in hot climates such as Dubai, we are also able to fit head-fans and supply cool-vests with gel-packs which sit next to the performer’s body when they are wearing the costume. This maximises comfort for the wearer, in turn helping them to give an even more animated personal appearance in character.
Examples of costumes specifically adapted for a market include light-weight marathon costumes with extra vision and ventilation built-in eg Adidas Trainer and Lucozade bottle costumes.
What is it like to be a costume character performer? How does Rainbow train performers to deal with the unexpected?
Every costume character and every event is different. Each situation presents a unique environment for the team to work within and adapt to. We place great importance on choosing the right member of staff for each character. The company’s Events Department also trains performers to “physicalise” emotions and characteristics associated with the licensed character, as well as how to react to and try to pre-empt situations.
During the launch of the Manchester United mascot in 1994 in the FA Cup tie at Wembley (UK), the character performer’s bandana slipped over their eyes whilst the mascot was positioned in the pitch’s centre circle. The performer and accompanying Road Manager had been trained to communicate issues to one another and, on this occasion, they worked together to successfully navigate the mascot around the pitch and wave at fans.