By Jasmine Cabanaw
Most horse lovers know that horses require a lot of love and care, but have you ever wondered what would be required to make a steam-powered mechanical horse? Two horse lovers, Kerri and Andy Appleton, wondered just that as they went about building Lancelot, the mechanical horse that takes center stage in the upcoming film Cowboys and Engines. Check out our interview with Kerri to see how they did it:
1. What knowledge of live horses was required for building a mechanical one?
Andy Appleton (my husband and partner in set design and prop building) grew up around horses so that was helpful. I, on the other hand, had very little knowledge of horses with the exception of riding them as a little girl. My research consisted of a lot of online searching, pestering our friends with horses, chatting on some forums, learning the terminology and the proper way to measure a horse to fit a saddle. Since we had obtained the saddle first we rather attacked the project backward, creating Lancelot’s measurements from the saddle out.
The movement of the horse wasn’t so much of an issue for our department since all the movement was to be CG. We didn’t have to deal with legs, most of the neck or the head. Our greatest challenge was making a mechanical and steam-powered horse appear realistic. Even though Lancelot was made of metal, he still needed to have the shape of a real horse since we were fitting him with a real saddle and would be ridden by a person.
We were also faced with trying to replicate some of the amazing concept drawing done by our artists…which was a challenge considering our time scale and budget constraints.
2. What materials were used?
We considered everything from papier-mâché’ to a metal structure to using one of those fiberglass horses you occasionally find at feed stores. Papier-mâché would have been too weak to support a person and metal way too heavy to transport. While the fiberglass horse would have been sturdy enough to sit on and light enough to transport, the average version is much smaller than we wanted Lancelot to be.
In the end, Lancelot was built mostly of wood with a metal skin. It was the only way we could figure out how to get the curve of his neck, back and haunches to look realistic.
We started out by cutting a sheet of plywood to the size and desired horsey-shaped curve, then gradually making each panel smaller as we worked our way out, putting 2x4s as spacers in between each panel (see photos and drawings). It may not have been pretty on the inside, but it actually worked very well. Two long 2x4s ran lengthwise through the body of the horse in order for us to be able to transport Lancelot, similar to a litter for carrying a queen.
For the purpose of the story, there were a few features we built into Lancelot like the compartment in his belly that needed to be opened on film to remove a power coil. Since Lancelot is steam-powered, another feature was the hatch at the base of his neck where Guinevere pours the water into him. Imagine it like the gas hatch on your car, only on your horse. One thing we forgot when we were building him was to leave a space in his body for a container to catch the water as Guinevere pours it in. After quite a bit of swearing we managed to cut out just enough space to slide in a can from a large empty Monster Energy drink, which actually was a mistake that worked out very well. Since the large Monster cans have big aluminum screw-on tops it provided a ‘gas cap’ inside him when she opens the hatch. We joked that Lancelot wasn’t powered by steam, but by Monster Energy drink.
The skin was originally designed to look like a P51 Mustang Airplane, with metal riveted on. A task that was a bit difficult when trying to stay with the contours of a horse. Because Lancelot’s top, belly and left side were only seen on camera, the right side was just a wood panel.
We transported Lancelot to set lying on his side in a trailer, it took 4 big men to carry him down to the dry desert riverbed where we shot. For the scenes he was set on two saw horses. He weighed about 350 lbs. and stood approximately 16 hands high.
3. What inspired the horse’s personality? (Does he have a personality?)
Lancelot is a bit like an expensive foreign car…beautifully manufactured, incredible engineering, streamlined and polished. I personally considered Lancelot to be feisty, after all he does chuff steam out of his nostrils!
4. Will there be both real and mechanical horses in the film?
Lancelot is the only mechanical horse featured in Cowboys & Engines, although there are many real horses throughout.
5. How long was the process for building the horse?
Not counting research time, it took Andy and I about a week to build Lancelot.
6. What role will the horse(s) have in the film?
Lancelot belongs to Guinevere Wheeler (played by Libby Letlow), the lead heroine in Cowboys & Engines. He plays a crucial role in bringing together and saving the lives of Guinevere and Cade Ballard (played by Richard Hatch)…but I don’t want to give away too much…
7. Who was part of the design team for the horse?
Lancelot was built solely by (us) husband and wife production design team Kerri and Andy Appleton. Of course we had creative input from writer/director Bryn Pryor since Lancelot came from his imagination.
8. What was the inspiration behind the mechanical horse?
Bryn Pryor: The inspiration for Lancelot was essentially da Vinci’s ornithopter. I think mechanization occurs when people mechanize what’s familiar. In our 1876, most freight gets delivered via airship. Railroads are far fewer in number and scope. Likewise, there are further actual roads going west. There’s a lot of wheeled transportation, but it’s impractical for the wilderness (just as our modern army is working on mechanical “pack mules” to carry gear over rough terrain for soldiers), so a mechanized horse seems like the perfect transportation for people moving west.
There would be many different kinds and levels of mechanical horse in this world. Being stolen, Lancelot is the equivalent of a Rolls-Royce. Why steal a cheap horse, after all?
A little about the real horse… from director Bryn Pryor
As for the real horse we used on the shoot, she’s owned by Lily Cade, who trailered her down and acted as horse wrangler for us. Her name is Baronesa Del Cardo, she is a Paso Fino. She was a previously a National Champion show horse, now 16 years old. She’s incredibly smart, patient, beautiful and one of the sweetest horses I’ve ever met. I wanted to keep her.