TRCH Mindgames

Airheads

6 February 14 words: Ashley Carter
"The dummy is essentially a prop. It's really not that complex; you just blow it up, pop some clothes and a wig on it and then put it on the seat"
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Photos: Ashley Bird

With an ever-growing dependence on CGI, filmmakers are increasingly unable to afford the large-scale crowd scenes their projects can require. Often stranded between the cost of adding them digitally and hiring huge amounts of extras to create them organically, Airheads have emerged with the beguilingly simple third option: the pioneering use of realistic, three-dimensional inflatables. Having recently impressed Ron Howard sufficiently to utilise the dummies in his recent James Hunt biopic Rush, the company looks set for a distinguished future.

“They are torsos, with no arms or legs,” says Naomi Woodier, Managing Director of Airheads. “They have masks, wigs and clothing to give whatever effect the client wants.” She is describing the dummies created by the business she’s been running alongside Lee Harris and Dean Sipling for four years: life-sized, inflatable and numbering anywhere up to the thousands, the inflatables provide a realistic, cost-effective alternative to employing huge numbers - and they don’t bugger off on toilet or fag breaks.

Having worked on numerous TV and film projects, their largest project to date has undoubtedly been Rush, with their dummies making up the crowds during several key racing scenes. Naomi acknowledges the digital competition her company faces, “Straight away, they could have gone to CGI – that was their main option. However, they saw Airheads as a more viable alternative for them.” The Apollo 13 director requested around 1,000 of the dolls to be assembled in a mass setting for one of the film’s climactic races. As the cars passed by, the effect is a sweeping, realistic look of a large crowd.

Rather than the crowds being exclusively made up of the dummies, she explains that the ideal scenario for a realistic look still requires human beings to be among the dolls, “A crowd made exclusively of dummies just doesn’t look realistic. It’s a requirement to have it mixed slightly, so we’ll have 80% dummies and 20% real people. Most clients don’t pay for the real people, they just utilise the crew who aren’t busy at that time.”

This provides an enormous saving in production costs, with the average expense of an extra being £90-£100 per day, reduced to just £20-£30 per day for the dummies. “It’s a real no brainer. At the moment, production companies are faced with large-scale costs of providing a large audience. The first reaction to that problem is ‘we can’t do it’ because of these costs. They require 1,000 extras and haven’t got the funding for them. What we do is provide that option for them in an affordable way. It’s about making them aware that there is an alternative.”

Despite removing the need to feed and entertain extras between filming, the use of the dummies has introduced its own set of problems, particularly with a shoot the size of Rush. Having the dolls exposed to the elements every day for four weeks ensured that, almost inevitably, some were lost to the weather conditions. And a few to some odd folk who claimed them as souvenirs. “As good as the bigger projects are, they come with a much larger risk,” Woodier contends.

The reception of the product hasn’t been without its negativity either, with attempts to collaborate with several agencies that provide real-life background artists thus far proving fruitless, “They are obviously restricted by the amount of extras they can supply at any given time, and we know that. They are unable to supply extras at short notice but if they could only provide a tenth of that number, you can come to us and we’ll supply the rest. In that way, we could broker a partnership. They’re about providing real extras, and aren’t interested in working with us, even if it would be mutually beneficial. It works against their ethos.”

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This attitude doesn’t prevail with all the extras agencies. The terms and conditions of the release of Rush meant that Airheads were restricted from publicising their work on the project: “There’s some negativity associated with it, that journalists may jump on the fact that ‘it’s not the real feel factor’, or that the director has been cheap and not paid for real extras.” But this all changed following the film’s release, “We were able to start publicising the fact that we’d worked on it. There was a film industry magazine that was interested in providing a case study of what we did. The dummy is essentially a prop; it’s innovative, it’s creative, and they want to learn how it works. It’s really not that complex; you just blow it up, pop some clothes and a wig on it and then put it on the seat.”

Perhaps the best compliment you can pay the company for their work on Rush is that their presence was not at all noticeable. It seems logical that having a product in which the strength lies in its surreptitiousness might serve as more of a hindrance than help. However, Naomi maintains, “the people who are watching the film don’t need to know about Airheads. The only people that need to know are the people that pay for our services. The way that we raise awareness with people is by showcasing the work that we’ve done and building a network with people in the industry.”

That network was firmly established with previous work in advertisements for Sony/FIFA and Alton Towers, as well as a successful publicity campaign with Nottingham Rugby Club, in which they added 1,000 inflatable ‘supporters’ to the stand of a home game. “It was the most media exposure the club had ever had in their history. It’s now a matter of expanding on what we’ve already established in terms of networking and publicity. Just having that route to market already has been important, but it can still be difficult to develop a network. It’s the nature of the business. It’s who you know.”

As far as contacts go, there are few more prodigious in the film industry than Ron Howard, and Naomi believes the experience on Rush will set Airheads in healthy standing for the future. “Our product is innovative and unique, and as such has received a lot of attention. The film industry is a really difficult one to get work in. But from doing the work that we have done, you see that once a director has a crew that he likes, they’ll move together from project to project. For instance, the crew that did Rush have stuck together and moved on to his next project. So they are the people we need to raise awareness to, then you gain access to their network.”

With the future in mind, the focus is on expanding into more projects in Europe, which has seen a steady increase in American production for tax reasons. Along with the prospective increase in work, Naomi’s chief ambition for Airheads is the further innovation of the product, to include a more realistic look for close-up shooting: “The current nature of the dummies has meant that we’ve had to turn down a few jobs that have required shots on, for example, the London Underground, purely because the effect just wouldn’t look real enough.” Having already sourced the desired product, she doesn’t see that being too far away in the company’s future. “We don’t just want to provide a product that looks great from a distance, now we want a product that looks great up close too. That’s our vision.”

Airheads' website

Shots in the Dark