Kim Beaton and her digitigrade leg extensions. Photo by Dionwrbear.
The booming film industry here in Wellington, New Zealand (a.k.a “Wellywood“) has attracted phenomenal talent from all over the world. Creatives come from as far away as Los Angeles, London, Johannesburg, Vancouver and Tokyo to work on films like District 9, Avatar, and the LotR series. One such transplant is Kim Beaton, a multi-talented artist/inventor from Seattle who was recently hired by Weta Workshop to do conceptual design work on the upcoming Hobbit films.
Kim is a vibrant, intensely focused person who always seems happiest when she has multiple projects in development: large scale sculptures, community arts outreach programs, armor design and production, you name it! She’s also an accomplished inventor. In fact, many of you may already be familiar with one of her patents– last summer, two YouTube videos were posted of Kim striding through downtown Seattle in a pair of startling, stilt-like “reverse leg” extensions. The clips quickly went viral.
Upon arriving here, Kim was encouraged by Richard Taylor (5-time Academy Award winner and co-owner/co-director of the Weta Companies) to continue honing the digilegs’ design in the workshop. After several months of development and fine-tuning, the company is selling Kim’s professional design, now christened Weta Legs, for $945 U.S. dollars a pair. From the official site: “Weta has made many pairs of digitigrade leg extensions in the past for stunt men and creature performers in the movies and on the stage, but this is the first time we can offer [this] leg to anyone.” In fact, it’s the first time any company has put a line of digilegs into mainstream production.
A heads up to performers, costumers, burners, party monsters, cosplayers, designers and filmmakers– this is big. I’ve had the opportunity to test Kim’s prototype myself. They’re incredible. They’re comfortable. They’re FUN. I mean, really, really fun. Watch this instructional video (featuring Kim and a woman who has never been in stilts or extensions of any kind before in her life) to hear and see a bit about why her particular adaptation of the digitigrade concept is so unique and easy to acclimate to wearing.
As far as I know, there’s nothing else remotely like them available on the market. It’s very exciting news for Kim, for her company, and best of all, for all of the non film industry folks out there who can finally own a pair of these. Recently, Kim spoke with me at length about the history of digilegs, as well as her past community collaborations and several other upcoming personal projects. I hope you’ll enjoy getting to know this incredible woman and her work as much as I have.
Please describe the Weta Legs. What sets your invention apart from other kinds of stilts or leg extensions?
They have been called the Holy Grail of costuming. How do you build a device that will give a person the backward leg of a dog or horse? They are referred to by all sorts of names: digilegs, digitigrades, faun legs…
What does digitigrade mean?
A digitigrade is an animal that stands or walks on its digits, or toes. But this is not easy to say unless you like tongue twisters, so it was shortened to “digileg”. They’ve also been called “dog legs” or “reverse stilts”. Originally, we called them leg extensions, because they’re not really stilts, but we want to give them one name that is pretty easy to say. Hence, Weta Legs.
Visually, the name seems very apropos– a weta is this weird, monstrous bug, and there’s something vaguely insectoid about the leg extensions. They certainly do make the silhouette of the person wearing them appear alien.
They do. A person’s body type is stretched out, and there is an unnatural bending to the leg that is both very attractive and outright creepy! It also changes your presence. Not because of your height, but because your entire gait is altered. It’s a very haunting appearance.
Underworld werewolf concept design by Patrick Tatopoulos.
Can you tell us a bit about where the idea for the leg extensions came from?
My friend Brandy Cannon is a costumer and she had seen the film Underworld. She had gotten the DVD with all those extra features, which showed how they’d done the werewolves. She said “hey, I’ll bet we could build one of those!” So she asked if I could help her build a set of werewolf legs for a Halloween costume. It was about 60 days to Halloween, 2006. We decided “right, let’s go for it.” It took us thirty days to make a pair that functioned, and another thirty to make the costume. Those leg extensions were heavy. Ten pounds each. A steel monstrosity, but they worked! We were delighted with the effect. No one had been able to do this before the Underworld movie. After Halloween, I kept tinkering with the concept, because it was this great technical challenge. Once I had gotten it to work, I got to thinking, “they could be made lighter” and then” we could make them a lot more comfortable” and “boy, these squeak a lot!” We used to joke that the original sets sounded like a box of pots and pan falling down a flight of stairs. [laughter] It became this really enduring puzzle. It was fun to work on, so I just kept going.
So you brought in other people to figure out the logistics, right? How many people were on the team?
It was Brandy Cannon, originally. Then Jasmine Gilbert and Pasha Amigud. They are also costumers and fabricators. When they saw the first set, they thought, “oh my god, these would be so cool. We would like to have some, too!” So everyone began building their own sets, but everyone was doing something different. At the time, I didn’t own a set; I was always building on Brandy’s. Pasha and Jasmine wanted the ability to run in them, so they built something else. They took an entirely different tack by doing “power assist”, much like Powerizers.
The design that you are working from these days, the one now being produced by Weta Workshop, called Weta Legs– when was that created?
I was invited to Weta ten months ago. Two months prior to that, one of my large commissions fell through because the economy was getting really, really shaky. I was looking around for a job, anything, that, with my studio, I could turn into a bit of cottage industry work. What could be built to get some money that would be reasonably stable through an uncertain economy? I was looking around for stuff that I could do– I could weld, and had access to a CNC plasma cutter, I could try all sorts of things. I thought, with the leg extensions, there would be enough of a market. If 8 sets a month would sell, I could make living. I guessed there were probably a hundred people who would want the legs; that would be a living for about a year. They just needed to be refined. So I took two months and began to clean up the design, making it better, readying it for sale.
Next, I made a little video with my friend Brandon Nichols. It is the very first digilegs video where I just literally duct-taped fur over the extensions to give the idea of a costume. [laughter] I wanted something that showed both what the steel looked like and, if you put something over the top of it, it can could work under a costume. I figured the video would get the idea across to other costumers. It took us one full morning to make the video, and that night we put it online. Over the next three days, the video went viral. I was besieged with inquiries…
From furries, no doubt!
Quite a lot of furries, quite a lot of people making sports mascots, the S&M community, the burlesque community, the carnival community, ren faires… I was inundated. Within the first two days, the video had 60,000 hits. And then, unbeknownst to all of this, Richard Taylor called me from Wellington, New Zealand. He had seen my portfolio and was calling to ask if I would like to work on the upcoming Hobbit movies. It was an absolute surprise. When I was in the initial phone interview with him, I said, “you must be calling because you saw the digilegs video!” His response was “nooo, what video?” So, while we were on the phone, he checked out Youtube. His immediate response was “hey, we can help you build those!” It was an offer I couldn’t sensibly refuse. It took two months to do all the paperwork necessary to come to New Zealand. [By the time] I came to Wellington, I had prepared a production-worthy version of the digilegs.
Stuntman/actor Shane Rangi
I’d imagine the design is ideal for use in film.
These leg extensions are different in a lot of ways from other [stuntman] stilts. Shane Rangi is a stuntman and actor who has been working with me do the final development at Weta. Weta has used him for a lot of movies; he was the Witch King in the Lord of the Rings, General Otman in Narnia, he’s appeared in King Kong and dozens of other films. He is six feet and five inches tall, built like a linebacker, and one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever known. Coincidentally, he was also one of the stunties who worked on Underworld. He has been in seven different varieties of reverse stilts in his career, and they all had a lot of problems. Most of them were built on a tight production schedule with no time to engineer any comfort into them. They just had to work for the shoot and look good on camera, whereas ours were built over a long period of time, so we had the luxury of finessing the details. Plus, the four of us shared our extensions together, so it was a given that they had to fit a number of differently sized people. Ours were intended to accomplish a couple of things. One, the correct bending leg. Two, the ability to stand still…
Yes! With most stilts, you can’t do that. People end up shifting from foot to foot, and then eventually they get exhausted and then they have to come down after about an hour.
It is just exhausting to have to keep lifting those things. We wanted ours to be user friendly, lightweight, very comfortable, and have the correct bending in the leg. It took us quite a few years to get most of those things. The first set we had weighed a ton, it was clanky but it had promise, so we shaved the steel back , improved the joints, slimmed down the profile, made the plastic lighter and eventually we had something that would fit about 70% of people. It was close to the leg, you could run, you could stand with them. When I met up with Shane and he tried on our leg extensions, he ran a number of tests I never imagined doing, like running obliquely up a hill, and walking backwards. No other reverse leg stilt he had ever put on could do that.
Not to mention safely reaching all the way down to pick things up off the ground.
Yes. You can do that, you can walk up and down steps, you can run, you can hop up and down, you can step up onto a platform about 18 inches off the ground. When Shane was working on Narnia in the full minotaur costume, he was required to dramatically stride up onto a rock. It took two aides to lift him onto the rock just for the shot because the leg extensions he was in at the time couldn’t do it. With Weta Legs, he can walk and stand completely blindfolded. It’s an important consideration for stunties, because in a lot of the costumes they wear, they can’t see anything! It can be like wearing blinders, with headphones and a mask. They are just monstrous. So Shane’s big test was to put ours on and first stand, then start walking, with his eyes closed. He said he had never been able to do that.
I’ve seen some of the test footage. Is Shane the big fella who was jumping up and down in them?
Oh, no, that’s Tall Paul! Paul is a very good friend of mine that runs an audio visual company. He is 300 pounds and 6 feet 3 inches tall. Shane is a lot smaller at 220 pounds. Paul was our final test. We handed him a pair and said “okay, we need you to try and make these fail. Because if they fail, we need to make sure they will never do so again.” So he tried them on, and could not fail them.
He was stomping up and down pretty hard, too.
He was hitting the ground with his entire force. And he did it again and again, and said “I gotta have a pair of these!”
Obviously, you would not want people doing that in the stilts, but it’s a crucial test…
Well, a guy like Shane is 220 pounds, but then his costume could weigh 100 additional pounds, so it is absolutely essential that even the strongest pair has to be able to take the greatest amount of wear. Sometimes a costume can weigh half again more than the person wearing it.
The range of body types that will fit in one of these is pretty varied, isn’t it? What is the shortest and smallest possible wearer, to the absolute tallest and largest?
The smallest is done by height, five feet and three inches. Currently, we don’t have any smaller sizes than that. The largest is six feet, eight inches and 300 pounds, and all the variations in between. That is the biggest reason for all the delays after coming to Weta. I’ve had to construct a set that will fit approximately seventy percent of adults. Weta’s been insistent that if we are going to sell these, we need to include everyone we can. Very tall people, giants, all the way down to the smallest possible performer.
But anyone smaller than five-foot-three can’t wear them? Yow! I barely made the cutoff.
Afraid not. It would take another fours months of research and development to reconfigure the leg extensions to fit smaller sizes. For now, we’ve had to cap it at five-three.
Eventually, if the initial production run is successful, do you think you’ll go shorter than that?
Oh, absolutely! I know how to make custom sets. I know the math involved that if you are a certain body type, a set can be made that will make you look really good. It’s all about the proportions. But investing in that is. With Shane, in order to make an industrial strength stunt set he could not possibly injure, it became very heavy. We’re talking four millimeter, high tensile strength steel. And he has already asked me if I can make them in titanium!
Now, a titanium pair will drop the weight by half which is extraordinary light. Presently, his extensions weigh 8 pounds each, it would drop them to 4 pounds each.
Ha! I’ve worn stompy club kid platforms that weigh more than that.
I’m already talking to people who can help me do this but the cost will go up commensurately. Titanium’s not an easy or friendly material to work with. It just happens to be incredibly strong and incredibly lightweight. I very much want to do this, I love doing the R&D. When you have a simple problem, such as “can this person wear a set? Their ankle to knee measurement is this or that, and they don’t fit.” Well, how can you make it work? I call myself a research artist/scientist because I genuinely enjoy solving such problems.
In a creative expressive way.
Yeah. It took three years of working with my other inventors to get to the point that the legs could be put up on Youtube. The first two years they were pretty rough. The other three inventors, they are young and enthusiastic and were willing to do all the necessary testing to get them working safely. After that it we began solving the problems of comfort and weight.
How long can you stay in the legs?
I have only personally walked in them about 6 hours. At that point I got bored.
Six hours straight, no breaks, walking nonstop?
Yeah, I walked around the park, did some shopping…
And then you got out of them because you were bored? Not tired or sore.
Sure. We walked around the beach, we got some ice cream, then we went and did a bit of shopping at a local mart and then said, “okay, they work! Let’s go do something else.” [laughs]
Has there ever been a pair of stilts where that’s been possible?
I don’t know. I never researched other stilt methods. This was the pattern that I wanted to pursue. I know of the tall stilts that you see walking around at carnivals and I knew that people had tried reverse legs stilts without a lot of success.
During your endurance test stroll, you must have gotten a lot of smiles and giggles from the denizens of Seattle.
Oh, yeah. They thought that was mighty weird.
And the leg extensions look pretty unusual by themselves.
They have an odd shape, with a thin bar coming out under the foot. They don’t look like a costume at all. It’s only when they’re used under a costume that it all makes sense. The leg extensions are for making other people’s work look good, as a platform for costumers to work off of. The leg extensions are not that interesting by themselves.
On the left, a happy guinea pig tests the Wet Legs prototype for Kim. On the right, Kim in a similar set, fitted with “hooves” and padded for costuming.
Really? I think there’s something beautiful about the raw, jointed steel and the naked joints, plates and straps! I see what you’re saying, but I still think they’re stunning to look at without costuming on them.
They look a bit steampunk. You can see the entire working mechanism; these are the pivot points, these are the supports. This is a machine. And it looks like a machine.
And as far as you know, there’s nothing remotely like it on the market?
No, there isn’t. The ones that were built for Underworld, the ones that we based our design on, each pair of those had to be built one at a time for a particular stunt person. Their cost was unbelievably high, and [the designers] never went into production with them. They just built the ones for the movie and stopped right there. Me and my friends took it the next step farther. We wanted to make them so anyone who wanted to wear them, anyone at all, could.
Eee! So exciting! How high do they put people above their actual height?
They put you up exactly fourteen inches. We could not make them any more than that. There is a sweet spot– either you are at that height, or they don’t work well. It is very, very strange, but that’s what we discovered after making and remaking them over and over again. It’s the only configuration you get. Anything that drifts above or below that sweet spot doesn’t work effectively.
Well, that fourteen inches, for me, is fantastic! I don’t want to say that I have a Napoleon complex [laughs] but it’s pretty rad, getting to be a confident six-foot-five when you’re used to walking through life at armpit level. I’ve worked with stilts before– it’s always a bit dodgy. Even a big set of platform boots can feel precarious. Testing your prototype, what blew me away was that after getting over the initial shock of my center of gravity shifting and regaining my balance, I felt completely comfortable in them.
One bit of progress we made this week, we filmed the instructional video on how to use the Weta Legs. We had this great volunteer, GG, who had never been is stilts before in her life and was self admittedly a clumsy individual. And I said “Perfect! I am going to make the instructional video with you as the star!” She was absolutely game, and charming. Within 17 minutes, she was running in the leg extensions.
Running. Within seventeen minutes. I have it on tape!
Within seventeen minutes of getting strapped into them, and standing up and having no idea of how to even walk or stand in them, she was running?
Yep. We literally bolted down the camera to get the whole process in one shot. I helped her put them on, showed her how to stand in them and within moments she was going up and down a hill. She walked out across a beach, and then found a place to run, and did so. She said “I love these! I’m so tall!” She is exactly the sort of person I built these for, the people who are worried that they can’t do it.
People who daydream of stilt-walking, but are too afraid to risk hurting themselves.
Yep, and that is why we chose GG. She was openly nervous and you could see it in her face. That’s what I wanted on tape; this gal was not a professional stuntie. And she enjoyed them.
How many orders will you need to get to put them into production? What’s the minimum?
There will be an initial run of 350 pairs to see what happens.
I have NO doubt that there are more than 350 people on the face of the planet that would absolutely love to own a pair of these!
It’s getting the word out. It is finding them.
Well, I hope you find them. I want to see legions of people tromping around in Weta Legs like transhumanist cyborg beasties! [laughs]
What I really hope is that when these start getting out there, people will send me pictures of what they’re doing with them. That’s what is so cool about these. People don’t have any restrictions of height and movement and safety, or even weight. They can open up the throttle and create whatever they darn well please on them!
Tyrell Little’s armor.
What’s next for you after these go into production, and you delegate your responsibilities? I know you’re a renowned sculptor and armor-designer, which is why Richard Taylor initially called you. The Hobbit is on the near horizon, but meantime, what other personal creative projects do you have in the works?
The single most important project in my life is answering a promise that I made my mom. A couple of years ago, I made a ten-foot-tall version of Treebeard from The Lord of the Rings. Treebeard is a lovely image. Standing, he would have been about two stories tall. So I built a “life sized” papier-mâché version of him sitting on the ground. It was one of the most enjoyable sculptures I have ever made, because it was in collaboration with twenty-three other volunteers. People love this sculpture; it is this huge, warm, grandfatherly presence that you can walk right up to.
His face is seven feet off the ground; he has these gorgeous blue eyes. Having made the first one in papier-mâché, I realized I wanted to make a more permanent version, something that could go outdoors, that people could play on. So I started the process of figuring out how to build it in steel reinforced concrete. It would be ten to twelve feet tall, weigh about six tons, and last for centuries. I had been doing a lot of the R&D over the years, before I began building the digilegs. Now that the leg extensions are coming to an end, or at least the R&D on them is, what I want to do is build these monumental sculptures for playgrounds and public spaces.
You have definitely worked in epic scale before! Can you tell us a bit about the Silk Mermaid and other projects that you have taken on that were pretty epic in scope?
The mermaid is the one closest to my heart. She was a project that fell over, which prompted my work on the digilegs. From the start she had been planned as a tutorial on how to make monumental-sized sculpture. A friend, Allen Varney, set up the blog, Silk Mermaid. I wanted to show how, with the same access to materials, folks could learn to build projects like this. The idea was to build a beautiful, eighteen-foot long sculpture of a mermaid with moving robotic fins. She was based on a turkey fish, so instead of having these little tiny fins on her side, she has these, vast umbrella like fins, made of pure silk.
I chose silk because it is very strong and it has that lovely, rich iridescence that takes the brightest of dyes. I could hand-paint the fins to get the complex, dappled patterns of the real fish. Her fins were going to be on the dark red/burnt orange/gold end of the spectrum. They were to include brocade, lace and gemstones for the richest possible effect. The 17-foot-wide fins would undulate in a slow, graceful caterpillar motion. But the most dramatic part of her design is that she’s cantilevered. Her whole body is suspended at just the base of the tail, so she appears to float in the air, unsupported.
It was going to be amazing. I was working with a bunch of structural engineers to design how to make her completely stable and up to code. And this entire process was being documented and put online. It was a step-by-step process, all the way from designing the original maquette, to enlarging the shape, welding, sculpting, and mold making. That’s as far as I got before I had to stop. It was heartrending. She was about 80% finished when the US economy got so shaky. There was a client interested in buying her, but they wanted to see the finished clay before funding the extremely expensive molding process, which costs tens of thousands of dollars.
I can imagine, something that huge!
Well, the client pulled their money from the project. So it was either raise another $15,000 to finish her, or do something else that would allow me to work in such an economy. So, I finished the molds with the help of volunteers and buttoned them up and put them into storage until she can be finished. This is the sculpture I really want to return to, but I will need enough money to finish her.
And you would need to return to Seattle, yes?
Oh, absolutely, I cannot ship those molds, they are huge.
Well, she will have to wait. But it sounds like Treebeard is something that you could conceivably do in New Zealand, right?
Oh, yes! I want to be able to be able to build these Treebeard-like characters all over the world. My intent is to develop a way to build these with people in a local community. I love large volunteer projects. So, the one that I am building here will be a test bed. It is crucial to find a way to do it with materials that can be found in an ordinary small town; concrete, steel, welding equipment.
Kim, her friends Jasmine, Jocyln, and Laurie, and a friendly Ent.
How much does it cost? How do you make the armature so it can be transported? How much does each piece weigh? What is the exact mix of the concrete? All this detail has to be researched, and that’s why I call myself a research artist. I want to learn the whole process and then travel the world. Go to France, Germany, Hong Kong, and build beautiful things out of accessible materials. It will be the perfect way to experience other countries.
Mobilizing a community…
Yes, using community efforts. There is no part of these projects that are that hard, really. And very few of them I can’t teach to an interested person. The hope is to get into a community, show the people how to do it and then get their assistance to manufacture it.
It sounds like Treebeard and the Silk Mermaid aren’t the first times you’ve headed a large creative team to make huge scale, collaborative sculptures. I remember you mentioning going to conventions and doing projects like this before. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I love two things: I love to sculpt, and I love being around other people while I’m sculpting. I like being part of community stuff. I am not one of those “lone artists” who prefers to work and struggle alone in a studio. Good heavens, no. That’s no fun. It is a lot more fun having a whole bunch of people around, with everyone joking and enjoying themselves. Someone can be in the corner drawing and another sculpting….
A group effort?
I don’t want to do this alone. At one point, I wanted to sculpt a dragon head, so I made an armature and brought it to Norwescon, a local science fiction convention. The whole reason was to be where I could talk with people while it was being done. So, over that one convention, I built a dragon head. It was an enormous hoot to do that! And it was pretty easy, and I thought, “I’ll bet I could do that again.” So, I built an even more sophisticated armature and decided to get people to help me build something bigger. I brought along extra sets of tools and if people came by and said “I would love to do that,” I’d say “you ought to, here’s a tool! Here is how you use it, and could you please smooth out this area on the haunch for me?” Or “it would be wonderful if you could help me with the shoulder” or “I will be back in 5 minutes, so could you finish this part of the arm?” About a dozen people stepped up to help, none of them sculptors, but they thought it was cool!
I discovered it was really easy to get folks to help, and get great work from them. It wasn’t slap dash! So, for the next few years, I ran these community projects. I would go to conventions and bring hundreds, ultimately thousands of pounds of clay, set up, and then orchestrate a sculpt. The convention-goers would build the sculpture under my direction– I knew what it had to look like, and that each individual part could be done simply by one person. A thirteen year-old girl could be tasked with doing a dragon toe. I’d tell her, “it had to look like this and be about this big.” Then I could walk away, come back in 15 minutes and check up on the progress. When I built the very first Treebeard, I knew how to work with my volunteers to get the very best from them. And now, I can’t imagine a better thing to do with the rest of my career.
Whether you’re honing a product, or heading an art project, I’m seeing a running theme in your creative life: helping other people to do something they never thought would be possible for them.
I like to facilitate. I like getting people the skills and materials they need so they can do something really cool, too. The digilegs are called the holy grail of costuming for a reason because they are so hard to get right. It took us, me and the three other inventors, three years to get them to work, consistently reliably, comfortably without them weighing as much as a tank each. I can see why no one else did these, it was a fight. Now that it’s done, people can take these and go somewhere new with them. That’s going to be fun!