Animatronic Whales: Free Willy

In 1992 Warner Bros was planning to make Free Willy, a film about the friendship between a boy and a killer whale. A real whale named Keiko would portray Willy in scenes that take place at a marine park. However, almost half the story would be dedicated to Willy’s dramatic rescue from the park and triumphant return to the open ocean. The filmmakers had no idea how they were going to pull off these critical scenes. So they called Walt Conti, who had recently achieved breakthrough success by creating the free-swimming miniature humpback whales for Star Trek IV.

Until Free Willy, state-of-the-art for full-size aquatic animatronics was the shark created for Jaws. Although quite an accomplishment at the time, the shark scenes were realized by using only partial shark models (left side, right side, hero head, etc.) that were attached to a pneumatically powered rig. The big challenge in Free Willy was that the animatronic model would have to convincingly perform extended emotional scenes. The arc of the relationship between the boy and whale was at the heart of the film and had to be completely believable, quite a different challenge from the quick action cuts required of the Jaws shark.

The dream, for Walt and the filmmakers, was to make a full-size version of the Star Trek whales, in other words: a self-contained, self-propelled, free-floating animatronic killer whale that could be used interchangeably with Keiko. But could it be done?

Before work could start, Walt had to ramp up a facility and assemble a team. The facility had to be fully operational in a matter of weeks, including among other things: CAD design, electronics lab, machining, welding, fiberglass fabrication, test tanks, and a whale of a paint booth. The highly talented team of engineers, artists, fabricators, and technicians he brought together for Free Willy would go on to form the core of Edge Innovations for years to come.

The basic idea seemed simple. Just scale up the 4 ft. Star Trek whales to 22 ft. Unfortunately, the underlying design parameters don’t scale linearly, but rather by the 3rd power, or in this case over 150 times. So instead of the 1 horsepower required by the Star Trek whales, the Willy model would need almost 200 horsepower. And instead of a 35 lb. skin, the 22 ft. whale would have a 4,000 lb. skin. The questions then arose: How does a 4,000 lb. skin behave when it moves? How do you attach it to the mechanism? How do you balance the 6,800 lb. whale so that it behaves naturally in the water, actually swims, and doesn’t float belly up? The whale would be completely self-contained except for a small umbilical. There was no precedent for any of this. Undaunted, the Edge team broke down the multitude of challenges into separate tasks and prototyped each.

The mechanical design of the whale mechanism required aerospace-level design in that all structures had to be highly optimized for weight in order to achieve neutral buoyancy of the whale. Hydraulic components were sourced primarily from aerospace and military vendors, who had to be cajoled into shrinking their delivery times from months down to weeks. The electronics and control system were created from scratch.

At the same time, the artists had to create a sculpture that matched Keiko’s form as accurately as possible. Initial attempts at measuring Keiko failed, until the trainers worked some new moves into his routine in which he would take the tape measure in his mouth and roll just the right way so that accurate measurements could be taken. Additionally, an orca skull of just the right size was obtained and castings from this skull were used to create the mouth interior and individual teeth of the whale.

Certainly the most nerve-racking moment in the project came when it was time to pour the final one-piece skin. Up to that point, only partial test skins had been poured. After six months of seven-day workweeks, the final pour took place 48 hours before the animatronic whale had to ship to Mexico to begin filming. The highly complex mechanism was placed inside the mold and then 400 gallons of rubber, with a pot life of 30 minutes, had to be mixed and poured before it set. No one in the world had poured this amount of this urethane product at once. It was a one shot deal – if anything went wrong, there wouldn’t be enough time to pour another skin. But to everyone’s great relief the pour went smoothly . . . and as the whale realistically cracked its neck and kicked its tail for the first time, it was clear that a new level of animatronics had been achieved.

Free Willy went on to become the sleeper hit of the summer of ’93 and spawned two sequels. The Edge team continued to improve the whales with each generation, creating 15 animatronic models across the trilogy. In the original film the animatronic whale and Keiko shared about equal screen time, while on Free Willy 2 & 3 the animatronic whales carried the entire films. Moviegoers never could tell the difference between Keiko and his doubles.