Looking into the heart of the Millennium Dome

In 1999, Asylum were given a new challenge – to help turn some amazing abstract concepts for the Millennium Dome into concrete reality.

In 1999, Asylum in Wandsworth UK, a developer of special effects for TV and film were given a new challenge – to help turn some amazing abstract concepts for the Millennium Dome into concrete reality. They’ve helped produce headline hitting results, with critical and popular acclaim for the Body Zone, thanks to a combination of extraordinary skills, silicone rubber, perspex, fibreglass and pneumatics.

Bob Hinks, managing director, started the company in 1981, just after Star Wars showed the immense opportunities opening up for modelmakers and special effects experts. It was a good time, he recall. Just as we set up, there was an actors’ strike. It meant that suddenly lots of puppets were needed – and we were really in business!

As you’d expect, it’s a very fast world to work in. ‘Typically we’ll have between two to five weeks turnaround on a project. You work late, you work nights, people work round the clock.’

And it’s an industry where people expect the world. Mark Mason, projects director, comments ‘We can create any model or special effect, if the money’s there! Nothing is impossible, and the solution just depends on the budget available. We’ll suggest all kinds of ways of achieving an effect – for example, you can use animatronics with a very visible rig, combine it with computer graphics and use technical wizardry to remove the rig from sight after filming. If you want a flying saucer we can find ways of getting it into orbit.’

Though you won’t have realised it, you’ve probably been seeing their work for years – for example, in those whacky BBC2 ‘idents’, where you see that number 2 used in so many different ways on the screen, bobbing in a bubble bath or bouncing off a tin can, going splat on the floor and sending blue powder off in all directions; or you’ll have seen the Colman’s Mustard commercials with Asylum’s pig, or countless commercials for Daewoo cars (remember the Newton’s cradle) and BMW (remember the Series 3 ads with the car inside a globe?).

That sets the scene on Asylum’s work until last year. But now the picture changes dramatically. It’s summer 1999. Enter the designers and planners for the Body Zone in the Millennium Dome. Asylum get a glimpse of some extraordinary concepts. A gigantic heart, set to dominate the zone, beating and apparently pumping great rivers of blood … an enormous eye … and images of the life that lives on man – mites and lice which inhabit our skins and hair.

Asylum’s job: to take these concepts and turn them into a 3D reality – which proves to involve fibreglass, resin, perspex and pneumatics.

Asylum are masters of any scale –they’ll provide you with a 16 foot compass, a butter knife twice your height, or tiny animated bees for a honey commercial. So building a 12 foot working heart, a three foot eye and some little creepy crawlies was not such an extraordinary brief for Asylum. Except for one thing. These models have to last, and look good without trick photography or computer graphics.

‘This project has really pushed the boundaries for us,’ comments Bob Hinks: ‘The models for the Body Zone need to be long-lasting – we’re looking at eighteen months’ use, ten hours per day. That’s a lot of cycles.’

Asylum relished the chance to solve the technical aspects of the design, says Mark Mason. ‘We use pneumatics a great deal, and we weren’t new to the world of human biology – we’ve been there lots of times in films and TV.

But this kind of project is very unusual for us, for many reasons. Normally we make models that don’t have to last long – maybe just two or three days shooting. We go in for a lot of re-cycling here – most models are stripped down and parts constantly re-used. Reliability is usually less of an issue. This time it’s vital.’

From the start of the project in July 1999, until December, Asylum worked seven days per week, with up to 86 staff. The team represent a remarkable assembly of skills, including people with a background in fine art and sculpture, fashion and costume design, TV and film, engineering and electronics – plus some extra help in pneumatics.

Enter SMC Pneumatics, and Iain White, sales engineer: ‘Previously Asylum bought fairly standard pneumatics and could rely on their own knowledge and supply from distributors, but this time they wanted much more than just parts – they were looking for a company which would be really involved.’

For Asylum, SMC came up with interesting ideas, Mark Mason notes: ‘For example, we’d created a massive model microscope for the Body Zone, and it was going to be too heavy for a regular stepper motor – SMC suggested a 50kg counterbalance using a rodless cylinder and produced a clever solution, with a special valve which saved us having to have a reservoir.’

The massive heartís movements are carried out by CP95 cylinders – providing a combination of high strength and reliability, at relatively low cost.

‘We also produced a group of model brains; they move on six axes with air jets, are lifted by a rodless cylinder, and lit with effects which depend on a rotary table.’

Asylum’s model eye has an iris operated by SMC cylinders. ‘Proportional worm drives would have been very expensive; the SMC pneumatics were very compact and much less expensive.’

Work on the heart started with weeks of preparation and building a scale model (‘only’ about 4 foot high) of the final massive heart – in July. Asylum tested it, with the heart beating continuously for two weeks. Then they began to build the real thing – the massive heart, more than 12 feet height, completed in 12 weeks, now dominating the Body Zone.

The materials represented a major challenge, as Mark Mason recalls: ‘Everything has had to be fire proof to zero rating. This limited our choice, and the material we finally used was not as flexible as we’d have liked: that meant overcoming a lot of problems, as the end results had to look very natural.’

To make sure the movements were correct, Asylum were advised by a heart surgeon, who observed the test runs, and suggested changes. The result is startlingly lifelike and has amazed visitors. It’s an extraordinary sight. It does not look at all mechanical. It looks almost fluid – hard to believe it’s the result of cleverly combining the motions of eleven SMC CP95 cylinders and three SX valves to produce a pulsing motion.

Asylum’s heart will be beating every second the Dome is open. From time to time, when the show depicts stress and excitement the heart rate goes up to 120 beats per minute. Over the whole year, the heart will be beating more than 20 million times.