AT THE Birmingham Commonwealth Games, the city’s matador motif The Bull, has assumed iconic status from the Opening Ceremony. It now stands — snorting nostrils plus grappling hook tail and all — at the Centenary Square.
While the original fiery Bull was freed from its metaphorical shackles and calmed down during the ceremony, the actual prop that was used has triggered a campaign to save it from the scrapyard and find a permanent home in Birmingham. The jury is still out.
“Discussions are ongoing about the onward life of this project,” Phil Batty, Director of Ceremonies, Culture and Queen’s Baton Relay, said.
“We are delighted with the public’s response and emotional outpouring for our bull, one of the undisputed stars of our spectacular Opening Ceremony,” Batty said.
“The bull has now journeyed to Centenary Square, standing proudly in the heart of the city as a temporary public installation for the duration of the Games. The public will have the opportunity to get up close to this incredible construction, a cornerstone of the rich cultural programme for Birmingham 2022,” he said.
Providing details of the making of the Bull, UK’s SFX major company, Artem, said putting together the 10-metre, self-propelled prop, which combines animatronics and puppetry, started in late January 2022 and took a team of about 50 people to design, build, mechanise and paint over a five-month period.
“It was made at Artem’s workshop. Individual parts were welded, shaped, moulded or soft fabricated in our workshops but once the frame of the bull was mounted on the telehandler (a jeep-like vehicle with a forklift), most of the work continued outside as it was too large to remain inside,” a spokesperson said.
While creative heads fleshed out the story of Birmingham’s history, Artem got down to assembling the piece de resistance.
Made of lightweight aluminium tube, forming a huge space frame, and moulded in fibreglass, the Bull was clad in Plastazote foam shapes to keep the weight to a minimum, just 2.5 tonnes. It was powered by a mounted one-tonne, three-phase generator although the telehandler, or telescopic handler, could lift 10 tonnes. The arm of the telehandler was linked up to the design, helping the Bull bend forward.
The Bull’s legs had four axes of movement, from hoof joint to hip like a real bull, as it walked, ran, stooped, kneeled, pawed at the ground in anger and reared up most naturally — driven by powerful motors and gearboxes, with the chain drive operated by Artem’s electronics and CAD technicians delivering power to each joint.
Sensors guided the telehandler’s speed as the Bull impressed with remarkable agility and mobility for what was essentially a machine.
What started with old-style pencil sketching assumed the form of a sculptor’s clay maquette model. But as supply chain delays of motors and gearboxes posed a threat, Artem went through three prototypes before being happy with the final structure.
The mothership — an aluminium truss box structure — had everything attached to it for controls with the four legs mounted on the corners and the head plopped onto the central axis.
Aluminium tubes formed the ribs within which were fixed walkways and handrails so that puppeteers and special-effects technicians could access the parts and animate the head to move up/down and left/right with an extending neck.
A dense foam formed the outer skin, and Victoriana/steampunk dressing — think Jane Austen corsets and coats and Victorian gowns — in industrial material made up the covering. The wheels of the telehandler, weighing 17 tonnes and brought from Europe, were stuffed with foam to prevent it from bouncing. The Bull itself stayed light enough while withstanding the winds that blustered a tad on the day of the opening ceremony. Artem informed that the animation, which brought to life the face and a tail, was crucial to depict Birmingham’s rough journey — a central theme — even as smoke from the body and nostrils, tears of blood, and lighting from within, were the centrepieces of the visual effects. Armed with a KUKA 7-Axis robot arm, as well as 3D printing, and lathes and turret mills, the animatronics were achieved through a mix of puppetry and software. Artem is known for its props, atmospherics, prosthetics, models and miniatures, pyrotechnics, mechanical rigs, animatronics and special costumes.
It has worked on several well-known movie projects — “Trigger Point”, “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, “Pennyworth 2”, “Cinderella”, “Peter Rabbit 2”, “The Great”, “DEVs”, “Paddington 2”, “Macbeth”, “T2 Trainspotting”, “The Foreigner”, “Bodyguard” and the Harry Potter franchise’s “Cursed Child”.
But no 3D theatre experience came close to watching a giant bull with luminously alive eyes walking through the Alexander Stadium, and imprinting UK’s second city on the global audience. The messaging signified freedom and not bull-baiting of yore, and that was technology’s biggest victory of the night. The Centenary Square awaits a verdict on the Bull that will outlive the Games.