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Blow Up the Audience

Inflatable Crowd's custom-made blow-up people have been clothed, wigged, and masked for more than 80 major films.
May 9, 2012, 3:30pm

Photo by Polly Barrowman

Just west of Compton there’s a warehouse with more than 35,000 torsos and other body parts strewn about the floor. Richard McIntosh, Joe Biggs, and their team are the caretakers of the facility, the headquarters of a company called Inflatable Crowd. Their custom-made blow-up people have been clothed, wigged, and masked for more than 80 major films (Contagion, The King’s Speech, The Prestige, and Bratz: The Movie, just to name a few) and countless commercials, making up a great number of the “crowds” you’ve seen in the past decade of cinema.

Each torso is attached to a hand-painted mask, many of which include incredibly detailed features like soul patches. And along with palettes of torsos and the occasional deflated limb, the warehouse is packed with five-foot-tall mounds of clothing and accessories that fall into different categories: “business,” “sports,” “casual,” and “giant bag of fedoras.”

For many industry folks, Inflatable Crowd’s products are an excuse to make extremely lame jokes like “Can I borrow one for the carpool lane?” but Richard is careful to note that his blow-up torsos are a practical solution to the problem of creating real-life crowds, which may soon become an obsolete need for the film industry. “Like the doll’s life span,” Richard says, “this company has its own. Any day now, we will be replaced by visual effects completely.”

While teams of computer-graphics geeks huddle in dimly lit rooms, developing programs that will digitally render lifelike crowds for movies, Richard is out there loading up his torsos, meticulously painting masks, and dressing his dolls with the same care as any wardrobe stylist. And unlike the programmers trying to take his business, Richard’s work requires him to be on set, able to manipulate and tweak the crowd scenes according to the director’s wishes. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have shown us that CGI can make annoying 3-D crowds of aliens and mythical creatures, but can they expertly match a fuchsia sweater set with herringbone slacks and an overcoat? I don’t think so.