Marine World 2.0? 'Free Willy' animator Walt Conti wants to reimagine marine parks

‘Free Willy’ animator Walt Conti wants to reimagine marine parks

in Community

By Dan Brown

HAYWARD – The headquarters for Walt Conti and his aquatic movie creatures are tricky to find these days, which is probably for the best.

Back when Edge Innovations was located in Redwood City, not far off Main Street, random pedestrians were sometimes startled by the sight of robotic whale parts strewn across their path.

“At times we had to open the doors and test stuff on the sidewalks – blow holes and tails because we had to get it wet,’’ Conti says now. “People were walking by and there were pieces of whales.”

Little did the onlookers know that this counted as a celebrity sighting: That humble orca assembly kit grew up to co-star in “Free Willy,’’ the 1993 family film about a captive whale who makes a jailbreak from an amusement park with the help of an orphan boy. (Conti’s robotic whale served as something of a stunt double for Keiko, the film’s live-action star.)

Willy’s creator, too, is now something of notable Hollywood name. Conti, a one-time star quarterback at now-defunct Cubberley High in Palo Alto, stands as one of the most distinguished animatronic masterminds in the movie business. He was hardly a one-flip wonder.

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Conti has worked with the regal Leonard Nimoy (who later called him “a genius”) and the tempestuous James Cameron and wound up friendly with both.

The Woodside resident put the slither in the snake that tormented Jennifer Lopez, Jon Voight and Ice Cube in “Anaconda.” He made sure the fish and the underwater vessels were impeccable in “The Perfect Storm,” the 2000 film for which he shared an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects.

Even though Edge Innovations, and its staff that fluctuates between 15 and 30 employees, has since moved across the San Mateo Bridge, Conti remains loyal to all he learned on the Peninsula.

In fact, his latest mission – perhaps the most audacious of all – aims to pay homage to one of the favorite places of his youth.

Endangered Marine Parks

Conti, 62, loved going to Marine World / Africa USA, the animal theme park in Redwood Shores. It’s the kind of place that’s vanishing because of animal cruelty concerns. More than 20 European countries have already banned or limited the presence of wild animals in circuses, according to Reuters. (It’s worth noting that Keiko, the star of “Free Willy,’’ was indeed rehabilitated and released to captivity and thrived in the ocean for five years.)

These days, there’s hope that technology will offer a way to retain the best of what the marine park industry had to offer.

At Edge Innovations, where animals evolve at a pace that would make Darwin’s head spin, optimism is mounting that Conti and his engineers can generate dolphins, sharks and other sea creatures to launch a reimagined park with an educational mission.

Marine World could give way to a machine world.

“There are a lot of countries banning marine parks. Which is a shame if they go away entirely,’’ Conti said. “We think there’s a way to kind of evolve that.

“And it’s not about trying to copy what those animals were doing. It’s about trying to use that connection to entertain and open people’s eyes to those animals in the oceans.”

The realistic robots could entertain crowds by replacing the wild animals that were so stifled by captivity. They’re making so much progress that Reuters and other major media outlets began circling Edge Innovations about a year ago to get a close-up look at the animatronic dolphins with skin made from medical-grade silicone.

They are so real that some visitors are fooled, or at least willing to suspend disbelief. Doing so on a larger scale would retain benefits of what Marine World had to offer, but without the constraints that made Willy yearn to be free.

“In the best version of marine parks, that’s kind of their mission, right?” Conti said. “Fall in love with the animals and then protect them. Fall in love and you’ll care about them.”

Apricots and a Batmobile

Looking back, this seems like the job Conti was born to do. His life story has been lapping toward this moment from the beginning, like ripples across the ocean that are about to hit shore.

Conti was born in Virginia in 1959 to parents who had immigrated from Argentina. He came west with his family at age 3 because his mom, Elizabeth, and dad, Raul, were forward-thinkers, too. His father, an aeronautical science, began work at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View and later earned a Ph.D. at Stanford. His mother operated a Spanish translation business.

Conti liked his new Bay Area life, but fittingly he fell for the local nature far before he fell for the gadgets.

“This was really before Silicon Valley, right?” he recalled. “It wasn’t what it is now. It was an idyllic kind of place to grow up for all the good reasons. The whole technology thing really wasn’t here yet. … It was a great place to grow up and ride your bikes and pick apricots from all the trees. There used to be all these fruit trees everywhere. We knew where all the trees were.”

He attended Ohlone Elementary School in south Palo Alto and displayed an early artistic bent, even if it looked as if he was just goofing around. (This, incidentally, remains true today.)

Walt was 5 when he and his dad recreated the Batmobile out of plywood. This was hardly a hammer-and-nail amateur effort.

“He (Raul) was an air space engineer, but had done a lot of hands-on wind-tunnel type stuff,’’ he said. “Some of that was passed on.”

Conti paused here to gestures around his Edge Innovations office, where movie props fill the shelves of a neatly organized warehouse. “As you’ll see, there’s engineering and design, but there’s a lot of build and creation of stuff as opposed to just living in a computer world.”

Conti kept building even when dad wasn’t around. Model airplanes out of balsa wood. Hand-crafted furniture. Toys that morphed into engineering marvels.

“You hear the story so many times: Playing with Legos and Erector sets,’ he said. “It’s really funny how with engineers, there’s the common thing. ‘What’d you do as a young kid?’ ‘I built Erector sets.’

“There were these cool Erector sets where you screwed everything together. And Legos – all these things that were just free-form play, right?”

‘Go Find Physics’

While attending Cubberley High, which existed from 1956-79, Conti was far more interested in special teams than special effects. “I was all about playing football,’’ he said. “I was a quarterback there so that was the passion.”

But he was a dutiful student, too, and a teacher’s unusual approach to his subject helped set Conti on a career path that would prove a perfect match.

Art Farmer taught physics as if it were a love language.

“Instead of focusing on all the math to teach physics, he’d kind of put that aside and say, ‘Physics is all around you. Go find physics in the world,’’ Conti said. “That was really impactful for me.”

Conti was a sophomore at the time, but the lesson resonates to this day. It kept his eyes wide open for his next stop, at Stanford in the fall of ‘77, where the concept of looking at technology beyond the mathematical was at the heart of a Silicon Valley revolution.

Consider the guest speaker who stopped by one of his classes.

“I remember one of those classes, this hippie-looking Steve Jobs came to talk about this thing called an Apple computer, personal computer, right, that had a logo that was all colored,’’ Conti said. “He had long hair, sandals. I totally remember it because it was so different.

“OK, here’s my computer science class. What’s this guy peddling here?’ He’s basically peddling to the growing class of computer scientists. He was basically describing the Apple computer. That’s when it started, right? ’77?”

Smart Robotics

Conti planned on going to MIT to earn a master’s degree but stayed put once he realized the magic that was happening in his own backyard. Stanford was at the forefront of mixing different types of engineering to produce a smart product design.

So instead of having, say, a mechanical engineer designing a machine and an electrical engineer stepping in later, Stanford taught students how to integrate those things, plus micro processing, from the start.

“It was kind of like the birth of smart robotics that is now so prevalent,’’ Conti said. “They call it ‘megatronics’ a lot, which is really mechanical electronics. That word never existed back then. But it was absolutely ahead of its time with this idea of microprocessors controlling mechanical systems.

“I remember being exposed to these robotic arms. They were basically the first electrical-driven robot arms, really in the world, created by someone at Stanford. Looking back, and that’s one of those moments where it hit me: ‘Oh, there’s this kind of beauty and motion that can be created from metal and microprocess.’’

Falling in with this group of vanguards had its perks. David Kelley, who later founded IDEO in Palo Alto, the largest design consulting firm in the world, became a mentor and lifelong friend.

While working at what was originally David Kelley Design, Conti teamed up on a toy project with an art director from Industrial Light & Magic, the legendary division of Lucasfilm.

That connection, Nilo Rodis-Jamero, was fresh off his work as an art director for “The Empire Strikes Back” in the “Star Wars” trilogy. (For which Rodis-Jamero helped create Princess Leia’s iconic gold bikini, which would later wind up in the Smithsonian.)

The Link to Hollywood

Those links to the movie industry became the seminal moment for the kid from Palo Alto.

“Nilo Rodis-Jamero is the single person most responsible for me to be, ending up in Hollywood, absolutely,’’ Conti said. “We just became friends and surf buddies on that project.”

Rodis-Jamero was working on a movie at the time called “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” with Leonard Nimoy directing. The actor best known for playing Spock was also one of the writers for the movie and wanted humpback whales to serve as a key storytelling device in movies in which the villains are evaporating the oceans and destroying the atmosphere.

Nimoy and the crew, including Rodis-Jamero, had tried using little models and other standard cinematic tricks but everything looked lousy on film.

“Nothing was working, and they were thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re going to have to rewrite the script. We just can’t do this,’’’ Conti recalled. “So (Rodis-Jamero) reached out to me and said, ‘Come on up and let’s see if we can figure this out.’

“It’s him who said, ‘Well, why don’t you see if you can copy the real thing and make it swim and all the lights and everything will look right.’’’

So, with ingenuity that would have saved Captain Ahab a whole lot of trouble, they simply made their own whales. Their four-foot humpbacked creature became the first free-swimming underwater models in Hollywood. (No, not the shark from “Jaws” – that was made with partial shark models, like a left side and a right side.)

“Star Trek IV” was a critical and box office success. It also became the first “Star Trek” film to be shown in the Soviet Union, screened by the World Wildlife Fund in 1987, as a way of celebrating Moscow’s recent ban on whaling.

Spock’s Blessing

To Conti, there was only one review that mattered. He had grown up a big Spock fan, so working with him was thrilling enough. But imagine the elation that came with what Nimoy once said about the experience:

“From the moment Walt Conti took on the task of creating the whales for Star Trek IV, the job was done creatively, professionally and with a sure hand. … He’s a genius.”

That quote, logically enough, is posted on the Edge Innovations home page.

But there was another way in which that film left a lasting impact. Conti was heartened by the way the anti-whaling message reached a new audience.

“It made an impact in the world a bit. There’s some of that,’’ he said. “And then ‘Free Willy’ would take it to the next level.”

In “Free Willy,’’ the real whale handled all the scenes that took place in the marine park. But anything in the open waters of the Pacific Ocean required Conti and his animatronic team to have those tails and blowholes in working order.

Not only did the robot whale need to look believable, but it essentially had to act. The movie’s success hinged on delivering emotional scenes between Willy and the boy.

This wasn’t the shark from “Jaws” who would lurch from the water for a few frantic moments of terror. Willy was a character with, ahem, some depth.

An Emoting Whale

“It’s not just the machine, right?” Conti said of building a character for a movie. “So what does it look like? How does it move? What is its behavior? How does it connect? How does it perform?

“There’s an art there. And it’s a really good question because it is the thing that we consider our competency. There’s lots of (other) people doing robotics. And there’s obviously a lot of great artists and sculptors. But blending that in a way that creates something that people relate to – engage and relate to emotionally – is really an art.”

As the filming went on, Conti began to draw reassurance from the way the actors – the human ones – treated the robotic Willy as something beyond a hunk of metal. The staff had worked hard at giving the whale enough distinctive movements that it had an essence beyond its moving parts.

It worked so well that the cast members wound up forging a bond with faux blubber.

“The great light bulb moment on the sets was that we’d do a scene and then they’d call ‘Cut!’ And the actors would still continue to talk to the whales,’’ Conti recalled. “And we’d play along. ‘OK, that’s funny once.’ But literally these jaded actors, instead of going to their trailers would sit there and converse.

“It was past a joke level. It was actually this idea that it transcended what was going on. There was some sense of magic that was happening. … It’s what we call ‘emotional engineering.’ It’s really not engineering something for a … you know, to an engineering spec. It’s designing something that you want someone to engage with and connect with.”

Going Deep

Some of Conti’s triumphs aren’t special effects. But they’re still special. In 2012, he helped “Titanic” director James Cameron make the first-ever solo dive to the Challenger Deep, the deepest point in the ocean, near Guam.

Conti was part of Cameron’s hand-picked team which built a manned submarine capable of making the 35,756-foot descent that had only been made once before, by a two-man U.S. Navy team in 1960.

Edge Innovations was responsible for the lower pod section of the submersible.

“Cameron is basically an oceanographer, an explorer,’’ Conti said.

The movie director’s goal was to build an innovative vessel that would not only allow him to make the trip, but to bring along plenty of high-tech cameras and 3D systems to, in Cameron’s words, “light up the world and bring back footage.”

On Jan. 25, 2012, Cameron took roughly 7-mile plunge and vanished into the sea for about 12 hours.

“So there’s two things that could kill him,’’ Conti said. “One is, he’s in a sphere and if that sphere imploded, he would die instantly. The other thing was if this weight system didn’t drop, he was dead, because there was no coming back.”

Spoiler alert: Everything went exactly as planned.

As Cameron later said, “Conti and his team accomplished the impossible.”

The Next Chapter

It’s easy to sense a theme in Conti’s life. Nothing is impossible.

It’s been the same whether Edge Innovations was headquartered in Palo Alto / Redwood City (1991-94), Mountain View (1995-2000), the Alameda Naval Base (2001-15) or Hayward (2016-present.)

“We’ve never said ‘no,’’’ he said. “You try to steer it to a place that can be successful.”

That makes it tough to dismiss the idea of resurrecting an aquatic theme park with robotic dolphins. In a sense, it’s already happening. At Edge Innovations, people can see, interact and even swim with robotic dolphins – and it’s so lifelike that people get fooled into thinking it’s the real thing.

This is good news for the 3,000 or so dolphins currently in captivity.

It informs his work now that Conti spent so many formative days at Marine World. He went with his family there. He took dates there. And eventually, he returned there to study the movements of the silver creatures he was making for the silver screen.

“That’s what we’re tapping into with trying to help reinvent the marine parks,’’ Conti said. “It’s not to replicate exactly what the dolphins and orcas are doing, backflips and all that. It’s really to use that connection to open people’s eyes to the world’s oceans.”

Somewhere out there, an old schoolteacher is smiling. Conti went out and found the physics in the world. It is all around him, from the sidewalks of Redwood City to the greatest depths of the ocean.