He knew he could cure the “fatigue” with
animatronics. “I told the owner, you’ve got to
stop people to sell them. You’ve got to show
them something they’ve never seen before.
Once he finally convinced the company to
let him start a new division that builds charac-
ters, Poor put together his first creation in
1984: The Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau
for the Toledo-based Owens Corning fiber-
glass company. Crowds swarmed the trade
booth, and Poor quickly grew a following.
“Next, I created an entire talking hospital
for our client Honeywell,” he says. “A talking
operating room, X-ray machine and a patient
that sat up and blinked.”
Poor ultimately purchased the trade show
company’s animatronics division in 1990 and
split from the company to run it as his own
business, assembling some of the nation’s best
talent. “I investigated all the companies that
do animatronics,” he says. “I wanted to learn
the industry and market my business.”
Poor quickly found his industry niche.
“We’re known for our realistic look,” he says.
Creating realistic figures that make people laugh or scream is painstaking. LifeFormations’ 50 employees include sculptors,
designers, scriptwriters and technicians who
produce not only animatronics, but also static
sculptures and interactive exhibits.
“We have to make a head mold for each
of our characters,” Poor says. “We have thousands of head molds.” A figure is sculpted out
of clay, placed in a mold and ultimately set in
silicone. “It’s very art-driven,” Poor says.
Authenticity is achieved by using prosthetic eyes and teeth. Each hair is inserted by
hand, and every detail obsessively studied. For
example, Poor, a huge Thomas Edison fan,
created an animatronic version of the inventor
as a promotional piece for his company.
“For Thomas Edison we applied age
spots, beard stubble and hand-poked hair.
Our designer knows costume history, how tall
he [was], his chest and waist size.” His Edison
prototype worked, and several were subsequently sold to museums across the country.
On any given day, the team juggles mul-
tiple projects. Each employee has a specialty,
often working independently in his or her
domain. In one room, a sculptor uses skin-
colored clay to form the delicate nose of a
famous singer. In the next room, music blares
while another team member takes a small
electric saw to foam, a subtractive sculpting
technique used to form a body.
“Each person has a specific skill,” Poor
says, “and, 99 percent of the time, our projects
enter as just an idea—these guys have to fig-
ure out how to do it. Casey Birkincamp over
here does robotics. He’s given a movement
list—eye blink, torso turn, arm movement,
head turn—and he makes the parts from
scratch. It’s really an art.”
Holding the little cartoon creature in the
palm of his hand, Poor laughs and turns to
Birkincamp, saying, “You’re going to fit all
those moves into this little creature. How are
you going to do that?”
The robotics expert responds, laughing, “I
don’t know yet.” These creative challenges are
part of the job—merging art with technology.
The animatronic figures are computer
controlled and create movement through single or multiple combinations of different technologies: pneumatic, electrical and hydraulic.
Poor says pneumatic, which uses air pressure
to create movement, is their most commonly
Finally, a script is written, a voice talent
records the audio and the programmer brings
the animation to life—“an art in itself,” Poor
says, “If it touches people’s heart, mind and
funny bone, you have everything.”
Today, most of LifeFormations’ work is
overseas, as the theme park industry is bigger
outside the U.S.; the group recently completed
characters for a new ride in Germany’s
Europa-Park called Arthur in the Minimoys
Kingdom, which takes guests on an adventure
based on the Arthur series of books and mov-
ies by Luc Besson.
So the next time you find yourself
immersed in a world of fantasy at a theme
park or are suddenly standing face to face
with Thomas Edison, Poor’s imagination is
likely involved. C
Sarah Miller is a national freelance journalist
and Costco member.
In our digital editions
Click here for a behind-the-scenes
clip of LifeFormations in action.
(See page 14 for details.)
Business name: LifeFormations
Founder: Gene Poor, with Tom Suter
and Tom Keubler
Number of Employees: 50
Headquarters: 2029 Woodbridge Blvd.,
Bowling Green, OH 43402
Phone: (513) 246-0058
Comments about Costco: “I love the
variety of products and the way Costco
stays on top of technological changes.
My biggest surprise was how helpful
the Costco people were in fitting me
with my hearing aids. Now if I would
just wear them!”—Gene Poor
Below: No detail is too small, whether it
involves adding texture to the “skin” or
creating a headful of hair, one strand at
Many of LifeFormation’s projects include
creating characters for theme parks, such
as Disney World, Universal, and the ones
to the right at Dollywood.