Water for Elephants: Aztec Creates Vintage Circus Tents For Blockbuster Movie
When Aztec Tents was asked to build two 1930s-era circus tents for the Water for Elephants movie set, they knew they’d have to do some homework. The plan called for “Big Tops” constructed with authentic materials and construction methods.
“The greatest difference between historical and modern-day tent construction is not just in the look, but also the materials used to fabricate the tent,” says Aztec Vice President Alex Kouzmanoff. “As time evolved, new construction materials allowed for higher strengths and more consistency in the design. Tent poles are now all aluminum instead of wood. Ropes are now replaced with webbing and polyester-reinforced vinyl.”
The tents were to be bail-ring style, which is a pole style in which the tent top is connected to a large ring (called the bail ring) that surrounds the center pole of the tent. Pulleys are used to hoist the tent top into the air by lifting the bail ring from the ground to the top of the center pole. Elephants were often used to help with heavy pulling.
Aztec researched the shape and size of the ring, the laces (which connect sections of the tent tops to each other), materials and original production methods to make sure the finished product was authentic. One special challenge is that the fabric needed to be cotton, sewed together with industrial sewing machines. The fabric also had to be aged, flame retarded and weatherproofed after it was installed.
The center pole was made out of a single piece of wood, and was 48 feet high. Natural fiber ropes were used instead of synthetic webbing. In places where leather had been used, Aztec replaced it with webbing and concealed it with cotton, making the tent stronger and safer. The valence, or decorative trim that hangs from the eaves of the tent, was recreated from 80-year-old photographs from the creative team.
When it was time for the tents to be set up, Aztec supervised a crew of 12 people from the LA Circus.
The set-ups went smoothly, in spite of the fact that Aztec only had a short time to complete the entire project.
“We had six weeks to complete this very ambitious project,” says Kouzmanoff. “We wanted to make sure that we would be able to bring the studio art department’s vision to reality.”
The Big Top is hoisted in to the air in this stirring scene.
Authentic rigging, using ropes rather than modern synthetic materials.
The tents are installed.
The Big Top
Rosie the elephant rehearses inside the tent.