Swinburne alumni Sonny Tilders wins a Tony for King Kong

Friday 14 June 2019

Sonny Tilders with King Kong puppet. Image: Joan Marcus

Sonny Tilders studied design at Swinburne in the 1980s and has gone on to have a successful career in animatronics. | Image credit: Joan Marcus

In summary

  • Sonny Tilders and his Creature Technology Company awarded a Special Tony Award for King Kong musical puppetry
  • The team created the 6-metre tall, 1.1 tonne puppet, Kong
  • Mr Tilders established the Peter Luscombe Award at Swinburne to support emerging creatives

From walking with dinosaurs, to bringing King Kong to life on Broadway and winning a Tony award, Swinburne graphic design graduate Sonny Tilders has left a big footprint on the world of animatronics and theatre.

Mr Tilders and his Creature Technology Company were this week honoured with a Special Tony Award for their work bringing the iconic ape to life in King Kong. The team were the only Australians to be crowned winners in 2019.

The prestigious award marks another milestone in a long career that began at Swinburne.

Putting in the hard yards at Swinburne

In the 1980s, Mr Tilders studied graphic design at Swinburne’s Hawthorn campus. Although many of the old buildings are now long gone, Mr Tilders recalls the pleasure of studying at the John street campus in the inner Melbourne suburb.

“It had a real personality to it, and that was a unique experience for me,” he says. 

Studying full-time, Mr Tilders and his classmates had to put in the hard yards, studying nine to five during the week and often working extra hours on weekends to complete their portfolios. 

“[Spending so much time on campus] gave us all a real connection to Swinburne,” he says, poking fun at other students who claimed to be ‘full-time’.

It was through a teacher’s recommendation that he landed an interview and a job at fellow Swinburne alumni Shane Cargill’s design studio, Mothers Art Productions, putting him on a path towards a career in creature design and animatronics.

“I visited their workshop in Spotswood and I was amazed by the place,” says Mr Tilders.

The design studio worked on films and the workshop was packed with all kinds of models, film sets and even puppets. Something that would inspire Mr Tilders for decades to come.

Creating creatures for the stage

After years working in the industry in various roles, in 2006 Mr Tilders led the creature design and build team for Walking with Dinosaurs – The Arena Spectacular. Sixteen life-sized dinosaurs were created to a level of realism not seen before in theatre. It was through the success of this show that Creature Technology Company was formed.

Sonny Tilders at Creature Technology Company workshop.
Sonny Tilders is the creative director and CEO of Creature Technology Company based in Melbourne. 

The now Tony Award-winning company is one of the few places in the world completing animatronics on such a large scale. Mr Tilders believes there’s something about the isolation of Australia that inspires new ways of thinking.

“We kind of invented the way we do things. People tell me – and I’m not gloating – that there’s no-one else in the world doing what we do,” he says.

Their own way of doing things, indeed, with the latest creation of Mr Tilders and his team currently tearing up Broadway. King Kong opened at the end of 2018 with a colossal version of Kong onstage weighing in at 1.1 tonnes and standing at 6 metres tall.

Attending the Broadway premiere last year, he says the reactions from audiences were fantastic.

“There were standing ovations every night I was there and the response, not just to the puppet, but to the whole show, has been wonderful. People’s jaws were dropping and they were buzzing.”

It’s no wonder the Tony Awards gave a special award just to recognise this 6-metre marvel.

Sonny Tilders at Broadway in front of King Kong sign.
Audiences gave standing ovations to the Kong puppet featured in the Broadway production. | Image credit: Joan Marcus 

Connecting with the community

Although it has been several decades since Mr Tilders graduated, he continues to have a connection with Swinburne, setting up an award dedicated to his friend and co-worker, the late Peter Luscombe.

Both attended Swinburne and worked together for many years before Peter passed away from melanoma in 2016.

“When the opportunity for Walking with Dinosaurs came up, he was the first person I called,” says Mr Tilders. Mr Luscombe worked to bring the project to life and when the company grew, he became head of engineering fabrication at Creature Technology Company.

“He was such an innovator and an amazing part of our company,” says Mr Tilders. To honour his memory and spread the word of his talent to a new audience, Mr Tilders decided to establish The Peter Luscombe Award.

“When businesses are in a position to give back, I think there is a corporate duty to the community and to society.”

The award supports creativity and risk-taking, and is open to Swinburne students who have a passion for engineering, mechatronics, puppetry or other creative pursuits in the entertainment industry. Recipients receive $5000 to support their creative visions.