Prop Designer – Christopher Kelly – Aurora

September 25, 2015

Christopher Kelly is the prop designer behind Aurora The Polar Bear who is currently in unofficial residency outside Shell’s headquarters in Waterloo, London. We first became aware of this inspirational project in 2013 when Aurora led a 3000 strong Save the Arctic Greenpeace march, which called for a ban on oil drilling in the Arctic. This September has seen the return of Aurora to the Shell building with actress Emma Thomson joining the protest, so we thought it was high time we caught up with prop designer Christopher to see what the latest is.

Hi Christopher, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. Tell us a little about yourself and your work.

I’m a designer working across fashion, set design, prop making and really whatever exciting projects come my way. I think the easiest way to describe myself is as a maker. I’m currently working on projects ranging from bespoke furniture, menswear fashion accessories and giant music note inspired props.

I began my career as a fashion designer, not a prop designer or anything else. I am fashion trained and I worked in the fashion industry for 10 years producing designs for both men’s and women’s wear. I decided to expand into prop making and set design because my seasonal fashion shows were becoming more diverse and elaborate. I was producing giant paper sculptures, animated films and miniature anthropomorphic dolls to present my collections.

How did you first fall in love with design?

I started designing from a very young age. I was creating tiny tissue paper clothes for my action man and my sisters Barbie and that is I suppose where it began. As soon as I left school I knew almost immediately I wanted to work within fashion design and that’s when I learnt how to pattern cut and construct clothing. I have always had a curiosity for how things are made, I suppose I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to understanding the traditional methods of construction. I’ve always had a really overactive imagination so combining these two factors has led me to where I am today.

If you could sum up your design philosophy, what would it be?

To summarise my design philosophy, I suppose the starting point would be to say that ‘anything is possible’ I rarely turn down a challenge. I believe that as long as I can visualise a design and communicate how I believe it can be constructed, that makes a design possibility limitless.

You’re the prop designer behind the incredible Aurora The Polar Bear.  How did this project come about?

I have been producing work for Greenpeace for three years now and Aurora of course was the most unique and diverse project that I have produced for them. I have been creating work for the save the arctic campaign for the majority of this time. The initial project was to create wearable realistic and functional polar bear heads that were to be worn by campaigners. I started by producing 50 hand made heads for their initial action, I have now produced around 250 for them that have been used world wide.Greenpeace are a fantastic company to work for, they are passionate, exciting and genuinely lovely people it’s always really good fun to work with them.

I was approached by Hannah Davey the art director of the {Aurora} project who was looking for a prop designer with the idea of creating a polar bear as big as a double-decker bus, this to me was like a red rag to a bull! My immediate thought was to create an animatronic bear – part ship and part polar bear. The difficult bit was that she had to be completely people powered and walk safely through the streets of London.

Prop Designer


How important is being environmental to you?

I have always been environmentally conscious but I have become vastly more aware of the current climate crisis and the melting ice caps since working with Greenpeace. I have learned a great deal from my involvement with them and I feel incredibly proud of the moral stance that my work takes. It’s great to have built such a strong relationship with Greenpeace. Since working with Greenpeace I have become increasingly more environmentally conscious as a prop designer and maker and I’ve taken that into my other projects and my personal life and I strive where possible to make the right choices.

We noticed you have also worked alongside specialist scenic fabricators Factory Settings on this project. We are also fans of their work. What was it like partnering with them and who else had creative input in the project?

Working with Factory Settings was a great collaboration, I sourced various different scenic and set design companies at the design stage of the project but it was almost an immediate fit when speaking with Lucien Mansell the director of Factory settings. Lu is a fantastic guy who showed such immense passion for the project, and right from the beginning he was completely confident about how we would achieve this unique build. One of the most important factors for me is that I click with the team I’m working with and we did immediately and have stayed friends since working on Aurora. During Aurora’s build I was based at Factory Settings in a small workshop at their warehouse and that’s where I created the fabric elements of Aurora. Every day I would step out onto a balcony that overlooks the warehouse and see this amazing beast coming to life! Given that we only had a few months to achieve this incredible project it was important that I could work creatively with Lu and the build team to achieve the perfect polar bear image. The lead sculptor and prop designer on the project was Peter who was responsible for fabricating Aurora’s fantastic head and in particular her eyes. It was really exciting to work with him as again we were totally on the same page with our creative vision. I continue to work with Factory Settings on varying new projects and hopefully will continue to do so for a long time to come.

What’s your approach to the design process?

My design process for Aurora was very developmental, my initial concept came together very quickly, Hannah briefed me over the phone and I immediately got to work. I went to my local cafe to gain some clarity, got myself a coffee and a cake and came up with the idea of an animatronic bear constructed from scrap Arctic ship parts. After signing off the initial design with Greenpeace I immersed myself in the world of polar bears and Arctic ships. In particular I researched Ernest Henry Shackleton the Arctic explorer and his sailing vessel. Shackleton is known for his heroic actions in the Arctic, and this had the right message for me as well as the fact that Greenpeace have ships at their campaigns. I also wanted there to be an aged quality to Aurora, she had to feel as if she was constructed from found ship parts that had been shipwrecked in the Arctic and bought to life as a giant polar bear. To bring Aurora to life at the initial design stage I created a series of artists impressions so that I could communicate the mood and character of the beast. During the build process I worked with Lucien to develop the design and work through the engineering constraints of the build. Together we would source the materials for construction, finishing and fabrication.

Effectively combining different fabrication methods such as metalwork, fabric design, sculpture, puppetry and moving parts must have been an exciting prospect. What challenges did you come up against working on this multi disciplinary project? Was there anything you wanted to achieve but could not engineer?

Of course this project was a huge challenge in terms of realising such a gigantic form but the fusion of materials was something that made so much sense to me. I’ve always worked with fabric and I love bringing materials together in interesting combinations to create a vastly new concept and vision. Discovering new materials and understanding their properties is something that always excited me as a prop designer. The only thing I would have liked to have achieved on this project that we didn’t manage was to give more movement to Aurora’s facial expression. We all really wanted her eyes to move so that she could actually look you in the eye. But they were so lifelike in a stationary position that lack of movement didn’t matter at all in the end. There is always a reality of time and money that makes the final decision on every project.

Prop Designer


How did you select the materials you worked with?

The choice of materials that were used for Aurora’s construction were very much predesigned.  I knew I wanted her to feel that she was re- claimed, that she had risen from an arctic sea bed and to have the subtleties of a real ship. I wanted her to feel like she was made from ship parts from all periods of time, a giant metal ship’s hull created the shaped forms for her legs whilst a broken wooden rowing boat formed her head. To achieve the image of these varying materials she is primarily panelled in plastazote and then given an intense scenic finish. The degraded/aged quality was key to her feeling natural and alive, that’s why the fabric sales were so integral to her construction, They literally breathed life into her.

How did you achieve the incredibly life like movement, both in terms of how she is operated and how she was designed?

Aurora’s fantastic movement comes down to the great engineering of the Factory Settings team. She was completely people powered and that is enabled by a series of winches and pulleys which allow her legs to be winched from the inside whilst puppeteers move her feet from the outside. When she is in full movement there are approximately 10 people working on her, some externally and some internally but everyone has an individual job to replicate the walk of the real Polar Bear, which as you have seen brings her to life in an incredible way.


What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently working on a range of projects that include launching my own menswear fashion and accessories range, a variety of prop and furniture commissions for some exciting Christmas events and a textile art piece that is more of a personal project. Alongside that I lecture at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. I absolutely love designing and making so it suits me to have a variety of creative projects on the go at any one time.

Do you have any other exciting projects in the pipeline you can tell us about?

All my commissioned projects are very much under wraps but I can tell you there some exciting creations coming this Christmas! I can tell you that I am launching a range of men’s handmade leather accessories next month that include a leather and wood veneer peak cap that I have created as part of a collaboration with product designer, Alexander Hinerskov, an origami folded leather purse, a deluxe bicycle bottle bag and a hand braided lanyard chain. Alongside that I have produced a clothing range called ‘OUTFIT’ which as you might imagine is a full outfit that this season focuses on denim wear. All will be available to buy for autumn / winter 2016 at and at selected boutiques in Japan.

What creative projects or which other designers inspire you and why?

I absolutely love the work of performance artist Nick Cave (not the singer, but I do like him too!), he creates such fantastical and unique work that works with the body in such an amazing way, his ongoing project ‘sound suits’ is worth checking out. Simon Costin is always producing fantastic work and remains a constant mentor and inspiration to me. He is a prop designer who famously produces amazing props for Fashion photographer Tim Walker but he is also in the process of creating the Museum of British Folklore which has been having regular exhibitions throughout the UK that unearth interesting and inspiring pagan traditions or folkloric mysteries that give me great inspiration.

Which is the most exciting project you have been involved in and why?

Aurora, the world’s biggest Polar Bear, Without a doubt!

Many thanks to prop designer Christopher Kelly for this interesting insight into an amazing project. You can still catch Aurora at the Shell building this September so if you haven’t seen her yet make sure you make your way down and support the cause.

Check out this video of the making of Aurora:



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