“Creating the illusion of life is no different than a magic trick.” Says World Champion taxidermist Ken Walker over shots of mammals brought to life through the sculpting of foam and clay, muscle by muscle. And illusion is the theme of BIG FUR, a documentary following Ken Walker as he “recreates” a female Sasquatch for the 2015 Taxidermy World Championship (held in Missouri).
For three years, director Dan Wayne followed Ken as he designed and built a female Sasquatch based on the famed 1967 Patterson-Gimlin footage (Bigfoot walking and looking over its shoulder) and witness accounts. This documentary, coming in at a cool 1:16, relates Ken’s history as one of the best taxidermists in the world to his absolute belief in Sasquatch presenting a man who is at once incredibly pragmatic and idealistic. Solemnly, he reads an essay he wrote as a child relating seeing a Sasquatch in the wild, finishing with “I had seen the Bigfoot”. Pausing, Ken gravely gazes out… only to break the silence a moment later with a jovial “BUM BUM BUUUUUM”. Because that’s the thing about Ken Walker. He’s not trying to prove Bigfoot’s existence to those who don’t believe. He’s trying to find the other people who do. Ken himself didn’t believe his own sighting, “I understood that since I know everything… I don’t know about those that… it can’t be real. That’s how belief starts.”, only trusting his own memory after meeting others with the shared experience.
“I wanted it to be real.”
Recreating or interpreting, taxidermy is about building the illusion of life. Pains are taken to extol the artistic virtues of taxidermy through its history wherein the first animals were literal hides stuffed with straw leading to many of the hilarious “taxidermy fails” meme’d across the internet. As the form progressed, armatures of wood and then eventually foam replaced the nothing inside and the goal became to present these animals as close to “alive” as possible with excruciating attention paid to the smallest details including natural settings. Ken bemoans the lack of artistic merit awarded taxidermy going as far as to reason that those who don’t see it as art, don’t due to the form and commenting to a fellow competitor the irony that most taxidermists are “red-wingers” who don’t like art, don’t see themselves as artists though what they’re creating IS art.
And it’s hard not to see his point. Ken Walker is known for having “magic in his hands” due to a series of pieces based on animals that either no longer exist or their hides cannot be procured. Notable pieces prior to Bigfoot include the Irish Elk (extinct), Sabertooth Tiger (extinct) and his award-winning Panda (endangered). Indeed, pieces shown along with his are fabricated with startling realism and care to the entire scene. Underlining this intention, we’re treated to Ken giving notes to a fellow taxidermist on avoiding “negative space” in the mounting of a leaping wild feline.
It’s in this presentation of the merging of Ken’s practicality to his history with the Sasquatch where Dan Wayne’s direction shines. Ken is a husband, a father of two, a Roy Orbison impersonator (yep) and a master of his craft. He also collects Bigfoot scat (excrement) in his freezer and (as revealed later) entered into an affair with his former student, now married, Amy. Throughout the documentary, the deeper aspects of this conflicted identity are shown with clear appreciation and compassion. In a scene of Ken walking through the Canadian woods, he points out “tree structures”, thin but tall trees fallen inward into a point, and says of them, “Obviously they have meaning, but they look random. But once your eye’s trained to see them, they stand out.”. As he builds Bigfoot approximating from the Patterson footage and first-person testimony, he describes his efforts not as one building a myth but as proving a truth based on a belief. He chooses the brown hair of a steer over fur as that’s how it appears rippling in a slight breeze in the 1967 footage but worries over a witness’s statement that the one they saw was “silver”. In choosing the eyes, he comments on the gentleness and displaying the reported “intelligence”. Watching, it begins to feel cruel to think idly on the commentary against the existence of Sasquatch (such as no modern specimen has ever been submitted to the record or that something so large is still this difficult to get a clear photo or footage of) especially when Ken expresses that sightings happen all the time to “normal upstanding people who are afraid of ridicule.”.
At no point does Dan Wayne treat Ken Walker like a kook. At every point, Ken gives to the audience his belief and the evidence he has to support it without any editing tricks or music score to paint him as dumb or nuts. More tangible positives are given in the interview of two naturalists relating protecting the rapidly “tamed” wildlands with the prospect that something amazing might still be in there. “Better to have the environment that facilitates the possibility of something incredible like Sasquatch than to tame until it’s impossible to imagine.”
No one is a villain. Even as Ken reveals that he’s struck up a relationship with his former student and taxidermist Amy, seemingly while they’re both still married to other people with kids, neither party is edited as terrible. In a first-person interview his now ex-wife Collette, while a bit frosty in the one-shot of them together, is very fair in introducing who Amy was to Ken in the beginning. With how quirky and kitsch the subject is, Dan Wayne allows everyone to tell their own story without mocking.
And that story, in the end, may be a question of whether it’s better to commit to a belief or let go of an illusion. In the end Ken Walker’s “Bigfoot”, while a stunning media sensation, is not allowed to compete in the “Recreation” category of the World Taxidermy Competition being listed in the “Artistic Interpretation” category where it does not win the division. Though you can see the disappointment in Ken’s eyes, he tells the camera other Bigfoot witnesses had seen his work and confirmed it matched their sighting. Which was what he wanted in the first place. Amy decides to stay in her marriage, ending their whirlwind romance, and Ken reveals his ex-wife Collette is engaged. And he’s happy for her.
Illusion, belief and magic overlap at odds with reality. But possibility doesn’t exist without the belief that there may be more than what’s been proven without a doubt. Ken Walker has made mammals we can only be sure existed by fossil records stand with defined muscles as they gaze out watching with glass eyes. For right now Bigfoot, with the hair of a steer and gentle eyes, is tangible and real.
And, Ken quietly ends BIG FUR, there may be more conclusive evidence coming.