The West

The master of the models he makes
Sculptor and model maker Bill Dennis at his home in Wanneroo. Picture:Astrid Volzke/The West Australian

From training as an apprentice plasterer as a teenager in London to working on some of the biggest films of all time, Wanneroo sculptor and model-maker Bill Dennis has carved out a career creating the stuff of dreams.

The 73-year-old retiree has worked on Bond films, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Superman, Alien and even Harry Potter, helping bring complex sets and props to life on the silver screen for more than five decades.

From extravagant balconies for Bond to the gills of a dragon for Harry Potter, there are few things Dennis has not turned his hand to.

Although he no longer works in the film industry after retiring in 2009, he has returned to his model-making roots to create a laughing sailor prop for a production of the murder-mystery play Sleuth at the Limelight Theatre in Wanneroo.

And there’s no one better suited to the task, given Dennis worked on the original Sleuth film starring Sir Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine in 1972.

Caine, he said, was one of his favourite actors to work with and one of the many who mixed with the crew on set at the famous Shepperton and Pinewood studios in the 1960s and 1970s.

“It was strange really, you didn’t just work on one film, you’d be in the model shop doing things for all the films the studios produced,” Dennis said.

“One day you’d be working on a Bond film and the next it would be a Carry On film.

“I always liked working with Michael Caine, he was extremely funny, but when he spoke it was like someone else taking off his accent and it was hard not to laugh.

“They’d all come and talk; Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole would always be asking the cricket scores, we’d see them all in the bar or kick a football around on our breaks.

“They were much more accessible those days.”

Over his career Dennis has rubbed shoulders with Sophia Loren and Sean Connery and worked with the legendary Jim Henson and Frank Oz on cult classic The Dark Crystal and Muppet movies and sculptures he has made can even be see here in Perth – at the Zoo and at Cinema Paradiso.

Dennis emigrated to Australia in 1982 where he continued working on films and television commercials, including The Light Horsemen, Windrider and Dark Age, for which he made the infamous crocodile – the piece of work he is most proud of.

However as work dried up 20 years later he returned to the UK in 2001 to work for eight years in his beloved film industry as a freelancer for blockbusters such as Casino Royale, The Bourne Ultimatum and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – a job he says get him “great street cred” with his grandchildren.

“The film game gets into your blood a bit, a lot of the guys I worked with have gone back to get it out of their system,” Dennis said.

“All the memories of the 60s stay with you and you can’t believe how much it has changed – you don’t see the stars that much these days.”

“Henson and Oz had a lovely way with them; they knew everyone by name.

“Working on a Muppet movie, that was fun; when the (puppeteers) messed up they’d continue talking to each other in the Muppet voices.”

Despite a mind-boggling CV, Dennis is charmingly humble about the work he has done on some of the most famous films created.

“I’ve worked on some stinkers as well as the really good ones,” he said.

“At the end of the day, if (the models) look good on the screen then you’ve done your job.

“I just wonder how I have been so lucky in my career and lucky my wife let me go away so often.”

The West Australian

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