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Big tops on the big screen

Industry News | April 1, 2011 | By:

Aztec Tents manufactures historical circus tents for “Water for Elephants.”

A chapter of tent history hits theaters this month with the worldwide release of the movie “Water for Elephants,” featuring tents by Aztec Tents of Torrance, Calif.

Based on the novel by Sara Gruen, “Water for Elephants: A Novel” tells the story of a veterinary student who abandons his studies to join a traveling circus during the Great Depression. When 20th Century Fox approached Aztec to design the circus tents for the movie, the studio showed the Aztec team numerous photos of the kind of tents desired for the set, but had no knowledge of how the tents were built. Aztec team members recognized the old-fashioned bail ring tent and explained the importance of each design element.

After being awarded the job, Aztec had about six weeks to produce two rounded-end bail ring tents, one 110-by-160-by-10 feet and one 100-by-140-by-10 feet. Besides a schedule that allowed for no trial and error, Aztec had to overcome a number of technical challenges to make the tents as authentic as possible while meeting today’s safety standards. Aztec did extensive research on the shape of the ring used, the type of laces, size, materials, original production methods and the look and feel of the reinforcements.

Most importantly, the tents had to be constructed with 100 percent cotton, which, unlike today’s tent fabrics, stretches when wet and shrinks when dry. The tent material had to be sewn rather than welded, and Aztec soon found out that when raw cotton is cut, white dust flies everywhere. In addition, natural fiber ropes were used instead of vinyl, and the center pole was made out of a single piece of wood, 48 feet tall, 12 inches in diameter, and weighing about 2,200 pounds. Quarter side poles and stakes were also made out of wood.

Circus tents of this era would have used leather reinforcements rather than today’s webbing. While remaining authentic to the look and design, Aztec incorporated additional unseen reinforcements.

The first tent took a couple of days to set up the first time, but after the initial setup this only took about half a day. Aztec representatives were on the set for three days to ensure that everything came together properly.

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