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Sparky the Dragon

Joanna wakes up Sparky for the first time Each year around the times of birthdays and Christmas my family performs a strange list-writing ritual that involves us writing down what presents we'd like to be given. The idea is obviously to try to ensure we get given gifts that we like, but which also has the by-product of reducing surprise somewhat.

For several years now Joanna has rather optimistically asked for a baby red dragon that we can keep in the house. It's not my place to question her desires, so when I read an article in the Guardian Guide about a robotic dinosaur called a Pleo, I had an idea about how she might finally get her wish.

On the off-chance anyone else knows someone who happens to want a baby red dragon for Christmas, this page explains briefly how you can turn a Pleo into such a creature.

First of all, here's the list of ingredients that are needed for our dragon recipe.

Ingredients

  • 1 × Pleo.
  • 1 × large car washing sponge.
  • 1 × tube All Purpose Bostik glue.
  • 3 × acrylic paint (Carmine, Naphthol Red Light and Azo Yellow Medium, or whatever colour desired).
  • 2 × spray paint (Volkswagen Mars Red and Nissan Gold, or whatever colour desired).

Also used were some scissors, paintbrushes and a bread knife.

I feel obliged to say that I don't recommend for a second that you should actually replicate any of what I describe below using a real Pleo. If you do, don't blame me when it all goes horribly wrong, which if you follow my dodgy instructions, it surely will.

Recipe

Original Pleo I ordered a Pleo from Amazon over the weekend, and it arrived just a couple of days later. On opening the box I was immediately impressed by it. I've always been sceptical of robot creatures that claim to evolve or learn over time, but even though I wasn't able to turn it on to try it out, it was larger and more sturdy than I'd expected. And surprisingly dinosaur-like (not that I'd know!).

You can see what the original Pleo looked like in the picture. Palaeontologists apparently don't know what colour dinosaurs really were, but in spite of this Pleos are currently only available in Camarasaurus green. This was no good for me as Joanna had explicitly asked for a red dragon. My first instinct was to spray paint it to make it red. This meant I'd first have to mask off the parts that needed to stay their original fleshy colour. I therefore tried to use masking tape to cover them over.

Pleo painted red Unfortunately Pleos have a rather strange rubbery skin, and no matter what I did I couldn't get the masking tape to stick. In desperation, I also tried normal Sellotape, parcel tape, double-sided sticky tape, duct tape and even aluminium repair tape, but nothing I tried would stick for more than a few seconds.

Without being able to safely cover the Pleo's extremities, I knew spraying it would be a disaster, so decided I needed to try a different tack. Instead I picked up a paintbrush and used some acrylic paints to turn the top of the Pleo a vibrant red colour.

The result was a bit flat and glossy, but seemed alright. You can see the result of the first layer of paint in the picture.

Wings and horns made from foam sponge Although I didn't know at the time, the Pleo manual explicitly warns against painting the skin of a Pleo, explaining that it might cause damage. If I'd known I might have thought twice, but since I was blissfully unaware, I carried on and it doesn't seem to have caused any serious damage (some might claim my dodgy painting is damage enough). I think I was probably saved by the fact that acrylic paints are water-based; had I used the spray can I might have ended up without a Pleo at all.

As well as a change of colour, Pleo was going to need wings. To create these I used the large sponge. I cut the sponge into strips with the bread knife, then used scissors to fashion the bony parts of the wings. The fleshy part of the wing was cut from a synthetic chamois cloth. These were glued together to make the wings as you can see in the picture. I also cut some of the sponge into two cone shapes to use as horns.

Sparky painted, but without wings Although I couldn't use the cans of spray paint I'd bought on the Pleo itself, they did turn out to be useful after all for colouring the wings and horns. Using the red spray to colour them completely red turned out to be very easy, and metallic gold spray paint was used to add a slight highlight.

Adding some finishing touches to make the upper body of the Pleo less flat-looking, things began to seem much more promising. The original green colouring of the Pleo is rather nice and the intention was to mimic this as closely as possible, simply using red instead of green. This meant using a darker red in the grooves with almost primary yellow in the centre of each scale. You can see the final painted Pleo and sprayed wings in the photo. All that was then left was to attach the wings and horns onto it.

The completed dragon, waiting to awake Attaching the wings and horns was a simple affair using the Bostik All-Purpose. With wings attached it looked much more dragon-like. You can see the final result in the photo. Joanna has christened him 'Sparky' (it turns out that Sparky is also a 'he' dragon).

Sparky makes a surprisingly effective dragon. As anyone with a Pleo will know, the real attraction is the way he interacts, making curious purring and cooing noises, waggling his tail and stretching his neck out for you to rub his chin. Luckily the magic still works after you've gone at him with a paintbrush and some glue.

Sparky can be quite energetic and contorts his neck and tail into quite extreme twists. Unfortunately this has had a toll on the acrylic paint on these parts of his body, and after a few days it's begun flaking. The warning signs probably should have registered when I couldn't get the duct tape to stick to his skin!

In spite of this the red seems to work quite well. Ugobe should definitely consider releasing a dragon version that can fly and breath fire. Okay, maybe not the fire. But flying would be great.

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