While you might expect to find sheep or cows in a Chilmark barn, a more exotic animal takes residence in Thomas Bena’s outbuilding. Ellie the Elephant, the six-foot tall puppet who stars in the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival’s Cinema Circus, currently hangs from the rafters.

For five years, Ellie has delighted children and adults at numerous events. Time took its toll, however, leaving Ellie in need of rehabilitation.

“She was stored in kind of subpar places over the years, so raccoons and other animals had their way with her,” said Mr. Bena, founder and executive director of the film festival.

According to Ben Durrell, director of children’s events for the festival, years of “internal repairs made on the spot,” also made Ellie’s insides a haphazard assemblage of parts in need of repair. 

Mr. Durrell is responsible for Ellie 2.0, as the team dubbed the restoration project. With a background in product design, he feels up to the challenge. To prepare for the enormous task, he has devoted himself to the study of elephants, viewing numerous YouTube videos of elephants to break down their walk. He works under the friendly gaze of photographs and sketches of elephants, who supervise his every move.

Other than its skin, Ellie was created out of found parts from West Tisbury's Dumptique. — Jeanna Shepard

Ellie is the brainchild of Hugh Phear, currently the Idea Hub Coordinator at the MIT Museum. Mr. Phear created her from his own imaginative vision but without a written plan, using almost entirely found objects he picked up at West Tisbury’s Dumptique. Components include two backpacks, ski boots, windsurfing gear, ping pong balls and a beach tent.

Mr. Durrell’s challenge is to reverse-engineer a new Ellie from her current form. Working with PEX tubing and zip ties, he traced the existing armature to create a lighter and more durable skeleton. Next, he will strip out the old frame.

Many of the wooden components of her interior will remain in place. These pieces, animated by the two operators who stand inside the puppet, provide for Ellie’s movement. She has an impressive repertoire — her ears flap and wiggle, her tongue reaches out for popcorn, and her trunk can go up, down, and side to side. A Super Soaker mounted beside her trunk allows her to spray audience members.

“It’s been a discovery,” Mr. Durrell said. He says the key to achieving realistic motion requires breaking down the walk of the real creature into “how two people are moving in this structure to be an elephant.”

For example, the “strength of the back leg when [an elephant] walks is kind of interrupted by our short legs, so by putting the wearer on four inch stilts, basically, you can create that illusion.”

It takes a village to make an inanimate elephant walk - Hilary Dreyer, Brian Ditchfield, Ben Durrell and Thomas Bena. — Jeanna Shepard

Hilary Dreyer, operations manager for the festival and erstwhile half of Ellie, suggests that the experience is beyond illusion, transforming the puppeteers involved.

“She is so heavy, and you have to move really carefully. It sort of makes you walk like an elephant, because you’re just going slowly and heavily with that other person,” she said.

Operating the puppet is no small feat. The person who manages the trunk has limited vision, with no peripheral view, and, according to Ms. Dreyer, at the rear, “that person can’t see at all.”

The elephant’s success depends on good coaching. Brian Ditchfield, managing director of the festival and ringmaster in the cinema circus, says he subtly guides the puppet in his role, with such prompts as, “Well, okay Ellie, just take two more steps . . . Oh, you’re going to want to go a little to your left.”

All this effort produces an impressive result. “For ages two to five or six, Ellie is real,” Mr. Ditchfield said.

Mr. Bena added, “But not just for kids. I have to say, when Ellie walks out, it’s this spectacle, people gasp, it’s almost unbelievable. We’re in the middle of Chilmark, and there’s this elephant.”

Even the festival staff who know her inside and out are entranced. “We refer to her like a real thing in a way that we don’t any other inanimate object at the film festival,” said Mr. Ditchfield.

The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival’s Cinema Circus kicks off on July 5 and runs every Wednesday through mid August.