"Real Life Canvas: Animating with Animatronics"
By Adam Goswick
We know that Walt said the Disney empire was started by a mouse, but one of Disney’s greatest technological achievements was started by another small animal: a bird. Most of you probably know where I’m going with this, and you’re absolutely correct.
In the early 1950s, Walt Disney became fascinated with a small mechanical bird he brought back from a trip. Depending on which story you hear, the bird may have come from New Orleans or France. Honestly, it doesn’t really matter where the bird came from. What matters is that it sparked an interest to Walt Disney, and this caused him to set some employees to work on recreating the bird.
In this edition of DizTech, we’re going to explore Audio-Animatronics – where they came from, where they are now, and where they’re headed in the future. This is without question one of the most beloved technologies to come from the Walt Disney Company, so I can tell you I’m already excited to delve a little deeper. Let’s move ahead to the early days of AAs.
Getting Things Right: Perfecting AA’s
The earliest result of Walt’s interest in robotics was the Dancing Man. This figure, created by Roger Broggie and Wathel Rogers, was modeled after a tap dancing routine by Buddy Ebsen – best known as Jed Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies. Dancing Man worked on a system of cams and levers, and you can see how big this system is compared to the actual figure itself.
While Dancing Man was a good first attempt at robotics, you can see how this method was impractical for larger figures. Walt’s ultimate ambition was to create life-size, real-world animation. To create a life-size figure based on the cam and lever approach, you would have to create a large figure with an even larger system of cam and levers to drive it.
The next attempt allowed the engineers at WED Enterprises (not yet Imanineering) to create large figures without huge equipment. This also marks the first time robotics was used in an attraction at Disneyland. In 1955, the classic ride Jungle Cruise opened with animals driven by hydraulic movements. While this attraction became a hit and the technology was impressive, hydraulics were limited in the range of motions they provided. If you’ve experienced the ride, I think you know the problem. Hydraulics allow for very simple movements: a mouth can open or close, for example. This attraction is endearing now, but we can see that the technology is dated.
So Walt’s team set to work on developing something more advanced, and they succeeded. The newest robotics technology was the first to use audio to operate and was the first true form of Audio-Animatronics. This new system used something called a solenoid coil – basically a wire wrapped tightly around a cylinder. When audio – recorded on magnetic tapes – passes through the coil, it produces a reaction that creates motion. This method was once again created by Roger Broggie and Wathel Rogers.
The solenoid coil was the driving force behind a huge moment in Disneyland history. The Enchanted Tiki Room marked the first time Walt and his team were able to fill a room with realistic mechanical animation – and audiences loved being surrounded by the singing birds. The attraction is still a staple at Disneyland, and Walt Disney World has its own modern take with some classic elements mixed in.
You may notice, though, that the attractions we’ve talked about so far have animals in the starring roles. That’s because Imagineers had a hard time perfecting this technology in human characters. You may notice that even in the Tiki Room birds motions are still somewhat herky-jerky. While audiences may be tolerant of that in animal characters, they would probably be put off by a human character that shakes every time it moves. Motions would have to be smoother while still retaining some speed.
Yet another problem was programming these machines. Remember that we’re still talking about the late 1950s and early 1960s, well before computer programming would make things easier. To program a complex Animatronic, you would have spent tedious hours strapped in a harness that recorded every move you made. If you read between the lines that means you could only move when necessary to recording. You wouldn’t want to be the lucky Imagineer who was picked for that job, except if you wanted some interesting stories to tell your grandchildren.
All of this culminates in Disney’s greatest robotics achievement to this point: the human AA. The first human character was Abraham Lincoln, introduced at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Mr. Lincoln is yet another classic AA figure and was later moved to Disneyland to star in a show for the park (this attraction has been recently renovated and can now be enjoyed by new generations of Guests). This success led to a series of other successful attractions utilizing human AAs, including the ever-popular Pirates of the Caribbean. We’ll talk about that attraction more a little bit later.
There’s one more bit of Animatronics history I want to cover before we move on to the present and future of the technology. In 1969, Imagineers invented a way to make the recording process a little easier. DACS (Digital Animation Control System) was the first step in using computer programming to record motions for AA characters. DACS used a board of buttons and knobs to record, edit, and delete movements, and it eliminated the need for a harness. DACS was a huge step forward in Animatronic technology, and it’s still used today. In fact, it controls a large part of the Magic Kingdom’s day-to-day operation (including opening doors, lighting for attractions, and cash registers)!
Modern Technology Leads to Great Entertainment
All of the characters we’ve talked about so far fit into a class of AAs called A-1. It’s important to make this distinction, because we’re about to move into a new series of even more realistic technology. Up until this point, Animatronics continued to progress, and Imagineers created some great machines (including a Benjamin Franklin that “walked” across the stage at Epcot’s American Adventure). But the technology was still very much the same, until the Wicked Witch of the West came along.
This character debuted in 1989 at the Great Movie Ride for the newly opened Disney-MGM Studios. She was also the first in a new series of AAs, and this series is called A-100. These new figures boast a number of improvements over their predecessors. For example, the hand of an A-1 consists of a single actuator that controls the movement of the entire hand – fingers and all. An A-100 has actuators for each finger, allowing each finger to move independently of the others. This is no doubt a result of shrinking technology and the ability to fit more parts into the same amount of space.
This realistic new technology has spread to other parts of Walt Disney World since its inception at the Studios. For example, let’s revisit Pirates of the Caribbean. This has always been one of the most popular attractions with human AAs, so a refurbishment in 2006 was met with some reservations. The finished product, however, is something to behold. New A-100 figures of Captain Jack Sparrow (featuring the uncanny likeness of Johnny Depp) feature very lifelike movements. These have probably become favorite Animatronics among Guests, and the basics of the classic ride are still intact.
More recently, the Hall of Presidents received what has become a traditional upgrade following the election of a new president. This past July, President Obama made his inaugural address in the favorite Walt Disney World attraction. This Animatronic is truly remarkable, even though it has received some criticism for the likeness it bears to its real-life counterpart. The facial expressions and motions are very similar to Obama’s, though, and this alone makes this figure amazing. Another presidential makeover has come to Disneyland recently, with Abraham Lincoln receiving an upgrade. His facial expressions are indeed advanced and are very realistic.
These newer A-100s show how broad an Animatronic’s range of motion can be. The “muscles” in the face, for example, can flex as the character speaks. Lips can purse when the figure pronounces a “b” or “p” sound – just like you would when you make those sounds. The motions of arms and legs are also much smoother and quicker thanks to compliance technology. This allows a part to move past its intended stopping position, but quickly return to where it needs to be. Your body acts much the same way. Compliance technology has fixed the problem present in earlier models where Imagineers had to avoid quick movements so that the figure would not shake after quick movements. Imagineers can now program faster, more natural movements without losing control over the figure.
Where Do We Go From Here?
While the A-100 figures are impressive and have made advances in Audio-Animatronic technology, you could say that it’s just a 2.0 version of the original thing. Disney is also moving towards interactivity in its parks, and they seem to be very excited about this. The problem with Audio-Animatronics – even A-100 Animatronics – is that the show is still very much scripted. And a machine won’t deviate from its script.
So it seems the future of Audio-Animatronics is in interactivity. Once again, we’re dealing with machines here. How do you get a machine to interact with its surroundings, especially with little or no script to follow? I think we’re seeing two approaches to answering that question.
One approach has been in place at Disney Parks for a few years now. The Living Character Initiative is a very intriguing way to bring interactivity to Animatronic characters. It also allows Disney to let Guests meet characters in their parks that would not have been possible otherwise (WALL-E and Remy, for instance).
I want to cover one particular implementation of the Living Character Initiative: the Muppet Mobile Labs. I think this is an extremely interesting concept. Not only are these Animatronic Muppets (Dr. Honeydew and Beaker) free-roaming but they are completely capable of recognizing and interacting with their audience. How? They are remotely controlled by an Imagineer, sometimes miles away. You won’t find a touristy looking individual speaking into a water bottle here. Perhaps this human-controlled interactive Animatronic is the thing of the future, but we have an equally interesting technology to look at.
Now we have to introduce a new term. It’s not easy to pronounce, either, so be warned. In September 2009, Disney showed off Autonomatronics technology. This is simply amazing stuff. These robotic characters use cameras and sensors to “see” their audience and react appropriately. If you’re enjoying the show, the character can see your smile and laughter. If you’re uninterested, it notices that as well. It can then decide what to do based on your reaction – completely on its own with no human controlling it.
To go along with that, Disney unveiled ultra-advanced Audio-Animatronics technologies. Their new prototype for Animatronic hands, for example, contains 15 movable joins (compared to 5 movable joins for current AAs). Also, and possibly more impressive, is the prototype for the new eye. Instead of an eye being driven by mechanics similar to all the other body parts, Disney is now working on an eye driven by electromagnets. That means the eye itself has no contact points and is the only moving part. Not only can it move more realistically and quickly, but the part itself can last longer.
I really think these new technologies are going to change what we expect from Animatronic characters at the parks. Once we see these characters in action, it’s going to create a new standard. Walt wanted to create animation in real space, and we’re on the verge of creating interactive animation. It’s hard to say what Walt was capable of dreaming, but I would say we’re only starting to realize where this dream can take us.
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