Animatronic FX

Animatronics: The term "audio-animatronics" was coined by Disney Imagineers in describing their Disneyland robots. Somewhere along the line, the "audio" portion got dropped, and the term became descriptive of the use of mechanical and/or electrical components and systems to simulate and replicate the movements of creatures, whether replications of existing terran life forms or fictional creations of fantasy. In other words, animatronics is a lot of cool robo-stuff that makes our characters come to life!

The difference between an animatronic creation and a robot is that today's animatronics are built primarily to perform and respond in real time to spontaneous and changing control signals. A robot is a mechanical device that goes through a series of preprogrammed moves, over and over again. And while certainly some of our animatronics may be programmed for repetitive playback, the element of puppetry is needed in the first place to capture that performance. Also, I haven't met a Director yet who'll be satisfied with a single version of a performance repeated ad nauseam, whether it be from a puppet or an actor!

Here at TCS, we're on the cutting edge of animatronic technology, whether it's coming up with custom built animation playback systems, pioneering the use of Waldo® telemetry devices, or spearheading research into new areas, exploring and testing new types of tools, machines, and exotic materials. Animatronics is the art of replicating the biological mechanisms of bone, muscle, and tendon with alloys and polymers, servos and actuators, kevlar fibers and stainless steel cable. We substitute electronic sensors, feedback loops, and copper wire for a body's nervous feedback system. We simulate carbon-and protein based flesh with synthetic elastomers. Kinda Cybersexy, ain't it?

Select any photo to view a larger version.

Giant Robot Arm for Ford Focus Spot

For a Ford Focus spot shot in December 2000, in only two weeks, we designed, created and delivered a 12 foot long robotic arm. The arm rode overhead on a suspended gantry and could move 20 feet on the X axis, 10 feet on the Y axis. It was capable of rotating at the "shoulder", curling its' upper arm and elbow up, bending at the wrist , and rotating its tool turret. Several add-on tools allowed it to grasp, pick-up, turn, and manipulate items such as a tire, engine, speakers, and radio. All functions were worked via Radio Control and/or puppeteered with external rods


Facehugger from "Aliens"

2 kb (Full size 15 kb) Stan Winston contracted me to work on his Aliens crew. Among other things, I was entrusted with designing and creating the animatronics to make the face hugger run. After some initial experiments involving electric- and gas-powered motors, we opted instead for a wire-spool powered mechanism. A wire would be wrapped around an internal pulley, extended out front and back, and pulled taut. A second wire pulled the entire creature, the internal pulley would turn, turning gears which turned disks which "rowed", oar-like, the leg shafts. Offsetting the rotation of the disks gave the creature its spidery walk, and a reciprocating tail wag completed the mechanism. The leg speed would match the body travel speed; it could be pulled slowly for a creeping effect, fast for running; it could even "jump" if the front operator moved his end of the cable up and down rapidly.

Clockwise from upper left: Central pulley and gearcase (note size!), Gear case with "oar" plate, "Oar" plate with unpainted legs, Finished creature ready to go.


Alien Queen

4 kb (Full size 16 kb) My other major responsibility on Aliens was to design the Queen's inner body animatronics. This picture shows me assembling the hero Queen head, which featured face up/down, face side/side, retracting lips, and retracting/extending inner "tongue", with folding/extending teeth on the end of the tongue. All were cable controlled, while the neck motions were hydraulic, as built by Trevor Butterfield. To have been able to design and build "hero" components on the main creature for such a classic is something I'll carry with me a long time. I also designed and built the "curl open" animatronics for the alien eggs on the film.


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Here's John Candy, viewed from the back, getting ready for another day as "Barf" on Spaceballs. His ears were marvelously mobile, featuring 5 axes apiece, for a total of 10 independent motions. His ears could wave, point, beckon, droop, and stand to attention. You see the batteries, servos, receivers, and cable routing that made it all happen, compacted in as small a package as possible.

Big Buffalo

2 kb (Full size 15 kb) This 8 foot tall animatronic buffalo for Radio Flyer was my first large-scale animatronic project after I opened TCS. It featured rod-operated back legs, Waldo® controlled 5-axis front legs, head up/down, side/side, and rotate, neck up/down and side/side, blinks, eyes side/side and up/down, brow movement, two-axis jaw (for bovine chewing), nose "snuffle", working tear ducts, steam-emitting nostrils, and a vacuum-equipped mouth for eating marshmallows! It was so huge it needed to be affixed to a crane, for which we engineered different mounting points for different shots. Its major motions were hydro-pneumatically powered, with heavy-duty liner actuators and servos providing the rest of the muscle. It was one of the most graceful, believable creatures that's ever been done.
At the end of shooting, Steven Spielberg requested a demonstration of its capabilities. As he was walking away after the demo, he turned to his producer and said "Jurassic Park!" Nice praise, Steve, but what happened? You gave another guy the show! <g>


Animatronic chicken

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Internal mechanisms for a realistic animatronic skinned chicken. Featured "tentacle" type neck, beak, blinks, head turn, working legs and wings. All cable controlled.


"Collector" Alien

3 kb (Full size 18 kb) A peek at the internal cable controlled mechanisms I built for Boss Films' Chevy "Collector" commercial. The little teeth (or "neemie neemies") at the front had 2 axes per tooth for 12 axes, controlled by a cable Waldo®, a snout up/down and side/side, blinks, "unfolding" eye and rear skull plates, and 5 axes of neck and head movement.


3 kb (Full size 30 kb) Internal animatronics for the primary elephant replica for Operation Dumbo Drop. A rear-mounted internal generator provided power for on board computer, electric actuators and servos. Animatronic functions included head up/down, side/side, and rotate, blinks, eyes side/side and up/down, brow movement, jaw, tail, and a sinuous, very prehensile 5-axis trunk. The legs featured steel springs (Ford 150 truck replacements!) as shock absorbers, which also provided a gentle swaying motion as well.
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Nearly completed #2 animatronic elephant, showing latex and polyfoam body skin, neck rings, and fiberglass underskull and trunk core.

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Animatronic elephants #'s 1 and 2 under construction as a third (non-animatronic) elephant replica awaits a paint job.
Most of the large scale know-how that we needed on this had already been learned on our Radio Flyer buffalo, but you do learn something new every job!

Hocus Pocus Witch

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The internal mechanisms that allowed our Sarah Jessica Parker puppet to move so realistically.

Made of machined aluminum, delrin, and aluminum armature wire.


The Santa Clause Reindeer

4 kb (Full size 13 kb) Internal mechanism for a miniature animatronic reindeer we created for Disney's The Santa Clause. Each leg had 4 axes of movement, all of which were driven cyclically by a speed-controlled motor. The gait was predetermined, so the only spontaneous movement was to ramp the leg speed up or down, as well as movement of the head and neck via external rod. The puppet was mounted to a motion control pylon, so adjustments in body attitude, distance from camera, roll, pitch, and yaw were recordable and repeatable.

4 kb (Full size 13 kb) Debra Galvez applies finishing touches to the completed puppet. It is covered in a foam latex skin, and electrostatically-flocked animal fibers. The single puppet was composited and multiplied eight-fold by Buena Vista Visual Effects.


Little Frog

4 kb (Full size 13 kb) Note the size of this little marvel? For a Minolta copier spot, we engineered a tiny cable-powered mechanism that allowed a tree frog puppet to actually jump and land. A slim rod attached to the body was eliminated in post-production. We scaled up this concept for our Bud Frog spot wherein our hero leaps for his love.



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