Animatronics (combining the words Animation and Electronics) describes the technique of electronically animating three-dimensional characters, either in movies, live theatre, museum & heritage or theme park attractions.
The term ‘Audio-Animatronics’ is a Disney trademark and describes the synchronisation of mechanical figures and an audio soundtrack. The early ‘AA’ figures were triggered by audio frequency pulses recorded on magnetic tape. Different frequencies caused metal reeds, tuned to respond to each frequency, to vibrate, operating switches which operated one mechanism controlling the robotic figures.
[photo, above, shows a Digital Animation Control (DAC) console, on display at Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida]
[photo, right, shows a ‘bare’ animatronic figure at the Walt Disney: One Mans Dream Museum, Orlando, Florida]
The Enchanted Tiki Room
The Enchanted Tiki Room opened in Disneyland, Anaheim, in 1963, after the complex control systems had been perfected.
In the following video, Walt Disney introduces the bird character ‘Jose’ and explains that he’s a product of the same technology that ‘sends rockets to the moon’ – the control system described above, where audio frequencies on a magnetic tape control a number of different parts of the system simultaneously using switches that respond to each frequency, was developed by NASA. The same system was used to control the animatronic Robin bird and talking umbrella in the Disney film Mary Poppins (1964).
Once the analogue control technology had been perfected, Walt Disney was able to move onto a realistic human figure.
The animatronic Abraham Lincoln figure was built for the 1964 World’s Fair, and following the event, the figure was installed in Disneyland. An upgraded version of the figure is still at Disneyland to this day.
The American Adventure, 1982
This huge technological achievement features 35 animatronic figures and features Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain in a number of scenes presented on ten different computer-controlled stages. One in particular features features Benjamin Franklin appearing to walk up stairs and across the stage.
The show consists of ten elevated platforms, each of which rises into view in turn, containing animatronics, scenery and furniture.
The Wicked Witch of the West (The Great Movie Ride, 1989)
A collaboration with Sarcos, the A-100 was the most advanced animatronic figure at the time. The Sarcos technology is only usable by Disney, under an exclusive licence.
The A-100 figures can also be seen in Pirates of the Caribbean – the Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) figures are remarkable.
Notable Animatronics in theme parks
- Disneyland – Enchanted Tiki Room (1963)
- Disneyland – Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln (1964)
- Disneyland – Pirates of the Caribbean (1967)
- Disneyland – Haunted Mansion (1969)
- Disney Parks – Lucky the Dinosaur
- Walt Disney World Resort – Epcot – The American Adventure
- Universal Studios Hollywood – Jurassic Park: The Ride [featuring dinosaurs by Sarcos)
- Disney’s Animal Kingdom – Shaman (The Na’vi River Journey, based on Avatar) (2017)
The Na’vi River Journey (2017 – present)
- King Kong on Broadway
- Walking with Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular
- How to Train Your Dragon: Live Spectacular
Notable Movies featuring Animatronics
- Babe (1995)
- E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
- Gremlins (1984)
- Jurassic Park (1993)
- Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
How much do animatronics cost?
It’s impossible, unfortunately, to put a price on ‘animatronics’ as each animatronic is built for a particular purpose, to a particular budget. It’s possible for one person to build a basic animatronic for a few hundred dollars, but it’s also possible to build one for a million dollars. The manufacturer Garner Holt has an FAQ page where they answer this very question. The high cost of more detailed animatronics is the huge amount of labour involved. There’s obviously a vast difference between a puppet with a few cable controls and a self-propelling animatronic like the Muppet Labs at Disney parks (video above).
|Alcorn McBride Inc. [USA]|
|Animal Makers some great Behind the Scenes information here - click on the left menu [CA, USA]|
|Boston Dynamics Robots [USA]|
|Custom Entertainment Solutions Inc. [USA]|
|Elektrik Effects Animatronics and make-up [Norway]|
|Farmer Attraction Development Ltd. [UK]|
|Garner Holt [CA, USA]|
|Neal Scanlan Studio [UK]|
|Nimba Creations [UK]|
|Sally Corp Designers & manufacturers of animatronics and dark rides [USA]|
|Sarcos Manufacturer of animatronics for Disney, Universal & others [USA]|
|Stan Winston Studio [USA]|
|The Creature Technology Company Animatronics arm of Global Creatures [West Melbourne, Australia]|
|La Machine Builders & Creators of Live Productions [France]|