Audio-Animatronics is the registered trademark for a form of robotics created by Walt Disney Imagineering for shows and attractions at Disney theme parks, and subsequently expanded on and used by other companies. The robots move and make noise, generally in speech or song. An Audio-Animatronic is different from android-type robots in that it works off prerecorded moves and sounds, rather than processing external stimuli and responding to them. Animatronics has become a generic name for similar robots created by firms other than Disney.
Creation and early development
Audio-Animatronics were originally a creation of Walt Disney employee Lee Adams, who worked as an electrician at the Burbank studio and was one of Disney's original Imagineers. The first Disney Audio-Animatronic was the giant squid in the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which was created by Adams, based on a book of the same title by Jules Verne. It had pumps connected to the tentacles. When a pump was activated, air filled the tentacles, making them go up. When air left the tentacles, they coiled up.
The term "Audio-Animatronics" was first used commercially by Disney in 1961, was filed as a trademark in 1964, and was registered in 1967.
Perhaps the most impressive of the early Audio-Animatronics efforts was The Enchanted Tiki Room, which opened in 1963 at Disneyland, where a room full of tropical creatures synchronize eye and facial action with a musical score entirely by electromechanical means. The "cast" of the musical revue used tones recorded on tape which vibrated a metal reed that closed a circuit to trigger a relay which sent a pulse of electricity to a mechanism that causes a pneumatic valve to move a part of the figure's body.
The movements of the attraction's birds, flowers and tiki idols were triggered by sound, hence the audio prefix. Figures' movements had a neutral "natural resting position" that the limb/part would return to when there was no electric pulse. The animation was all on/off moves, such as an open/closed eye or beak. On/off movement was called a digital system.
Other early examples were the Lincoln Exhibit presented at the State of Illinois Pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Also at the fair were three other pavilions featuring Audio-Animatronics. They were Pepsi/UNICEF's "it's a small world", General Electric's Carousel of Progress, and Ford's Magic Skyway.
Pneumatic muscles were not powerful enough to move larger objects, like an artificial human arm, so hydraulics were used for large figures. On/off movement would cause an arm to be either up over the artificial man's head (on switch), or down (off switch), but no movement in between. To create realistic in-between movement in large figures, an analog system was used. This gave the figure's limbs/parts a full range of in-between motion, rather than only two positions. The digital system was used with small pneumatic moving limbs (eyelids, beaks, fingers), and the analog system was used for large hydraulic human or animal (arms, heads) moving limbs.
To permit a high degree of freedom, the control cylinders resemble typical miniature pneumatic or hydraulic cylinders, but mount the back of the cylinder on a ball joint and threaded rod. This ball joint permits the cylinders to float freely inside the frame, such as when the wrist joint rotates and flexes.
Disney's technology is not infallible however; the oil-filled cylinders do occasionally drip or leak. It is sometimes necessary to do makeup touch-up work, or to strip the clothing off a figure due to leaking fluids inside. The Tiki Room remains a pneumatic theatrical set, primarily due to the leakage concerns — Disney does not want hydraulic fluids dripping down onto the audience during a show.
Because each individual cylinder requires its own control/data channel, the original audio-animatronic figures were relatively simple in design to reduce the number of necessary channels. For example, the first human designs (referred to internally by Disney as series A-1) included all four fingers of the hand as one actuator. With modern digital computers and vast data storage, the number of channels is virtually unlimited. The current versions (series A-100) now have individual actuators for each finger, and similar improvements have spread throughout the figures.
Compliance is a new technology that allows faster, more realistic movements without sacrificing control. In the older figures, a fast limb movement would cause the entire figure to shake in a strange way. The Imagineers thus had to program slower movements, sacrificing speed in order to gain control. This was frustrating for the animators, who wanted faster movements in many cases. Compliance improves the situation by allowing limbs to continue past the points where they are programmed to stop; they then return quickly to the "intended" position, much as real organic body parts do. The various elements also slow to a stop at their various positions, instead of using the immediate stops that caused the unwanted shaking. This absorbs shock, much like the shock absorbers on a car or the natural shock absorption in a living body.
The skin of an Audio-Animatronics (shorthand AA) is made from silicone rubber. Because the neck is so much narrower than the rest of the skull, the skull skin cover has a zipper up the back to permit easy removal. The facial appearance is painted onto the rubber, and standard cosmetic makeup is also used. Over time the flexing causes the paint to loosen and fall off, so occasional makeup work and repainting is required.
Generally as the rubber skin flexes, the stress causes it to dry and begin to crack. Figures that do not have a high-degree of motion flexibility (such as the older A-1 series Lincoln) may only need the skin to be replaced every 10 years. The most recent A-100 series human AA's (such as for Bill Clinton) also include flexion actuators that move the cheeks and eyebrows to permit more realistic expressions, but the skin wears out more quickly and needs replacement at least every five years.
The wig on each human AA is made from natural human hair for the highest degree of realism, but using real hair creates its own problems since the changing humidity and constant rapid motions of the moving AA carriage hardware throughout the day cause the hair to slowly lose its styling, requiring touch-ups before each day's showing.
Variations of Audio-Animatronics
The technology of the AAs at the theme parks around the world vary in their sophistication. They range from the blinking and mouth movements at Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room to full body movement, from the mouth to the tip of the fingers at Stitch's Great Escape! at the Magic Kingdom. Current technologies have paved the way for more elaborate AA figures, such as the "Ursula head" at Mermaid Lagoon Theater at Tokyo DisneySea, the Indiana Jones figures inside the Indy attractions at both Disneyland & Tokyo DisneySea, the "swordfighting" pirates inside Disneyland Paris’ version of Pirates of the Caribbean, the "lava/rock monster" inside Journey to the Center of the Earth at Tokyo DisneySea, the "Yeti" inside Expedition Everest at Disney's Animal Kingdom, or the Roz figure in the Disney's California Adventure attraction "Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue!". In the case of the Roz figure, Disney makes the figure seemingly "interact" with guests with help from an unseen ride operator who chooses pre-recorded messages for Roz to "speak", thereby seeming to "react" to individual guests' unique appearances/clothing. One of the newest figures comes with changes to the classic attraction, "Pirates of the Caribbean" at the two American resorts (Disneyland and Walt Disney World), both now featuring characters from the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. The Jack Sparrow figure is based on his portrayer Johnny Depp, even featuring his voice and facial mold.
Disney attractions that have utilized Audio-Animatronics
- Main Street, U.S.A.
- Grand Canyon/Primeval World dioramas (part of the Disneyland Railroad)
- New Orleans Square
- Critter Country
- Mickey's Toontown
- A Bug's Land
- Hollywood Land
- Paradise Pier'
Walt Disney World Resort
- Liberty Square
- Future World
- World Showcase
- Streets of America
- Hollywood Boulevard
- Pixar Place
- Discovery Island
- DinoLand U.S.A.
Tokyo Disney Resort
- Critter Country
- Portofino Harbour
- Mythica (daytime show)
- BraviSEAmo! (nighttime show)
- Arabian Coast
- Sinbad's Storybook Voyage (formerly Sinbad's Seven Voyages)
- Magic Lamp Theater
- Port Discovery
- Mermaid Lagoon
- Mermaid Lagoon Theater
- New York Harbor
- Lost River Delta
- Mysterious Island
Disneyland Resort Paris
Walt Disney Studios
Hong Kong Disneyland Resort
Hong Kong Disneyland
- Main Street, U.S.A.
Other uses of animatronic figures
Animatronics also gained popularity in the 1980s through use at family entertainment centers such as Showbiz Pizza Place and Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre. They are also used in film and TV special effects.
Several passengers and crew of a Pioneer Zephyr are represented in a display of this historic train at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. Neatly dressed in the proper style of first class passengers of their era, one remarks upon the casual dress of the visitors.
The George Washington Masonic National Memorial features an Animatronic George Washington.
John Wardley is often said to have brought Animatronics to the UK, utilizing a concept called Ramped Movement, which allowed for smoother movements of the figures.
John appeared on Tomorrow's World in the '70s showing a guitar playing Animatronic, programmed to music.
His first project was the creation of the animated show "50 Glorious Years" for Tussaud's "Royalty and Empire Exhibition" at Winzsor.
- PeneloreThemed Art and Animatronics
- How Animatronics Work at HowStuffWorks.com
- Animatronics @ PuppetBuilding.com: News, video and information about animatronic puppets in film, TV and theater.
- Patents with Animatronic in Title,Abstract, or Description
- 2007 Gary Willett's MY ANIMATRONIC PROJECT instructional information about building a animatronic puppet