Automatons and Animatronics

I’m a bit of a Disney nut.

That’s a statement that needs a bit of qualification, I feel.

Although I do enjoy the Disney Company’s films (though they weren’t as much a part of my childhood as they were for some people), I find that their greatest expression of showmanship is in the Disney World Parks. To those who have been there, and even to those who haven’t, the Magic Kingdom is known for the amazing quality of its rides, which focus less on thrills and more on the experience.

Almost all of their rides involve Disney’s “Audio-Animatronics”, those life-like speaking, moving (sometimes walking) figures that populate rides like the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean or the Haunted Mansion. For those who know me, it’s no surprise that my favourite ride is the Haunted Mansion. It’s a masterful combination of exquisite storytelling and incredible special effects.

It is, in fact, the last ride that Walt Disney worked on before his death, though he did not live to see it finished (That honour goes to the Pirates of the Caribbean, which opened in 1967). These rides are populated entirely with mechanical (in Walt’s day) and now electronic figures that are extremely life-like in their movements (even when they are supposed to be ghosts).

Most of these Audio-Animatronic figures repeat the same, short sequence again and again- each rider will only see one for at most a few seconds, and it is important that Disney gives their millions of guests experiences that, if not identical, are at least comparable.

This does not mean that there are not rides where a single figure holds the audience’s attention for a prolonged period.

Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln is a long-form sit down attraction. It involves no drops, loops or turns- there isn’t even a fancy lightshow! Yet it performs, and has performed, to great crowds for decades. It is the most famous part of the Hall of Presidents, where Audio-Animatronic versions of all American presidents (including a Robo-Obama) reside.

Disney is always pushing the envelope on what can be done with Audio-Animatronics. Though most Animatronics cannot walk under their own power- they are mostly bolted to their environments, and rely on external computers and hydraulic systems to work- Disney has pioneered a number of moving Animatronics which can move about on their own and interact with guests, although they are really electronic puppets controlled by a human operator.

Audio-Animatronics themselves spring from the much older concept of the automaton. Automatons, clockwork mechanisms built to imitate human and animal life. The most famous (and most complex) ones were mostly built in the 18th Century, many of them for the decadent courts of the French monarchs.


The Turk, pictured above, is actually not a true automaton. When originally unveiled, it toured the Royal Courts of Europe, where this man-sized mechanism played chess (and often won) and even answered questions via a Ouija board. Needless to say, it was an extremely clever hoax- one that was not solved until the 19th Century, but in the climate of the time, when real automata could draw, write, sing, dance and even seemingly eat, one that could think was just another mechanical marvel. Mechanical imitators seemed almost real.

The term ‘Audio-Animatronic’ itself refers to the robots built by Disney- An Animatronic is any motorized figure, and the ‘Audio’ refers to the fact that the figures are programmed by sound- to ensure absolute synchronicity, the ride’s soundtrack activates the Animatronics.

Obviously, this is all a bit beyond me, but the idea of a mechanical figure- perhaps not a human one, but an animated figure- has great appeal. A surprising number of museums do make use of Animatronics- it’s a great way to bring to life historic figures in a way that does not involve a screen. You can have Benjamin Franklin in the room with you- in some cases he can even respond to your questions. Animatronics can bring to life Dinosaurs, Dragons and statues. Imagine museum guests talking to a Totem Pole form the Pacific Northwest, or being told about Ancient Egypt by a Sphinx.

I think Animatronics can work best when they bring to life what isn’t human- perfectly replicating human facial expressions is difficult, even for Disney, and smaller companies cannot possibly handle it. However, a talking tiger or a posing statue are already unreal- no one can say that the tiger lecturing to you doesn’t look right- when’s the last time you’ve seen a talking tiger?

I’ve got to design an exhibit of some sort in the near future- and I think that some simple animatronics can make an appearance. They don’t have to be particularly complex- Walt himself had great success with a few pnuematic valves- but I think bringing something to life would be amazing fun.

A Pirate’s Life for Me,
Scott W.E. Dickinson


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s