Further Thoughts on Animatronics

Or, more thinkin’ on the Lincoln

Creating an Animatronic show is hard. This should come as a surprise to absolutely no-one. Disney started the whole business and they still create the greatest displays and the most immersive experiences. Doing this takes a great deal of money, teams of experts and lots and lots of time.

I don’t really have any of these things. Then again, my goals are rather less ambitious then what Disney puts out.
I had originally hoped to do a very short show with a single, basic animatronic. Looking at a number of hobby sites for people interested in this stuff gave me a couple good ideas on how to make an expressive animatronic using just a few servo motors- turns out that being able to tilt your head adds immensely to your expressiveness.

The key word for this project is limited. I’ve never done anything like this before- which is good!- but I have very limited resources to work with, which limits what I can do. I should also limit my plans for the ‘show’, such as it is. A couple of minutes of dialogue should really be sufficient for what I have in mind. The standard which I’ve seen from experienced hobbyists, who know what they’re doing, is that it takes about an hour to animate one minute of movement. That’s for people who know what they are doing, with specialized software to control the servos. Believe it or not, there are several companies willing to sell this software (and the accompanying hardware some of the programs require) to hobbyists, but their prices are … optimistic. Rather expensive for a one time project, and besides, the purpose of this assignment is not to spend money, but to think and create. I’ve already got Max 7, which is designed for controlling art installations. If it can do that, then hopefully I can get it to sync a few servos (at this point, my still not-finalized design call for four separate servos. More than that would be probably more than I could handle)

As for the Animatronic show itself, I feel that my original idea- to make a cardboard version of Abe Lincoln (or some other famous historical figure) some other right out of Disney’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln may have been slightly impractical. I thought of doing perhaps a famous Canadian figure- to my knowledge, there are no animatronic Prime Ministers (hop to it, DisneyWorld).

I had trouble finding a suitable person, however. There are no famous, defining speeches given by Canadian leaders. Sir John A. Macdonald has no defining moment. Nothing that William Lyon Mackenzie King said has been remembered very well. This makes it hard to find anything to make a show out of.

Also, I am not sure that a ‘show’ is quite the right direction to go in. Your average exhibit is not something to which you go and watch for 15 minutes straight. Most exhibits are meant to be moved through. An animatronic, sit-down show has perhaps too much of the theme park in it. However, not all animatronics are in shows.

Theme parks are so called because they do not just have rides, but ambience. A number of rides at Disney and Universal make use of show elements in the queues for the rides themselves. A favourite of mine is Star Tours. Before boarding your ship for a voyage through space, the line winds its way through the repair bays of the eponymous spacefaring company. There, those waiting in line encounter the company’s staff of wisecracking maintenance robots, hard at work repairing the ships. These animatronic figures speak and talk to the audience- but on prerecorded loops. These loops are long enough that unless it is extremely busy, you will have moved on before the figures reset. This sounds like something that could be translated into an exhibit. Figures that come to life for a few moments to greet guests or to provide greater life to a diorama seem like they would be far more welcome at a museum than a large sit-down show. Much less expensive, as well.

That’s the direction my project is heading in- a figure that one might encounter while waiting in line or while walking through an exhibition- someone that one stops and watches for a bit, rather than something that becomes the star of a stage show.

Staying out of the (Mechanical) Limelight

Scott W.E. Dickinson


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