The term ANIMATRONICS is derived from Anima(tion) + Tronics (elec). It is the technique of making and operating lifelike robots, typically for use in film or other entertainment.
Animatronics are mechatronic puppets (Mechatronics, which is also referred to as mechatronics engineering, is a multidisciplinary engineering branch that produces a design solution that unifies the different subfields of electrical and mechanical systems, a combination of robotics, electronics, computers, telecommunications, systems, control, and product engineering).
They are a modern variant of the automatic and are often used in movies and theme park attractions for the portrayal of characters. Animatronics uses computer-controlled devices to make puppets and models move in films and other entertainment formats naturally.
They were usually referred to as ‘robots’ before the term ‘animatronics’ became common. Robots have since become known as programmable machines that are more practical and do not always resemble living creatures.
Walt Disney coined the term Audio-Animatronics in 1961 when he began designing animatronics for television and movies.
Disney Imagineers have defined Autonomatronics to describe a more advanced Audio-Animatronic technology with cameras and complex sensors to process information about the environment of the character that responds to that stimulus.
When Animatronics is integrated with Artificial Intelligence(AI), it can be used in education, healthcare, and military industries.
Introduction of a dog and a horse became the first animatronic characters.
Walt Disney is often credited with popularizing animatronics for entertainment.
In 1955, the Walt Disney Production company started using animatronics for Disneyland’s ride, the Jungle Cruise, and later Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, which featured animatronic Enchanted Tiki Birds, for its attraction. For the movie Mary Poppins (released in 1964), Disney used an alleged animatronic bird in 1962.
The first completed human audio-animatronic character was Abraham Lincoln, created for the World’s Fair in New York by Walt Disney in 1964. Disney upgraded the figure in 1965 and coined it as the Lincoln Mark 2, which appeared at Disneyland Resort in California at the Opera House.
The other notable animatronic characters have been Lucky the Dinosaur, Segnosaurus, Muppet Mobile Lab, Laffing Sal.
Television, Movie and other media:
A driving force for revolutionising the technology used to build animatronics has been the film industry.
The utility of animatronics has been in cases where an entity does not exist, the activity is dangerous, or the activity is not possible with a living individual or animal. Its primary benefit over computer-generated imagery (CGI) and Stop motion is that the animated creature has a real-time physical motion in front of the camera (Stop motion is the technique in animated filmmaking where, manipulation of objects in small intervals between individually shot frames are such that when replaying the sequence of frames, they appear to show autonomous motion or change).
One can animate any type of object, but the most widely used are puppets with movable joints (puppet animation) or plasticine figures (clay animation or claymation). Stop motion is also referred to as pixelation with live actors. Stop motion is commonly called cutout animation of flat materials such as paper, fabrics or images.
Over the years, the technology behind animatronics has become more technologically advanced, making animated objects much more lifelike.
Disney first released the 1964 film Mary Poppins, which featured an animatronic bird. Since then, the utility of animatronics has been in movies such as Jaws, E.T., The Dark Crystal, Jurassic Park and many others. And the series like Walking with Dinosaurs, followed by Walking with Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular. The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
The advertisements utilising animatronics are Gorilla, The Slowskys.
The examples of the use of animatronics in toys include Teddy Ruxpin, Big Mouth Billy Bass, FurReal, Kota the triceratops, Pleo, WowWee Alive Chimpanzee, Microsoft Actimates and Furby.
Designing/construction of animatronics character:
The construction of an animatronic character, normally made of steel, is around an internal supporting frame. The attachment of the ‘bones’ is to the ‘muscles’ created using elastic netting made of styrene beads. The frame protects the electronics and mechanical elements, as well as provides the exterior skin with a shape.
Mould of foam rubber, silicone or urethane makes the figure’s ‘skin’. More strength results by using a piece of fabric cut to size and inserted in the foam rubber before moulding. Removing every piece and adding to the outside of the figure once the mould has completely healed, gives the appearance and texture comparable to that of ‘skin.’
The structure of the animatronic character:
Building an animatronic character is to be as realistic as possible and is thus constructed in a similar manner to what it would be in real life. The figure’s structure is like a ‘skeleton’. The ‘muscles’ serve as joints, engines, and actuators. Cables, such as the ‘nervous system’ of a real animal or human, link all the electrical components together.
Skeleton or frame:
In the construction of animatronics, steel, aluminum, plastic, and wood are all widely used, but each has its best purpose. Consider the relative strength, as well as the weight of the material itself when deciding the most suitable material to use. It could also be a matter of the cost of the material.
Several materials are widely used in the manufacture of the exterior of an animatronic figure. Use the best material to create the most lifelike shape, depending on the unique circumstances.
‘Eyes’ and ‘teeth’ are typically made entirely out of acrylic, for example.
Since it has a high elasticity rating, latex is widely used as a general material. One of the first films to make heavy use of foam latex prostheses in the 1930s was The Wizard of Oz.
RTV silicone (silicone for room temperature vulcanization) is mainly used as a moulding medium because it is very simple to use, but relatively costly. Few other materials conform to it, making it simple to separate moulds.
Polyurethane rubber in place of silicone is a more cost-effective material to use. Flexible polyurethane foam is flexible and binds well with latex.
Use of pneumatic actuators for small animatronics is ok, but they are not strong enough for large designs, hence complementing with hydraulics is necessary. An analogue device is typically used to give the figures a full range of fluid movement.
The Facial Action Coding System (FACS) describes that humans can identify 6 basic emotions: rage, disgust, fear, excitement, sadness and surprise developed by Ekman and Friesen is one of the most popular emotional models. Ortony, Clore, and Collins, or the OCC model that describes 22 different emotional types, is another theory.
Disney introduced its latest animatronics robot in 2020 that can breathe, shift its eyes very much like humans, and recognise individuals around it to choose a “suitable” response.
Artificial intelligence and animatronics:
The convergence of animatronics with artificial intelligence results in androids, robots that mimic human behaviour. We have a technique that can give machines the appearance and actions of living beings. We have robots that ‘humanise’. But it’s not only the gestures that look natural but even, due to the fake skin and makeup used, it looks real.
It takes several special abilities and a lot of technological know-how to build a good animatronic figure that can work constantly without fail.
One should have a firm hold on how these things work before assuming the task of making an animatronic figure and be willing to spend a pretty penny on equipment and materials.