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Animatronics made easy


"I'm tired of finicky actors," Walt Disney reputedly said to animation designer Jack Gladish in the early 1960s, "I want to develop a fully animated, articulated human being to use in place of motion picture actors and actresses."

Gladish was one of dozens of Disney 'Imagineers' working on a lifelike (and lifesize) animatronic model of Abraham Lincoln, the first serious foray into creating an animated being out of electronic components contained in a realistic shell of skin or hair.

Back then, the first model of Lincoln's head didn't fit all the mechanical components needed to give him the movements Disney asked for. When he told the team he wanted Lincoln to have twice as many motions and weigh half as much, they spent 90 days achieving 'gigantic leaps in the technology' in lightweight pneumatic and hydraulic valves and solenoids that are still standard today.

The More Things Change...

In fact, the only major advance has been the arrival of computer-controlled movement, as explained by Australian makeup effects veteran Bob McCarron. "There hasn't been any change whatsoever," he says. " [American makeup effects legend] Rick Baker tried to use silicon puppets and appliances in Men in Black, and after that he said to me he'd go back to foam latex. We're still making the moulds and hair with the same techniques we did 20 years ago.

"The only thing that's changed greatly is the hardware and software that links an animatronic to a body now. You have an actor's movement put through software to the animatronics so you control it with your own actions rather than a group of puppeteers. You can get a bit more high tech but you still need people to flick a switch.

"In 1968 John Chambers did Planet of the Apes with foam Latex, then in 2001 Rick Baker did Planet of the Apes with foam latex. Although the sculpture was more refined, the mould and the materials were the same as in 1968."

And it's still an integral part of most action/adventure movies. In the special effects era, where CGI has made us believe cities can get wiped out by giant alien ships, animatronics have made us believe among other things) that dinosaurs can get loose in a theme park, a giant gorilla can climb buildings in New York City, a cute pig can talk to the other farm animals and turtles can really become ninjas.

Tools of the Trade

Most of us know it's got to do with realistic skin made out of foam latex jammed full of wires and pulleys, but just how hard is it, and how do you get into it?

Simply wanting to create an animatronic effect will mean you'll be a jack of all trades. The machining and engineering side of animatronics is very different from the makeup effects and sculpting sides. Creating his Abraham Lincoln in the 1960s, Disney took most of the team off the payroll, put them in a secret area and paid them out of his own pocket to circumvent the dizzying array of union requirements.

So doesn't the stuff you need to make an animatronic effect cost a fortune and only come from a specialist shop in Hollywood somewhere?

It turns out the trick to animatronics is the know-how, not the materials. Amid his 20-year career in the field (which has included work on The Matrix films, Mad Max and The Piano), Bob McCarron describes hunting trips for materials he undertook in the early 1980's.

"America manufactures the bulk of the gadgetry and materials that all other countries use," he says, "and you can buy most of the equipment here because it's all become so refined. When we did our first gorilla, the cables were from a lawnmower, but the cable you use for an animatronic lip you can buy from America very simply nowadays."

Jez Harris runs Crawley Creatures, the UK effects house behind the animatronic animals that appeared in BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking With Beasts. He reports a similarly inexpensive learning curve. "A lot of the basis of our work is the initial sculpture so very simple materials like clay or plaster are reasonably available and cheap to make," Harris says. "You mould it in plaster, fibreglass or glass reinforced plastic (GRP), then the flexible skin can be silicone, polyurethane or foam latex.

"The machines tend to take the most amount of time. It isn't so expensive using off the shelf radio control like the stuff used in model airplanes, cars and boats, so it depends how sophisticated you want to get. If you want to do computer-controlled animatronics it gets expensive buying the equipment and custom built hardware."

The Australian Scene

The bad news is that, like a lot of other film making disciplines in Australia, animatronics is too specialised a field to offer much opportunity for training. Courses in makeup effects are not only more plentiful but a good start to learn about the finer points of the moulding and sculpting process involved in creating your animatronic project.

Chris O'Dwyer, owner of Machine Ability – a company that creates animatronic effects and installation – has run the occasional special effects course through NIDA. Recent efforts haven't aroused enough interest, and the costs of teaching on heavy machinery don't help. "Insurance is what costs the money during training," O'Dwyer explains, "A course would end up costing two or three grand."

So the best bet would appear to be to learn on the job. And the good news is that, just like in plenty of other areas of filmmaking, Australians are up there with the worlds best and in some cases, at the forefront.

"I've had so many Americans say they've invented these things but we're an island and we've learnt it all on our own," Bob McCarron says. "The best people over there are the first to say they can't understand how we're on par with them.

"We did this gorilla, even before Rick Baker had done King Kong , and at Universal Studios they'd never seen springs used in animatronics. While we were there, a guy asked if he could take notes. Two years later King Kong popped up."

Despite a bad year in 2003 for the Australian industry, there is still considerable expenditure of Hollywood special effects money here, so the opportunities to work in animatronics have never been better.

Know Before You Go

If you're going to make it in animatronics, don't underestimate your planning. "Know what it is you want before you start building," says Bob McCarron. "Have the foresight to know what you want it to do, then see if you have the time and money to do it. If not, rethink. Don't just try it and think 'this is the best I can do'.

"You have to have every shot and every camera angle planned. I've worked with great directors and on the day they change something, and because you're supposed to be the best at what you can do, they want you to be able to do it."

And while Stan Winston (behind the Jurassic Park and Terminator movies) or Phil Tippett (Starship Troopers, Robocop ) can become rich and famous creating the most iconic animatronic creatures in the world, remember we are still fairly limited down under.

"People ring me up wanting to get into it and they just want to do one thing, like just animatronics or just blood and guts," McCarron says, "and the film industry in Australia still isn't big enough to support that. You can't afford to be so specialised."

Jez Harris cautions that in many cases you have to go even further back. If you're creating a realistic version of a creature, you need to be familiar with how the real version works. "A lot of animatronics is watching real animals," he says. "Understanding movement and anatomy, how bones work and the size of muscle – especially facial nuances. Working on Walking With Dinosaurs, we took the same approach to colouring – you compare it to the modern day environment and spend a lot of time watching real creatures' skin textures and how they move."

If You Build It...

Animatronics isn't easy to break into. Like so much of the movie industry, its epicenter is in the US. There's not much call for lifelike aliens or killer animals in local productions. Also typical of filmmaking, it's more than a single job – you need to be a sculptor, machinist, painter, hair stitcher, electrician and possibly a computer programmer as well if you're doing it all yourself.

But the tools and material are easy to come by, it's all fairly cheap to produce and the resources of books and websites are plentiful, so the only obstacle is your own determination.

CGI

If you're a makeup, prosthetic or animatronic effects practitioner in the modern moviemaking era, one area you'll be almost certain to have some involvement with is computer effects.

Creating Walking With Dinosaurs, Jez Harris of Crawley Creatures worked extensively with British CG effects house Framestore to create the seamless effects of dinosaurs interacting with their environment and make it very hard for us to tell the puppets from the pixels.

"The way they do their computer generated models is to start off with our miniature 3D sculpture, which is called a maquette," Harris says. "They digitally scan it and use that data to build a wireframe. We use the maquette to base a larger scale animatronic model on, and that way we both know we're working on something very similar.

"A lot of CG companies don't work that way – they'll build a model in the computer and we'll have to work from that, or they'll take stills of our animatronics and then try to build it in the computer. Neither method is ever so good.

But ask any 15-year-old moviegoer – puppets and models will always have their place. "CG can't do everything," Harris believes. "It's getting very close, but you can't get that interaction with the world.

And as the BBC/Framestore/Crawley Creatures partnership has proven (through two major Walking With projects, several one off specials and a recent series called Sea Monsters which was partly filmed in New Zealand and Fraser Island), the CG era has helped bolster animatronics by opening up the field even more.

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