From the “golden era” of animatronics in movies to animatronic robotics in theme parks and museums, here is our top 10 breakdown!
First thing’s last:
Position 10: Universal Studios Hollywood Jaws shark on Back lot Tour circa 1980’s
WHY? With all due respect to this old guy, it tries to scare adults (kids are easy to scare, no points there!) by sliding up an underwater track and bobbing its head up and down with jaws opening and closing. That is kind of cool, but the BEST part about this “Bruce” imitator is that after the tram moves to the next attraction you can watch the shark “swim” backwards! So funny that the tour guides point it out. Please note that this is referring to the 80’s, the shark has become much more scary since then!
Position 9: The real Jaws great white shark AKA “Bruce”
WHY? This classic movie is in many way a classic because the animatronic shark did NOT work except for only a few shots! Spielberg’s intention was to have it revealed in the first attack of the skinny dipping girl in the first few minutes of the film. Imagine if you saw the pivotal antagonist scary great white monster immediately…how scary would the scene where it bobs out of the water to try to eat Roy Schieder’s chum be? A huge challenge for any machine is sea water, and in animatronics for film there is generally never anything but prototype #1. No time to test this great beast in water until shipping it to Martha’s Vineyard. It rarely worked, but that it worked at all we say cheers and well done to Bob Matty and his crew!
Position 8: Return of the Jedi’s Jabba the Hutt
WHY? If you grew up with the original Jedi you can’t forget how fun it was to see this “disgusting blob” on film. If you saw this with the right kind of eyes it was a great character. If you looked at it with cynicism you saw a silly big rubber worm that spoke in a loud booming goofy voice. If you think about it, it was REAL. It was THERE on set. Hot Princess Leia was actually lounging on a big rubber animatronic, not a chromakey-green pillow. There were 5 guys inside the thing on set, a little person working the tail “backwards and forwards!” and a guy whose sole job was to smoke a cigar and blow it through a plastic tube that went out the corner of Jabba’s mouth to give the in-camera smoke from the hookah! If you’ve been on set you can relate to the high level of stress, now take that and wrap yourself in sulfer-stinky foam latex with a few other guys under hot lights. NOT easy work! But it pays off. It’s fun to watch! And the real practical Jabba looks amazing compared to his CG counterpart! What happened? Computer Graphics are a great tool, but more often than not shouldn’t be used. This is a perfect example of trying to fix something with CG that was not broken.
Position 7: American Werewolf in London
WHY? Genius prodigy of Dick Smith, Rick Baker made history by winning the first Oscar ever for “Best Makeup” in 1982. The design of the stages of makeup transforming David into a werewolf are classic. The execution, simple and effective. Animatronics actuated by 2 syringes and a plastic hose? Brilliant! And that’s what made the face-stretching shots incredible. “Change-o-heads” for intermediate transformation and final stages show a great mind designing an animatronic effect that is flexible and optimized for minimal time between takes…brilliant! Let’s not forget the animatronic Dead Jack skull…
Position 6: Harry and the Hendersons
WHY? No more cables! Not only was Harry a great design given the challenge of making a Bigfoot creature that can be both scary and also endearing the head was a technical breakthrough. Cables were the most popular way up to this point to actuate all the different parts of an underskull to make facial expressions. Rick Baker and his team broke the mold by making Harry completely free and self-contained. This gave director William Dear freedom to put Harry wherever he wanted, now an animatronic creature could be treated exactly like an actor taking real-time direction without re-set down time between takes.
(Image Source: http://www.i-mockery.com/minimocks/animatronics/page2.php)
Position 5: Aliens
WHY? You might think we would immediately jump to the amazing Queen Alien, but this film has some other very clever animatronics. The facehugger running across the med lab floor was more or less a pull toy with a simple mechanism to make the tail wiggle. The visceral shock reaction inspiring facehugger in the specimen tube in the med lab, classic! And yes, the Queen…AMAZING work on both the full scale and smaller scaled puppet. Full scale introduced hydraulics for the first time to Stan Winston Studios in the form of a boat’s steering hydraulic cylinder operating the neck of the heavy head. Very clever approach to making the odd spindly arms and overall form hiding two performers strapped together in the Queen’s chest. Overall a classic film containing too many amazing effects to mention in this short list.
(Image Source: http://www.hrgiger.com/alien.htm)
Position 4: MIB I Arquillian Alien in head
WHY? Rick Baker’s team and especially Mark Setrakian made this animatronic one of the most beautifully articulate and perfectly pupeteered in movie history. If you watch him very carefully almost every nuance of motion and small details in puppeteering match the emotion and speech perfectly. So this ranks high not only because of the beautiful and intricate mechanical design but especially because of the incredibly realistic performance this little actor made.
(Image Source: http://aliens.wikia.com/wiki/Arquillian)
Position 3: Jurassic Park T Rex
WHY? Before the T Rex made by Stan Winston Studios there was never a creature this size that worked well mechanically. Jaws “Bruce” did not work as planned for example. King Kong Lives full size Kong had many issues. Stan’s T Rex was huge and delivered a great performance! Using extremely advanced controls similar to those used in advanced manufacturing robots, T Rex had incredible hydraulic power, speed, and smooth motion. Yes…when it got wet it got the “shakes”. BUT that was due to the fine tuning that allowed the Rex to move smoothly under normal conditions. Simple amazing performance, enormity of size, and amount of courage from Stan Winston and his crew to even say “yeah, we can do that”. Well done sirs!
(Image Source: http://www2.jogjabelajar.org/modul/how/a/animal/animatronic.htm)
Position 2: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters Edward the Troll
WHY? This animatronic character showed that CG characters are not nearly as convincing and fun as actually having a practical physical animatronic character on set. Another actor among actors that can react immediately to reflect and enhance human performances. Something real they can see. Bigfoot Harry did the same thing way before CG had taken over real effects. Edward showed that if the director had the courage to commit to a character before shooting a frame of film the performance on set makes a huge difference not only in interaction but in the “reality” of the film. To Mike Elizalde, Mark Setrakian, and the rest of Spectral Motion we say well done sirs!
Position 1: Walt Disney’s Abraham Lincoln
WHY? This animatronic figure is the grand-daddy of them all! Walt coined the name “Audio Animatronics” (AA) to describe this new technology. Groundbreaking work done by his team of imagineers, this figure inspired so many to pursue engineering, mechanical design, programming, control theory, and much more to children world wide. Uncle Walt, we thank you for creating this field!