Definition When we speak of animatronics, we are talking about life-like, 3D animated figures, human or animal, usually life-size. These figures are not robots. They are usually not free-ranging, they usually do not gather data from their surroundings, they are externally controlled, they may be externally powered, and they usually do not do any useful work beyond entertaining us. Simple animated creatures have been around for a long time. Among the most famous are the figures that come out to perform when the clock chimes at the Rathaus in Munich; they are relatively young, dating from 1908. The goal with animatronics has been to create realistically animated figures. History Making the Magic Real contains an excellent introduction to animatronics in the Disney theme parks. Walt Disney’s interest in animatronics began shortly after World War II.
Initially Walt wanted to develop a diorama populated by moving miniature figures. He put two of his best mechanical geniuses, Roger Broggie and Wathel Rogers, to work on this. After many weeks of trying, they confessed that they were no further advanced technically than 17th-century automatons. They encouraged Disney to consider full-sized animations, with more room for controlling mechanisms. 76 Broggie believed that there were aircraft control devices that could let them achieve their goals. When Disneyland opened in 1955 there were two fairly simplistic animated figures in action entertaining guests.
Motion picture special effects man Bob Mattey, Sr, helped to develop the Indian Chief who, while sitting on a horse, waved at the boats traveling on the Rivers of America, and a dancing native found along the shores of the Jungle Plans for Disneyland included the Hall of Presidents, an entertaining introduction to United States history. The central figure of the Hall of Presidents would be a totally animated Abraham Lincoln. Disney’s challenge was to create a talking and moving Lincoln with all the dignity and refinement that a presentation like this would call for. Disney selected Blaine Gibson, one of the studio’s finest sculptors, to create Lincoln’s head. Working from a life mask of Lincoln taken in 1860, Gibson made Lincoln look “real” by sculpting his model slightly larger than life. (Gibson felt that the attraction’s theater environment would dwarf a six foot, four-inch Lincoln.)
A plaster mold was made from Gibson’s clay master, and a flexible plastic material called Duraflex was poured into the mold to create the facial skin. Wathel Rogers and his team of WED “imagineers” (as they were beginning to be called) designed and built the audio-animatronic Lincoln to rise up out of his chair and address the audience. This mechanical 77 Lincoln had 14 hydraulic lines to the body and 10 air lines to the hands and wrists. 16 air lines to his head made the face capable of 15 different expressions, from a smile to a frown to a wink. The ultra-complicated Lincoln project was put on hold when Walt returned from vacation with an idea to create at Disneyland a Polynesian restaurant where mechanical birds would perform at the end of the meal. “As the attraction developed, the performance got longer and the characters became more sophisticated, and finally the meal was eliminated.
The ‘Enchanted Tiki Room’ grew into a 17-minute performance, which included 22 ‘audio-animatronic’ ‘performers.’ The entire attraction was controlled by a 14-channel magnetic tape that fed 100 separate speakers and controlled 438 individual actions, right down to turning on the house lights and rewinding the tape player for the next show