I’ve had the good fortune to be invited to tour a variety of prop building companies since I began writing on the subject of animatronics. Each caters to a different segment of the entertainment sector, and it has given me a unique insight on how the philosophy of building animatronics varies between them.
In one way or another, we all have the same goal: To entertain the guest. This piece isn’t intended to provide an in-depth investigation into the subject but rather to stimulate the conversation regarding the many opportunities available in the field. Although I have never worked in any of these shops, I welcome insight from others with differing experience. My area of expertise is as a DIY backyard builder, and on that aspect I can add plenty of insight!
Let us first look at some other areas where Animatronics are used. They are heavily present in theme parks, movies, TV shows, commercials, professional haunted houses and home haunts around the world. Each of these venues comes with its own requirements and challenges. These differences are evident from the very beginning of the design process.
Theme Park Animatronics
Major Theme Park Animatronics are designed by a full design team to fit a particular scene. Their characters need to be very realistic; however the audience’s view will usually be from a distance and for a short time, perhaps only a few seconds. Therefore, their movements can be precisely controlled by the builder. Their budget is one that I can only dream of as a do-it-yourself animatronics designer. They also have a wide complement of build specialists at their disposal to bring the design to life.
Animatronics in this environment may be expected to operate sixteen hours a day, 365 days a year. Durability becomes of paramount importance requiring them to be much more ruggedly constructed and that is expensive. Oftentimes, backups must be immediately available for quick change outs, further increasing the cost. These demands place a huge strain on the props and benefit from onsite specialists trained in maintaining and repairing them.
Movies, TV shows & Commercials
Animatronics used in Movies, TV shows & Commercials probably require the greatest attention to detail. They are filmed in extremely close in shots, in which the audience can rewatch the performance as often as they like. These animatronics also benefit from large budget and a fully staffed shop, complete with all the necessary tools and the talented staff to use them. They often have multiple versions of the the same figure, designed for specific shots that all must be interchangeable with undetectable differences. These characters aren’t required to be as durable as those used in other venues, but they must be strong enough to get the required shots.
In addition, the productions schedule is often very tight, so things need to work right the first time. Also the ability to have someone who can do repairs on site is critical. Designing and building these animatronics can be simpified through the use of pushrods, raised platforms, cables and through the use of puppeteers for movement. These will be removed from the shot later. This reduces the number of complicated mechanisms needed. It doesn’t eliminate them as there are still plenty of radio-controlled mechanisms that require puppeteers. As a side note, the puppeteers don’t receive the recognition they deserve. The coordination between team members is incredible, requiring plenty of rehearsals to get a character to perform to meet the demands of the director.
The builders also don’t need to integrate audio into the characters as that is added after shooting. It’s amazing to me what can be done in post production.
Family Entertainment Centers / Commercial Haunted Houses
This brings us to the small Family Entertainment Centers (FEC) and Commercial Haunted Houses. Animatronics intended for this market have their own design parameters. A neighborhood entertainment center may place some heavy demands on the operation of the animatronics. Even a professional haunted house will be operating for a month or more. Both facilities have a much smaller budget which limits how much they have available to invest in animatronics. The shops that produce props for them are usually much smaller than their movie or theme park counterparts. This means each member of the team must have a broader skill set and be able to do several things well.
A haunted house does have a couple of advantages that can be exploited when designing a prop. They will usually be seen in very low light conditions and usually only for a short time. In fact, if the participants have been sufficiently scared, they may be running by! Animatronics in these conditions are often used as a distraction, allowing a live actor to provide the primary scare. There may not be an experienced and dedicated technician on staff to take care of problems or repairs, so these props still need to be of robust quality and construction.
Do-It-Yourself Animatronics / Robotics
Last but certainly not least is the DIY Home Animatronic/Robotic Maker. If I had discovered this field when I was much younger, working in any of those previously discussed applications may have a career path for me. But alas, I went down a different path and didn’t discover it until it was too late to change course and embark on a new career. Instead of throwing up my hands and giving up, I began looking around for alternatives. To my delight, I was fortunate enough to discover the vast network of haunters that were making their own DIY versions of the commercial animatronics and using them to entertain their friends and neighbors!
As a solo builder, I have greater leeway in the creative process which allows me to make changes or even switch directions without having to get approval from management or an owner’s representative. I have the opportunity to build whatever I want and can afford. I am primarily a one man shop although I do collaborate on occasion. This requires me to have a broad knowledge of all aspects of the design, construction, control and programming. There is little time to become a specialist in any single facet. You must be a jack of all trades.
Those that enjoy this pastime possess incredible talent and often produce their props simply for the joy of putting a smile on someone’s face. It is often members of this group that introduce our youngsters to the field at Maker Fairs and Stem classes. For some reason, teaching a child to create something to scare a patron inspires them to want to learn more. Go figure!
Where do YOU fit in to this highly diversified field? There is certainly plenty of cross over between these groups, but we all have our favorite domain to play in. We are the lucky ones! Is there a better way to earn a living or spend our free time?