The history of audio-animatronics cannot be told without Walt Disney’s tribute to America’s sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln. In the same way, animatronics history also cannot be told without Garner Holt, one of the world’s foremost leaders in the craft.
Disney’s historic animatronics show, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair and continues in updated versions of the show at Disneyland to this day. So it seems to follow that Garner would eventually revisit the subject matter that so fascinated Walt and create his own homage to the Great Emancipator.
The temporary show, Reflections of the Face of Lincoln, is on display at The Lincoln Memorial Shrine in Redlands, California. The show was inspired by Garner Holt Productions, Inc.‘s (GHP) Creative Director, Bill Butler, who once worked at the Lincoln Memorial Shrine and dreamed of producing a show for the museum.
The show features GHP’s most articulated audio-animatronic head. They believe it to be the most technologically advanced robotic human head in existence. There are over 50 electrically actuated motions and interactive controls in the Lincoln figure. The technology was revealed in 2017 and made the rounds online in an impressive YouTube clip showing a laughing, grimacing, thoughtful Abraham Lincoln bust.
GHP says of the figure, “He’s super-human because he’s capable of a wider range of motion than an actual human face. That gives the operator the creative option to make the figure authentically human or even cartoonish in facial expression.”
The 10-minute, multi-media show follows the true story of Vinnie Ream, a Civil War era sculptor who sculpted the president from life over a period of 5 months when she was 18 years old. With projection mapping onto busts, akin to the singing busts on Disney’s Haunted Mansion, her sculptures of Frederick Douglass and Clara Barton come to life to tell their stories. Lighting effects and timed movements bring kinetic energy to the set drawing the audience focus around the stage.
The show culminates in the dramatic reveal (no spoilers here) of the Lincoln animatronic bust, which begins its expressive display. Reciting outtakes from many of Lincoln’s most beloved speeches, the figure’s speech offers healing and inspiration that seems to speak to our own modern need for national unity.
Garner Holt himself has long held personal admiration for both Abraham Lincoln and Walt Disney’s accomplishments, especially in the Lincoln attraction at Disneyland. In many ways, these two have influenced Garner’s own career and passion for the animatronic art form. This exhibit serves as both a salute to Disney’s original and a step into the future.
Reflections of the Face of Lincoln is the first of GHP’s “Living Faces of History” project. They believe the entertainment and educational value of the project is just the beginning of what they’ll be able to do with these figures.
A recent exhibition of GHP’s history and work was on display at the San Bernardino County Museum. Included in the exhibit were landmarks in Holt’s 40 year history like his original Uncle Sam figure and Chuck E. Cheese, the multi-figure project that helped him perfect the craft and effectively launched his career.
Museum guests were also treated to close up looks at some of Garner’s most impressive works including historic figures, dinosaurs, and other familiar robotic faces from attractions around the world.
Over four decades, GHP has developed animatronics, set design, special effects, and parade figures for museums, dining, retail and theme parks worldwide including Disney parks, Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Parks, and de Efteling in the Netherlands.
Creating a realistically expressive animatronic figure has been a challenge for the themed entertainment industry for years and continues to spur creative innovation in the field. GHP’s Lincoln figure comes close to bridging that uncanny valley that some stiff lipped robo-puppets can’t seem to cross. The result is an advancement that opens up new opportunities for creative storytelling through humanoid robots.
Garner Holt Productions’ Reflections of the Face of Lincoln is currently on display at The Lincoln Memorial Shrine in Redlands, California, through the end of March, 2019.
VISITOR NOTE: It may seem like a long drive from L.A., but it’s worth it to get a peek at the Lincoln figure before it’s returned to the GHP archives. Include a stop at Castle Park, the family theme park built by Knott’s Berry Farm‘s visionary designer Bud Hurlburt, and take a nostalgic ride on the Antique Car Ride, formerly Tijuana Taxi at Knott’s.