Animatronics was the cutting edge special effects used in movies before digital effects became the norm. Nowadays, special effects are created in a computer and edited onto a scene to make realistic looking creatures that could never exist in real life.

In the past, if a director wanted to do this, the special effects team would have to build a robot or a giant puppet and they would film to make the scene. Although animatronics has been pushed to the side a little, it has disappeared. There are new advances in animatronics all the time, and people are still coming up with new ways of using them.

What's the difference between robots and animatronics?

Animatronics is related to robotics. Where a robot is a machine that can carry out complex tasks and be programmed, an animatronic is a machine that performs preset moves and plays pre-recorded sounds.
You would use a robot to do something, like picking up an object or navigate around an obstacle. You would use an animatronic to make a display or put on a performance. An animatronic is basically a mechanized puppet.

Animatronics has been around for a long time and you have probably seen many examples of it. The shark in Jaws was animatronic and performed simple functions like opening and closing its mouth. ET the extraterrestrial was also animatronic.

With a skilled operator, these puppets are able to appear like living creatures. Mostly, they are controlled by remote control, but they can also be controlled from inside in the case of a large animatronic. A good example of this is realistic dinosaur costumes.

Animatronic costumes

These are costumes that resemble real dinosaurs. A person will get inside the belly of the dinosaur and the legs will fill the dinosaur's legs. They can also have their legs visible allowing the dinosaur legs to have a more realistic chicken-leg shape.

From inside the costume, the operator can see via a camera in the dinosaur's nose and a CCTV inside the costume. There are robotic components to make the dinosaur's eyes blink and the mouth opens and closes. There is also a sound unit to play the various roaring sounds that the dinosaur would make.

These types of costumes are used in stage plays and theme parks around the world. They can also be hired or bought by the public and used for events like parades, Halloween, or kids parties.

Animatronics in movies

Another well-known example of animatronics is the dinosaurs from the movie Jurassic Park and its sequels. For example, in Jurassic Park 3, designers built an animatronic model of the Spinosaurus, a dinosaur that dwarfed the T-rex from the previous two movies.

The Spinosaurus is a relatively recent discovery by paleontologists. This meant the designers had a whole new dinosaur to work with for the movie. It gave them a clear idea of what they had to create, but it also meant they had very specific criteria they had to meet.

To build a Spinosaurus that would look like the real thing, the designers started by painstakingly plotting out every detail on paper. The had to get the design right or they wouldn't be able to recreate a life-like version of the dinosaur.

Once they had the design worked out, they built a scale model, a miniature version of the dinosaur, so they could see how it would match up. With the model prepared, the designers could think about scaling up.

They next created a life-sized sculpture. This had no moving parts, its purpose was to get the size and shape correct. With the life-sized model, they could now create a mold of the dinosaur that would be used to cast the shell of the animatronic.

After casting the body of the dinosaur, they now had something they could work with. The new body is flexible and can be trimmed and adjusted until they have a movable dinosaur.

Next, they add the animatronics, all the mechanics that make the arms and legs move, the tail wag, the eyes blink, and monitors and cameras for viewing. The whole thing is quite complicated and requires rigorous testing to make sure everything is working as it should be.

It can take up to two years to make one of these animatronic dinosaurs. It is no small feat. And, given the amount of work that goes into them, we may only see them on the movie screen for a handful of minutes. Even though they are used for such a short amount of time, there isn't any practical way to do it faster. The dinosaur has to be perfect or the audience will be taken out of the movie.

How has technology improved?

As you can see, animatronics can be quite complex. The first animatronics were pneumatic, meaning they were powered by air. This is the type of thing you could see in a pizza restaurant. Think cartoon animals playing in a band. As the technology improved, animatronics became fully mechanized, highly-specialized machines.

Modern animatronics can be as complicated as the most sophisticated robots. Early animatronics might have seven or eight built-in functions, and they were thought to be impressive at the time. Nowadays, animatronics typically have over 150 functions, such as wiggling eyebrows, fully functioning fingers and a multitude of facial expressions.

Designers working in the animatronics field now work with CGI modeling, motion capture technology, and facial-recognition software. This enables creations that are so life-like, they can even be used to represent people.

The military has used animatronics to create a simulation of a third-world village for training soldiers. The animatronic villagers can perform actions like firing a gun and throwing a grenade. If the get shot, they fall over and die in a realistic-looking fashion. After the simulation ends, the animatronic villagers can just stand back up and take their places again, ready for the next lot.

There are many applications within the medical field where the animatronics are being tested. For instance, animatronics hands that can do sign language would allow deaf people to interact with them.

Animatronics have been around for several decades now. The modern iterations make the earlier versions look crude in comparison. The technology is getting better all the time, we can only imagine what it will be like in several more decades.

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