Updated December 30th, 2002

Replies to: ANIMATRONICS- Need Help!

Some months back, I sent a this post to a couple of special FX-related newsgroups. It was titled: ANIMATRONICS- Need Help! It occured to me that some of the responses I received might be of use to others, so I have made them available here:
Monica J. Roxburgh wrote:

I am a student of film, video, puppetry and animation.

I am wanting to learn more about how to create animatronics. I

am not worried about the sculpture angle, I have experience

with that, including molding and casting, but I have

absolutely no idea where to begin in terms of the actual

animatronic armature and control system.

Can anybody help me get started in this?

Resources, information, contacts, etc...



Chuck Ford wrote: I just built an anamatronic mask for a children's show this last Spring. I also built a 30 foot tall anamatronic dragon for a version of the Hobbit last year. I have also built automated creatures for haunted houses. If you have any specific questions, you can mail me and I'll try to answer them. Here are some sources I've found useful. Michael Burnett Productions has a very good video on building a anamatronic, cable-controlled mask. It shows all aspects from the initial designs to the final cable creature. You can get a catalog and video from them at MBP, PO Box 16627, N Hollywood, CA 91605. Another very good source is an article from the defunct Cinemagic magazine. Issue #29 has a very good article on cable control by John Dods. It covers the basics and give some sources, although they are probably old by now. If you have specific materials in mind I can give you the sources I used for cable and housing. Anyway, the article details the making of a creature on a very low budget. Another source is the Master himself, Dick Smith. If you want to shell out the money (about $1600) his advanced make up course covers all aspects of cable/radio control. Another source I just saw in Cinefex is Pontech (714) 537-3480. They seem to specialize in radio control. I also saw that a company called Effective Engineering is offering three how-to videos on mechanics and mechanical puppetry. -Chuck Ford
devilinmi2@aol.com wrote: Well, we are both interested in a very rare form of robotics. I have been working with animatronics for about 4 years now, still an amateur, but have found a lot of information and designed alot of systems myself. I am interested in becoming pen-pals on the subject if you would like. If you have any specific questions, I can most likely answer....I am also posting a copy of my response in the Newsgroup.... I am also into animatronics and agree doubly with everyone's suggestions. I think maybe a few things might also help...... There are several categories that animatronics fall under.... these I use to search for various newsgroups and websites. Animatronics, audio-animatronics, character robotics, entertainment robotics, motion picture special effects, robotic puppetry, RC, model making, automata; just to list a few. I also go to my local library and bookstores to find information on this. Look for books on animation, anatomy, puppet making, metal machining, using foam rubber, plastics, robotics, engineering books (good sources for types of gears, pulleys, motors, etc... out there.) There is no one-stop guide (yet) for animatronics design. I do suggest two books that may be of help....they are: Illusions of life: Life-like robotics, by Gene W. Poor, Creative Learning Systems and a children's book: Robots: your high-tech world, by Gloria Skurzynski, Bradbury press. Let me know if I can be of any help!
Bil Simser wrote: I used to work in special effects and created a lot of animatronic, stop motion armatures and remote control models. If you've already got the molding and casting part down then you're already halfway there. As far as building control systems if you could be more specific about what your needs are I can help further. In a nutshell, you have a couple of options: a) buy a working remote control/armature system (expensive!!) b) build your own from kitbashing, canibilizing or whatever means you have at your disposal. I built mine from scratch using old gyro motors from remote car kits. Good luck and let me know how I can help. -Bil Simser Monica J. Roxburgh wrote: What sort of things/creatures did you create? Bil Simser wrote: Mainly small little things like dogs, cats and dragons and such. The dogs and cats were life size the dragon wasn't :) but as far as dragons and fantasy type creatures went, I made anything from dragons (even wyverns!) to skeletons and other nasty things we could dream up. Monica J. Roxburgh wrote: I have worked with plaster, liquid and brush-on latex, and moulage, which is a start, but if I want to try using foamed latex, that would be a whole new story I expect! Bil Simser wrote: Liquid latex and such is a breeze to work with. Foam latex. Now that IS another story. You'll need a lot of resources, a fair amount of money and a LOT of patience! Best suggestion is to stay away from it until you're totally comfortable with everything else then dive in. Get a good book on it first from someone like Dave Allen or even Tom Savini. He works in makeup but latex principals are all the same. Monica J. Roxburgh wrote: I want to start off by building an animatronic head, (NOT human), with movable eyes and eyelids, and twichable ears. Mouth movements, (at this point anyway), would probably be controlled muppet-style by someone's hand and arm. (I would say what the creature was, but I am still finalizing that point!). Bil Simser wrote: There are a few ways to go about it but off-hand I would say a cable controlled head is one of the easier things to make (if you havn't had any experience at it before). The base you can probably use a hockey mask cut in pieces for the skeleton. Cables are made with vinyl tubing and piano wire (although there are professional cable systems and supplies as well, I find these work just as good and are a lot cheaper!). You can either make a mask for the whole unit and slip it over or construct it in sections and glue it right to the skeleton. Eyes you'll have to contruct from scratch but since it's not human it'll be easy to find something similar to your design to salvage for it. One thing to remember that I always follow, don't limit your creatures by design! Too many people will design something thinking about how it will be constructed and make adjustments before anything is even built regarding the construction of it. You're only limited by your imagination. There are no limits when it comes to building your own buddy. If you can't do it with conventional means, then think of how you can do it otherwise. You'll find that your creations are much more imaginative and more lifelike. > > a) buy a working remote control/armature system > (expensive!!) > > This is the option that everybody else who responded to my > post suggested. This is the easy way out. I'd opt for building it yourself! > > b) build your own from kitbashing, canibilizing or > > whatever means you have at your disposal. > > This is the kind of suggestion I like! :) Sound great! At least you have enthusiasm for it. I've met too many people that got into it for the wrong reason and end up hating it becuase it's not for everyone. Also, you'll find that you have to be REALLY creative sometimes to fix a problem. It's not like it was a long time ago where if something went wrong you had to ALWAYS come up with a solution but nowadays either someone has already come up with something or there's resources out there that can help. Keep a good supply of Cinefex magazines on hand! Works for me :) > > I built mine from scratch using old gyro motors from > > remote car kits. > > How expensive did that end up being? How much do you think > you saved? After you build up a collection of junk you'll find it gets cheaper as you go on. You'll already have a few of the parts here and there and you'll know where to get extra bits and pieces cheap. I used the gyros because I needed remote control but if you're going with a cabling option then it's even cheaper! Vinyl tubing (from an aquarium store) will run about 30 cents a foot. Piano wire is cheap and you'll need an assortment of other goodies like plastic scraps, various types of glue, etc. A small (under 1' high) remote control model will be around $300, cable controled will be about $150 and a head will be about $100 (depends on how you work the latex but this is around what it cost me). -Bil
David Covarrubias wrote: Unfortunately there is no pre-established method for doing animatronics. Every mechanical design revolves around the physical properties of the sculpture and the movements that you want the figure to have, therefore every project is very different. The best way to get info is to give me the specifics of the project you wish to make. Tell me the size, what you want it to do, and a rough budget to determine the right approach. With some of this information in mind I will be able to better help you. David Covarrubias http://www.loop.com/~fxmech Monica J. Roxburgh wrote: I am still very much in the early planning stage, so I still have a lot of decisions to make regarding specifics. About all I can tell at this point, for the first project anyway, is that I want to create a creature head, with blinking and moving eyes, and ears that twitch. I want it to be human head-sized or a little smaller, but NOT even remotely human in appearance, more in the direction of something mythical or fantastic. In terms of budget, I know I am going to have to start saving, as I seriously doubt I could do something like this for under a couple of hundred dollars. (at least). David S. Covarrubias wrote: Keep two things in mind. First If you deside to controll your mech. head with servos (via remote control) You will end up spending from $30 to $150 for each servo. That can get very expensive. Secondly you can opt to use cables (similar to bicycle brake cables) pushing and pulling the mechanics. This is much cheaper, but you will need to have cables attatched to levers extending out of your creation. These are the two main methods. You should keep these im mind as you begin to plan your project. Monica J. Roxburgh wrote: How lousy are $30 servos? What about scraping RC cars for parts? I would like to experiment with both of these methods. I am not quite sure how cables would be connected to the things you want to operate though. Cable controlled moving eyes????? >Someone told me you can make cables out of fish-tank air hoses and piano wire! Would you advise this? David S. Covarrubias wrote: I use music wire often, but there are better housings than air hose line for about the same price. $30 servos are not that great because the gears inside them are plastic and dont last as long as the higher grade versions. However they do the job just as well if used correctly. Tearing up old R/c cars..... excellent idea. when I said cable controlI was refering to having something similar to bicycle brake cable and housing running out of your project and connected to a lever. By moving the lever the cable is pulled and something in the figure is animated by it. In special effects, little things like eyes, lips toungue, etc are usually controlled by servos, and larger movements such as body and neck are animated with cables controllers (unless you can afford the heavy duty servos available for such applications.) Monica J. Roxburgh wrote: I finally managed to get to a hobby shop the other day, and had a look at some of their RC gear. WOW! It is REALLY expensive! (Not that I didn't know it would be, just not quite that bad!). For $75 they had a flimsey 2-channel controller with a silly pistol-grip. They did have a big 5 channel controller, but was over $300! I will be keeping my eyes open for used RC gear, (here I come, flea markets and yard sales!), but for now I think I will be going for the cable-control route. David S. Covarrubias wrote: Servos are expensive arent they.. The cool thing about servos and R/C control is that they don't require cables, and that sometimes is crutial. Also they are easily adjusted with the radio transmitter. This is very handy for things like eye mechanisms where if you turn the lids to far, you could easily crush the vaccuform eyelids and ruin the piece. If you do buy a radio, dont get a two channel. 2 servos are not going to do much for you. On the other hand, used 2 channel radios are very inexpensive, and if you take them apart and mount the joysticks from several into a single box you could probably build a pretty good controller. Just be sure that each radio is set to a different frequency.
Danger Mouse wrote: Depending on how complex the desired movement is, you could use R/C equipment as used in model cars and such, get a four channel controller, and any additional servos you'd need and such...the bad part about this is that this equipment isn't made for complex animatronics, or animatronics in general, so you can't support more than about 8 different moving parts (not sure about this number, been awhile since I've done r/c stuff) without having to buy a new controller and everything, which can get expensive. If you've got some soldering and electronics experience, you could just make your own servo system using small motors and toggle switches, which will support as many different moving parts as you want, the down side to this approach is that you would have wires running from whatever your animated which would be visible unless you make accomodations for them unless you've got knowledge of radio reveiver operations... ...I dunno why the wires thing seems uncommon though, it seems like a rather simple and inexpensive solution (aside from using cables and pulleys and such), if you really wanna get nifty you could try putting a processor in whatever it is your animating, but this would require a lot of knowledge about computer systems which I definately don't have, so I wouldn't really know how to do such things... Danger Mouse
Robert Barch wrote: I have been doing work in this area for a long time and can give you help in whatever you want to know more about. Just tell me what areas are most important to you and I will try to help as much as possible. Robert Barch Monica J. Roxburgh wrote: I am working on my BFA, and have in mind projects involving puppetry, masque, stop-motion animation, video and CG. I EVENTUALLY want to do something where masks, [BIG] puppets, and animatronics combine into something where you don't even know what parts are puppets and which are people, for performance and/or video. In terms of learning skills however, I would of course be starting off with something much smaller and simpler. I have some experience with sculpture and mask-making, but in terms of Animatronics, I really have no clue how to start. I have a very small technical background, (I used to mess around with a soldering iron when I was younger, and even had ideas of getting into a bit of robotics), but my interests have since moved into an area where technical things are more integrated into art. Any good info, suggestions, etc. you could aid me with? Thanks! Robert Barch wrote: I can give you everything you need to know. This is a complicated subject, involving a lot of material, so it will take a few e-mailings to try to cover the basics and get you started, but if you want to learn I'll help you. Before I begin there is something I found interesting. In your letter you said: "I EVENTUALLY want to do something where masks, [BIG] puppets, and animatronics combine into something where you don't even know what parts are puppets and which are people, for performance and/or video." Does that mean that you want to combine animatronics and masks to create characters that are so realistic that you cannot tell the difference between them and real people.???? It seems to me that is what you are saying! but I'm not sure? The reason why I ask this is because I can tailor the information to make it more specific and helpful to you. Robert Monica J. Roxburgh wrote: I definitely have the intention of combining animatronics and masks, but I am not so interested in making things that look like anything ordinary (including realistic people). I am extremely interested in fantastic, mythical, and surreal things and creatures, and expect that the things I will make will be more in that direction. By people I guess I meant that you don't know which parts are people in suits, and which parts are animatronic. I know that making realistic human animatronics would be a very very difficult thing to pull off effectively. Things that are kind of un-natural to begin with are more likely to work. The movie "The Dark Crystal" comes to mind- the Skeksis were far more successful than the Gelflings. The less human the characters were in form, the more easily they could be accepted as being real. Did that previous paragraph help? I am still a little vague on the particular characters and creatures I want to create at this point, but if you have further questions based on what I said, please ask. -Monica Robert Barch wrote: I think that I understand better now what you want to do. This is EASY and doesn't require a great deal of work on your part. Most of the things that you need can be purchased off the shelf. Your don't need any expensive machinery or equipment, you just have to know some basic information on how to put it together. Go to: EFFECTive ENGINEERING at http://www.trix.com/effective They will have everything you need right now and even have a video that will show you how to put it all together. One thing , however, that you have to keep in mind is that a lot of masks that are worn by actors are not controlled by RC servos. They are nothing more than a shell that has foam rubber attached to a mechanical lever that has a cable attached to it. On the other end of the cable is a person that pushes or pulls on the cable raising or lowering some facial feature on the mask. Usually the animatronics comes in when it is necessary to construct some type of "animated" mechanical creature (no actor is involved here) just some guy with his finger on a radio controlled transmitter box making some part on a radio-controlled piece of machinery move (a lot like the cable guy except with electronics). So go to this site and take a look around. If you have any questions or want to ask anything please feel free to contact me at any time. I will be happy to try to help you as much as possible. I have been involved in this field for a long time, as a hobby, and would enjoy talking to you! -Robert P.S. I have enclosed a photo of some work that I did 7 or 8 years ago. It is obsolete by what I am doing now but perhaps you would like to see it. This IS a mask that is computer controlled but also can be "controlled" by the actor wearing it. Robert Barch wrote: Just thought that I would write you a note and see how things were coming along. In constructing your animatronic mask I want to give you a few tips that might help to get you started. (1) A good source for parts to construct your mask would be a company that handles parts for radio controlled toys like cars, boats, and airplanes. Go to a book store and look at the magazines for sell on this topic. In the back will be a lot of companies that sell supplies. Get all the catalogs you will find bits and pieces of thing that will be very valuable to you. Look at the articles in the magazines and also go to a hobby shop and look at the real models. You will get a lot of ideas on how to construct your project. The mechanism that makes the wheels on a car move back and forth can also make the eyes on a mask move. The mechanism on a rudder of a boat can also be used to move the ears on your donkey mask. etc. Call SIG (a company that sells model airplane supplies) and get a copy of their catalog 1-800-247-5008 (they also sell short control cables which you might be able to use in the mask) (2) Once you know the type of mechanism to use you will have to attach it to some type of base that the actor will wear on his head. The two things used most often to construct this base or shell is fiberglass or self-curing acrylic plastic. Fiberglass is good for large parts but not very good for molding of fine detail. The acrylic plastic can be purchased in a dental supply store and comes as a powder and a liquid. Mixing the two together will create a compound that will quickly form a strong plastic. It would be good for small detail. The head that I made was made from acrylic plastic. It was designed and built by me and was used only to experiment with. The things I learned building it enabled me to build the more advanced mask that I am working on right now. The mask that I sent you a picture of weighted around 5 pounds while the new one weights less than one pound. This first mask was still very advanced. It was controlled by a computer and also by the actor. The actor could press a button and select a short program to take control of the movements. The actor still could operate the mask while the program was running. There were a lot of short programs that the actor could select IF he wanted to. He could also operate the mask manually without the computer. One thing you have to remember about real-time control that you are interested in is that most of this radio controlled stuff is only good as long as the operator is up close and can watch the movement and guide it. When the actor is on stage away from you and with his back turned away from you how are you going to operate the mask? This is the reason why having a "programable" feature on the mask could be important. The actor cannot do everything and there will be times when you will not be able to operate the mask either. Right now to begin your project you can use any servo from any hobby shop. Tower (suggested by someone) is as good a place as any to shop for one or or could try even a flea market for old R/C models that you can take apart and reuse the parts. -Robert Robert Bach wrote: I think that you are right to go with the cable- control route. The radio-controlled mechanisms are nothing more than cable-control mechanisms that have a servo attached to the end of each cable. Concentrate your time and effort into the cable control end of the project. You can always come back later and attach the RC stuff later. I used acrylic plastic for the foundation of the mask that I was making. I needed something that would be hard, easily carved or machined, and would last a long time. Because I was experimenting It was necessary to constantly change the design (which the plastic allowed me to do). There are a variety of reasons why motors are not used very much. First all motors are designed to operate at a very high speed. In order to slow them down it is necessary to attach gear boxes to them. So we have the high pitch sound of the motor running, the weight of the motor and gear box to deal with. The second big problem is control, with a cable you can pull it in or out, fast or slow, and also you can adjust how much you move the cable move it a little or a lot. Everything is done by just moving your little finger you cannot have this type of control with a simple switch. These are the main reasons why motors have a limited use. -Robert
Devilin wrote: I am in the proccess of using animatronics in toys. I am in no way an expert or have been doing this as a career. I just happen to know a lot about it, and have been studying it for many many years. The internet is finally catching up with this topic and I am finding a lot of info lately. If you get the info for the beast project at bucknell university, you will find step by step info on building an animatronic bison. It is the best site I have found. I think I mailed you that info the last time, I will remail it to you in case I didn't. Where are you located? UNfortunately I have not met anyone in the area (SW Michigan) that is into animatronics as much as I. Talk to you later. I don't have the site address right here, sorry. But it is something like Http://www.bucknell.edu/~beast/index.html....hope that helps Devilin
Robin McCain wrote: Walt Disney Studios probably knows more than anyone else, as I remember their original technology was pretty expensive, pneumatics & such - a lot of precision machining, many air solenoid valves. These days electronics would likely be a better route, old floppy disk drives have parts that could be cannabilized, and they are cheap at surplus stores... BUT... it will require a LOT of work and some serious electronics expertise. The hardware alone will take many many hours to build up, then the programming will be extremely tedious, even if you use a modular approach. I'm not saying this to discourage you, just give you an idea of the magnitude of the problem. Your best bet would be to find an electrical engineering classthat is willing to take it on as a class project. Often these folks compete in robotics projects nationwide, and your problem is closely related! -Best of luck, Robin McCain, Nouveau Performance
Kieran Wathen wrote: One more response to your animatronics discussion. My name is Kieran Wathen and I am the scenic charge at the Production Studio here in Louisville KY. I just found your site and am really glad to see how much info you have made available to everybody. From what I have learned so far the materials and technology available are changing so rapidly that we can all use the updates. I myself have a sort of animation fetish in regards to bringing to motion a favorite figure of mine who started in doodles and evolved into a small comic. We are currently in the middle of a reasonably sized animatronics project and here is some of the info I can pass on to you. More #'s and addresses after I bring them home from the shop. I am more involved on the sculpture, moldmaking, and casting end of the project and couldn't help you much in telling a servo from a piston. Our venture ino an animated short is being held up by frequent debates about the correct way to create a high flexiblity armature (polycarbonate rod and chemical welding seems to be winning out) and the running out of beer as it is a non-funded venture. Here are a few of the people I do know to contact, being a relative novice in the field. BJB industries is a supplier to Burman industries and their people are VERY helpful. They have a great many products in the 2 and 3 part foams and resins category for the lifelike "creation" of skins and underskins. SYN-AIR makes some really great and really easy to use mold making products, especially given that their products tend to be mixed by volume rather than weight. Decent prices as well given the ease of use, just make sure to check your shipments carefully. Large projects tend to get pricey PINK HOUSE STUDIOS has a great series of instructional videos and a wonderful product list for EXTREMELY life like casting, plus a lot of really good practical advice. CK designs is already in your catalogue of places to visit. Great folks. We get all our servos from them. More of those as I bring them in. Thanks for keeping up your website and if there is anything I can answer I'll be happy to wring my brain for an intelligent response. -Kieran

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