When the Enchanted Tiki Room opened at Disney-land in Anaheim, Calif., in 1963, it was, by all accounts, thrilling. Inside were dozens of talking flowers, totem poles, and birds-colorful macaws, toucans, and cockatoos-and together they per-formed a musical show by dancing and singing along to tunes like the “Hawaiian War Chant.” Huge crowds visited the attraction, excited to get a look at these early Audio-Animatronics-“audio” meaning that sound triggered a series of mechanisms, like cams and levers, that caused a pneumatic valve to open and close, moving an eye, a beak, or part of the body in time with the music. People loved them.
Walt Disney Imagineering, the research and development arm of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, which had patented the Audio Animatronics term and the technique, got to work, and today, Audio-Anima-tronics are light-years more sophisticated and much more slick than they were 40 years ago. While the birds in the Enchanted Tiki Room could sing and dance, their sounds and moves were limited to short, preprogrammed sequences. New Audio-Animatronics, by contrast, seem almost alive. They have flexible joints and skin. They can speak hundreds of phrases and sentences.
Two Mr. Potato Head figures, one installed at the Toy Story Mania! attraction at Disneyland in California and the other at Walt Disney World in Florida, can react endlessly and in real time to the specific things and people around them, as if they can see the color of a baseball hat or the person eating a hot dog. In reality, a remote operator―whose location few know and no one will tell―uses cameras and computers to create what Disney calls the “magic.”
In an internal publication, Kevin Rafferty, a senior concept writer for Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, California, says the figure took longer to animate than any other figure Imagineers have produced. “Mr. Potato Head performs continuously. His show is not linear in its structure because it is designed to play off any given real-time moment with the guests, so anything goes,” says Rafferty, who played a key role in the character’s creative development. “Mr. Potato Head is stuffed with all kinds of new and amazing technology that makes him look as though he popped out of the world of Toy Story right onto the stage.”
Thanks to what’s called a “guest location grid” monitor, Mr. Potato Head’s eyes can focus directly on whomever he’s talking to, Rafferty says. And Mr. Potato Head is the first Audio-Animatronics figure ever to be able to take off a body part; he can grab his ear with his hand, snap it off, and then put it back on.
Many Disney rides and attractions now have Audio-Animatronics figures that entertain and interact with park visitors. When the Enchanted Tiki Room was refurbished in 2005, the computers and electronics technology that run the Audio-Animatronics birds also got an update. It’s a Small World, perhaps the best-known and most popular Disneyland attraction, is filled with nearly 300 Audio-Ani-matronics dolls. The animated characters in the Pirates of the Caribbean boat ride, first built at Disneyland in 1967 and then at three other Disney parks over the next 25 years, inspired a movie series, and in 2006, to coincide with the release of the second film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Audio-Animatronics figures of Captain Jack Sparrow and Barbossa were added to the attractions at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Disney Imagineers have created Audio-Animatronics versions of Stitch from Lilo & Stitch, Hopper from A Bug’s Life, and The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz.
A Chase Across the Galaxy
And then there’s WALL•E. Kept topsecret while he was being built by Imagineers, a project that began in October 2007, WALL.E is a live version of the title character from Pixar Animation Studios’ feature film of the same name. His first public appearance is scheduled to coincide with the release of the film, which hits theaters on June 27. The movie WALL.E is the story of a little trash-compacting robot, left alone on Earth after overpopulation and consumerism have forced humans to evacuate into space. After hundreds of years, “WALL.E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) discovers a new purpose in life (besides collecting knickknacks) when he meets a sleek search robot named EVE,” according to the movie’s official Web site. “EVE comes to realize that WALL•E has inadvertently stumbled upon the key to the planet’s future and races back to space to report her findings to the humans (who have been eagerly awaiting word that it is safe to return home). Meanwhile, WALL•E chases EVE across the galaxy and sets into motion one of the most exciting and imaginative comedy adventures ever brought to the big screen.”
Engineers as Storytellers
Like filmmakers, Imagineers “are first and foremost storytellers, so we always start with the story,” says Kristin Jones, an electronic engineer who’s responsible for all of the electrical systems on the live version of WALL•E. While some Audio-Animatronics still use hydraulic pumps and motors, many of the newer figures are all electric, which has significant advantages when it A comes to making these figures mobile.
“WALL•E is a free-roaming Audio-Animatron-ics character. He has been designed so that he can visit any Disney park, where appropriate. He might be seen wandering through Tomorrowland or make a red carpet appearance at a film premiere,” Jones says. “The goal is to make the Audio-Animatronics WALL.E look just like the big-screen star, as if the movie were made about the real robot WALL•E.” She adds, however, that “the real world WALL•E is subject to the laws of physical reality that don’t exist in animation, which provides many challenges.”
Sneeze, Snort, Bellow, and Laugh
In 2003, Walt Disney Imagineering established the “Living Character Initiative” to tackle just these kinds of chal-lenges. The goal is to develop what Jones describes as “live, interactive characters in both physical and virtual worlds to interact with guests in new and more personalized ways.” Lucky the Dinosaur, nine feet tall and 450 pounds, emerged from this program in 2003. Lucky can sneeze, snort, bellow, and laugh, and sometimes he gets the hiccups. He has an amazing range of neck movement. But what makes Lucky really remarkable is that, unlike the characters in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, he isn’t attraction based; he’s the first Audio-Animatronics figure able to walk freely through a theme park.
“The new generation of Audio-Anima-tronics characters has made great strides from our earlier figures both literally and figuratively speaking,” says Shelley Short, vice president of research and development for Walt Disney Imagineering. “Mechanically, lighter-weight internal components mean more agility and fluidity. From a creative perspective, that translates to the potential to move our characters more freely, have more natural movement, and interact with a guest at close range.”
Because visitors can get up close and personal with Lucky, Imagineers had to make sure he was realistic to the touch, and so they worked with specialists in the field of skin technology. They also had to ensure Lucky wouldn’t be too scary or menacing. “It was a delicate balance to achieve realism and something onto which we could project our collective anthropomorphized ideas of what a young dinosaur would be like,” Short says. “Because of Lucky’s physical size when compared to our guests, we intuitively knew that a facial expression that was nonthreatening was needed to counter his scale. After all, the goal was a creature that guests would interact with, and not run away from.”
Emphasizing what Occurs Naturally
What they achieved is a creature who has a cuteness and sweetness about him, who’s charming and often appears to smile―“an attribute you see in the jaw structures of living alligators’ crocodiles, some lizards and many renderings depicting our best theories of what dinosaurs might have looked like,” Short says. “We simply emphasized what occurs naturally.”
The eyes were especially tricky. “We went around and around with them: Should they be more realistic, rap-tor-like as depicted in many films or more friendly, akin to what we are familiar with in many other animal species?” says Short. “In the end, we settled on something that we thought would connect with our Disney park guests.”
The Muppet Mobile Lab, also remote controlled, is equally as impressive. Appearing early in 2007, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew began riding around Disney parks in a silver vehicle with flashing lights and water sprayers, while his assistant, Beaker, pedals an attached bicycle that appears to power the car. Based on the puppets created by The Jim Henson Company, these Audio-Animatronics charac-ters talk and joke with the visitors who gather around them, asking and answering spontaneous questions, getting the audience to participate in their “experiments,” and referring to people by name.
WALLE is able to interact one-on-one with visitors and objects in his immediate environment. “The robot can move around, meet people, play with objects, and explore the world around him much like the WALLE in the film,” Jones says. “The eyes and hands are a major focal point in allowing WALL•E’s personality to shine.”
To get him just right, Imagineers started by talking with the movie’s animators, designers, and directors, and then worked from the film, images, and concept sketches to make models and breadboards―prototypes of the electronic circuits―to fine-tune the robot’s look and functions. Then, the building began. WALL•E’s body is made mostly of aluminum because it’s very lightweight, with light-emitting diodes in the front to indicate his charge level. Speakers allow him to say his name and make other sounds, and a single board computer runs a real-time operating system. WALL•E uses as much onboard computing power as a typical laptop, says Jones.
In the end, Audio-Anima-tronics is about teamwork. Bringing characters like Lucky and WALL•E to life, blending robotics with entertainment and aesthetics, is the result of a collaborative effort. “Walt Disney Imagineering has more than 140 disciplines involved in the development process, including artists, engineers, animators, sound specialists, special effects designers, writers, and many more,” says Jones. “Audiences today expect Audio-Animatronics characters to look like real Disney magic.”