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What is Animatronics?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Animatronics is a type of special effects which involves building mechanized creatures like dinosaurs, imaginary animals, and others. Initially, the concept was developed for Disney Studios, which used a giant squid in the 1954 film version 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The name “animatronics” is used to refer to generic animatronic creations made by other film studios, while Disney has copyrighted “audio-animatronics” to refer to their creature creations. In combination with other special effects, animatronics can lend a level of reality and texture to a film that computer animation does not provide.

In addition to using animatronics in film, Disney also uses it on their resort properties: the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland featured animatronic birds when the technology was still relatively new. Many Disney rides today have complex animatronic people and animals to entertain guests, and animatronics have also become widespread at other amusement parks around the world. As rides are renovated, better animatronic technology is added to them to create a more convincing experience for guests.

Disney pioneered animatronics technology, but other film companies have added nuances of construction and programming, and the technology is constantly improving. Very basic animatronic creatures may have a few simple movements and a sound recording, but more complex ones can be remotely controlled or programmed to perform a specific set of actions. Engineers who work with animatronics are also striving to make the technology seem more lifelike with the addition of highly flexible joints, realistic skin, and meticulous special effects.

For a major film, a large number of animatronic creatures might have to be built, a process which can take over a year. An animatronic creation starts with a sketch on paper. Designers figure out what the animal will look like, and create engineering drawings which are used to build a scale model called a maquette. If the maquette satisfies the team, they work on a full scale model, fabricating moving parts and electronic controls before covering the creature in realistic skin which is textured and painted.

Computer animation is used much more than animatronics in movies today, because it is more cost efficient and takes less time. Some film studios still use animatronics for a variety of purposes, and many companies specialize in creating animatronics for film and amusement park clients. Junior robotics students also sometimes work on basic animatronics projects as part of their educational experience, and some people enjoy using animatronic decorations for holidays like Christmas, when homes are bedecked inside and out.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

By KoiwiGal — On Jun 21, 2011

I absolutely love Halloween animatronics when they are used the right way.

I know Christmas ones are more popular, but if you get a skeleton or something that slowly opens its mouth or eyes it can be really effective.

This is especially true if you are trying for a haunted house effect. I've seen them do this right at a couple of haunted houses where you come around a corner and don't realize there's something moving until your eyes adjust.

I've seen people jump and scream at the right horror animatronics and I would love to set up a house where people could get a scare like that.

By umbra21 — On Jun 19, 2011

@bythewell - No offense to the original theme park ride, because I love it too, but the Pirates of the Caribbean films are mostly successful because of Johnny Depp's character, I think. And he is pretty much a creation of the actor, rather than coming from the ride.

I remember seeing some wonderful animatronic dinosaurs in a theme park in Las Vegas when I was a kid. The first one seemed to come out of nowhere and scared the dickens out of me when it swung its head around.

They need to make sure they do it right though. Another of those dinosaurs moved too often and it looked really unnatural compared to the rest.

By bythewell — On Jun 17, 2011

The Enchanted Tiki Room was my favorite part of Disneyland when I was a girl and I still think it is pretty neat.

For being something at the forefront of technology decades ago, it has held up really well. The last time I was there all the kids in the room seemed delighted.

However my favorite Walt Disney animatronics at Disneyland has got to be the Pirates of the Caribbean now. Not just because of the films, but because it is a really great ride.

I also loved watching the films to catch the scenes that were from the ride. Like the prisoners trying to tempt the dog who has the key, with a bone.

Who would have thought they could make such a great series from a theme park ride?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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