Nick Maley discusses the origins of movie animatronics........ Ergo.

The Birth of Movie Animatronics ?


Ergo: "So tell me about animatronics."

Nick: "One of the problems we had early on in the evolution of the modern MFX Department was transcending from specialist makeup artists, to multi faceted creature builders. You have to realize that at the time we did STAR WARS it was hard to find 10 people in Europe who specialized in that kind of work. In the US, of course, Dick Smith had built some mechanicals for THE EXORCIST assisted by Rick Baker and by the time that EMPIRE was being made, Rick and Stan Winston were separately experimenting with complex mechanical devices, but the craft that we now commonly refer to in movies as animatronics didn't exist, as such.

"When I joined the business there were few hard and fast rules but in Europe, (and I suspect in the USA too), the Props Dept. produced decaying skeletons, falling dummies, creatures with limited animation, and they usually operated puppets too. The Make-up Department created creatures based on people, sometimes in association with the Wardrobe and Props Dept. The Special Effects Dept. made creatures that required involved mechanisms and stop motion models (animation) were made by Special Effects or the animators themselves. But despite this structured arrangement, Producers were looking for something new. Something less phony than Godzilla type men in suits but less cumbersome than the mechanical creatures regularly produced by most Special Effects Departments. It was time for the next step in the evolution process."

Ergo: "How did the Make-up department get involved?"

Nick: "Our involvement in the building of animatronic figures was related directly to prosthetics, or perhaps more accurately, the secret of foam latex. Those of us who worked with foam regularly had long recognized its potential for puppets, etc. Because we had a thorough understanding of the idiosyncrasies of the material, our approach to creating mechanical creatures differed radically from that of Special Effects."

"The Special Effects Department has always attracted engineers. With a few notable exceptions, engineers design creatures from an engineering stand point. They create things to withstand the maximum stresses that could be applied to them, using strong materials to build robust mechanisms based upon the same tried and tested mechanical principals that create cars and trains and cranes and robots, i.e., ball joints, swivels, hinges, pistons, etc. However, nature's creations don't use the same mechanical principals as cars and trains and cranes and robots. They don't move in a mechanical fashion. Their joints are less precise, their connections less rigid. Living creatures are not designed to withstand maximum stresses. Their existence is usually a delicate balance of strength and weight developed to suit specific circumstances. It was comparatively easy for us to accept the concept of building mechanisms that were balanced to the materials we used, (rather than building a mechanism and then covering it with something), since we were so used to dealing with the constant delicate balance of foam latex itself."

"With the exception of the ill fated preying mantis creature, EMPIRE was the first project where we (the crew on STAR WARS) were responsible for creating puppets. Even then we were not allowed to operate them. In a way it was strange. We were makeup artists doing stuff that didn't involve makeup and that didn't have people inside. We were really getting into an area that was new for us.

Ergo: "Leading edge."

Nick: "I guess so.

Ergo: "What techniques did you use?"

Nick: "It's hard to generalize. I can't make detailed comments about the mechanical techniques that Stuart (Freeborn) used on the mechanism for the initial YODA, (Nick Dudman helped him with that, not me), but most of the mechanisms I built with Bob Keen, (perhaps with the exception of the standby Yoda), were designed to be radically different to those of SFX. Our approach was more closely linked to skeletons. We used spongy connections similar to ligaments and delicate lightweight linkages just strong enough to move the delicate materials we covered them with. We had to avoided regular lubricants because they attacked the foam so we used lateral alternatives like talcum powder. "

Ergo: "So how did the term animatronics came about?"

Nick: "OK, well... I remember the first time I heard the term used, was a day when Bruce Sharman, the Production Supervisor on EMPIRE, came into the workshop. He talked to a bunch of us about the idea of creating a new union department called "Animatronics". It would be for specialists from assorted backgrounds who built our kind of creatures...... a mixture of animation, make-up effects and electronics. I wasn't very keen on the idea because I enjoyed being a Make-up artist. I didn't want to change Departments or be told that if I did animatronics I couldn't do prosthetics anymore. Nor did I want a new department that would exclude me from making animatronic creatures, when I had helped develop them."

Ergo: "So the term animatronics emerged from STAR WARS?"

Nick: "It was the first time I heard the term used in reference to movies but a phrase "Audio Animatronics" originated with the Disney World mechanical figures."

Ergo: "And now the term "animatronics" is widely used in movies?"

Nick: "Absolutely. Bruce went on as a Producer for Jim Henson. He was involved with DARK CRYSTAL and THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER. Animatronics became a unionized Department that was used extensively to bring new people in to movies, mostly to work with him and Jim."

Ergo: "Was Henson very influential in the development of movie animatronics?"

Nick: "Well, the skills were developing along similar, but quite different, lines on both sides of the Atlantic. There's no doubt that Jim Henson and The Muppets were hugely influential in Europe. I can't say about the USA. He brought inside information about some of the Disney World techniques and his mechanical designer, Lee, (who I am having trouble finding other reference to),was extremely innovative."

Ergo: "Did you ever work for Henson ?"

Nick: "Not directly. Of course, we had a close association with The Muppets building YODA. I talked to Bruce Sharman about joining the team for DARK CRYSTAL but he felt that I should be prepared to take a cut in salary for the privilege of working with The Muppets and I didn't see it that way. A few year later when I was directing the inserts of the bat creature which we had built for LIFEFORCE. Jim visited the set and asked me to join the team that was doing RETURN TO OZ. I was very flattered that he had taken the trouble to ask me personally but I explained that I felt working for another designer, (Lyle Conway headed that team) would be a backward step for me. I think he was really taken aback, anyway he didn't ask me again.

Ergo: "Was it a shock when he died ?"

Nick: "It was a terrible tragedy. Although I didn't know him well, his influence touched us all and his legacy lives on.

Ergo: "When talking about animatronics, I've sometimes heard the term "waldo" used. What is that?"

Nick: "The term "Waldo" is a comparatively recent name given to a control device concept that has been around quite a while. I believe the concept may originate with Disney, I don't know. Certainly the concept was discussed between Bob Keen and myself around the time of DARK CRYSTAL (which Bobby worked on) in the late 70's . The first device of that kind that we built, ( a mechanism that attached to the operators body to automatically transmit his body movements to the same body part of a puppet or robotic figure), was on LIFEFORCE in 1983. Ours were built around radio control pots, (the mechanism that measures proportional movement in model plane controllers), by Tony Dunsterville and Nigel Brackley who I had brought in to develop the idea. I'm quite sure that similar devices were being used in the US quite a bit before that. They were one of those things that we talked about a lot but never actually saw....until we built our own."


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