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.