Putting Some Animatronic Skin in the Game

 

One of the most fascinating aspects of the animatronics industry is creating lifelike representations of both humans and animals. Yet despite all of the intriguing elements of such design, the one thing that has plagued animatronic experts for years is coming up with a skin product that will move and flex in a way that accurately mimics human facial expressions. Even back in 1988, Stan Winston’s John Rosengrant and Shane Mahan were experimenting with different densities/softness in certain parts of Pumpkinhead’s face alone. Previous to this most animatronic skins made for theme park animatronics were (and in some cases still are) a flavor of vinyl that is about as stiff as shoe rubber!

Putting actual skin into the game is one of the most difficult aspects of human animatronics. The chosen material for any given project not only has to look realistic in terms of tone and color, but also in the way it moves and reacts to the underlying mechanisms that function as muscles. To the delight of animatronic designers everywhere, technology in this area is fast advancing.

Animals and Humans Are Different

When you are dealing with animals, skin is not as critically important. Why? Because most of the animals an animatronic studio might duplicate either have hair covering their entire bodies or their movements are somewhat limited. In addition, animals rarely provide facial expressions that need to be duplicated. That said, there has been some incredible work done for the very hairy gorilla-like creatures in “Attack the Block” where every muscle was sculpted and slid on top of each other in a spandex covering. Does it show under that 3” of black fur? That’s a good question…

When it comes to people on the other hand, facial expressions are an integral part of the overall presentation. We humans are trained to pay attention to facial expressions when communicating with other people, as those expressions give us clues as to an individual’s intent and purpose. So even when looking at animatronic figures, our natural reaction is to pay close attention to the face.

How Expression Is Accomplished

One of the services Custom Entertainment Solutions is now offering is our new Android Doppelgänger Replication. This service allows our customers to have a custom doppelgänger replicated for anyone, just by supplying us with photographs and a bit of information about the individual. Yet in order to make these doppelgängers as realistic as possible, we have to pay attention to the skin.

The proprietary composite polysiloxane material used for the skin must be implemented with the following considerations:

  • Color and Tone – Skin color and tone must be realistic down to the slightest blemishes that give a human face its character. A completely uniform skin tone with no blemishes looks noticeably fake.
  • Thickness – One of the ways we add realism to facial expressions is to adjust the thickness of the skin in specific locations. Thickness directly affects how the skin will move and change shape.
  • Fit – When we apply the skin to an animatronic face, it must fit a certain way in relation to eye sockets, ears, nose and mouth. Again, this will influence how the skin moves when the internal mechanisms are adjusted to account for facial expression.

Other Body Parts

Although the skin used for animatronic heads is of primary importance, other body parts need realistic skin if they play an important role in presenting an accurate allusion. Our Magic Animatronic Hands provide a good example. When animatronic hands need to realistically include motion, the skin must look and move as accurately as it does on the face. Fortunately, it is a lot easier to accomplish with hands.

Next time you consider all the work and effort that goes into making a realistic humanoid android, just consider how complex the skin is. And you thought skin was just a vehicle enabling you to get a good tan!

 

The Creepy Factor of Animatronics

 

At Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is the incredibly popular Hall of Presidents exhibit visitors to this exhibit are treated to lifelike animatronic figures depicting every U.S. president from George Washington to Barack Obama. However, would you believe some people refuse to go into the Hall?

It’s true. Some people just find animatronic figures too creepy to deal with. It’s no different from folks who will not visit a wax museum because the life-like figures give them the willies. There’s just something about re-creating human figures in lifelike form that creeps us out.

Always Something Missing

We don’t fully understand the creepy factor of animatronics, which is why the industry has yet to overcome the phenomenon. However, human behavioral experts suggest it might come down to an innate knowledge within the human brain that there is “something missing”. No matter how life-like an animatronic humanoid looks, we can’t deal with the fact that something is not right; something we cannot quite put our fingers on.

Experts suggest a couple of possibilities here:

  • The Eyes – It has been said many times over that the eyes are the window to the soul. When you look into someone’s eyes, you can generally tell their overall mood rather easily. Sometimes you can even tell what they are thinking. When creating an Android Doppelgänger extreme care and attention is given to the eyes for those reasons. The most subtle motion, lower eyelid squint, how much of the iris is visible, and 100’s of other factors beyond the simple eyeball up/down left/right motion are considered.
  • Facial Expressions – Some experts suggest that a lack of accurate facial expression is another part of the creepy factor. Custom Entertainment Solutions now offers an Android Doppelgänger Replication service, making it possible for you to have a custom doppelgänger made of anyone. As part of that service, we do our best to replicate facial expressions. This is not always as easy as a simple “smile” or “eyebrows up/down”. The uncanny valley is a very real thing that we must balance on when animating. On one side, if you make the motions on an ultra-realistic sculpture as real as possible you will inevitably miss something. That small “something” will trigger any human to feel terrified! The solutions we employ are stylization in either animation or sculpture.
  • Fluid Movement – Employing robust fluid movement in our animatronic projects is another option in our Android Doppelgänger Replication service. Using complex closed-loop control theory and advanced feedback sensors fluid motion can be robust and adds realism. So much so that we can fool people if lighting and distance are manipulated in relation to the animatronic subject. It could be that our brains have trouble processing realistic fluid movement in light of the fact that we know we are looking at an android. It could definitely creep some people out.
Android Doppelgänger Replication

Android Doppelgänger Replication

Stationary Projects

What some of us in the animatronic business find so fascinating is that the creepy factor does not seem to apply with stationary products. For example, our new Ultra Realistic Artificial Hands are about as close to the real thing as possible. The main difference with these hands is that they are stationary rather than animatronic.

We have designed and built them so they can be posed in an almost unlimited number of combinations. However, because they are stationary, they do not seem to creep people out. Observers know they’re looking at something artificial so they are more likely to be fascinated by the realism.

Perhaps one day we’ll fully understand how the human brain works as it relates to animatronic humanoids. Many institutes, universities, and individuals are making progress in finding a bridge to this uncanny valley “creepy” effect. In fact we have created many different designs of humanoid heads for universities in Tokyo, Sweden, and Israel. The work that they and everybody else are doing may eventually lead us to overcoming the creep factor. It’s a daunting task indeed, but a challenge many are making exciting progress in!