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How Great Movie Props Make Great Movies


When I see this I think of cool models, maybe some sets, maybe some small artifacts from Star Wars or Runaway or maybe Blade Runner that I might be lucky enough to collect.

Being a part of the worldwide special effects industry I have had some amazing luck in opportunities. One was being a member of Stan Winston’s Mechanical department during the making of “A.I. – Artificial Intelligence”.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Movie props were not simple for this film. I was specifically involved in the creation of the fully animatronic robots in this picture (along with a huge team of my childhood heroes, the 25 year veterans of Hollywood FX). “TV Face” (designed by Aaron Sims) and mechanically executed mostly by Christian Ristow was a truly untethered hydraulic remote controlled animatronic. While we created detailed animatronics and went to set with an armada of robots and support equipment, the “props” department arrived with more than stunning gear.

Haley Joel Osment with TV Face

Haley Joel Osment with TV Face

Most props were robotic. At least mechatronic (very little had any interaction with the environment autonomously). The latest in microcontrollers, LED technology, and fantastic mechanical design came together in each piece they created. It was not a simple computer generated (CG) effect. I was able to hold these things in my hands.

“Props” can have a simplistic connotation in most people’s minds. Even in current films, however, movie props can be more elegant and robotic than most watching those films at home realize.

The Evolution Of Robotics


In this new era where we see robots on TV making our cars, cleaning our floors, doing life-critical surgery, and “simply” zapping our corneas with a laser we have managed to slip into a state where “robots” are just another tool to help us.

Those still feeling let down that we don’t have flying cars just yet haven’t stopped and looked around: the science fiction dream of robots being in our households, military soldiers, factory workers, and more is HAPPENING!

And it is progressing fast…

Asimo Development Process

Asimo Development Process (click to enlarge)

Look around the world. Asimo, a breakthrough in humanoid technology. I watched it run across a stage years ago now and had to stop myself from thinking “aaahhhhh, that’s just a kid in a suit”. No, this robotic masterpiece is emulating a human. Some would say – perhaps if you put an “animatronic” skin on this you could call this a very, very expensive animatronic.

Not ten years ago in a 4th year mechatronics class Kam Leang taught us to program a MIT HandyBoard microcontroller, hack ultrasonic rangefinders from Polaroid cameras, and more to create a truly autonomous robotic hockey player. Hit a button, select defense or offense programs, and play two on two on a 8 foot long wood floor ‘rink’ with goals at magnetic north and south (so our hacked mini-van digital compasses could give us feedback to allow us to score on the OTHER guys goal!).

Now this technology is “simple”. True, there was a lot of mid-level electrical engineering involved and more than 10 digital and 8 analog inputs to manage a 2 motor differential drive H-bridge. But now we can simply go to “The Robot Shop” online and buy a kit / controller that has most all that in it. With instructions.

Aldebaran NAO

Aldebaran NAO (click to enlarge)

…Or simply buy a full humanoid biped to play around with. The Aldebaran NAO is a perfect example. It even comes in a well-designed plastic skin.

The Wonderful World of Animatronics and Robotics


Animatronics and Robotics… In most minds these are two completely different topics. “Animatronics” used to refer to a mechanical, perhaps mechatronic “gag” or puppet that had some mechanisms in it. True, it is a large and very loose definition.

From complex large scale hydraulics and extremely sensitive control systems for large dinosaurs to “Bun Raku” rod puppetry I have seen (and been responsible for making) a lot of “animatronics”.

Bun Raku

Bun Raku - Traditional Japanese Puppet Theater

“Robotics” we think of usually as a highly complex specialized system that involves system architecture, control theory, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, systems integration, and many times YEARS to produce something that is not presented to us as a hobby kit.

Take another look…

Custom Entertainment Solutions

Custom Entertainment Solutions

Roboticists themselves have a hard time nailing down the term. Wikipedia defines it as “The word robot can refer to both physical robots and virtual software agents, but the latter are usually referred to as bots.” [23] There is no consensus on which machines qualify as robots but there is general agreement among experts, and the public, that robots tend to do some or all of the following: move around, operate a mechanical limb, sense and manipulate their environment, and exhibit intelligent behavior — especially behavior which mimics humans or other animals. “

How exactly does this differ from “animatronics” as we know them today?

In the custom animatronic designs we create at Custom Entertainment Solutions nearly all of the systems require at least one microprocessor to move many mechanical limbs to emulate a living creature. Or even control a robotic figure.

The future will produce not just more “robots”, but interactive advanced mechatronic creations that will emulate us. Androids, simulacrum, bots, automatons, “skin jobs”, all good names. I propose a new one:

“Animatronic Robotics”