Animatronics is the art and science of making robotic characters that appear to be alive. The best known examples are the many robotic creatures found in Disney theme parks. In this workshop, we will create our own animatronic shows from scratch. That may sound hard, but it’s not. Here are the rough steps we will follow:

1. Introduction to Animatronics

We begin by examining Raffles, a simple animatronic figure that we can program to say and do what we want. We will be building simple figures like this.

2. Choose the Characters

We will look at a variety of hand puppets and think about what sort of shows we could do with those characters. One thing to keep in mind is that we want to limit the number of motions required to be very expressive. At this point, we will pick one or two puppets to animate.

3. Design Internal Mechanisms

We will be using model airplane servo motors to power our creations. The trick is to design and build an actuated skeleton to place inside the puppet that generates the movements we would like. We will sketch out where the servos should go and a simple skeleton to hold them in place. It is important that the puppet we have chosen is large enough inside to accommodate the mechanism required to get the desired movement. 

4. Building the Mechanisms

To make our mechanisms strong, we will be using aluminum strips and angles held together with screws. This is a lot like building with an Erector set (for those who know what those are), except we get to punch the holes wherever we want them using a special hand punch. (No power tools are required!)

5. The Set

Just like any theater performance, our characters will need a set to perform on. Not only will this be the background for our animatronic actors, it will also be a way to help hide the mechanism from view.

6. The Script

The next step is writing the script. This should include the lines to be spoken as well as some indication of any special motions the characters should make.

7. The Audio Channel

To give voice to our characters, we record human actors performing the script. Of course, we may want our characters to sound very different. We will be using the sound editor Audacity to edit the recordings, shift the pitch, and add effects to create just the right character voices. 

8. Programming the Motions 

This is really easy. We will be using a program called Visual Show Automation. It reads in the audio files and automatically generates motion commands to look like mouth motions. Once we have the mouth movements done, we can play that back and control each motion separately with a joy stick. The system records these so that we can “layer” each motion track on, one by one. 

9. Sit Back and Enjoy the Show!