Howdy everyone, and welcome to a fun little interlude here at This Animatronic Life. Thanks to everyone for their great comments and questions about my last article, all about GHP’s parade work. Answers will be posted shortly!
Today, the answer to a question I get frequently asked at various events and in online postings: what is my personal favorite animatronic character? Instead of just the one, here are my top ten favorite animatronic figures. Some are my own company’s creations, others are from Disney parks and beyond—the whole thing is just one fan’s (somewhat informed) opinion!
In ascending order, my top 10 favorite animatronics of all time:
10. Mark Twain in the Rocking Chair from Epcot’s American Adventure: A strong start from one of the world’s greatest animatronics attractions, Epcot’s The American Adventure. When one thinks of men flying to the moon and back using 1960s technology, I think of the incredible technical feats of this show using show control technologies from the ‘70s—it is amazing what was achieved. This first Mark Twain figure in the show represents some of the greatest in animatronics magic: he is in a rocking chair, with no visible means of power or control, with very fluid movement and he’s smoking a cigar featuring a real, live smoke effect. The illusion of life at its best.
9. The miners from Knott’s Berry Farm’s Calico Mine Ride: A lot of readers might think this attraction is a little long in the tooth these days, but the Calico Mine Ride is a real milestone in the history of animation-heavy themed attractions. The ride opened in 1960, and had dozens of full-scale human figures, most of them animated. Although relatively simple in motion, the moving figures were cleverly designed—hammering, drilling, panning—using largely rotational, reactive animation for a very effective presentation. Their faces are frequently on a similar level for character quality with Blaine Gibson, and others. The ride predated the human figure-populated rides at Disney by seven years, outside the World’s Fair attractions. When GHP had the opportunity to create several new animated characters for the attraction in the 1990s, it was a dream come true. The Calico Mine Ride is still one of my favorite rides.
8. Disneyland’s Pirates Auctioneer: The Auctioneer is to Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland what Mark Twain and Ben Franklin are to the American Adventure. He may be only one character out of many, but the Auctioneer is to most fans the star of the ride. Just look at how beautifully animated the figure is next time you ride: watch his eyes, his subtle poses, major body motions, reactions to the catcalls from other pirates—wow! Few guests realize that the Auctioneer figure has a function unique to just about any other character in any attraction—a knee bend on his left leg that allows him to lean toward the pirates on the opposite side of the water, just like in the great Marc Davis concept for the character. It’s a great move, very dramatic and it moves his entire body. And of course, his costume is among the most incredible ever created for an animatronic figure, by the great Alice Davis. Her patterns are still used by costumers for the attraction today. Technically speaking, the figure has been one of the most advanced in the attraction—indeed in all of Disneyland—since the ride’s opening day, and has been upgraded several times since, including to an A-100 frame with compliant hydraulics in recent years.
7. Jack Skellington from Haunted Mansion Holiday: Okay, here’s one favorite figure that has a good deal of personal meaning, in addition to being very cool. Jack was the very first animatronic figure GHP created for a classic Disney attraction—indeed it was the first high-end animatronic character created by an outside company for any Disney attraction—and opened the door for my company to create figures for dozens of Disney projects around the world. So, he’s a big piece of my company’s history. All that aside, Jack is technically a unique and wonderful figure: very spindly limbs, thin hands, neck, big round head with silicone mask—a challenging design! But I put my whole bag of tricks into Jack, and I hear from lots of people that he’s their very favorite figure, period. GHP subsequently built two more Jack figures for Tokyo Disneyland’s version of the attraction, which opened in 2002, a year after the original premiered.
6. Nature’s Wonderland Fighting Stags: I may be dating myself a little by listing these figures, and some might point out that they technically don’t qualify as animatronics, since they were purely mechanical figures. BUT—if you’ve ever seen footage of the figures or remember them from the Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland, you know that they accomplished what we animators strive for in everything: the true illusion of life. Using just simple motors and cams, the Disney animators led by the design genius of our pal Bob Gurr created a scene that looked absolutely real, with these two big stags, horns locked, legs trying to dig in for traction, teeth bared. It looked exceptionally lifelike—so much so that I’ve heard stories of the Pack Mules getting spooked by them from their nearby trail!
Our pal Bob Gurr read this story this morning and sent me this great additional info about the Fighting Stags (err…Elk!):
Interesting you list the Fighting Stags. Actual name was the Fighting Elk – Job No. 4988 with drawings made from 3/11/60 thru 7/1/60. The animation was at the time referred to as the Battling Elk.
What made this thing look real was that no two motions ever repeated exactly like today’s digital precision. This was because, while the cams repeated, the actual pneumatic response varied depending on a whole bunch of factors; time and heat of the day, changing air pressure, gummed up needle valves, wear, and constant valve re-adjustment by the maintenance crew to get the animals to behave.
The really cool secret was that due to the mass of both Elk, and their dynamic interaction, the show effect was constantly different. Guests would never see exactly the same show no matter how many times they went on the ride. It was true Free Random Reality…known as life-like animation!
5. Hippie Crane: When it comes to iconic animatronic characters, I think the Hippie Crane from America Sings is probably near the top of anyone’s list. I must have watched that show more than 200 times during its run, and that figure always got big laughs from the audience, with his unexpected fluidity and range of motion. It was a Marc Davis character masterpiece, paired with some of the clever old animatronics designers who were the pioneers of the art. Even now, watching videos of the show, the Hippie Crane is such a knockout figure. The character was used for many years at WDI as an animation training character for new animators to hone their skill.
4. Fantasmic! Dragon: There has perhaps been more written about Disneyland’s new Fantasmic! Dragon that just about any animatronic figure ever (I can think of one exception…), for both good and bad. Let me say this: don’t believe everything you read on the Internet! The Dragon is one of the largest animatronic figures ever built, has more functions than almost any figure in all of Disneyland, and has the special consideration of having to live underground in a space that is actually shorter than the figure—it is one complex creation! The figure has around 60 microprocessors running constantly to check against dozens of conditions which must be all perfectly in sync for her to operate. I love it because the character is just so extreme. GHP created a full special effects package for the head (fire, mist, lights), all the tricky animation on a big scale, and the hidden show action systems below ground. Nothing compares with the complexity and enormity of this character, but the show payoff is equally enormous. I think it might be safe to say that for her brief appearance, the Maleficent Dragon really does steal the show.
3. Alec Tronic: This guy performed for a few years in Innoventions at Epcot, and was a pretty minor attraction, given all the other things to see and do in Innoventions and Epcot. But, for those who took the time to seek out his little show, Alec Tronic probably stands out as not only a great looking figure, but one of the best animated characters ever. The figure was programmed by animator extraordinaire David Feiten (one of the great animators from Disney’s golden age of animatronics) and sings, raps, and jokes through an exceptionally clever script and series of demonstrations (the Presidential Rap is especially memorable). The figure was a lightly dressed compliant A-100 character, the Rolls Royce of Disney animatronics for some time. Find a video of the show—it really will amaze you.
2. Wendell the Animatronic Unicyclist: This really isn’t tooting my own horn, and I really do love this character—I promise! About 1987, I had an idea for an animatronic character that I hoped would really blow people away with his performance. What could be cooler than having a figure ride a unicycle with no visible means of support? It took me two years to design and build (back then, Garner Holt Productions was just me and one or two part-time employees and the shop cat), and in 1989 I premiered Wendell the Unicyclist at a big technology show in Los Angeles. In addition to the unicycle gag, Wendell was a fully-functional animatronic human with 26 different moves—he could tip his hat and look at you with a variety of expressive facial functions. He was a huge hit, and helped launch my company forward with work on major projects at MGM Grand Adventures in Las Vegas, at Knott’s Berry Farm, and elsewhere. Wendell still makes occasional appearances, and hasn’t taken a tumble yet!
1. Original Mr. Lincoln figure from the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair: Without this figure, my company would not exist. I fell madly in love with the art and science of animatronics when I saw pictures of the Mr. Lincoln figure being built for the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair in the August 1963 issue of National Geographic. I was smitten! By the time I got to see Mr. Lincoln in person at Disneyland in the late 1960s, the figure was still almost identical to the Fair version. Old timers will remember the great poses the figure used to perform: hands on his jacket lapels, held behind his back, grand gestures, subtle and smooth. He was a remarkable achievement, and really did look like a real person. This is a truly historic show: in addition to being the very first attraction to operate on both coasts simultaneously (during the brief time the World’s Fair overlapped the Disneyland version in 1965), it also holds the record for the most incarnations of an attraction poster! The current incarnation of the figure at Walt Disney World’s Hall of Presidents is a close second for Lincoln greatness, and nothing can beat that original Blaine Gibson sculpt. Best of all, the figure was the catalyst for all other animatronics to follow. He proved the technology was feasible and very, very effective as a storytelling device. That’s why animatronics are still part of the biggest, best new attractions all over the world. There isn’t a screen around that can make a character look better, or more real.
I hope my little indulgence as a fan will be forgiven—and that you’ll chime in with your thoughts on your favorite animatronics!
Garner Holt is the founder and president of Garner Holt Productions, Inc. (GHP) Located in San Bernardino, CA. GHP is the world’s largest designer and fabricator of animatronics, show action systems, special effects, and other creations for theme parks, museums, retail and dining experiences, and other attractions. Inspired by a childhood trip to Disneyland and a lifelong love of Disney theme parks, Garner founded his company when he was only 16 years old. Since 1977, GHP has created nearly 3,000 individual animatronics and hundreds of other items for clients like the Disney Theme Parks, Universal Studios, Chuck E. Cheese Restaurants, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, NASA, Lockheed-Martin, and hundreds of other clients. Find out more about Garner and GHP at www.garnerholt.com