Howdy everyone—July was an exciting month for us at Garner Holt Productions, Inc. (GHP): in the middle of the month, GHP was on hand at the D23 Expo to share some of our work to support MiceChat and the Walt Disney Birthplace; the next weekend, my creative director Bill Butler, along with our pal Bob Gurr, spoke on a panel at Comic-Con about the history of theme park animatronics and where they’re going next; and last weekend we celebrated GHP’s 40th anniversary with a big open house bash where we displayed lots of our work new and old (plus the Jennie K. locomotive).

One of the new things we shared at the open house is an animatronic bust of Abraham Lincoln.  This is a figure we’ve been developing—the one at our open house is actually the “phase II” version of the concept—and the reaction was absolutely stunning (it was overwhelmingly positive at Comic-Con, too, where we showed a short video clip of the head in development).  The Lincoln bust is part of GHP’s Expressive Head Project, where we’ve endeavored to add realistic facial expression to animatronics in order to add an extra dimension of lifelike movement (a subtle way of saying, “We crammed more than 40 unique motions into this animatronic head!”).

Bob Gurr wrote me after the open house and complimented our work, saying, “I’m still flabbergasted with what I saw the Lincoln face do. Now you’re in a position to do the finest possible face when a client really want’s the absolute best. Having watched the facial animation progression from Wathel’s first efforts in 1955, thru Jack Gladish’s first Chinaman, then the 1964 Lincoln [through today], I’m probably the sole witness to all of it. Flabbergasted indeed!”

We first implemented this sort of work in our projects for the US Marines in the Infantry Immersion Trainer at Camp Pendleton.  We created a series of animatronic townspeople to populate the immersive training environment—some of them were slated to be hostile combatants.  An effective way to illustrate an animatronic character’s scripted intentions or whether they are friendly or hostile is through changing the figure’s facial expression—in this case, our figures could scowl or raise their eyebrows and smile or frown, all accomplished by mechanical means beneath the animatronics’ silicone face masks.  It was a subtle yet very effective way to forewarn Marines that the “townspeople” they were encountering may be getting ready to attack.

The animatronic Lincoln bust and GHP’s figures for the military can trace their origins to a larger project we’ve had in development for a number of years.  Our “Project Yeti” initiative focuses on the creation of a seven foot-tall animatronic yeti capable of more than 120 individual motions, more than thirty of which are in the figure’s face. The Yeti’s hands are so articulated that they can be programmed to communicate with the hearing impaired using American Sign Language. The figure also employs a GHP-created visual/mechanical interface that allows the figure to track individuals in an audience, lock onto faces, follow specific faces, colors, or images (like logos or other insignia), and cross-reference what it sees with an index of faces and other images so that the character can “recognize” individuals or specific insignia. All of this combines to make a figure that not only looks and moves in an exceptionally lifelike way, but can also behave—using this form of artificial intelligence (AI)—in unique and not essentially-linear ways.

In the same way, the GHP Expressive Head Project takes the things we learned over the past decade or so with the Yeti to the next level. The Yeti’s head is over 24 inches tall, and most of its motions are accomplished with traditional linear pneumatic actuators. At the time it was developed, miniature aircraft or industrial-quality servo-motors were not available at a level and price that made sense for this type of application. Now, we can fit more functions (almost twice as many) than we were able to get in the Yeti’s face into the considerably smaller footprint of the Lincoln character. These servo-motors are quite different from the traditional hobby servos used in movie animatronics or by the many expressive “robotic” heads being developed by universities and hobbyists.

The GHP Expressive Head’s proprietary silicone skin mask is an innovation, too: it attaches to the mechanical parts of the figure with dozens of unique flexible magnetic grippers that allow a balance of robust strength and compliant motion. In fact, the entire skin can be removed and replaced in less than two minutes and requires no tools. The skin is the real star of the figure, and is so malleable it can replicate wrinkling around the eyes, crinkling the nose, and a variety of strikingly lifelike creases that appear and disappear as the face moves from expression to expression—it’s incredible! Most importantly, it’s been thoroughly tested to prove it’s highly durable for theme park use.

Like the mechanical elements and silicone skins, GHP had to develop an all-new programming system to allow the large number of facial functions and speech-related motions to be processed at lightning speed. Animatronics generally run at 32 frames per second. With the expressive Lincoln, we run at a rate of 1,000 frames per second to ensure crisp and exceptionally fluid movement. When operating 45 individual actuators in a space as small as a human head—including twelve that operate just the lips, four on each eye, and so on—room and playback speed are at a premium. With this sort of fluid realism, combined with facial recognition and tracking and other AI features, I believe we’ll soon be looking at animatronics that effectively blur the line between fantasy and reality.

The animatronic Lincoln bust we showcased at our open house represents the current state of the art in mechanical animation. It’s also the first in a new line of super-expressive animatronic products we’re calling “The Living Faces of History,” which we will market not only to our traditional theme park clients but to museums and cultural centers as a means of bringing cutting-edge technology into alternative narrative-driven locations. Something I’ve seen time and time again in attractions and exhibits is people lose interest in reading explanatory tags pretty quickly, and even videos lose interest after a minute or two in most settings. But people always listen and watch animatronics—they’re visually appealing, have a sense of magic to them, and, when done properly, provide an illusion of life that compels audiences to pay attention (with 30-50 functions in each face, the level of lifelike realism will, I think, be totally immersive). Our new venture will include historic personalities like Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, and many others—in fact, infinitely more as the expressive animatronic head platform we’ve created can be adapted to any person’s face. We can even digitally scan the faces of people living today to create animatronic characters based on specific individuals, as we did with Samuel Morrison of the African American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The “Living Faces of History” figures are all totally self-contained, “turnkey” displays (with control and audio equipment on board), and require only a single power cord to be plugged into a standard outlet. They can be controlled using a tablet computer interface like an iPad or even a smart phone. Because they require no infrastructure, we believe they will be appealing to non-traditional animatronics markets where compressed air is generally not available, like most museums. This marks a first for theme park-quality animatronics displays and a leap forward for animatronics in general—I strongly believe it’s reflective of where animatronics will be “headed” in the years to come, in theme parks and out. One day, robots with expressive faces like this may be in homes, and we’d love to be part of that.

The very first Lincoln figure at the 1964 New York World’s Fair had a few facial expression-related functions: it could raise its eyebrows, move its mouth and pinch its lips to make various speech motions, and even its teeth moved to facilitate an “eff” sound. What we’re doing now at GHP is the extension of this heritage, and the goal that animatronics pioneers and innovators have all had: to blur the line between what’s mechanical—metal, plastic, and motors—and what is real and alive. GHP has made great strides in recreating anatomy, motion, and emotion in our figures, from Cars characters in Radiator Springs Racers to the latest expressive heads. We’re currently well into work on next generation expressive head, phase III if you will. I love research and development and the creative process behind bringing this sort of mechanized magic to life, pushing the state of animatronics further and further. And as cool as the animatronic Lincoln bust is, keep your eyes on what GHP is up to…you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

We’ll have our GHP Expressive Head Project animatronic at the IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando this coming November—I hope you’ll be able to see it perform in person!

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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