Tag Archives: special effects

Animatronics and Automata

I like things that move on their own. An automaton is a self-operating machine, usually through mechanical means. Animatronics is a more specialized type of automaton; it is a form of mechanized puppet. Neither of these should be confused with a robot, which is an object which can sense and/or react to its environment. Here are some starter links if you are interested in making or learning more about animatronics and automaton.

photograph by Compound Eye
photograph by Compound Eye

How Animatronics Works“, by Jeff Tyson. A look at how Stan Winston Studios creates a full-scale animatronic Spinosaurus. In addition to describing the animatronic parts, it’s an interesting look at how to sculpt, cast, and fabricate a full-size dinosaur.

Instructables has a number of guides on creating animatronics of varying complexity:

  • Grim Reaper Animatronic is one of the simplest; it uses an oscillating fan for its movement. It shows how you can simplify things by using already existing parts and mechanisms if you can look at their possibilities. This is true of all props.
  • Halloween Animatronics is a nice introduction to computer-controlled movements. It uses a USB interface to connect the parts directly to your computer for manipulation. My how far we’ve come.
  • How to create simple animatronics – Part one: using the MAKE controller. Using a controller board allows your animatronics to be self-contained, since the controller board takes the place of your computer. You still set up the board with your computer. This tutorial also involves hooking up sensors to control the movement, much like in the first link, where Stan Winston Studios uses arm-length gloves to control the Spinosaurus’ arms.

In a posting called, “Robots, Artificial Intelligence, Steam Power, and Sound Effects“, Michael Addicott describes a number of marvelous contraptions and mechanical devices in use since the Ancient Greeks. He includes such inventors as Hero (one of Bland Wade‘s favorites), and devices like the mechanical singing birds of Theophilus.

For Automaton, the Automata/Automaton Blog is the greatest place to start. Not only does it continually update with photographs and information about both antique and contemporary automaton, but it’s the perfect starting place for further exploration of information.

A Silicone Severed Head

Dragon Skin

This week, at the Public Theatre, we begin working on some props for The Bacchae. Since there is going to be a dead corpse which is picked apart and torn up on stage, Jay Duckworth has ordered some “Dragon Skin” from Smooth-On to experiment with.

Many of us in the props world are familiar with Smooth-On and their range of products for molding and casting. My father, a potter in Pennsylvania, has been using their polyurethane for years in his mold-making, and they’ve really pushed some new products for theatrical purposes in the past decade or so.

A Silicone Severed Head
A Silicone Severed Head

But wait, there’s more! Their website isn’t just some bland information portal. They have a treasure trove of guides, tutorials, and instructions for using their products. On the special effects and propmaking section you can find step-by-step video sequences, photo sequences, and examples of what other people have done with their products.

You can also find a Smooth-On video channel over at YouTube. This contains many of the same videos showing molding and casting with their products as their website. They also have a list of “Favorites” showing videos from other users making and casting molds.

The unsung heroics from production of The Lieutenent of Inishmore | Daily Loaf

The unsung heroics from production of The Lieutenent of Inishmore | Daily Loaf.

This is a fun little article about the behind-the-scenes portion of a production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenent of Inishmore, at the Jobsite Theater in Tampa Bay, Florida. It’s quite the bloody show. An earlier post talked about all the blood effects and other special effects that need to occur during the performance. This kind of show is either a prop director’s dream, or nightmare.