Audio-Animatronics (shorthand AA) is the registered trademark for a form of robotics created by Walt Disney Imagineering for shows and attractions at Disney theme parks, and subsequently expanded on and used by other companies. The robots move and make noise, generally in speech or song. An Audio-Animatronic is different from android-type robots in that it uses prerecorded movements and sounds, rather than processing external stimuli and responding to them. In 2009, Disney switched to an updated version of the technology called Autonomatronics.
Audio-Animatronics were originally a creation of Walt Disney employee Lee Adams, who worked as an electrician at the Burbank studio and was one of Disney's original Imagineers. One of the first Disney Audio-Animatronics was a toy bird Walt Disney got in New Orleans. It was a simple mechanical bird, and Walt decided to improve the device that moved it. Another was a "dancing man," created by Roger Broggie and Wathel Rogers.
The term "Audio-Animatronics" was first used commercially by Disney in 1961, was filed as a trademark in 1964, and was registered in 1967.
Perhaps the most impressive of the early Audio-Animatronics efforts was The Enchanted Tiki Room, which opened in 1963 at Disneyland. It was (and is) a room full of tropical creatures with eye and facial actions synchronized to a musical score entirely by electromechanical means. The "cast" of the musical revue uses tones recorded on tape to vibrate a metal reed that closes a circuit to trigger a relay, which sends a pulse of electricity to a mechanism that causes a pneumatic valve to move a part of the figure's body.
The movements of the attraction's birds, flowers, and tiki idols are triggered by sound, hence the audio prefix. Figures' movements have a neutral "natural resting position" that the limb or part returns to when there is no electric pulse present. Other than this, the animation is a digital system, with only on/off moves, such as an open or closed eye.
Other early examples were the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln exhibit presented at the State of Illinois Pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Also at the fair were three other pavilions featuring Audio-Animatronics, including Pepsi/UNICEF's it's a small world, General Electric's Carousel of Progress, and Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway.
Pneumatic muscles were not powerful enough to move larger objects, like an artificial human arm, so hydraulics were used for large figures. On/off movement would cause an arm to be either up over the artificial man's head (on switch), or down (off switch), but no movement in between. To create realistic in-between movement in large figures, an analog system was used. This gave the figure's limbs and parts a full range of in-between motion, rather than only two positions. The digital system was used with small pneumatic moving limbs (eyelids, beaks, fingers), and the analog system was used for large hydraulic human or animal moving limbs (arms, heads).
To permit a high degree of freedom, the control cylinders resemble typical miniature pneumatic or hydraulic cylinders, but mount the back of the cylinder on a ball joint and threaded rod. This ball joint permits the cylinders to float freely inside the frame, such as when the wrist joint rotates and flexes.
Disney's technology is not infallible, however; the oil-filled cylinders do occasionally drip or leak. It is sometimes necessary to do makeup touch-up work, or to strip the clothing off a figure due to leaking fluids inside. The Tiki Room remains a pneumatic theatrical set, primarily due to the leakage concerns; Disney does not want hydraulic fluids dripping down onto the audience during a show.
Because each individual cylinder requires its own control/data channel, the original Audio-Animatronic figures were relatively simple in design to reduce the number of necessary channels. For example, the first human designs (referred to internally by Disney as series A-1) included all four fingers of the hand as one actuator. With modern digital computers and vast data storage, the number of channels is virtually unlimited. The current versions (series A-100) now have individual actuators for each finger, and similar improvements have spread throughout the figures.
Compliance is a new technology that allows faster, more realistic movements, without sacrificing control. In the older figures, a fast limb movement would cause the entire figure to shake in an unnatural way. The Imagineers thus had to program slower movements, sacrificing speed in order to gain control. This was frustrating for the animators, who, in many cases, wanted faster movements. Compliance improves this situation by allowing limbs to continue past the points where they are programmed to stop; they then return quickly to the "intended" position, much as real organic body parts do. The various elements also slow to a stop at their various positions, instead of using the immediate stops that caused the unwanted shaking. This absorbs shock, much like the shock absorbers on a car or the natural shock absorption in a living body.
The skin of an Audio-Animatronic is made from silicone rubber. Because the neck is so much narrower than the rest of the skull, the skull skin cover has a zipper up the back to permit easy removal. The facial appearance is painted onto the rubber, and standard cosmetic makeup is also used. Over time, the flexing causes the paint to loosen and fall off, so occasional makeup work and repainting is required.
Generally, as the rubber skin flexes, the stress causes it to dry and begin to crack. Figures that do not have a high degree of motion flexibility (such as the older A-1 series Lincoln) may only need the skin to be replaced every ten years. The most recent A-100 series human AAs (such as for Barack Obama) also include flexion actuators that move the cheeks and eyebrows to permit more realistic expressions, but the skin wears out more quickly and needs replacement at least every five years.
The wig on each human AA is made from natural human hair for the highest degree of realism, but using real hair creates its own problems. The changing humidity and constant rapid motions of the moving AA carriage hardware throughout the day cause the hair to slowly lose its styling, requiring touch-ups before each day's showing.
Autonomatronics is a registered trademark for another form of robotics created by Walt Disney Imagineering. It is an advanced form of Disney's Audio-Animatronics technology.
The original Audio-Animatronics technology used hydraulics to operate robotic figures according to a pre-programmed show. The new Autonomatronics technology uses an electrically driven figure and can include sophisticated cameras and sensors to give the figure the ability to make choices about what to say and do. Disney unveiled the first-ever interactive figure, "Otto," that can hear, see and sense actions in the room. The figure can hold conversations and react to the audience, according to Scott Trowbridge, Executive Vice President of Walt Disney Imagineering.
In December 2009, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln returned to Disneyland using the new Autonomatronics technology. Imagineer Scott Trowbridge is hopeful that the Indiana Jones Adventure will be similarly updated.
The technology of the AAs at Disney's theme parks around the world vary in their sophistication. They range from the blinking and mouth movements at Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room to full body movement, from the mouth to the tip of the fingers, at Stitch's Great Escape at the Magic Kingdom. Current technologies have paved the way for more elaborate AA figures, such as the "Ursula head" at Mermaid Lagoon Theater at Tokyo DisneySea, the Indiana Jones figures inside the Indiana Jones attractions at both Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, the "swordfighting" pirates inside Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland Park (Paris), the "lava/rock monster" inside Journey to the Center of the Earth at Tokyo DisneySea, the "Yeti" inside Expedition Everest at Disney's Animal Kingdom, or the Roz figure in Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue! at Disney's California Adventure Park.
The Roz figure is able to "interact" with guests with help from an unseen ride operator who chooses pre-recorded messages for Roz to "speak," thereby seeming to "react" to individual guests' unique appearances and clothing. Mr. Potato Head outside of the Toy Story Mania! attractions at the Disney's California Adventure and Disney's Hollywood Studios parks does the same as Roz does. One of the newest figures comes with changes to the classic Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, both now featuring characters from the Pirates of the Caribbean film series.
The Jack Sparrow figure is based on the actor that portrays him, Johnny Depp, even featuring his voice and facial mold. So far, the newest and most advanced Audio-Animatronic figure is Abraham Lincoln at The Disneyland Story: Featuring Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland. Lincoln can move his lips to form words, can make very dramatic movements, and can portray emotions to match the words he's saying.
The Audio-Animatronic Indiana Jones figures inside Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull at Tokyo DisneySea resemble actor Harrison Ford, unlike the original figures found at the Disneyland version, Temple of the Forbidden Eye. In 2010, some of the Audio-Animatronic figures at the Disneyland version were replaced with more technically advanced figures that also look more like Ford. However, neither version features Harrison Ford's actual voice.