Disney Imagineers use robotics to bring the magic to life


When you think of Disney characters, do electronics and cables ever cross your mind? Certainly not, and that’s no accident. It’s thanks to Disney’s Imagineers, an invisible band of merry magic-makers who operate behind the scenes.

Martin Buehler, Executive R&D Imagineer at Walt Disney Imagineering, was opening keynoter at the 2015 Robotics Alley Conference & Expo in Minneapolis. He is part of a small group of electronics magicians and illusionists who cast spells and create animated characters for Disney theme parks around the world. Their challenge is to infuse realism into each character to evoke a visceral connection for audiences with the denizens who populate the Disney experience.

The bar is set high for the company that has pioneered lifelike robotics and automation for decades. The rules that guide the mission are strict. Technology behind the magic must be undetected to keep visitors enthralled – no noise, cables or packaging can be apparent – when animated characters greet the public. Disney’s merger of art and electronics are demanding. Imagineers must be experts in fur, skin, eyeballs, and any other element that animates a character. It helps that willing audiences enthusiastically come prepared to believe.

The Imagineers hold up their end of the bargain. The illusions are so lifelike that it’s easy for audiences to suspend disbelief while they’re engaging with living creatures. “Today’s technology is good enough to produce the illusion of life,” Buehler said.

Realistic movements and facial expressions are only the beginning. The final key to evoking that emotional bond lies in telling a compelling story to build empathy. Characters routinely are on a quest, heroically in search for a prized object, avoiding an ominous fate, and often saving others in the process. A likable, realistic character combined with a compelling drama is what draws in an audience and makes them root for the protagonist. It all has to happen without intrusions from machines or mechanisms that must operate, unseen, in the background.

Walt Disney’s quest to create realistic characters began in earnest preparing for Disneyland’s grand opening on July 17, 1955, in Anaheim, California. His original concept for a theme park had been put on hold by World War II, so he used the delays to concoct ever larger ideas for attractions.

Buehler looked back at technical benchmarks in what has become Disney’s evolving  legacy of innovation. The thatch-roofed Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland featured the first example of Disney’s “Audio-Animatronic” technology, as a group of robotic macaws perched overhead speak to each other in accents from around the world. As successful as the attraction has proven to be, the Tiki birds’ movements were jerky, reflecting the technology of that day, he said.

More recently, Lucky the Dinosaur came to life as an all-electric robotic character. Lucky wanders about in harness, pulling a cart. Spoiler alert: An unseen technician concealed inside the cart controls Lucky’s footsteps, head movements and vocalizations. The dinosaur’s expressions portray a friendly character, giving his spectators a sense that they’re seeing a living creature.

Facial expressions are particularly important for casting believable characters. Disney conducts many facial expression tests to perfect new Audio-Animatronic characters, or to bring new life to old ones, such as its famous Abraham Lincoln re-creation.

A special challenge comes to bear when the Imagineers create a three-dimensional figure based on an on-screen movie character. It must be cast into life-size, into a character that moves and vocalizes in tone and voice consistent with the on-screen persona. Visitors must see and hear the same character they already have met, behaving in a manner that preserves the relationship formed in a two-dimensional movie.

Examples of characters the Imagineers have brought to life include WALL-E, who has the advantage of already being a robot, and Lumiere, the talking candelabra from “Beauty and the Beast” that’s found in three dimensions on the Disney property at Belle’s Enchanted Tales.

“How to animate a candelabra?” Buehler mused. He said the Imagineers not only used the latest technology, they took advantage of audience point of view, lighting and distance to create a believable illusion. It also helps that “guests want Disney to succeed at creating illusions.”

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