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The Art of Animatronics

June 30, 2015
The Art of Animatronics

We’re always impressed with the intricate animatronic designs our customers create. In case you’re not familiar with animatronics, in essences it’s the process of giving lifelike characteristics to inanimate objects such as animals and mythical creatures. However, this hollow definition doesn’t do these works of art justice. During Halloween we start to see a variety of projects such as singing/talking skeletons, goblins, etc. Then Christmas comes around and there are all kinds of music and lights displays utilizing Christmas characters such as Santa, Reindeer, the Grinch, etc.

Gary Willett is one of these extremely talented builders. We had a chance to visit with him about his animatronic build. Let’s just start by saying that his attention to detail is impressive. As Gary said, “My animatronic project was something I wanted to create a long time about 30 years ago. I had an idea. If a computer could control the servo, I could make an animatronic, but back then they did not have servo controllers. There also wasn’t the internet, just libraries to research what I could.” And thus his animatronic build began.

In 2004 Gary started making eyes for his project. Overall, his build spanned 2 and a half years from start to finish. He had a budget and also wanted to videotape the entire process (which we’re super stoked that he did). He shot a total of 93 hours of video tape which he later edited down to 4 1/2 hours of footage! Check out what Gary had to say about his nearly three year build process below.

What difficulties/challenges did you run into while designing/building? 

Basically I had to make a sculpture of a creature.  So I had to create molds to make a skin and a skull (which the skull would house mostly all the servos).

Servos

What was frustrating?

I would say budget because there were things I wanted to buy but they were just too expensive. I would also say, working on some part of the project for days and it would only move a quarter of an inch…foam rubber is a art form.  I ran several batches of foam rubber, humidity levels which change the balance of ammonia.  Also servo torque-you have low-cost servos which are great and then there are servos that cost a lot, but have higher torque.  You cannot skimp on torque when needed.

What went well?

Theories like the lip wires made from guitar strings.   It’s a great feeling when you have a theory and the theory is correct.

What inspired you to build it?

I guess it’s a hobby being a monster maker, dream of being a Dick Smith or Rick Baker.  I just love making monsters like Dr. Frankenstein.

Favorite part about this project?

Filming the entire process to share and to help others make their animatronic dreams and ideas come true. I like making instructional videos , being obsessed with it. You can see this on my YouTube channel Willettfx. My hobby making monsters 40 years as a hobby, early years hard to get information except for libraries and movie magazines.

Once again I had these ideas/theories in my head and they came true. But I did have failures and you will see my failures in the video.

I must thank my mentor and my friend, makeup master Dick Smith. He was a wonderful man-he passed away last year. I miss him and all his help he provided.

Having ideas in designing things with 3-D software, making sockets for the servos and sockets for standoffs that could be inserted into the 3-D prints. I had to make a guide to make sure that the standoffs could be inserted in the right size hole. What has helped me is that ServoCity has the servo measurements on their website and using 3-D software to create that right size servo to fit in my animatronic designed skull. 3-D printing is the future to design inside out, reverse engineering.

This is really awesome that Gary documented his entire process.  To learn more about this specific build, or his other animatronic projects be sure to visit his YouTube channel!