How Animatronics Works Click here to print this article.
Special thanks to Stan Winston, John Rosengrant, Stiles White and the rest of the folks at Stan Winston Studio, and Brett Levisohn at Universal Studios for their assistance in creating this article. Look for the Spinosaurus in the movie "Jurassic Park III" from Universal.
Long before digital effects appeared, animatronics were making cinematic history. Who can forget the scare of the Great White coming out of the water in "Jaws"? Or the tender otherworldliness of "E.T."? Through the precision, ingenuity and dedication of their creators, animatronic creatures often seem as real to us as their flesh-and-blood counterparts.
What exactly is an animatronic? Basically, an animatronic is a mechanized puppet. It may be preprogrammed or remotely controlled. The animatronic may only perform a limited range of movements or it may be incredibly versatile.
In this edition of stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com, we will focus on Spinosaurus, a new dinosaur animatronic created for "Jurassic Park III" by Stan Winston Studio (SWS). You will learn how SWS worked with Universal Studios and the film's production team to develop the Spinosaurus design. We'll also discuss the amazing process that creates and controls a huge animatronic like this dinosaur!
Most of the dinosaur animatronics used in "Jurassic Park III" are new. For example, the Velociraptors were redesigned to more closely resemble what paleontologists think a Velociraptor looked like. The Tyrannosaurus rex was redone too, but is no longer the star of the franchise. That distinction now passes to Spinosaurus, a monster that dwarfs even the mighty T. rex. This is the largest animatronic SWS has ever built, even bigger than the T. rex that Winston's team built for the original "Jurassic Park"!
Check out these amazing Spinosaurus statistics:
It is 43.5 feet (13.3 m) long -- almost as long as a bus -- and weighs 24,000 pounds (10,886.2 kg/12 tons).
It is powered entirely by hydraulics, even down to the blinking of the eyes. This is because the creature was made to work above and below water.
Image source: Universal Studios The Spinosaurus is the largest meat-eating dinosaur ever discovered.
Building the Spinosaurus, or any other animatronic, requires several major steps:
Put it on paper.
Build a maquette (miniature model).
Build a full-size sculpture.
Create a mold (from the sculpture) and cast the body.
Build the animatronic components.
Put it all together.
Test it and work out any bugs.
A complicated animatronic could take up to two years from conception to completion. However, deadlines and budgets typically don't allow for a timeline like that. According to John Rosengrant, SWS effects supervisor for "Jurassic Park III," the Spinosaurus took less than a year to go from the drawing board to the finished product. Rosengrant supervised a crew of about 75 SWS designers, engineers and artists who worked on "Jurassic Park III" animatronics, and approximately 30 of them worked on developing the Spinosaurus.
On the next page, we will go through the first two steps of this process.
Photo courtesy Stan Winston Studio, photographer Chuck Zlotnick An artist sketches the Spinosaurus.
The paper sketches are vital. Everything else relies on the accuracy of these designs.
Build a Maquette
From the final paper design, a miniature scale model called a maquette is created. Fashioned out of clay, the first maquette SWS made of Spinosaurus was one-sixteenth scale. This initial maquette is used to verify that the paper design is accurate. If there are any problems, they are corrected and a new paper design is made.
Photo courtesy Stan Winston Studio, photographer Chuck Zlotnick Jurassic Park III Director Joe Johnston and the one-fifth-scale maquette of the Spinosaurus
Next, a one-fifth-scale maquette is made. This sounds small, until you realize the sheer size of the Spinosaurus. The one-fifth-scale model was about 8 feet (2.4 m) long! The larger maquette allows the designers to add more surface detail. This maquette is then used to produce the full-size sculpture.
The maquette is taken to Cyber F/X, where it is scanned by a 3-D digitizer. This is nothing like a normal computer scanner. There are a variety of methods used in 3-D digitizers, but the one that was used for Spinosaurus is called laser scanning.
Laser scanning takes precise measurements of the maquette by bouncing beams of laser light off its surface. As the laser scanner moves around the maquette, it sends over 15,000 beams per second. The reflected light from the beams is picked up by high-resolution cameras positioned on either side of the laser. These cameras create an image of the slice (cross section) of the object that the laser is scanning. A custom computer system collects the cross sections and combines them to create a perfect, seamless computer model of the maquette.
Photo courtesy Stan Winston Studio, photographer Chuck Zlotnick Details are carved into the full-size sculpture.
Cyber F/X then used the computer model to mill the life-size model of the Spinosaurus from polyurethane foam. This very rigid foam is cut to the correct shape through a proprietary process called CNC-Sculptingģ. This process, developed by Cyber F/X, takes the data from the full-scale computer model and divides the model into manageable chunks. The data for each chunk is then sent to the foam-sculpting machine, where a life-size section of the dinosaur is created by whittling away pieces of foam from a large, solid block using tiny spinning blades. Once all the sections are done, the SWS team assembles the pieces like a giant 3-D jigsaw puzzle. This creates a very basic full-sized model. A lot of work still needs to be done and it is handled by a team of sculptors at Stan Winston Studio. They hand-carve the foam to add all the incredible details that make it seem real.
Molding and Casting
A set of molds are made of the full-sized sculpture. The molds are made from an epoxy that is very durable and has strong bonding characteristics.
Once the components of the animatronic are ready, much of the frame work is test fitted inside the molds before the foam rubber skin is cast. In conjunction with this step is the fabrication of the foam-running core, which is created by lining the inside of the mold with precise layers of clay to represent the skin thickness. When the clay lay-up is completed, the surface of the clay is fiberglassed to create the foam-running core. After the clay is cleaned out, the foam-running core is bolted into the mold and creates a negative space between the foam-running core and detailed surface of the mold. When filled with foam rubber, this negative space becomes the skin.
The purpose of this process is twofold:
It makes the skin movement seem more natural
It controls the skinís thickness and weight
Let's move on to the building of the animatronic components.
Photo courtesy Stan Winston Studio, photographer Chuck Zlotnick Working on the head of Tyrannosaurus rex
Basically, there are four main categories that the work splits into, with development happening simultaneously across the categories.
Mechanical - SWS engineers design and build the mechanical systems, which includes everything from basic gears to sophisticated hydraulics. An interesting fact about the Spinosaurus animatronic is that nearly all of the mechanical systems used in it are hydraulic.
Electronic - Another group develops the electronic control systems needed to operate the animatronic. Typically starting from scratch and creating their own custom circuit boards, these engineers are essentially building giant remote-controlled toys. Almost all of the movement of the Spinosaurus will be manipulated by specialized remote-control systems known as telemetry devices. We discuss the specific telemetry devices used in the next section.
Photo courtesy Stan Winston Studio, photographer Chuck Zlotnick All hydraulic systems are installed and checked.
Structural - All of the electronic and mechanical components need something to attach to and control, and the skin must have a frame to maintain its shape. This is done by building a plastic and steel frame. To increase the realism, and because it is the natural way to design it, the frame of the Spinosaurus, as well as most other creatures made by SWS, resembles the actual skeleton of the beast. This skeletal frame is largely comprised of graphite, a synthetic material known for its strength and lightness.
Surface - The "skin" of the Spinosaurus is made from foam rubber, which is a very light, spongy rubber that is made by mixing air with liquid latex rubber and then curing (hardening) it. While there are other compounds, such as silicone and urethane, that are stronger and last longer, foam rubber is used because it is much easier to work with. The solution is poured into each mold and allowed to cure. As mentioned earlier, parts of the frame are embedded with the foam rubber at certain points. To further strengthen the skin, a piece of fabric is cut to size and embedded in the foam rubber after it is poured into the mold. Once cured, each piece of skin is pulled from its mold.
Photo courtesy Stan Winston Studio, photographer Chuck Zlotnick The "skeleton" of the Spinosaurus
Parts of the skin that have embedded pieces of the frame in them are put in place when the frame is assembled. The other skin pieces are fastened in place on the frame once the mechanical and electronic components are installed. Assembling the skin is a very laborious process. As each piece is added, the team has to check to make sure there are no problems, such as:
Whenever one of these problems occurs, the skin must be adapted or attached differently. Also, there are places where you do want the skin to fold or hang loose or travel in a certain way, and it must be adjusted to achieve that effect. One of the tricks that SWS uses to make the Spinosaurus and other dinosaurs seem more realistic is to attach bungee cords between areas of skin and the frame. During movement, these bungee cords simulate tendons under the skin, bunching and stretching.
The skin is mostly "painted" before it is attached to the frame. Stan Winston Studio does not use actual paint, though. Instead, a specially formulated mixture that is akin to rubber cement is used. Tints are added to the mixture to get the correct color. Rosengrant says that they use this mixture in place of traditional paint because it bonds more strongly with the foam rubber and stretches with it as the animatronic moves.
Once the animatronic is complete, the team has to test it and work out any problems.
Rosengrant is the coordinator, and he makes sure that all of the other puppeteers are working in concert to create a realistic and believable motion. The telemetry devices used to control the Spinosaurus range from simple handheld units, reminiscent of a video-game joystick, to bizarre contraptions you wouldn't find anywhere else. For example, the puppeteer who controls the arms has a device that he straps onto his own arms. He then acts out the movement he wants the Spinosaurus to make, and the telemetry device translates his motion into a control signal that is sent to the circuit board controlling the mechanical components that comprise the arm system of the Spinosaurus.
Mouse over the arrows to rotate the dinosaur's head. As you move the head, hold down your mouse button to open the mouth.
Because the Spinosaurus animatronic is controlled by radio-frequency (RF) devices, certain precautions must be taken when it is in use. Any other device, such as a cell phone, that operates using RF technology must be turned off in the vicinity of the animatronic. Otherwise, improper signals can interfere with the control signals. This could have disastrous effects when dealing with a 12-ton monster. Clean power is important for the same reason. The Spinosaurus has a dedicated uninterruptible power supply (UPS) so that a power surge or brownout would not cause it to go out of control.
Rosengrant calls the Spinosaurus a "hot rod" animatronic. Everything on the Spinosaurus has more power than usual. The hydraulics have larger cylinders than normal and provide approximately 1,000 horsepower. The Spinosaurus is such a powerful machine that it can literally tear a car apart. When the tail is whipped from one side to the other, it reaches 2 Gs at the tip (1 G is the force of Earth's gravity).
Photo courtesy Universal Studios The incredible realism of the Spinosaurus animatronic gave the actors ample reason to appear terrified.
On the set, the Spinosaurus animatronic was bolted onto a platform that moves on a track like a train does. An 18-foot (5.5-m) hydraulic cylinder was attached to the back of the Spinosaurus to move it forward very quickly. Moving the Spinosaurus to another location required a crane to lift it.
Since a lot of the action in "Jurassic Park III" involves water (mist, rain and lakes), the Spinosaurus had to be waterproof. Stan Winston Studio sealed everything tightly, providing enough protection that the machine could be completely submerged and still operate!
When watching any of the Jurassic Park movies, the blending of the animatronic and digital versions is extraordinary. Very few people can distinguish between them on the screen. However, Stan Winston says there is an easy way to tell if a dinosaur is digital or an animatronic: If you can see the entire creature, legs and all, moving across the screen, then it is digital. The majority of other shots, particularly close-ups, probably use the animatronics. Most animatronics, the Spinosaurus included, do not have legs. The ones that do are generally not capable of completely free movement.
The dinosaurs of "Jurassic Park III" are incredible examples of the state of the art in animatronic technology. After seeing the Spinosaurus animatronic up close and actually touching it, I am amazed at how reality can be shaped so intricately by these masters of their craft.
Be sure to check out the links on the next page that tell you how to build your own animatronics.