Follow Slashdot blog updates by subscribing to our blog RSS feed


Forgot your password?
Robotics Entertainment Technology

How Disney Built and Programmed an Animatronic President 97

An anonymous reader writes with this interesting look at how Disney created realistic animatronic figures in a time before programming languages and systems on a chip. Animatronics have powered some of sci-fi and fantasy cinema's most imposing creatures and characters: The alien queen in Aliens, the Terminator in The Terminator, and Jaws of Jaws (the key to getting top billing in Hollywood: be a robot). Even beloved little E.T.—of E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial—was a pile of aluminum, steel, and foam rubber capable of 150 robotic actions, including wrinkling its nose. But although animatronics is a treasured component of some of culture's farthest-reaching movies, it originated in much more mundane circumstances. According to the Disney archives, it began with a bird.

Among the things Walt Disney was renowned for was bringing animatronics (or what he termed at the time Audio-Animatronics) to big stages at his company and elsewhere. But Disney didn't discover or invent animatronics for entertainment use; rather, he found it in a store. In a video on Disney's site, Disney archivist Dave Smith tells a story of how one day in the early 1950s, while out shopping in New Orleans antique shop, Disney took note of a tiny cage with a tinier mechanical bird, bobbing its tail and wings while tweeting tunelessly. He bought the trinket and brought it back to his studio, where his technicians took the bird apart to see how it worked.
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

How Disney Built and Programmed an Animatronic President

Comments Filter:
  • Patent infringement! Sue Disney for all they're worth! For the Progress of Science and useful Arts!

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by amiga3D ( 567632 )

      You beat me to it. Damn! You have to love the irony of the founder of one of the biggest proponents of onerous patent laws ripping off a small inventor. But really, isn't that what it's all about? Disney and their like ripping off everyone else. Their pet congress critters using our tax money to fuck us over at Disney's behest.

    • So... was it patented? Was there, in fact, any legal protection to prohibit Disney from using the technology, or was it left unpatented by an inventor who didn't care? If the latter, would the state of robotics be as advanced today without Disney making the control systems from that little bird widely known? Even if it were patented, did the patent broadly cover all use of such technology, or merely the specific implementation as used in the bird?

      I know that's a lot of questions to have to research before i

  • by ArcadeMan ( 2766669 ) on Sunday June 22, 2014 @06:31PM (#47294883)

    everybody's heard about the bird.

  • Well... (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    This seems to explain the issues with Obama's birth certificate.

    • by amiga3D ( 567632 )

      I have to ask. I know it's going to be some stupid shit but I have to know. What has this to do with the birth certificate?

      • I have to ask. I know it's going to be some stupid shit but I have to know. What has this to do with the birth certificate?

        Would an Animatronic President have a birth certificate?

        • He would have a "First boot!" system log entry.
        • I have to ask. I know it's going to be some stupid shit but I have to know. What has this to do with the birth certificate?

          Would an Animatronic President have a birth certificate?

          Well, Dell was sending out "birth certificates" for their servers.

          I've seen one, Had a baby footprint on it and everything.

          'Course I never saw the Long Form...

  • Copyrights (Score:3, Insightful)

    by StripedCow ( 776465 ) on Sunday June 22, 2014 @06:44PM (#47294927)

    After this (*) I really don't care about Disney anymore :(

    (*) []

  • The album, "I Think We're All Bozos on this Bus" was a computerized theme park parody.

    It featured an episode with an animatronic President Nixon:

    [] []

    The computerized replica president failed when presented with a logical paradox presented as a question.

    • "Hey Paolo! He broke the President!"

      I remember many years ago reading an article (probably in Wired; these days, it'd be a blog post) where someone described walking around EPCOT Center while listening to this exact album. Sounds like quite a trip, really.

      And then there's this article from several years ago [] that's also fitting. Apparently Disney was working on their version of the Holy-Grams too..

  • We've already had the first animatronic president: []

    Since then, they've all been robots.

  • The ancient Greeks had mechanical devices, such as animated birds, water works, temple Gods, and more, as far back as the 350's BC. By year 1 it was going strong.

    greekautomata [] is just one listing I found.

    • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

      Yes, but have they been patented yet. That's all that counts forget prior art, forget obviousness, all that counts to US patents lawyers is has it been patented yet in the US and can they force people to spend millions of dollars in US courts fighting over patent no matter how bullshit that patent is.

    • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

      One can wind twine around wooden pegs in a way to "program" the movements. For example, reversing the winding direction on a spool can make a doll head turn the other way, and by controlling the wind counts per peg "lane", it can syncopate to a tune. It's speculated this kind of technology is how ancient Greeks did it. It takes more work to "re-set" than gears, but good enough for a show to the big wigs.

  • From the Disney diaries:

    This is a dimly lit forest, with large trees all around. One particularly
    large tree with some low branches stands here.

    >climb large tree
    Up a Tree
    You are about 10 feet above the ground nestled among some large branches.
    The nearest branch above you is above your reach.
    On the branch is a small birds nest.
    In the bird's nest is a large egg encrusted with precious jewels, apparently
    scavenged somewhere by a childless songbird. The eg

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 22, 2014 @07:20PM (#47295047)

    Jobs was just like Disney: "Good Artists copy, great artists steal!" Followed immediately by "Its mine! Mine! All mine, I got me a patent! Mine mine all mine, it came 'Out of my mind'(tm)".

  • Did samzenpus even follow the link?

    • Crap, that is the 1st link. I saw Lincoln stand up and speak at Walt Disney World back in 1973, and it was amazing to see, for the time. People in the audience thought it was a human actor. To learn from the Ars article how all his movements were synced up on a master audio tape was interesting. Amazing tech for the time.
      • To learn from the Ars article how all his movements were synced up on a master audio tape was interesting. Amazing tech for the time.

        Disney's animatronics were the central attraction of five pavilions at the 1964 New York World's Fair.

        Ford's Magic Skyway, a time travel trippy mix of Mustangs and Dinosaurs, GE's Carousel of Progress, which ended in a real-life demonstration of atomic fusion, Illinois's Meet Mr Lincoln and Pepsi's It's A Small World.

        • I saw Lincoln at the Fair, and my 5-year-old self was amazed. I knew it was a machine, as I had been told, on earth could it move and stand just like a person? It was breathtaking!

          Over the years, I've wondered at roboticists having trouble mimicking human motion, or Asimo falling over. My first thought was always "Really? How hard can it be if they could do it in '64?"

          Of course, with the passage of time, I've learned about the difference between a recorded demonstration and the ability to do arbit

  • Wall Street and the Democrat party have created one called obama.
    Turn on teleprompter and he speaks.

  • Rolly Crump, one of the original Imagineers, mentions some of this in his "It's Kind of a Cute Story" book and "More Cute Stories" audio CDs that have come out fairly recently. Plus a lot more Disney history from around that era. (I have no direct interest, other than enjoying these a lot.)
  • Never truer words spoken. That was such a make-out ride in my teens.
  • I knew they were big in the lobbying industry for copyright extensions, but surely this is a step too far?
  • The Tiki Room was Walt's favorite (and mine too). You can see him beam as he demonstrates it in many videos.
    My sons and I built a tribute to the Tiki Room using a Raspberry Pi and a Hasbro toy bird. It never ceases to get a laugh out of visitors. Here's a link. []

"If it's not loud, it doesn't work!" -- Blank Reg, from "Max Headroom"