Most people would not be surprised to learn that the highly advanced animated figures at the Disney Parks, Universal Studios, and other theme parks carry six-figure price tags. This cost is justified, however, because hundreds of thousands of people will watch these figures in action in a single year. But what if you are in the business of making animated figures in a competitive marketplace?
I found the answer to this and other questions during a recent visit to Life Formations, Bowling Green, Ohio, a company that makes animated and static characters for display and performances at trade shows, museums, amusement parks, commercial events, etc. After learning that the animated figures relied almost exclusively on pneumatic actuation, I expected to find some pretty run-of-the-mill mechanisms inside some not-so-ordinary exteriors. What I found were innovative designs and configurations of actuator assemblies operating in and under incredibly lifelike characters — human or otherwise.
Shortly after I arrived at Life Formations for my first of two visits, technicians were working on Thomas Edison, who could be seen through an interior window in an electronic control room sitting in a chair. Except for his surroundings, he looked much like he does on our front cover, shown at right.
In a somewhat gravelly voice, Mr. Edison was speaking about the merits of soybeans. His incredibly real-looking eyes (which are actually human prosthetic eyes) scanned the control room, he gestured with his hands and arms, swiveled his chair, and even shifted in his seat as if uncomfortable.
After witnessing all this realism, it seemed bizarre when technicians removed a section of Edison’s scalp so they could adjust mechanisms inside the figure’s head. It seems there was a problem: Edison’s movements were sluggish. Cylinders acted slowly and did not fully retract or extend. All this made the figure’s motions appear out of synch with an audio tape producing the voice. After technicians checked virtually every component for leaks or malfunctions, a pressure regulator was found to be malfunctioning intermittently.
Tom Kuebler, vice president, art & design, explained that the Edison figure is rented to clients — in this case, an agricultural organization for a trade show. Kuebler works with clients on their script and how the Edison figure will present their message, then records the voice himself. Kuebler and programmers then use joystick controllers to generate 17 axes of motion in the figure to correspond with the audio tape. The joystick signals are recorded on a control tape, which goes though a series of edits until the program meets expectations. Other figures go through similar development, but are one-of-akind and sold rather than rented.
“Each figure we create is custom made,” explains Kuebler. “And although we start each project from scratch, certain techniques act as a starting point for any number of figures. Some companies, for instance, make an animated figure by trying to fit a sculpt around a robot framework that goes through the required motions. Our approach is to sculpt the figure, then design the mechanical and pneumatic systems into the sculpt.
What’s more, we can enhance the character to make the entire presentation more entertaining. Despite Mr. Edison’s brilliance and ingenuity as an inventor, he was not a dynamic speaker. His speech was very monotone and laborious. If he was speaking at a booth in a trade show, he probably wouldn’t draw much attention. When we recreate the Edison character for a presentation, we can make him speak and move as a polished professional.
“Potential clients sometimes ask to hear an authentic-sounding Edison. After we accommodate them, they always ask for a more polished look and sound. The voice usually ends up sounding something like Jimmy Stewart or Mason Adams.”
Life Formations makes extensive use of pneumatics for its longevity, reliability, and clean, quiet operation. For example, Tom Suter, vice president, administration, explains that “Eyeblinking mechanisms would seem to be ideal for actuation by electromechanical devices, such as solenoids. It’s a simple move with a short stroke. But we have found that electromechanicals don’t hold up as well as pneumatics. We also try to avoid servo control because it tends to add complexity and substantial cost to a system.”
Instead of servo loops, Life Formations relies on mechanical design and unusual configurations to meet their needs. Figure 1 shows one such example: two cylinders mounted side-byside. This assembly has three design advantages:
- it essentially produces twice the stroke in the same longitudinal space as a single cylinder
- it provides a positive home (mid stroke) position with simple, open-loop control, and
- it provides two-speed operation.
With the load (head, torso, eyes, etc.) in, say, the left position, it can be moved to the right position by actuating cylinders sequentially. The load can also be moved from one extreme position to the other in half the time by actuating both cylinders simultaneously.
Unusual configurations such as this often result from meetings comprised of designers, artists, and mechanical technicians. The ideas that seem to defy convention often come about because a person “didn’t know any better” when attempting a non-traditional idea.
Sometimes, however, a controlled motion is required: acceleration, constant speed, deceleration. To achieve this, mechanical geometry is designed to produce harmonic motion. This makes changing a motion difficult once a figure has been made, but because these figures are unique, there is little likelihood that motions deviate from what can be changed by programming.
From a more conventional perspective, Doug Mollsen, technician, says, “We insist on clean air because we rely heavily on in-line flow restrictors to control speed of the movements. We can’t have components sticking or restrictors getting clogged from contaminants. Likewise, dry air keeps moisture from condensing in the systems.
“We’ve always known that pressure had to be carefully maintained. That’s why we can’t have any leaks. But pressure regulators never gave us problems before, that’s why it was the last thing we checked when Tom Edison wasn’t acting right. Pressure regulators have to repeatably provide the right pressure to keep motions synchronized with programs. If pressure wanders too high, some motions would execute too sharply. On the other hand, too low a pressure would cause sluggish movement and allow motions to lag behind command signals and prevent cylinders from fully extending or retracting.”