October 05, 2017

Photo Essay: Making Magic Monsters That Move at a Robot Factory

By the time I'd gotten to be about 10 years old in the mid-1980s, I'd become obsessed with Chuck E. Cheese. Not so much the mouse himself, but his pizza parlor where all my 5th grade friends seemed to be having their birthday parties—and I soon followed suit.

It was cheap enough for my parents to afford, and the musical acts—at one point a lion named "The King" who sang Elvis songs, and at another a band of dogs called "The Beagles"—were entertaining enough to keep them from getting too bored for too long while my sister and I played the arcade games.

That was, as far as I can recall, my introduction to the magic of animatronics—and, specifically, to the work of the mastermind behind the toe-tapping stage show. Most other folks, however, know Garner Holt (both the man and the company) for his work with yet another rodent: Mickey Mouse.

Garner was basically a child prodigy when it came to building backyard haunts and teaching himself robotics. As a teenager, he quit school to open his own production studio, and he spent years cutting his teeth on small, local projects until Disney took a chance on him.

Breaking through the notoriously insular world of Imagineering (then known as WED) was no easy feat, but Garner managed to get his foot in the door and eventually found himself contributing effects for Disneyland parades.

And, as they say, the rest is history. You pretty much can't go to a Disney park anywhere in the world without seeing some kind of creation that's come out of Garner Holt Productions since 1977.

Not the least of which is the "holiday" overlay on the Haunted Mansion, in which the classic dark ride coexists with an injection of characters from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

And you can find GHP's work—be it pneumatic (a.k.a. compressed air cylinders), hydraulic, or electric—not just Disney-run theme parks, either, but also at some of the largest ones in over 34 countries throughout the world. That includes direct competitors to Disney, like Universal Studios and Knott's Berry Farm.

One of Garner's earliest inspirations was the animatronic Abraham Lincoln figure created by Walt Disney for the 1964/65 World's Fair—and, much to his delight I'm sure, he's now had a hand in upgrading and modernizing dear ol' Abe with a myriad of expressions that can send his face twisting every which way, with nary a squeak or a clatter.

From the beginning, Garner Holt has specialized in complex machines that make everything from historic personalities to Hollywood celebrities look alive. And the design and build of such magical movements depends on a delicate balance between technology and art.

Whether it's Ben Franklin or Mark Twain, each figure is comprised of high-pressure hydraulic actuator “muscles,” silicone skins, costumes, and hair—with each strand being plugged in individually (and often being derived from real human sources).

A specially-formulated silicone that mimics the properties of real skin gets painted and is placed over fiberglass body shells that have stainless steel and aluminum “skeleton” frames underneath for support.

The same principles apply when it's the skin of a gorilla and fur instead of hair.

In all, this robot factory—a 70,000-square-foot production facility in San Bernardino, California—has churned out nearly 3,000 individual animatronic figures, frequently taking them from the design phase all the way through the sculpting, molding, painting, and costuming stages of the process.

There's just one question the principals of the company ask when considering taking on a new project: Is it fantastic, and is it fun?

But they already have a lot of fun spending their days surrounded by Hatbox Ghosts, miner barons, yetis, swamp monsters, dinosaurs, and fire-breathing dragons. Every day is Halloween at Garner Holt Productions.

And there's little doubt that the production facility could do the job. With resources including a mold library, aircraft-quality animated frames, and highly skilled 3D designers and software programmers, ability isn't an issue.

So... why bother taking on something new if it's not fun?

For a virtual tour of areas of the factory where photography isn't allowed, click here

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