Disney has pushed the envelope in animatronic technologies to new levels of sophistication that have industry observers marveling. Animatronics, a technology known popularly as the application of electronics to animating motorized puppets, has long been a mainstay in Disney’s park since the very beginning. Today, Disney has advanced the field so much that their techniques are leading to speculation about the development of remarkably realistic robotic human clones.
Much of this has to do with Disney’s development of techniques to recreate human faces in the digital environment. This notion is not new. It has deep roots in computer-generated imagery. Video games, movies, and even theme park attractions have been utilizing ever-advancing facial scanning methods to create realistic human faces for a long time. Now though, a group of Disney engineers has managed to take a great leap forward in bringing these computer-generated manifestations into a much more tangibly lifelike form.
Engineers and designers in this endeavor begin with the wish to create, or re-create a human face. This involves doing an in-depth analysis of a real person’s face, and translating their facial patterns for speech and a whole spectrum of expressions into digital form. From there, they can analyze facial movements and how they relate to the movement of the animatronic skeleton. The range of detail extends from essential shapes of facial elements like lips and cheeks, to details and subtleties like the dimple that comes with a smile, the forehead wrinkles that accompany concentration, or the arch of an eyebrow that reveals surprise. This of course extends to how all these elements move while a model is speaking.
Engineers are now able to analyze what materials best mimic these movements and determine attachment pathways – points where “flesh” attaches to the skeleton. Thankfully, the Disney engineers are not limited to tactile authenticity. New materials are constantly under study and in development to mimic the movement of flesh as accurately or effectively as possible. By combining attachment pathways and flesh-like material, developers can form a base on which they can create any facial expression they desire.
Faces thus developed gain further realism through engineering-based analysis of skin thickness, which accounts for and elicits wrinkles, and stretches other visible facial attributes. Through intensive computer-based analysis and simulations, the Disney team is able to create a deeper, more lifelike face and a fuller range of human expressions than ever imagined before. Once fully formed, their face mold is combined with an array of fine-tuned actuators and coupled with masterful paint and hair work, leading to unbelievably realistic animatronic heads.
As revolutionary as Disney’s latest techniques and results appear to us now, even these exciting advances are just a hint of what is yet to come in an industry still in its infancy.