The 15 Laws of Animatronics
35 years or so ago, LifeFormations’ founder, Gene Poor, published the “10 laws of Animatronics” for attraction and exhibit designers that were just beginning to find room in their budgets for this burgeoning storytelling medium. The goal was to make sure every penny of the investment saw a return in the show. The laws presented a shopping list of observations about what was currently working well when animatronics were used in the fields of entertainment and education. We thought it was time to revisit these laws to see how they’ve held up, and maybe add a few new ones. Original laws in bold text, comments and updates in regular text.
The Original Laws Assembled During the 1980s.
1. The Law of Distance – The greater the distance between the audience and the animatronic figure, the more you can get away with in terms of details.
This remains true from a surface finish perspective… but from a movement perspective, there’s a balance to reducing details. As the audience’s distance from the figure increases, so must the size of the gestures if they are to be noticeable. Similarly, the closer you are to a figure… the less you want the bigger gestures, but the more you’ll want the more subtle movements. So, we might rewrite this law as follows:
The further the audience from a figure, the more the movement should be located in the bigger gestures – arm and torso movements. The closer the audience is to a figure, the more the movement should be focused on the nuanced movements – face movements, hand movements, etc.
2. The Law of Time – The shorter the time an animatronic is viewed, the less sophisticated it needs be.
This one holds true and continues to drive our value-engineering efforts on projects. During the design and review phase, it can be easy to forget that a few seconds to a few minutes while the show is going on. They won’t be scrutinized and judged for how well they hold up after hours of reviews and tweaks during the final phases of fabrication. Keeping the design details and production budget in check with the audience viewing time is imperative to best make use of the available budget.
3. The Laws of Numbers – The more figures (or media, or actors) performing, the longer the show will hold the audience’s attention. This also works with the number of movements within a figure… the more movement, the longer the audience will watch the show because new gestures and performance combinations can be revealed over time.
This law also still holds true and is really about informing the level of sophistication or number of actors (animatronic, media or otherwise) needed to hold an audience’s attention for a set length of time or complexity of message. We see this law apply in a queue area when we know an audience will be captive for 10 or more minutes. We also see this law apply in educational or informational sessions where several points must be made before the show ends. Having more actors (animatronic or otherwise) and more sophisticated figures allows the show to hold the audience’s attention longer.
4. The Law of Non-human – People love to see something new, so bringing something to life that would normally not talk and interact with people is a great way to get their attention and keep them hanging around to see what happens. Non-human animatronic figures are also not judged as critically as life-like human figures because there is no real-world baseline against which to judge them. So, they can often be less sophisticated in their movement than realistic human or animal figures.
This law still holds true and has been really exploited by the wave of “object” Intellectual-property (IP) based movies, television shows and attractions that have been created over the past 35 years.
5. The Law of Surprises – Unveiling surprises throughout a show helps keep an audience’s attention as they wait for the next reveal.
Still true – it’s important to keep in mind that surprises don’t just mean magician like reveals with a puff of smoke. Unveiling something such as a new figure part way into the show re-vitalizes the dynamic of the show and restarts the audience’s attention.
6. The Law of Singing – Audiences love a singing animatronic figure, especially if they are non-human.
There’s a reason we walk around humming our favorite songs. Add a catchy tune to a show and we’ll not only stay for the whole thing, we may watch it again… and again.
7. The Law of Personality – As with any medium, the better the script and personalities; the longer the audience will watch the show and the more they’ll forgive any compromises elsewhere in the figures’ designs.
Good scriptwriting and acting make for a good show.This will always be valid.
8. The Law of Brevity – the quick passing back-and-forth between multiple figures, media or actors will tend to hold an audience’s attention better than if they are presented with longer continuous segments focused on a single figure.
This one is a little derivative of laws 2 and 3, but it’s worth keeping because it emphasizes keeping the show moving to keep the audience engaged.
9. The Law of Scale – Changing the size and proportions of things creates audience interest and grabs their attention.
Much like Law 4’s non-human observation… changing the scale of items can make them novel and create curiosity. Still true today, and well exploited over the past 35 years since Gene wrote it down.
10. The Law of Edginess – This one is a little abstract and very dependent on culture and setting… so use at your own risk. When appropriate, go over the top with the character by pushing into topics or presentation styles that other media or actors wouldn’t be able to deliver without awkwardness or an inauthentic feel. For example, a zombie singing the pop song I’m Too Sexy was a huge hit for haunted attractions that purchased it in the late 1990s.
This is still true in many different ways. Topics that may be uncomfortable or awkward to present or listen to can be made more comfortable by an animatronic delivering the message (typically educational in nature). Likewise, allowing an animatronic to speak as a peer to older audiences using vernacular that they would use can make a show more approachable and engaging.
The New Laws – a Work in Progress
11. The Law of Passive Posing – More sophisticated movement is not always necessary to achieve a more believable show. Purposeful posing and staging can create a scenario in which a figure that would normally move around or gesture quite a bit is fully believable with relatively limited movement. Can the figure sit in a chair, lean against a prop, hold something, stand on/in/behind something, etc.? All of these will create situations in which a normally active figure would appear natural with relatively limited movement.
12. The Law of Before and After – Visitor imagination can be a great partner in the overall show experience. One of the ways to activate their imagination is to stage a figure or scene in such a way that it appears something has just happened, or something is about to happen. The audience will fill in those details to help the snapshot they’re seeing make sense. Did something just topple over, crash through a wall, bump into something… or is something like that about to happen? Adding a few details to seed their ideas about the action before and after the moment their witnessing is a great way to pull them into the scene, relate it to their own experiences, and make the show more powerful.
13. Law of Interactivity – If the audience can somehow interact with the show so that they have some authorship in what direction it goes or how it turns out, they’ll be more engaged and engage in the presentation longer. The challenge here can be developing interactive methods with which the audience is comfortable. These can be very contextually and culturally based. Interactive panels, phone apps, voice recognition, motion sensing… all of these can be employed to guide the performance and make a more powerful experience.
14. The Law of Improve (Perhaps simply an expansion of the Law of Interactivity) – Audience inputs and clever programming can appear to make a show spontaneous, but to really help push the audience engagement over the top… a hidden operator or live costar actor improvising with the audience through the animatronics can be truly magical. The options for this include hidden cameras and remote controls, wearable animatronic masks and effects, and live actors interacting with and guiding animatronics… or a hybrid of all of the above.
15. The Law of Believability – Believability is not the same as realism. Believability is the combination of every design decision coming together in such a way that no aspect of the show or presentation appears out of place – thereby breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief. The audience has to believe that everything they are seeing and hearing belongs in the world the story is presenting. Any IP based attraction lives and dies by this law.
Aesthetics (shapes, colors and styles), types of textures, the ways things move (figures, costumes, hair, etc.), the way a scene is lit, the acting of the script – everything needs to be contextualized within the laws of science and design as they pertain to the animatronics’ worlds for a show to be successful.
So, there we are. The original 10 laws largely hold up, with a little overlap here and there. The new 5 laws (also with a little overlap) fill in some new lessons we’ve learned while expanding IP use in attractions, improving the technology behind the show, and watching audience reactions over the past 35 years.
Hopefully we’ll find some time to check back in on these laws before another 35 years passes.