Modern technology is all well and good, but sometimes in this digital age it's nice to go back to the old fashioned, analogue solutions. Just like vinyl, beards and Fleetwood Mac, sometimes things go away just to come back again with a vengeance - and I sincerely hope that's the case with animatronics.
CGI has delivered some incredible, almost unimaginable worlds - be it Middle-earth, Pandora or Thermopylae circa 480BC - but sometimes it's a little disheartening to know the actors are just running around in a warehouse with green sheets draped over the walls. Animatronics, however, are tangible, real and in my opinion a more impressive technical feat than CGI. With this in mind, here are 7 great animatronics from cinematic history:
The Thing (1982)
With computer generated effects still in their infancy, the 1982 body/alien-horror The Thing had to depend almost entirely on antimatronics to deliver the grotesque and terrifying transformations of the titular 'Thing'. The work was developed by Stan Winston and Rob Bottin - two names which have since become synonymous with Hollywood animatronics - and was considered groundbreaking at the time. Despite the prevalence of CGI, the 2011 remake of The Thing paid homage to the original by also utilizing animatronics extensively. Watch a famous scene from the 1982 version, and some behind the scenes footage from the 2011 remake below:
American Werewolf in London (1981)
Although The Thing is rightly remembered as Winston's breakout film, a year earlier more groundbreaking special effects work was being conducted by Rick Baker. The werewolf transformation scene in American Werewolf in London was achieved almost purely with various sets of hydraulic animatronics devices, the most sophisticated of which was the werewolf head. Baker's work on this film led to the creation of an Oscar for special effects - which Baker went on to win 5 times.
Starship Troopers (1997)
Now of course, many of the swarming scenes in Starship Troopers has achieved with computer generated effects, however close-ups of several bugs, and the Queen Bug were all achieved with animatronics from Amalgamated Dyanmics. Although the film itself was unlikely to appeal to the Academy crowd, its special effects did earn a nomination for Best Visual Effects. Here's another fun fact: at the time of filming, Starship Troopers is believed to have held the record for most blanks fired in a movie - 300,000 in total.
Keeping with with deadly, bug-like aliens, let's take a look at Aliens. Although it's predecessor utilized a particularly tall dude in a rubber suit, James Cameron needed something a little bigger for the Queen Alien in his sci-fi sequel. To achieve this, Cameron turned once again to Stan Winston. He built a 14-foot animatronic which required 2 people to manipulate the arms, and 6 to carry it around. All scenes involving the Queen, including her fight with Ripley, were filmed in camera with no post-processing:
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
James Cameron also decided to use complex animatronics when it came to depicting the ravaged future of Earth in the iconic Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Although the introductory battle scene obviously featured lots of computer effects, several of the foreground exo-skeleton T-800s were actually animatronics. Furthermore, the scenes involving Arnie with his noggin being ripped apart were also animatronics courtesy of Stan Winston:
The Dark Crystal (1982)
Billed as the first live-action motion film to not feature a single human actor on screen, The Dark Crystal is a masterclass of puppeteering and animatronics from The Muppets creator Jim Henson. In many ways, The Dark Crystal featured a hybrid of traditional costumes and puppets and more modern animatronics, especially in order to deliver the iconic Skeksis. Each of the 10 grotesque beasts required two performers, one to control the head and the left arm, and another to control the right. Due to their lack of visibility, a video monitor was strapped inside the costume which was fed to by an external camera.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Of course, no list of animatronics would be complete with an inclusion from Jurassic Park. Stan Winston particularly excelled himself by bringing the dinosaurs back from extinction with his titanic prehistoric creations. Although Jurassic Park also pushed the boat out in terms of computer graphics, many of the scenes featuring the iconic T-Rex were created with a intricate and huge animatronic rig. Throw in scarily convincing Velociprator costumes and a whole menagerie of other Winston creations, and you get an experience CGI just won't compare to:
Steven Spielberg's Jaws has certainly gone down in history as one of cinema's most important films. In particular, the film is often praised with how it dealt with the fishy-antagonist - showing only glimpses and using music to create a sense of dread. However, this was actually a happy accident. Originally Spielberg wanted to use a giant animatronic shark, but it was so unreliable it couldn't deliver what Spielberg wanted. With the shark a no-go, Spielberg instead asked composer John Williams to create a theme which would suggest its presence without needing to show it.
King Kong (1976)
A special mention also goes out to the 1976 version of King Kong, if only because it had the balls to try and create an animatronic 40-foot tall ape. As it turns out, the animatronic Kong was almost entirely unusable, meaning the production wasted a rather massive amount of its budget on junk. The team managed to knock together a film out of what was left, but dinosaurs and other monsters had to be cut from the final cut.