Wednesday, March 28, 2007

FoxxFur on Audio Animatronics

I was thinking about Audio Animatronics recently and began attempting to collect my thoughts for a potential article and/or commentary here on 2719 Hyperion. I was primarily considering how in recent years there has been a distinct shift by Disney away from large scale audio animatronics-heavy attractions, much in the mold of The Great Movie Ride and early Future World endeavors like Horizons and World of Motion. Focus seems to have shifted to weenie-based, centerpiece AAs like Stitch, the Yeti and the much ballyhooed Jack Sparrow. I have wondered if this represented a dramatic shift away from AA-based attractions and reflected a growing disenchantment of the technology among both theme park guests and Walt Disney Imagineers.

Seeking an additional perspective on the matter, I solicited the input of friend and fellow Disney enthusiast FoxxFur, whose blog Passport to Dreams Old and New, represents in my opinion, some of the best writing on the subject of Disney, formally published or otherwise. She responded with an intelligent, articulate essay on the current state of audio animatronics that made me quickly and humbly set aside any intentions I had of writing a similar piece. Even better, she generously and graciously granted me permission to reprint her statements here.

From FoxxFur:

I'm not sure the public reaction to AAs is negative so much as unpredictable. Disney resisted being postmodern longer than probably anybody, and as a result there were/are an abundance of very earnest, interested, conceptually advanced AA attractions which are, sadly, being told with AAs. The public can't suspend disbelief anymore (I think this is, incidentally, disgusting), so the illusion can never be total anymore - only, in the case of recent figures like Stitch and Captain Jack, slightly mysterious.

Yet attractions that use AAs don't necessarily fail because of this. Although it's often mocked, sit in for a showing of The Hall of Presidents or The American Adventure and then stand right at the theater exit doors and listen to what people have to say. It's invariably positive, and usually mixed with some wonder about the figures. Although these are outliers as powerful presentations which have outlived many of their contemporaries, it's clear that people don't have conceptual limitations as to what an illusion of life can and can't be.

Furthermore, I believe WDI knows that for a certain type of effect, AAs still can't be beaten - their dimensionality requires a certain kind of attention and their scope requires that the sets they inhabit to be of a certain scale and complexity. For creating the right "dream state" / "Disney Magic" for many projects there is still no good substitute. For fantastic creatures - singing bears or whatever - there's still no better way to create the illusion of life. It's for humans that they prove problematic.

In addition, attractions with many figures in complex sets are costly to create and maintain. It's no wonder that WDI is falling back again and again on variations of projections and things to project them on - why build it and require it to work on cue for 18 hours a day, 365 days a year when you can make it work once and then replay that on non-degrading digital in a seamless endless loop?

What they're doing is picking their battles - where will an AA be the only appropriate solution? Guests and WDI are getting tired of the very thing that made AAs so amazing to begin with - that they do the same thing on cue every time. With increased demand for characters and Disney going overdrive to market them dry, WDI has very naturally gone on to try to provide us with "Living Characters" - first as projections, then as figures. Ironically, the actors these robots were meant to replace are now required to operate them.

As far as culturally, AAs are strange creatures. I think the best description of them I've ever heard is in Robin Allan, who describes them as grotesque. There's something creepy about them, especially when they travel into, as Jack Sparrow does, the uncanny valley. Richard Schickel, his his book The Disney Version, launches into an insane attack on Disneyland at the very end of the book where he makes the place out to be a freakish remote controlled biosphere built by a man unable to change the world around him, so he built his own, and especially singles out Mr. Lincoln as an essential affront to God. Although probably not in so sure terms, we react to these devices as being vaguely profane as part of our natural tendency to distrust anything which is so fake it's convincing.

And here's a quote from Network, delivered in that film by a television network executive to a psychotic news anchor, which not only sums up the public's perception of the "Disney Control Phantom", but is creepily close to the 'utopia' of Walt's EPCOT:

"Our children will live, [...] to see that perfect world in which there's no war or famine, oppression or brutality - one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock - all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused."

Enormous thanks to FoxxFur for making this contribution to 2719 Hyperion. If you are not familiar with Passport to Dreams Old and New, waste no more time and head over there now. Your only disappointment will be when you have exhausted her archive and then find yourself anxiously awaiting the blog’s next post.


Anonymous said...

Everyone talks about the new attractions that have video projections and how easy it is to "reprogram" them to change the content and make the experience different each time. I don't see why that approach can't be applied to Audio Animatronics. It's entirely possible to write computer software that adds variations to the performance of the AA figures -- perhaps even to allow them to respond to an audience in the same way that Crush does in Turtle Talk. What it comes down to is that AA figures are expensive to produce and maintain even though they provide a much better show.

Geritopia said...

That Audio Animatronics are perceived as something too archaic in the eyes of a too hip post-modern audience strikes me as much too heavy-handed. If you wanted to exploit the creepy potential of AA, that's one thing but the Disney treatment keeps all that fairly in check. Schickel's the one with a kumquat brain, sorry. Meanwhile there seems to be a worry that the folks aren't laughing with the characters, as much as they are AT them.

I see the technology as something that audiences experience as yet another Disney innovation; deeply integral to the park experience. To phase it out seems like eschewing the usual striving to advance the state of the art for something "easier" --not exactly in keeping with the Disney ethic, eh? Sure, people know it's fake but that doesn't eliminate how fun it is to be in the midst of this very unusual controlled performance.

I think that suspension of disbelief is a very nuanced notion. There are situations that invite you to pretend, which are quite enjoyable without any advanced simulation at all. Like, a cardboard box can be a castle to play in. There are endless variables. Entertainment isn't a perfect science. It's like they say about Hollywood: if there was a perfect formula behind every film, then they'd all be blockbusters.

The potential for Audio Animatronics to do new things hasn't even been explored enough, because too many people apparently have a static mindset in some kind of self-imposed limited way.