How Movies Like ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Revived Animatronics

Drew Turney

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Call it the J.J. Effect. Animatronics — along with similar techniques like puppetry, makeup effects and miniatures — is making a comeback. 

The work was long responsible for some of the most iconic characters and scenes in cinema history, then shunted aside in the 1990s as CGI became cheaper and delivered ever more realistic results. But J.J. Abrams, a director who’d grown up in the effects heyday of the ’70s and ’80s, followed his love of those arts and the cinematic language of “Star Wars” when he included a wide range of animatronics in 2015’s “The Force Awakens.” Now, Hollywood is rediscovering its love of puppets controlled by motors, gears and cables, whether via the expansion of the “Star Wars” universe or in movies like Netflix’s “Dark Crystal” reboot, “Age of Resistance.”

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Film fans of a certain age (which include many of today’s directors) never fell out of love with so-called practical effects. So why did CGI so effectively kill off animatronics? Millennium FX CEO Neill Gorton says one reason was to defer costs. “If you wanted animatronics on film, you had to condition them months before,” he explains. “You can spend money upfront on animatronics or go get a great reel of footage, and someone will [put] up more cash to get it finished; you can defer the [creative] decision for three or four months.”

Yet, animatronics versus CG often isn’t a fair comparison because the two solve different creative problems at different scales. For instance, to re-create the iconic attack scene in “Jaws” in which the shark devours Quint, the price for a CGI-driven sequence would be about $180k, says Stephen Lawes, a VFX supervisor at Cantina Creative (“Black Panther,” “Guardians of the Galaxy”). Meanwhile, special effects designer Walt Conti (“Flipper,” “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”) estimates the cost to actually build the creature at around $2.5 million and another $500K for an on-set puppeteer. But he adds that using the animatronic model for the entire production would reduce the per-shot rate to roughly 40% of that total, while VFX would necessitate stand-alone charges for each sequence.

To many, animatronics is still very much a part of the tool set — especially when there’s a creative legacy to be followed. “One thing that makes ‘Star Wars’ feel different is we always do things practically where we can,” says Neal Scanlan, creature and special makeup effects creative supervisor on “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” referring to work on “The Force Awakens,” the first film of the final trilogy.

Animatronics is also alive and kicking in fields like exhibitions and theme parks. Gorton says that he’s never been busier, adding, “People have been asking me for 25 years if my industry is dying.” 

Invented in the ’50s for Disney attractions like the Hall of Presidents and the Enchanted Tiki Room, moviemaking animatronics came of age in the ’70s and ’80s. When “Jurassic Park” became ground zero for the burgeoning CGI movement in 1993, it ironically contained some of the best animatronic effects ever seen.

But to many, including Academy Award-winning creature creator John Cox (“Babe,” “Pitch Black,” “The Host”), the writing was on the wall. The “Lord of the Rings” movies would go on to show CGI could be done on a vast scale, and visual effects soon handled more difficult surfaces like fur or water in rapid succession. “When I saw ‘Jurassic Park,’ I thought, ‘Well, they’re not going to ask us to do dinosaurs or reptiles anymore,’” Cox says.

Yet top Disney Imagineering principals Leslie Evans and Brian Orr maintain that physical effects offer something visceral that digital wizardry can’t duplicate. And some in the industry suggest that in-camera effects impact a scene in more than just a visual sense. The fun gizmos can have a positive effect on the actors too, according to “Rise of Skywalker” senior animatronic and creature FX designer Josh Lee. “Having these crazy droids and weird contraptions gives the whole set a buzz, and J.J. and Rian [Johnson, director of 2017’s ‘The Last Jedi’] know that comes across on screen.” Lee adds that having the real monster or alien present rather than working against a green screen allows for the kind of happy accidents that make up so much of moviemaking. When the effect isn’t set in stone, he says, “you can be spontaneous with it.”

Scanlan, Abrams and many others are also proving not only that there’s room for both art forms in filmmaking, but that they can complement each other. Though puppeteers animated many of the droids, creatures and aliens on all three films in the final “Star Wars” trilogy, digital technology cleaned up all traces of the operators in post-production, fashioning a look that provided even greater control of the on-screen effects.

Ultimately, the animatronics renaissance offers filmmakers more options even if VFX affords them greater freedom later in the process. “It’s like any tool,” Gorton says of digital effects. “It changes and brings new possibilities, but you don’t throw away the old tools.” 

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