16 SERVO 12.2016
Choices, Choices, Choices
Constructing the mechanical assemblies which allow
our characters to move is a big part of the design process.
However, without the requisite control required to move
them in our desired sequences, they are simply an
interesting collection of nuts, bolts, and structural
components. This complimentary side of the design
equation is just as important in order to bring our ideas to
There are a variety of methods available to control our
creations which allow them to replay our scripted
performances. I will primarily focus on the system we
currently use when we design a scene which includes at least
one animated character. However, I will also cover a few of
the alternate choices that you may want to check out.
We have explored many systems in our quest to find
the proper method to suit our needs. When I first started
designing animated characters, I hard coded all the
movements. Although this did command the mechanisms
to move from point to point, the movements were anything
but smooth and lifelike. The process was also extremely
time-consuming as each movement had to be individually
programmed. I never was happy with the robotic feel my
characters portrayed using this method.
After doing some research, I discovered the Virtual
Show Animation (VSA) program from Brookshire Software.
I took the leap and purchased it and started examining its
many features. I began by attempting to program the three-axis servo movements required for an animated talking
head I was working on. I found that the system’s efficiency
could be greatly enhanced by adding a supplemental
software program available from MonkeyBasic. Their
TrackSkull program allows you to utilize a joystick or TrackIR
headset to help record the necessary head movements (see
Resources). One major drawback of using VSA was that it
required you to keep your computer connected to your
character in order to play back your show. Brookshire
Software has created the RAPU controller to eliminate this
need, but it lists for $329.95 which puts it out of my price
range — especially considering the number of controllers my
display would require.
If you are willing to do live puppeteering of your
performance, you can utilize an RC transmitter and receiver
to deliver your commands to the servos (see Resources).
While I do use this method for several characters (see the
September 2015 and September 2016 issues of SERVO
Magazine), this is much too cumbersome a method to
employ for such a complicated scene as this. It would take
several puppeteers to control all the mechanisms this scene
entails. While that may be fine for Hollywood, it will not
work for me!
We have found that for our purposes, the most
advantageous method is to employ a system that allows us
to puppeteer our characters and record the session for later
playback. In order to accomplish this, we use the Propeller
Activity Board (PAB) from Parallax (see Resources) which
utilizes custom software.
The ultimate compliment you can pay an animatronic character creator is to say that
you — at least temporarily — believed his creation was alive! We strive to incorporate the
lifelike movements that simulate a living and breathing creature. The suspension of
disbelief is a necessary factor. It allows us to establish an environment where our
audience is able to immerse themselves completely in our scene. With the advancement
and accessibility of technology to the garage builder, we continue to narrow the gap
that separates us from the professional prop shops. As we near the “uncanny valley,”
care will need to be taken that our creations do not cross the line of causing our
audience to become uncomfortable in the presence of our creations. Unless, of course,
that is your intention!
By Steve Koci