Disneyland’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln is still one of the most moving and breathtaking things you can see at the Magic Kingdom. Originally created for the Illinois State Pavillion at the 1964 World’s Fair, the audio animatronic figure was controlled by air pumps and motors keyed by a multitrack sound recording. It was a purely analog system, and that’s what the “audio” in “audio animatronic” meant. It wasn’t because the figures talked, though they obviously did.
Here’s Walt Disney introducing the technology to the world in this clip from Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair.
That they were able to accomplish so much with the technology they had available to them at the time is a testament to the creative and technological prowess of the Disney Imagineers.
Fast forward to today. Now the legacy of the Imagineers has been passed to a whole generation of madly creative technical and artistic wizards. Disney sends all its specialty animatronic figures to a little company called Garner Holt Productions now, and has been for years. That company has become the world’s largest provider of animatronic figures, and they lead the world in the art of animated figures.
Garner Holt’s latest achievement is this new President Lincoln, which features a silicone mask over computer controlled, custom machined actuators. The result is the most advanced mechanical facial animation rig ever built. Watch this new video and be astounded. And maybe a little creeped out.
The facial expressions might be a bit exaggerated in this demonstration, as it was created for a tech demo, and not a polished final performance. We can forgive Garner Holt if it’s a bit pop-eyed, a bit glassy-stared here and there. Once a final performance animation is done, the results will be breathtaking.
The robot’s face is made of a special silicone used in the motion picture industry to simulate human skin, and it allows subsurface scattering of light the way real skin does. This gives it a reality that the original Abe Lincoln animatronic could not approach. It also gives it unmatched durability and flexibility, as you can see, and where the original robot could open and close its mouth – just barely – the new one can actually form the facial phonemes as it speaks.
The head has an astonishing 40 different possible movements. which makes it the most advanced facial robotics ever built.
Did Lincoln’s voice actually sound like that? Probably not. The accent can be reproduced, but purportedly Lincoln’s voice was a lot closer to Daniel Day Lewis’ reedy, nasal interpretation of him in the biographical film Lincoln of 2012. That not withstanding, this new Lincoln will be gracing Disneyland before you know it.