Robots Podcast #171: Robotics in theatre, film and television, with Grant Imahara and Richard McKenna
Grant Imahara graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in electrical engineering. It was shortly after that Imahara was hired as an engineer at LucasFilms and Industrial Light & Magic, building and operating a number of visual effects, models and robots for popular films/film series (such as Star Wars, Galaxy Quest, Jurassic Park, Terminator, The Matrix and AI: Artificial Intelligence). Imahara also built the Energizer Bunny, for the battery company’s commercials, Deadblow robot on BattleBots and Jeff Peterson from The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Imahara is perhaps best known as a presenter on Discovery Channel’s MythBusters, and is often seen making robots or robotic rigs needed to aid in the testing of various myths. Imahara appeared at Supanova 2014 promoting his casting as Mr. Sulu in the popular professional web-series Star Trek: Continues.
Richard McKenna is Chief Engineer at The Creature Technology Company. He joined CTC in 2010 and has worked on all of the major projects since that time, including How to Train Your Dragon; King Kong and the Sochi Olympic Mascots. He has a Bachelor of Engineering (Hons) in Mechatronics, Robotics and Automation Engineering from Swinburne University and is certified as a “Chartered Professional Engineer” by Engineers Australia, registered on the National Professional Engineers Register (NPER). Prior to joining CTC, the majority of Richard’s time was spent in the defence industry, and he has also worked in special effects for film and television.
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Episode #171 Transcript – Richard McKenna of Creature Technology
Ron Vanderkley: Good morning Richard, can I first get you to introduce yourself to the listeners and outline your role at Creature Technology?
Richard McKenna: My name’s Richard McKenna. I’m the Chief Engineer at Creature Technology in West Melbourne. I look after all the engineers here … we do all the design of the mechanical and the structural elements of the figures. We have to work in collaboration and in conjunction with the sculptors, the designers, and particularly the creature designer, who’s kind of the overseer of the performance and of the whole system. And that takes into account everything from mechanical design, electrical design, thermal capacity, material science and a whole bunch of other engineering fields.
Ron Vanderkley: So how did Creature Technology start?
Richard McKenna: What a great question. I came onboard in 2010, so I’m going to work off a little bit of history that I’ve heard. The place started not as the Creature Technology Company, but under a different name, and the first show was Walking with Dinosaurs. And a couple of producers came up with this idea to build life-sized walking dinosaurs, and they started off by using cherry pickers and scissor lifts and things like that. Eventually they got Sonny Tilders on board, who is their creative director here, and started designing more elaborate creatures, along with my predecessor Trevor Tighe, and a bunch of the other guys that are here.
They came up with The Walking Dinosaurs show and they were very lucky to have a backer, Gerry Ryan of Jayco Caravans, who was very supportive. They built these amazing dinosaurs, about eight full scale dinosaurs … everything from a T-rex to a Stegosaurus … in about eight months, so they were building these things very quickly for a tour around Australia. And even before they had the first show, Jeri Ryan had commissioned a second set because he was so confident in the product to travel around. I think the second tour went to the US and the first tour went to Europe.
After that, there was a little bit of a lull of probably 12 months, and I then got a job for DreamWorks doing How to Train Your Dragon. We did five major characters for that, and about 19 other figures … that tour went to the US and toured for about six months. It was a job for our customers for DreamWorks so we didn’t have any control over it after that, and it got sold to some Chinese producers.
Around the same time as the DreamWorks job we also got a job to build a King Kong for the theater, for a musical called King Kong Live on Stage, which was produced at the time by our parent company Global Creatures. It was put on in Melbourne at the Regent Theater, and that won half a dozen Helpmann Awards, and a bunch of Green Door Awards as well. It was a hybrid creature, so it was half string puppet, half robot, and it took about 14 people to operate – quite a complex creature.
After King Kong, we did a large figure for Radio City Musical for their Spring Time Spectacular – their Easter show. They’re famous for doing Christmas shows, and they’re trying to get their Easter show up. We built a Statue of Liberty that was about eight or nine meters tall – a very large puppet – and it is to be the climax of the show. That’s due to go on stage next year in May, so we’re going into rehearsals and the guys are heading over to do the lip-syncing in November this year.
We’re also working on getting into the theme park industry at the moment, and that’s probably about as much as I can tell you on that, it’s all very hush, hush … a very secret job.
Ron Vanderkley: Richard, you spoke about the puppeteering animatronics and some of the robotics. What is the basis of the technology you are using to create the figures that combine these areas?
Richard McKenna: They’re almost the same thing – the difference is in the purpose.
All of our robots are animatronic figures built for entertainment, and they’re usually built to either be live puppeteered, or as a recorded performance or a playback. So they’re either built to repeat a task, which is much like a normal factory robot, or they’re built to do something as a remote control, a bit like a remote control toy, but obviously much more complex. It has a range that it can work in, and it does that very well, but outside that range it doesn’t function that great. We try to keep that limited because these things are very large and very heavy, and they can hurt themselves or maybe the actors around them if they’re not well controlled. We try to keep them in certain range.
The technology is a combination of different things. We use servos for the face axes – these tend to be a brand called Maxon, and we use those because they’re very reliable … they’re famous for being on the Mars Rover. We use hydraulics for the large axes, where we generally use pressure control or a pressure controlled loop.
We tend to keep a lot of compliance in the axes. We don’t need the precision of an assembly robot … we can have something go generally into the right spot and that’s sufficient for the performance. It doesn’t need to be 100% reliable in terms of its position and it doesn’t need to be very precise, but it does need to be very fluid and very soft. And we also like the axes to interplay to each other, so for example if you have a head and a body axis, when the head goes up, that puts a lot more load on the body going up at the same time, and that in turn puts a whole lot of load in the structure. What we try to do is control that load by limiting the amount of force that each axis can put out. And what we find is that we get a lot of interplay between the axes, and that gives it a very life-like movement.
Ron Vanderkley: So how do you go about using air and hydraulics with the noise and safety aspects in mind?
Richard McKenna: Yeah, it’s very difficult to control.
For example, with our King Kong, the noise is really paramount. In the theater, the whole building is built to project your voice out, and if you put a hydraulic pump in the center of the stage, the guy in the back row can hear it pretty clearly. So we had to pick the quietest pump we could find, which then put a whole bunch of other requirements on us because it had certain limitations. And then we had to cover it in a bunch of sound isolating material and put it on an isolation mount so it didn’t put too much vibration into the structure, which would then cause this fiberglass body to act as a sound-board and project it out again, and on, and on.
We did a job for the Winter Olympics recently, where we picked a different pump that was a bit more successful than the pump we picked for King Kong, and so we’ll probably use that one again. It’s a gear pump called the Silence Pump, which is specifically designed to be about three or four times quieter than a standard hydraulic gear pump. But it’s really hard to manage it; it’s one of our big concerns.
We’re very lucky because most of our shows are very loud – especially when there’s a lot of action on stage – so the sound designer can afford to put a whole pile of music and sound effects over the top of a screaming hydraulic pump.
Ron Vanderkley: In your area of entertainment, what are the job opportunities for technicians and engineers?
Richard McKenna: What I can say is that they do exist. In Australia there’s not many, and I’m very, very lucky. I was trained as a robotic engineer, a mechatronic engineer, at Swinburne. So I’m in a job working with robots, building and designing robots … but there’s not a lot of them … and they’re very competitive to get into.
We get a number of CVs from young guys, and regularly get contacted by guys that have been through the place saying, “Can I come in and sweep the floor? I’ll do anything to work here.” But like with any engineering job, you’ve got to train up younger guys and get them into the way you want them to work, as well as to be useful and have initiative and productivity etc.
If you want to get into the job, you’ve got to put yourself forward. I’d also say you got to get some kind of experience, and if you’re interested in the entertainment industry, get some kind of entertainment industry experience, whether that’s as an amateur, or professionally, or as a vocational training – get something.
Certainly that’s what helped me. I wanted to get into animatronics when I was at university, and I managed to find a special effects company that needed a bit of help on a job, and so I got involved in that. I was lucky to get a second job; I took a second job working on the Myers Windows when I graduated. So I had a fulltime regular job, but I wanted get into animatronics so I took a second job working from six till ten at night trying to get some experience. But they’re hard to get into, and they certainly don’t exist as much as they used to in the film and television industry.
There’s probably in Australia doing animatronics, two or three companies. There’s John Cox in Queensland, there’s us here in Melbourne, and there’s a company called Stage One that do a little bit of this stuff but not very much. Then you can look at overseas companies – your Stan Winston’s and these kinds of places. We’re probably one of the only companies in the world that do this scale. I know there’s a Japanese company called Kakora that do a dinosaur as well, usually half-scale, or quarter-scale. Other than that, there’s not a lot, they’re few and far in between.
Ron Vanderkley: What type of experience are you projecting to your audience? Is it shock and awe, or is it on a personal level?
Richard McKenna: All of the above. We’re trying to give the audience a personal experience. We’re trying to give them a connection to the creature, to the puppet, so that they think that they’re interacting with it one to one. If it looks at them directly, the eyes have to function, the eyelids have to function, it’s got to look and feel real. The audience will come some way to meet you on that, even if they don’t realize they are.
From a performance point of view, people buy into puppetry. That’s why Sesame Street works: because people believe it’s real even though they know it’s not. They’re willing to go on that journey with you; they suspend their disbelief and enjoy the fact that this thing’s real even though it’s not.
One thing that tells us we’re getting it right is when the director comes and starts talking directly to the puppet, rather than to the two or three guys that might be operating it. The director might stand directly in front of the dragon and say, “You’re coming towards her too fast. You need to just slow down,” and talk at the puppet. And the puppet sits there and nods. He’s not actually talking to the people driving it, but he thinks he is. And that’s sort of a tipoff that we’re on the right track.
We’re looking for that fluid movement, the interaction that feels like it’s real and that’s sort of … It’s hard to sort of define but it’s that intangible stuff.
Ron Vanderkley: You spoke about the prospect of moving into the theme park industry. Are you looking at expanding upon the Audio-Animatronic style from the 60s and 70s, which is heavily featured in the Walt Disney attractions?
Richard McKenna: It’s certainly amazing stuff that they were doing back then, and that’s where the term ‘audio animatronics’ seems to have originated. That was when they realized they could do playback of motion.
When you talk about fluency and the fluidity of the movement, that’s where the compliance in the axis is. So if you need to look over into the audience, it doesn’t matter whether its looking at seat 23 or 24, because the audience doesn’t know where it is supposed to be looking. When you take out the restriction of having to nail an exact sightline and instead just have a general idea of where it needs to be, then you can have a much more fluid control system. You can have something that goes past where it’s supposed to and then drifts back to where it needs to be, and you can eventually and gradually eliminate your errors.
Where that becomes difficult is if you’re working with an actor, and they miss their mark and land on a different spot and you have to adjust. That only works with live puppeteering, what you have to do there is adjust for what the actor might have done. You only get away with so much playback, and then it’s down to the skills of the puppeteer. We put a lot of control into the loop so that they can’t do anything too crazy, but they still have to make the thing look alive and move on a natural way.
Ron Vanderkley: What does the future hold? Will there be a point where you will have a large character on stage being controlled by an actor off stage providing voice and movement via motion capture?
Richard McKenna: It’s certainly possible.
At the moment the technology is probably a little bit prohibitive in terms of costs and processing power, but I can certainly see a time where you could have the actor in a room with motion capture tools and the figure performing in front of an audience.
Where that gets problematic is moving it around: you still need to have something that does the gross movement. I don’t think we’ve quite nailed bipedal type things, and anything that isn’t supported by some structural frame is very difficult. For example, all of our large quadruped creatures have a structural frame that holds them up, and then their legs hang off that. They move fluidly and they contact the ground and they track the ground, but the legs don’t prop them up.
You can’t build a structure that is light enough and strong enough, and build in all the balance required – it’s just far too difficult for us at this stage. One day perhaps it will be possible, but it’s still too hard for us. The risk of something like that falling over and crushing an actor would be way too high.
Ron Vanderkley: So tell me, how have you been able to operate so successfully?
Richard McKenna: The reason that we’ve been able to develop the technology here has been that the team is amazing. We’ve had some absolute mad scientists here that have managed to pull it off, and at this stage of the business’ development, we’re fortunate to have a very strong backer in Gerry Ryan to keep us together. We’re a project-based business, like so many other businesses, and so we go through a lot of peaks and troughs. The reason that we can keep everybody together is because Gerry Ryan supports the business and says, “That’s all right, we’ll just keep it going,” and then it will come back. When we get good jobs like the Winter Olympics come through the door and we can be paid well, we can return the favor to Gerry, but up until then he supports us. So I can’t say enough about how important that is for us as a business. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without that level of support.
The reason for us to get into a business like the theme park industry is because it’s big and it’s stable. For example, if you read the most recent numbers on Disney World, they have 18 million people go through there a year, and each one of those people pays $150 to get in the gate that day, plus all their food, and beverages and all their accommodation. It’s a huge, huge business.
If you want to be in a business that develops this kind of technology, it’s got to be one that has enough cash flow. Because this stuff is … at the level that we’re doing it at … in the scale, the complexity of the axis… this stuff is expensive to build, especially in a country like Australia.
We do occasionally look at what’s coming out of China because they can build things a lot cheaper than us.
Ron Vanderkley: So how do you keep ahead of the competition and run to budget?
Richard McKenna: It’s a little bit of an arm’s race. You have to keep making them better and better.
The great thing about the puppeteering is that a simple puppet can have a great impact. Complex puppets don’t always add … there’s a diminishing value of returns.
Having said that, some of our figures have 40 axes in them. And it starts to get pretty complex when you think that those are not just 40 axes each operating independently of the other. They all operate interacting with each other, so even the smallest sort of movement of the lip or an eyebrow puts a load on the chassis. It’s got to travel all the way back through all the actuators and be accounted for, one way or another. It’s quite a challenge when you have that many axes in series.
Ron Vanderkley: On behalf of myself, and the podcast, I’d like to thank you for your time!
Richard McKenna: Terrific. Thanks Ron!
- Stanley “Stan” Winston was an American television and film special make-up effects creator. He was best known for his work in The Thing, the Terminator series, the first three Jurassic Park films.
- Gerry Ryan of Jayco Caravans the largest recreational vehicles manufacturer in Australia, owner of Creature Technology, Global Creatures, (Gerry Ryan is listed in BRW Rich 200 list 2014: 148)
- Dreamworks “HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON LIVE SPECTACULAR”, where dragons with 40 foot wingspans fly and breathe fire. This must-see arena spectacle breaks all the rules of traditional entertainment, immersing audiences into a magical and mythical world of Vikings and Dragons.