Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Audio Out-Source Atronics

Just last June Disney Imagineering quietly announced what has been one of the worst kept secrets at the company; the majority of all Audio Animatronics manufacturing would be outsourced.

In a casual, plain-spoken letter to O-Meon.com, WDI Spokesperson Marilyn Waters explained:

“The new strategy for our Manufacturing and Prototype Organization is to focus on greater innovation in prototyping and developing the next generation of Audio-Animatronics figures. This will involve strengthening our competencies in the creation of unique Audio-Animatronics figures.”

In other words, WDI stands to save a considerable amount of cash by letting outside companies create the majority of Audio Animatronics figures used in their parks. Nowhere did this pay off more handsomely than in the recent creation of the more than 200 animated children in Hong Kong’s ‘It’s a Small World’ which just opened last April. Chinese vendors were not only a fast, efficient and friendly labor pool, but most importantly worked substantially cheaper than their US counterparts.

For the Disney company, outsourcing animatronics is nothing new. They’ve been using private firms for decades, Garner Holt Productions in San Bernardino probably being the most high-profile. Still, the official announcement from Bruce Vaughn, Craig Russell and Kevin Eld last June stands as a reality check in the history of this venerable art form.

As far as Walt Disney was concerned, Audio-Animatronics was nothing less than the next great leap forward in the history of animation. His giddy excitement over this new form of entertainment took palpable shape in his animatronics masterpieces Tiki Room, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Carousel of Progress and Pirates of the Caribbean. After Walt passed away audio animatronics arguably reached it’s technological zenith with Hall of Presidents, Mickey Mouse Revue and Bear Country Jamboree in 1971 and the mind-bogglingly complex 114 characters in 1974’s America Sings.

Since then Audio Animatronics showcases never quite surpassed the level of sophistication and audaciousness of those earlier halcyon days. Though Epcot saw a substantial renaissance of animatronics performers when it opened in 1982, most notably within Spaceship Earth, Journey into Imagination and American Adventure, often the figures verged from limited animation (Kitchen Kabaret, Horizons) to mere mannequins (World of Motion, El Rio de Tiempo).

But it was Epcot’s park-wide reliance on film over form that perhaps foreshadowed the years to come. Filmed entertainment at Epcot took precedence over Animatronic showcases 2-1, with even the most spectacular figures of American Adventure sharing half their stage presence with lengthly movie interstitials.

Today Audio-Animatronics never carry a show; instead single complex characters either introduce a ‘movie’ (Toy Story Mania), punctuate a movie (Tough to be a Bug, Muppets 3-D) or provide a climax to a rollercoaster (Expedition Everest). The balance of audio-animatronic characters are now relegated to dark rides and often can’t even be called truly ‘animatronic’, the animation now left to rotating turntables and opening and closing doors (Monsters Inc., Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh).

With the official word now public, the only question to be asked is what this portends for the future of the art form. Are sophisticated animatronic variety shows officially a thing of the past? Will dazzling new leaps in technology only show up as single figures sprinkled sparingly throughout the park? Has Disney copped to the cheap showmanship of everyday 2-D film and digital video over truly dimensional animated fantasy performances?

One can argue that out-sourcing animatronics makes perfectly good business sense in our complex new world market. But we can also wonder whether Disney Imagineering has inconspicuously relegated the Audio-Animatronics Extravaganza as a relic of days gone by.

Perhaps, to counter Al Jolson’s giddy proclamation in 1927, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”, we have indeed seen it and it’s time to move along.