I went out into the street again with Walt and Wathel Rogers, who supervised the Enchanted Tiki Room. We entered another building and I got a shock; I almost bumped smack into Abraham Lincoln!
The illusion was alarming. The tall, lonely man sits in a chair much as in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C. But this is no cold stone figure; this Lincoln is man-sizeâ€”and so realistic it seems made of flesh and blood (pages 206-07).
Wathel Rogers made adjustments at an electronic console, and Lincoln’s eyes ranged the room. His tongue moved as if to moisten his lips and he cleared his throat. Then with a slight frown, he clasped the arms of his chair, stood up, and began to talk in measured tones.
“What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence?” he asked.
And then he answered: “Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us….”
To get an idea of the tremendous animation job this is, try it yourself. Sit in an armchair and pull yourself to your feet, observing how many muscles are called into play and the subtle balance required.
The Lincoln skin is the same Duraflex that has worked so well on the other Audio-Animatronic figures.
“Duraflex has a consistency much like human skin,” Rogers said. “It flexes as well as compresses. Rubber, for example, will flex, but won’t compress correctly for our needs.”
Rogers described the mechanics: 16 air lines to the Lincoln head, 10 air lines to the hands and wrists, 14 hydraulic lines to control the body, and two pairs of wires for every line. Rogers ran the Lincoln face through some of its 15 expressions. Lincoln smiled at me (first on one side of his face, then the other). He raised each eyebrow quizzically, one at a time, then, fixing me with a glance, frowned and chilled my marrow. And just to show he wasn’t really angry, he ended by giving me a genial wink.
“Lincoln is part of a Disneyland project called ‘One Nation Under God;” Wathel Rogers explained. “It will start with a Circa-rama presentation of great moments in constitutional crises.
“Circarama is a special motion-picture technique Walt developed for Disneyland and the Brussels World’s Fair. The Bell Telephone Circarama now at Disneyland tells the story of the great sights of America. It has a 360-degree screen. The audience is surrounded by the continuous action, as if they were moving with the camera and able to see in all directions.
“The Circarama for the ‘One Nation Under God’ showing will have a 200-degree screen. After the Circarama showing, a curtain will close, then open again to reveal the Hall of Presidents. The visitor will see all the Chief Executives modeled life-size. He’ll think it’s a waxworksâ€”until Lincoln stands up and begins to talk.”
Audio-Animatronic figures are now being planned for Disneyland’s French Quarter square in old New Orleans. They will also add chilling realism to the Haunted Mansion now under construction in Frontierland. (Visitors who ask about the mansion are told, “Walt’s out capturing ghosts for it now.”)
In 1937, Wathel Rogers' unique sculpting skills brought him to Los Angeles' Chouinard Art Institute. By 1939, Rogers began working at Walt Disney Studios as an animator.
Walt soon discovered Wathel's talent as a sculptor, so Rogers also began sculpting props and miniatures for Disney Studios. In 1951, Wathel Rogers & Roger Broggie were assigned to Project Little Man. Rogers & Broggie led the team that created a 9 inch miniature mechanical vaudevillian performer - the first primitive Audio-Animatronic figure. The Little Man's movements were patterned after actor Buddy Ebsen, who performed song and dance routines in front of movie cameras - so his movements could be mimicked by the project team.
Walt was fascinated with small objects, and he collected them during his travels to Europe. When Lilly, Diane and Sharon returned from a shopping tour of Paris, they found Walt on the floor of their hotel suite, surrounded by small animated animals. He was particularly impressed with a caged bird which moved its tail and beak and issued an intermittent song. He brought the bird to the studios and instructed one of his technicians, Wathel Rogers: “Take this apart and find out how it works”. Rogers performed an autopsy on the bird and discovered that it was operated by clockworks and a double bellows.
In 1954, Disney recruited Rogers to create models for the Disneyland project. Rogers, along with Fred Joerger and Harriet Burns, were known as the WED Model Shop - modeling and sculpting the designs for Imagineering and various Disney productions.
Disney Imagineers continued to develop Audio-Animatronics into 1960s. A robotic Abraham Lincoln was created for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair (and later Disneyland).
Most people's conception of how the figures were programmed, dates back to the May 17, 1964, Wonderful World of Color episode, "Disneyland Goes To The World's Fair." In that TV program, Walt is seen working on an act from the Carousel show. As Walt explains the Audio-Animatronics figures, he makes a path to Wathel Rogers, Disney's principal Audio-Animatronics programmer for the Fair shows. Wathel, who is programming the Father figure, is strapped into a control harness that resembles something out of a medieval torture chamber. As Wathel moves and gestures, so does the AA figure; Walt comments that, "The operator of the harness has to be a bit of a ham actor." It was also learned that in order to make the figure talk, the operator would have to synchronize his lip movements to a pre-recorded dialogue track, although this is not demonstrated in the show. This same film, with additional footage, was also utilized in an early progress report to G.E. While the show is enlightening, it leaves one to believe that the programming of the figures is something that was done with relative ease. In actuality, the methods of programming the figures were infintely more complex--and impressive--than Walt would have us believe.
There were two basic ways of programming a figure. The first used two different methods of controling the voltage regulation. One was a joystick-like device called a transducer, and the other device was a potentiameter (an instrument for measuring an unknown voltage or potential difference by comparison to a standard voltage--like the volume control knob on a radio or television receiver). If this method was used, when a figure was ready to be programmed, each individual action--one at a time-- would be refined, rehearsed, and then recorded. For instance, the programmer, through the use of the potentiameter or transducer, would repeatedly rehearse the gesture of lifting the arm, until it was ready for a "take." This would not include finger movement or any other movements, it was simply the lifting of an arm. The take would then be recorded by laying down audible sound impulses (tones) onto a piece of 35 mm magnetic film stock5. The action could then instantly be played back to see if it would work, or if it had to be redone. (The machines used for recording and playback were the 35 mm magnetic units used primarily in the dubbing process for motion pictures. Many additional units that were capable of just playback were also required for this proccess. Because of their limited function these playback units were called "dummies.")
Eventually, there would be a number of actions for each figure, resulting in an equal number of reels of 35 mm magnetic film (e.g., ten actions would equal ten reels). All individual actions were then rerecorded onto a single reel--up to ten actions, each activated by a different tone, could be combined onto a single reel. For each action/reel, one dummy was required to play it back. Thus for ten actions, ten playback machines and one recording machine were required to combine the moves onto a new reel of 35 mm magnetic film.
"Sync marks" (syncrhonization points) were placed at the front end of each individual action reel and all of the dummies were interlocked. This way, during the rerecording, all of the actions would start at the proper time. As soon as it was finished, the new reel could be played back and the combined actions could be studied. Wathel, and often times Marc Davis (who did a lot of the programing and animation design for the Carousel show) would watch the figure go through the motions of the newly recorded multiple actions. If it was decided that the actions didn't work together, or something needed to be changed, the process was started over; either by rerecording the individual action, or by combining the multiple actions again. If the latter needed to be done, say the "arm lift action" came in too early, it would be accomplished by unlocking the dummy that had the "arm-lift reel" on it. The film would then be hand cranked, forward or back, a certain number of frames, which changed the start time of the arm lift in relation to the other actions. The dummies would be interlocked, and the actions, complete with new timing on the arm lift, would be recorded once again.
With this dummy system, the dialogue and music could also be interlocked and synched-up with the actions. Then the audio could be listened to as the figure went through the actions. This was extremely helpful in getting the gestures and actions to match the dialogue.
The other method used for programming a figure was the control harness. It was hooked up so that it would control the voltage regulation relative to the movements of the harness. Wathel tells horror stories of sitting in the harness for hours upon end, trying to keep every movement in his body to a minimum, except for the several movements they wanted for the figure. This method had the advantage of being able to do several actions at once, but obviously due to the complexities, a great deal of rehearsal was required.
To program Lincoln's life-like movements, Rogers donned a mechanical suit that read his own movement - converting the actions into programmable signals. The suit and programming style became the precursor to Motion Capture technology.
In 1987, Wathel Rogers retired from the Walt Disney Company. After 48 years with Disney, Rogers was named a Disney Legend in 1995. Imagineer Wathel Rogers died in his Arizona home on August 25, 2000 at the age of 80.
In Glen Haven Memorial Park, Los Angeles is a tombstone
In Disney World's Haunted Mansion there's a
cemetery with tombstones and "punny" epitaphs
using the first names of Disney workers.
One says 4"
"Here rests Wathel R. Bender. He rode to glory on a fender."
Robert De Roos wrote about a tour of Disney World