With The Election Approaching, Discover The Story Behind 'The Hall of Presidents'
As the red curtain rises, subtle blue light bathes 43 presidents. After a few words from America's most illustrious founding father, all heads turn (some more smoothly than others) to our current commander-in-chief as the spotlight shines on his familiar visage. "The American dream is as old as our founding," begins robot Obama, "but as timeless as our hopes." After the president finishes his short, uplifting speech, the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" swells and an animated American flag waves in the background. The red curtain falls.
This is the patriotic crescendo to Disney World's Hall of Presidents, a 22-minute salute to all 43 leaders of the American people (remember, Grover Cleveland went twice). Come summer 2017, a 44th president will join them. Of course, whether it's a Clinton bot or a robo-Trump depends on Tuesday.
THE GREAT ROBO-EMANCIPATOR
This robotic inauguration got its start more than 60 years ago. Shortly after Disneyland opened in California in 1955 to not-so-rave reviews, Walt Disney and his engineers began preliminary plans on a section of the park called "Liberty Street"—a recreation of Revolutionary-era Philadelphia. Inside one of the halls, Disney planned a "living experience" with talking wax figures signing the Declaration of Independence and having a presidential roll call. However, building this many robots—or to use Disney's term, "audio-animatronics"—was prohibitively expensive, and the tech was still in its early stages.
The 1964 World's Fair in Queens may have saved the project. The story goes that Robert Moses, New York's powerful city planner, flew out to convince Walt Disney to help him with the fair's attractions. Disney introduced Moses to a moving, standing, head-nodding robot Lincoln. While the president was just a prototype, Moses was so impressed that he said he wouldn't open the World's Fair without Disney's Abraham.
"The mechanisms that were used to get the president to move had never been attempted before, which was exactly the problem."
Disney wanted to go bigger. In a typed proposal to Moses, Disney pitched a show he called "One Nation Under God," in which the finale includes "the 34 presidents of the United States...assembled in a common conclave for the first time in history....[with] the figure of Abraham Lincoln [rising] to deliver an address." Unfortunately, there wasn't time or money to create all 34 presidents for the World's Fair, which had to settle for only Honest Abe.
"There's no way on God's green earth that 34 animatronics would have been done in time for the World's Fair," says Len Testa, co-author of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2017. "It took them every second of time they had to get Abe running."
Even so, the great emancipator was racked with problems. "This is the early, early days of audio-animatronics," says Jim Hill, Disney historian and co-host of the podcast Disney Dish. "I remember talking with [Disney's in-house engineer] Bob Gurr about it. He had to figure out how to fit all the gears in Lincoln's body to make the character work, so he asked 'can he wear a stovetop hat because we could cram a lot of crap in there?'" According to Hill, Lincoln's beard was also a convenient hiding place for gears.
The mechanisms that were used to get the president to move had never been attempted before, which was exactly the problem. Essentially, each individual Lincoln movement was controlled by a hydraulic or pneumatic actuator and guided by a particular audio tone from a magnetic tape machine (or Binloop machine). Each machine played 14 tracks of analog audio simultaneously on the 1-inch wide magnetic tape which kept everything in sync, explains David Feiten who was Disney's chief animation producer during the 80s and 90s.
It worked, but there were glitches. At times, Lincoln would have spasms or just stop unexpectedly. Once, a broken valve leaked red hydraulic fluid, staining the president's shirt crimson and calling to mind the president's assassination. Disney immediately had engineers replace it with clear fluid.
Even though mechanical problems delayed the robot's premiere nearly two weeks, Lincoln was a huge success. Because Disney molded its face from Lincoln's actual 1860 life mask, Lincoln looked incredibly lifelike. The robot's creators even fitted the president with denatures and glass eyes from a local mortician. Kids were so convinced it was an actor and not a robot that they flung ball bearings (a popular giveaway at the fair) at the animatronic to see if it would flinch. They chipped the dentures which then had to be replaced several times.
In 1965, with a few tweaks after the World's Fair, "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" debuted at Disneyland. But despite his death from lung cancer in 1966, Walt Disney's original vision for a complete collection of robotic presidents was still brewing.
REAL OR ROBOT?
When the Magic Kingdom opened on October 1, 1971, the Hall of Presidents was one of its inaugural attractions. Featuring all 35 former presidents (LBJ was added), the experience had much better animatronics and a film played before the presidents' big reveal.
While the show script itself didn't change much until 1993, the tech certainly did. David Feiten spent more than two decades improving robot presidents' animations. When he joined Disney Imagineering in 1979, his team helped develop a computer program called DACS (Digital Animation Control System) that worked with the Anicon-Animation Console. This allowed the Imagineers to control the animatronics in realtime, instead of pre-set moves.
However, as the Hall of Presidents reached its 10-year anniversary, the animatronics began to show considerable wear and tear.
"All of these figures have to run all day long, about 16 hours day, 7 days a week," says Feiten. "That's a lot of work for a robot."
So, Feiten and his team helped develop a new software program setting called "Compliance." In short, it took pressure off the rest of the robot's body during a single movement. Before, when an animatronic arm moved too fast, the whole body would shake. This new tech "took the shake out of the figure" by acting as a shock absorber, allowing for quicker and smoother movements. It revolutionized animatronics.
As the years passed, the Hall has kept up with history by adding new presidents, all sculpted by Disney legend Blaine Gibson. For Obama, Gibson's protégé Valerie Edwards took over sculpting, and in 1993, for the first time, an actual presidential voice was added with Bill Clinton supplying his recognizable Arkansas accent to his robot effigy. Since then, Bush and Obama have also recorded voices for their robots.
When Hall of Presidents shuts down in January, a new robot executive will make its debut in late June. But Disney isn't waiting around for the election results. According to Hill, they are already preparing for both candidates. Whether Trump or Hilary, Disney will continue working toward making its robo-presidents more and more human.
"So much of what convinces you that this is a successful reproduction has nothing to do with talking," says Hill. "It's how they hold themselves... how Trump shifts his weight, how Hillary turns her head...There's so much subtle programming going on."
Source: Popular Mechanics
Banner Photo Credit: Disney