Which Is Better: Animatronics or Screen Media?

May 1, 2020, 6:20 PM · What medium tells the story the best in a theme park attraction? Should designers rely on practical sets and animatronics to set the scene and drive a narrative, or does screen-based media work better to create a truly immersive environment with realistic performers and action?

Look, I go into today's "which is better" question knowing that a lot of you were sick of screens in theme parks before this whole mess happened. Now with work and school becoming entirely screen-based for many of us, I am sure that screen fatigue stands at an all-time high. So I suspect that many of you are rushing to jab that "Animatronics" button before I have a chance to break down this question.

So chill and gimme a chance first, okay?

I actually think that this is one of the more interesting questions in themed entertainment design right now. Sure, every designer likes to say that everything starts with story. But if story's all ya got, you never move beyond that starting line. You have to find the right tools and the right media in which to tell your story. Pick wrong and you've failed not just the story but the fans who have given their money and time to ride.

Animatronics are great - except when limited motion capabilities of most animatronics make your action look like some cheesy slow-motion replay of an actual story. Or when character faces fall into the creepy uncanny valley of robot masks. So many big-budget theme park attractions today rely on established IP. But if that IP is dependent upon recognizable actors who aren't hiding behind masks or makeup, you might have a tough time depicting them convincingly as animatronics. Even if you invest in top-quality animatronics and laser-scanned, 3D-printed character faces, your story might fail if a park doesn't have - or won't spend - the money to maintain those expensive animatronics in top condition.

So how about media? Great choice - assuming that you can get your acting talent to perform for the theme park ride, too. And what if your director doesn't understand the laws of physics and chooses to create an action sequence that leaves your audience green and heaving? It's not just about casting, shot set-up, and story-boarding, either. You'll need to invest in proper lighting, color grading, and sound production to ensure that your media blends seamlessly into the immersive environment that you're trying to create. And even if you get the media production right, you run the risk that fans will dismiss your work as too much like going to a movie theater - or worse, watching a screen at home - to justify being in a theme park.

That said, for most major projects these days, "animatronics or media" is not an either/or question. Today's standard for excellence in themed attractions demands a blend of practical and media tools to establish and sell the story in the most convincing and engaging ways possible.

So let's consider this a question of which medium should be used as the starting point to build the narrative in a world-class theme park attraction. Should you typically start with something screen-driven, then add practical sets and animatronics to support and provide literal depth to the on-screen narrative? Or should you start with an animatronic environment, using screens as accents to provide additional dynamism within the scenes?

Weighing it all, where do you prefer to start? To begin the process of creating a great theme park narrative, which is better: animatronics or media?

Replies (16)

May 1, 2020 at 6:47 PM

Ride designers can do amazing things with both these days. But the realism and range of motion and facial expression of AAs make that the more exciting element in a ride.

May 1, 2020 at 7:04 PM

As you predicted, I didn't want to give this any thought at first. But as I think of my favorite non-thrill attractions in the world, they're mostly on screens.

Perhaps part of the problem with screens is that when a screen ride is bad, it's real bad; an improperly designed or poorly executed screen ride can leave you feeling like you got ripped off, watching a DVD bonus feature in a bouncy seat rather than getting a ride.

However the "floor" isn't typically as low on AA rides. As long as the design and maintenance aren't terrible, even a mediocre AA ride inherently brings charm, nostalgia, and a feeling that your experience in something that you actually had to leave the house for.

May 1, 2020 at 7:16 PM

I read the whole thing and stick with my original vote - animatronics. I completely agree that the best attractions blend both (Forbidden Journey, Spider-Man, even Kong), but I’d prefer to see something built with the animatronics in mind first. For instance, I really enjoy Gringotts as a coaster, but I think the screens already look weak. Hagrid’s Motorbike, on the other hand, is an awesome coaster with just enough animatronic effects to give it whimsy.

May 1, 2020 at 9:11 PM

There are situations where screens are better, but I have yet to experience a ride that was primarily screens and could wow me as much as a top notch animatronic experience. This is why Indiana Jones Adventure and Pirates of the Caribbean still rank at the top of the list for me, even though newer rides may be more technologically advanced. When both are blended well (like Forbidden Journey or Rise of the Resistance), the results can certainly be spectacular, but if there's too much reliance on screens (like Escape from Gringotts or Flight of Passage), I generally find the experience a little lacking.

May 1, 2020 at 11:30 PM

But where do I vote for the screen-animatronics like Elsa and the Seven Dwarfs? :)

May 2, 2020 at 1:03 AM

It comes down to how well it's done. And the fact is, nine times out of ten, animatronics beat screen media. Yes, Spider-Man is sensational but the AA part of Harry Potter get me more than the screen stuff. It just can't be beat as try to imagine Pirates, Haunted Mansion, Jurassic Park and others as just screen media stuff. AA just is the better way.

May 2, 2020 at 2:50 AM

I have yet to experience ROTR, but Forbidden journey is my GOAT! My first visit I must have ridden 10 times in a row I was in such AWE!
I guess I'm saying a perfect mix is best, I think!

May 2, 2020 at 8:48 AM

I voted screens only because I stand by my argument in a story I wrote years ago that if you want to build a ride around an exhausting IP (and aren't all big new rides done that way), and you want to present characters of real humans from that IP in the best light, screens are the key. Do I truly prefer screens? Not really. As technology continues to advance I'm sure we will get even more and more realistic AA figures.

Logically though we will also get better and better ways to use screens. The first time we see Jack Sparrow on Pirates in Shanghai is a good example.

May 2, 2020 at 9:11 AM

For me the best thing about rides are the physical spaces- getting into, travelling thru and going thru sequentially that makes a great ride. Animatronics are not by themselves, they are coupled with physical scenery that surrounds and immerses you- this is why they are superior to just media.

May 2, 2020 at 10:44 AM

I am in no way "tired" of screens but voted animatronics only because my favorite rides such as the Mummy and River Adventure are not screens. If done right though like Spider-man screens can be amazing. I would have voted for a blend of both had it been an option. I think that using both is definitely the way to go.

May 2, 2020 at 4:34 PM

The perfect answer here is “it depends”. Both can produce awesome attractions.

But as a general rule real-life 3-dimensional figures will beat virtual characters any day of the week IF they are done well. A good screen beats a bad animatronic (or even an average one) any day. But a great animatronic beats any screen, any day...

May 2, 2020 at 10:37 PM

Animatronics. The only all screen ride I really like is Spider-Man at IOA.

May 4, 2020 at 8:30 AM

I think the real answer is BOTH, and Disney is showing the way with the new hybrid animatronic figures they've used on 7DMT and Frozen Ever After. I think real figures can be really powerful in establishing depth and are more immersive than screens (even when 3D is used), but figures have limitations. For instance, if guests are placed close enough to figures that are supposed to represent real people (with faces), they are just far enough off where you recognize that it's a robot and not a real person. Disney tries to hide their inability to make these figures perfectly lifelike by placing them further away (Captain Jack in PoTC) or turning them in ways so guests don't get a close-up full view of these figures (like Hux and Finn on RotR). Masked figures and characters that are not representative of real people are incredibly lifelike, but those others are like seeing poorly done Madame Tussaud's wax figures.

This is where screens can bridge the gap when designers want to utilize real-life characters from movies/IP portrayed by the same actors that appear in the source material. Universal does this with their HP attractions, and the screens make the connection to the source IP much better than figures could ever do. Of course UC also uses figures for characters that are in heavy costuming (Hagrid and Goblins), but they rely on screens, because figures of Harry, Hermione, and Ron would never be convincing enough without obscuring guests' views of them.

Animatronic figures today are miles better than they were just a decade ago, but in the end, they cannot quite appear lifelike enough on their own without using tricks to obscure their flaws. Using screens to fill in the gaps in reality is the solution for full-view figures until they come up with a way to make them 100% lifelike.

May 4, 2020 at 9:37 AM

“The right tool for the right job.” You’ve focused - as have folks’ comments - largely on characters, but screens can provide more dynamic environments as well as depicting characters.

The main complain people seem to have with screens is that they’re “flat,” and even modern 3D film technology doesn’t really resolve that (and it causes motion sickness in a lot of people). In the queue for “Forbidden Journey,” Universal did a great job of combining “screens” and scrims, creating characters that look like they’re “there” with you. That didn’t persist into the ride, though, where we’re just flung from screen to screen through set of props, not unlike how Spider-Man works.

I feel Iike Rise of the Resistance has done the best job yet of “walking the line:” Screens predominantly provide dynamic scenery, while figures (let’s be honest, the Stormtroopers at parade rest aren’t really “animatronics” any more than the Jungle Cruise hippos are) are “there” with us.

Disney’s made huge strides in conquering the “uncanny valley” by using projected character faces - a la Seven Dwarves Mine Train and Frozen Ever After. Imagine Radiator Springs Racers where the characters just appeared on a screen... ugh.

Screens can provide an important backup when an AA figure is broken - as Disney does with Rise of the Resistance. Would a less-hydraulic, projection-mapped yeti have been a better option for Expedition Everest? Maybe, maybe not, but I bet it’d still be functional.

Using screens exclusively often leads to rides becoming little more than motion simulators - look at Skull Rock, which has some wonderful practical effects and a great Kong figure, but really aims to get you into the motion-sim portion of the ride. Escape from Gringott’s is a fantastic experience, but it could have blurred the line between reality and fantasy so much better if it had added some practical characters vs. relying entirely on screen. Hell, the queue is more “immersive” in some ways for that reason.

It’s astoundingly difficult to get real-human faces and movements right in an AA figure, as others have noted. Projected faces actually make it easier to create true-to-model cartoon characters - honestly, Peter Pan _still_ never looks right to me in Peter Pan’s Flight, but if his face was animated I bet it would look spot-on. But rubber masks of real humans have to fight thousands of years of human evolution that let us accurately “read” the faces And body language of our fellow people, and it’s likely they’ll _never_ get it fully “right.” Projections - whether on a screen, scrim, or some other surface - can fill that in.

The “job” should be creating a realistic, immersive environment that’s as a true-to-model as possible. The “right tool” for that job will differ from situation to situation and even from scene to scene.

The right tool for the right job.

May 4, 2020 at 1:20 PM

Enjoyed the explanation and thinking in terms of "which do you start with, AA or media" is such a good way to get to the root issue. Since theme parks are inherently physical spaces with 3 dimensions and an experience you can't get at home then I say start with AA/physical effects every time. Supplement with media when you reach the limits of what can be done practically. All of the rides that get mentioned in the "best of" discussion seem to get this right. Spider Man, RotR, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey all seem to strike just the right balance.

May 5, 2020 at 1:27 PM

I'm taking Animatronics for 800 Alex.

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