Walt Disney is credited with coining the phrase “audio-animatronics”, as applied to the mechanized figures which began to to appear in the Disney theme parks in the early 1960’s. Walt Disney was a unique visionary with the wherewithal to initiate and nurture a technology that would thrive for decades to come. Disney Imagineering continues to have a robust R&D department to this day.
The fact is, the creation of life-like mechanized animals and people has been going on for a very long time, and predates Disney by centuries. In 1515 Leonardo Da Vinci created a mechanical walking lion to present to the king of France. In the 18th and 19th centuries automata were a popular form of entertainment in the royal courts of Europe and in Japan mechanical puppets called Karakuri were used in religious festivals to reenact stories from traditional myths and legends. In the early 20th century mechanized figures forecast people’s fortunes in penny arcades and an animatronic galloping horse was featured in the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
It was in the 1970’s that animatronics creatures began to be utilized within the film industry, such as the mechanical shark in Jaws (1975) and elements of the costume created by H.R. Giger and Carlo Rambaldi for the movie Alien (1979). Animatronics in cinema truly came into its own during the 1980’s and one of the leading forces in its development was Rick Baker. The techniques developed by Baker and his team of artists and technicians greatly pushed the envelope in the realm of creature effects with his work in the films An American Werewolf in London (1981) and The Howling (1981). The newly developed techniques brought a whole new dynamic to the portrayal of fantastic creatures on the big screen that gave us many of the iconic movie characters we have today ( E.T. and the Terminator come immediately to mind).
When Jurassic park came out in 1993, the writing was on the wall for practical creature effects. Industrial Light and Magic had managed to portray convincingly life-like dinosaurs in a movie and no one had to physically build a thing. Animatronics has seen a steady decrease in application in cinema ever since.