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What Does a Master of Animatronics Do?

  • Bogdan Wojciechowski

Robot Simon has come to life again. This time he entertains the public at the Smithsonian Show, and wins first prize.

Simon was originally built for the TV series, Outer Limits. He is just one of the many animated creations, or animatronics, constructed by John Biggs, master of special effects. "They wanted kind of a mad scientisty kind of feel to the whole thing," says Biggs.

He enjoyed an unusual degree of flexibility and freedom on the project. Like any loving father, he considers Simon his absolutely unique creation. "Simon, you know, was really nice because you had complete control over it, in terms of its look, you know, and how the mechanics are going to work and how it's going to move," he explained, "and it's kind of rare in the movie industry."

Another, very different, project was a horse used in the movie The Last Samurai. "We did a full-scale horse Tom Cruise rode on, that was fully hydraulic and animatronic," said Biggs.

The horse had to look like a horse, and move like a horse. It turned out so well, that it almost talked like a horse.

Work on the horse took some eight months to finish, cost $1.2 million and involved a team of specialists - all for 10 seconds of footage. Biggs says you have to be able to let your project go. "That's the thing with the bigger projects, you can't really claim it as your own," he acknowledged.

That's where John Biggs' own, mysterious, animated artwork, created on breaks between movie projects, comes in.

According to Biggs, the work provides therapy. "For me, my art keeps my tenuous grasp on reality a little more solid," he said. "I guess you can call it therapeutic experience.”

In his art, John Biggs utilizes some of the concepts of animatronic models. Inspiration often comes from things that are solid and beautiful, like the rich décor of old machinery. Parts of his artwork are often made out of sterling silver, as a tribute to the artisans of past centuries. "The old castings of the turn of the century were always amazing to me," he said. "They put love and care into the production of let's say a bearing mount or a shaft in a factory. Within the function they did these incredible forms. I think my artwork speaks about that more than anything."

The common ground in John Biggs' art and some of his animatronics is that both evoke a sort of unusual, mysterious atmosphere, like that of Jules Verne's science fiction.

For John Biggs it's like discovering some unknown territory. "The true gratification of my career is to be able to create things that have never been seen before," he said.