SamsDisneyDiary Episode #88 - What is a Living Character?

#88: What is “The Living Character Initiative”?

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The original "audio-animatronics". Who says it all started with a mouse?
The original “audio-animatronics”. Who says it all started with a mouse?

There is a long list of references to the “Disney Living Character Initiative”.  The most recent is the “re-appearance” of “Muppet Mobile Labs” at Walt Disney World’s Epcot in late 2016.  Through the internet, you’ll find numerous blogs and videos referring to The Living Character Initiative, but what exactly is it?

Some speculate that the “Living Character” is just code for the newest Audio Animatronic (or AA), a robot that has parried movements and sound recording; but maybe Walt said it best when he first introduced the world to the concept while the Tiki Room was in development in 1963.  The

The First "Living Character" - Lucky the Dinosaur
The First “Living Character” – Lucky the Dinosaur

introduction of the first “Living Character” helped to fuel the speculation that a Living Character was simply the next generation AA.  “Lucky the Dinosaur” the first Living Character introduced appeared to be exactly that.  Lucky, a green piped dinosaur standing at 8-feet tall, first appearance at Natural History Museum of Los Angeles August 28, 2003, led by “Chandler the Dinosaur Handler”.  By the way, a constant that you will find with all of these next generation characters is a nearby “handler”, some active participants others just bystanders.  Lucky premiered inside a Disney park at Disney California Adventure.  He made a brief visit to Dino USA at Animal Kingdom (June-August 2005) then helped open Hong Kong Disneyland (September 2005).  He has made a few appearances outside of Disney parks since then, but has most recently been seen on the Adventures by Disney Backstage Tour.  The cart that Lucky appears to be pulling is, of course, the heart of the operation, providing the brains and power.  The first “Living Character”.  Lucky was quickly tagged as the first moving AA figure; while true – the technology advancement was much more than just moving, Lucky was able to vocalize and interact with guests, including signing autographs.

Is that what the “Living Character Initiative” is?  Traditional internet searching really doesn’t provide much insight into exactly what the project is, and I’m hard pressed to find any real information about the initiative other than one quote.

“By combining technologies, our Living Character Initiative creates new levels of guest interaction and brings characters to life like never before,” said Holger Irmler, who worked on Living Character projects for Walt Disney Imagineering. “Things we do are so complex, yet our goal is to make them seem so magical to our guests.”

While Lucky was the Tallest Living Character - Remy was the shortest - only 6 inches tall. (Image courtesy Charlotte's Web)
While Lucky was the Tallest Living Character – Remy was the shortest – only 6 inches tall. (Image courtesy Charlotte’s Web)

Since that first character was introduced, we have seen many examples of the evolution of this AA type technology.  From the 8 foot tall Lucky to the tiny Remy standing only 6 inches, Remy from “Ratatouille” performed table side entertaining guests as they dined at Les Chefs de France in Epcots World Showcase.  According to Disney “Remy entertains the patrons through movements and lively banter. Along with his maitre d’ assistant, he will make stops at each table in the restaurant so that everyone can interact with him. He may even start dancing if the mood and the music appeal to him.”  Remy “performed” more or less through the summer of 2009.

Luxor Jr didn't last long - but was seen across from Hollywood Studios "Toy Story Mania" in 2009
Luxor Jr didn’t last long – but was seen across from Hollywood Studios “Toy Story Mania” in 2009

Luxo Jr, the lamp that is featured at the beginning of every Pixar production, was spotted near Toy Story Mania over at Hollywood Studios around this same summer (2009).  Luxo Jr stood 6 feet tall and would dance and react to music across from the entrance of Toy Story, above the meet and greet location; but like Remy, Luxo Jr. didn’t last long.  Though this could have nothing to do with Imagineering and everything to do with a legal matter between Disney and Luxo ASA.

SamsDisneyDiary #88 “What is a Living Character”
Now with More Ways to Consume!!!  The Blog Continues after the Video and Podcast!

SamsDisneyDiary Episode #88 – The Podcast!!

You can almost compare those experiences to Walt’s original “Silly Symphonies”.  Experimenting with the latest AA, taking the technology places it had never been before, all in an effort to perfect and master new skills for a greater cause.  Meanwhile, in a seemingly parallel effort, Imagineers were working on incorporating and perfecting yet another ground breaking technology Digital Puppetry.  By definition, Digital Puppetry is the manipulation and performance of digitally animated 2D or 3D figures and objects in a virtual environment that is rendered in real time by computers.  Digital Puppetry differs from computer animation in that it involves a live performer acting out the movements rather than computer animated frame by frame preset movements.

Turtle Talk with Cruse - "Digital Puppetry in action.
Turtle Talk with Cruse – “Digital Puppetry in action.

Walt Disney Imagineering started a “proof of concept” or Prototype of Digital Puppetry on the second floor of Innovations in Disneyland in the early 2000s. Guests could have a private conversation with Stitch in the “Stitch Phone Booth”.

In November 2004, Walt Disney World introduced us to the concept via Turtle Talk with Crush in Epcot’s “Living Seas Pavilion” (The Seas with Nemo opened in 2006, and the acquisition of Pixar wasn’t final until 2009).  According to Epcot’s Park Guide:

“Using his high-tech “hydrophone,” Crush can communicate directly with little dudes and dudettes about literally anything that’s on their minds.  Enter the Turtle Talk Theater and take a seat in front of the window into Crush’s ocean world. Watch as he swims up to the underwater mic, looks you in the eye and even addresses you by name! Pick his brain about marine biology, his friends from Disney•Pixar’s Finding Nemo, his favorite food, life in general—it’s totally up to you.  Each show is unique, improvised and a barrel of laughs—definitely a good time for little dudes of all ages and the parentals as well. No two shows are the same, so you can keep coming back again and again. Sweet!”

Turtle Talk goes mobile, with a version on Disney Cruises lines.
Turtle Talk goes mobile, with a version on Disney Cruises lines.

What’s really going on?  Disney Magic? Spoiler Alert!  This is Digital Puppetry.  The “Window to the Pacific” is a large rear-projection screen projecting an animated undersea environment.  Crush is a computer generated “Avatar” controlled by a puppet.  The puppet is operated by a backstage actor whose performance is digitized in real time.  All movements including lip synch are rendered on the fly and projected instantly.  Cameras mounted in the theater allow the hidden actor to see the audience, allowing him to call out specific appearances or behavior of the audience.  The performance itself is a combination of semi-scripted banter and improvisation based on guests’ questions.

A very similar technique is used for Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor in WDW Magic Kingdom Tomorrowland; introduced shortly after (2007), guests are entertained by Mike

Monsters inc Laugh Floor - extending the capabilities of Digital Puppetry.
Monsters inc Laugh Floor – extending the capabilities of Digital Puppetry.

Wazowski in an effort to collect enough laughs power in a stand-up comedy routine.  The technique is also used in Hong Kong Disneyland’s Stitch Encounter and Disneyland Paris Stitch Live! both introduced in 2006.  The technology was later used for the Disney Cruise lines Animator’s Palate restaurant on the Dream and Magic featuring Finding Nemo’s Crush.   2006 also saw the first appearance of the next generation Disney character.  The fab four, Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy all came to life with the “Dream along with Mickey” castle stage show, blinking and moving their mouths to the pre-recorded soundtrack.  Dream Along with Mickey ran for 10 years, being replaced by “Mickey’s Royal Friendship Faire” in 2016.

SamsDisneyDiary Episode #88 - Talking Mickey at Walt Disney World Town Square
SamsDisneyDiary Episode #88 – Talking Mickey at Walt Disney World Town Square

Rumors quickly surfaced that it was just a matter of time before we would see a full talking version of the characters in the parks.  One of the first official appearances of “Talking Mickey” was alongside Bob Iger for the premiere performance of “World of Color” at Disney California Adventure in June 2010.  It stood to reason that Mickey would be visiting guests soon, proven by guest videos that surfaced on YouTube before and after that official appearance.  Random guests where the first to experience “Taking Mickey” in Disneyland shortly after the expo in a short lived “test”.

We were experiencing the evolution of Auto-Animatronics, Digital Puppetry and Walk Around Characters all at the same time – do these together represent the full scope of “The Living Character Initiative”?  The technology came together for a fascinating premiere at the D23 Expo (2011) in Anaheim, including “Talking Mickey” working the show floor at the Parks & Resorts Pavilion and delighting guests.  But, Talking Mickey wasn’t the only “Living Character” featured at D23 that year.

“The Great Destini” a fortune telling robot that looks more like a Muppet than an audio-animatronic figure. - an early entry into Artificial intelligence.
“The Great Destini” a fortune telling robot that looks more like a Muppet than an audio-animatronic figure. – an early entry into Artificial intelligence.

Enter “The Great Destini” a fortune telling robot that looks more like a Muppet than an audio-animatronic figure.  Destini was able to conduct a full conversation including your fortune.  From the archives:

“Destini is a character who has fully interactive, non-scripted, real time conversations with guests,” according to Walt Disney Imagineer Josh Gorin.  “There’s no human operator involved, no actor, puppeteer or performer. Destini is driven by a sophisticated system that involves sensors, artificial intelligence, video, and face recognition.”

The Great Destini was only “public” during the 2011 D23 Conference.  While we might not see “The Great Destini” in a Disney park, with the latest construction, I’m sure we will see the technology. I’m looking at you Hollywood Studios.

While The Great Destini may not be visiting your favorite Disney park anytime soon, after the event, Talking Mickey was participating in “testing” at Mickey’s meet and greet at the Magic Kingdom in Town Square Theater.  Disney released a short YouTube “teaser” on October 31, 2011.  You can find that audio, and audio from my family’s meet and greet in Town Square in the video and podcast.

So, how does it work? “Disney Magic” of course.  I won’t go into the details, but I can send you to an interesting “Disney Research” report interestingly dated October 17, 2011. (Two weeks before Talking Mickey’s residency at Town Square Theater”  SPOILER ALERT)

While Mickey can carry on a conversation with guests, the interactive character initiative can be seen in just about everything Disney Parks is building.  From Wall-E, The Hat Box Ghost in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom and most recently Epcot’s Frozen Ever After.  The initiative is alive and well and is really all encompassing and focused on creating new levels of guest interaction and bringing characters to life like never before”.

Muppet Mobile Lab - one of the best examples of an immersive experience. (Epcot December 2016)
Muppet Mobile Lab – one of the best examples of an immersive experience. (Epcot December 2016)

That brings me full circle to my original question while watching/recording “Muppet Mobile Labs” in Epcot in late 2016.  What is this thing?  Who is operating that?  How is it not falling over? Where is the hidden camera? I can’t figure it out.  Is this a “Living Character?”

Muppet Mobile Labs is unique in the timeline.  First launched in 2007 at Disney California Adventure, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his trusty sidekick Beaker traveled through the Hollywood Pictures Backlot (near Muppet Vision 3D).   The vehicle, or lab, is a free-roving audio-animatronic capable of fully interacting with guests in real time.  The lab itself is shaped in such a way that it would be impossible for any human to operate the puppets, adding to the “Living Character” feel.   Aside from the handlers directing people to the location of the next show and where to stand, the vehicle is on its own.  The lab is also equipped with special effects including confetti cannons and spray jets.

The lab has been well traveled, starting at Disney California Adventure for a short engagement then moving to Epcot (August 2007-Feburary 2008).  It then moved to Hong Kong, then back to the US to participate in the 2008 World Science Festival in New York City then spent the summer of 2008 in Tokyo.

The attraction was so revolutionary that it won the “Thea Award” for Outstanding Technical Achievement in 2009.

After a short trip to Hong Kong in 2013, I finally caught up with the Muppet Mobile Labs in December 2016 in Walt Disney World Epcot, and it is remarkable to watch in person.  How did they do that?  What is this? The Imagineers would like to say it’s “Disney Magic”, and sometimes it’s best to leave it at that; but if you really want to know, you can find details on the show at the Muppet.Wikia.com (Obvious Spoiler Alert).

When it first debuted, Bruce Vaughn, Vice President of Walt Disney Imagineering’s Research and Development Division said, “This is an incredibly compelling and powerful way to experience the characters” adding “They are fully aware of the people in their presence and can call you by name. It is a 100 percent live experience.”

Muppet Mobile Lab - one of the best examples of an immersive experience. (Epcot December 2016)
Muppet Mobile Lab – one of the best examples of an immersive experience. (Epcot December 2016)

As of March 2017, Muppet Mobile Labs is still sitting behind cast member doors at Epcot – and speculation has already started that the labs will find a permanent home at Hollywood Studios Muppet Courtyard and be a part of the reimagined Hollywood Studios.

The Disney Living Character Initiative is a combination of audio-animatronics, digital puppetry, talking characters, live interaction, projection mapping (Think, Buzz Lightyear, Mine Train and Frozen Everyafter) two way communication, artificial intelligence and the next technology enhancement with packages ranging from 6 inches to 8 feet tall, all designed to enhance the guest experience – The Living Character Initiative is “Disney Magic”.

The only question is, what’s next?  What is being worked on that hasn’t been announced… The possibilities are endless.

Thanks for visiting SamsDisneyDiary.  Be sure to check out the video edition of this episode, get extra information on the Podcast iTunes, Google Play  and get all of the videos www.youtube.com/samsdisneydiary

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