The great white shark in "Jaws" that terrorized audiences when the film opened on June 20, 1975 was not only a triumph in filmmaking, but also a mechanical marvel as well. Here are seven of the most famous — and infamous — animatronic monsters in film history.
The trio of mechanical sharks used in "Jaws" — largely plastic, 3,000-lbs. models collectively named "Bruce" after director Steven Spielberg's lawyer — terrified filmgoers the world over. However, the fear audiences felt over these machines may have been due more to Spielberg's talents than their design. The shark models were notoriously prone to failure — during one test in the water, the hydraulic system exploded — and their skin tended to discolor and break down in the saltwater. These problems led the director to use mostly fleeting, indistinct glimpses of the shark and often film the movie from the shark's point of view, which built suspense. [See "Infographic: Shark Science on the 35th Anniversary of Jaws"]
Dinosaurs appeared to roam the world once more with "Jurassic Park." Real-life paleontologist Jack Horner supervised the designs of the ancient reptiles. The special effects gurus at Stan Winston Studios created highly detailed full-scale sculptures of the dinosaurs before molding foam rubber skins that went over complex robotics. Puppeteers could then remotely control their motions with "Waldos" that captured their performances for the machines to mimic.
The look of the alien or "xenomorph" in the first movie was designed by legendary horror master H.R. Giger, but it was essentially a person in a suit. In "Aliens," the alien queen was a giant animatronic robot that stood 14-feet tall. The mechanical monster was animated with cables and hydraulics, and required a crane for support. Two puppeteers inside the device operated its arms and 16 moved the rest of it.
In "The Terminator," a robot clad in human skin and flesh travels from the future to seal humanity's fate. The skeletal chrome machine shown in the film, based off drawings from director James Cameron, was originally supposed to be depicted through stop motion animation. A then-state-of-the-art full-sized animatronic puppet based on Jim Henson's technology eventually helped startle audiences.
The creatures in the film "Gremlins" were in many ways the "actors" that really carried the film. They were made vividly lifelike with complex animatronics by special-effects wizard Chris Walas, who also helped design the melting Nazis in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and the exploding heads in "Scanners." The gremlins themselves required machine parts and foam latex skins, as well as bundles of cables and dozens of technicians to operate — in one scene, the lead monster, Stripe, required 64 controls. (On a side note, the lovable Gizmo was colored to look like the film's executive producer Steven Spielberg's dogs.)
The 1976 version of "King Kong" famously employed a mechanical ape that stood 40-feet tall and weighed roughly 13,000 pounds. The robotic beast required 3,100 feet of hydraulic hose and 4,500 feet of electrical wiring to build, and it required 20 technicians to operate. Unfortunately, it was plagued with technical problems — wires snapped, hydraulics leaked, and the jaw sagged — and it appears only in glimpses in the final version.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
The designer of the 1976 version of "King Kong," Carlo Rambaldi, had much more success creating the animatronic version of the lovable alien in "E.T." The aluminum and steel skeleton for the machine had a musculature of fiberglass, polyurethane and foam rubber, with each layer connected to mechanical or electronic controls. All in all, it was capable of 150 separate motions, including wrinkling its nose, furrowing its brow and delicately bending its long fingers. Its eyes, which director Steven Spielberg wanted to entrance the audience, were constructed by a craftsman who made glass eyes for the blind.
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