Mechanical Marine Mammals

Ever think about what it takes to make an animatronic whale? No? Well, we have, and soon, so will you.

By David Buck

Today in Tedium: Since the day I visited the Denver Museum of Natural History and saw a giant whale skeleton, I’ve been fascinated by whales. There’s just something inherently fascinating about whales that captures the imagination. There’s also a natural beauty to them that is hard to define. Similarly, robots and animatronics have always been a subject of fascination for me as well. When I read an article in an old art magazine from the 90s highlighting depicting whales in art, it got me thinking about animatronic whales and how they might change the world for the better–not to mention having a fascinating history. In today’s Tedium, we’re bringing you one whale of a tale about animatronics and art in the cerulean world. — David @ Tedium

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The worldwide box office gross for the 1993 film Free Willy. The film–which centers on a young boy helping set a captive orca whale free–was incredibly popular the year it was released and was kind of a family/feel-good movie. It also features an iconic scene of the whale leaping over a rock wall, which was done with CGI special effects. The real whale who portrayed Willy, Keiko, was eventually released into the wild, but tragically died of pneumonia only one year after being set free. Over half of the shots in the film used an animatronic whale and the sequels switched to animatronics entirely. The film also won several awards and spawned numerous sequels/spin-offs.

Jurassic Park, perhaps the most iconic animatronic-driven film franchise.

Animatronic animals have a storied history

Most of us have experienced animatronic animals in some way or another. Whether it was through the creepy Showbiz Pizza band members, Disney, or something like Jurassic Quest, many of us have interacted or been exposed to animatronics in some way.

The original Jurassic Park famously utilized a blend of animatronic dinosaurs and CGI to accomplish its legendary dropping effects. You’ve even seen animatronic creatures in the likes of Jaws and ET. And they’re all over Disney theme parks.

So where did they come from, anyway?

It started out as something called “audio-animatronics.” Walt Disney was fascinated by toys and wanted to find a way to bring them to life, so to speak. In 1951, a team of what would later be called imagineers began working on an automaton.

The building of Disneyland put a wrench in the works and the project would be revisited once the park was completed. After some false starts and a few notable successes the first animatronic creatures (singing birds) appeared in the park. After that, it was only a matter of time before other attractions would utilize the animatronics.

Those birds Julie Andrews is singing to are not real.

Since then, animatronics have long been a part of Disney history. Beginning with the film Mary Poppins (which used animatronic birds), Disney sought to add more fanatical creatures to its films.

Since then, animatronics have appeared in feature films, commercials, television shows (including my personal favorite ’90s show, Dinosaurs), and more projects not associated with Disney.

But perhaps the most spectacular use of animatronics is in marine creatures in various movies, educational properties, and real life.


The year an animatronic whale exhibit opened in Los Angeles featuring orca, gray, humpback, and sperm whales. Dubbed Whales: Giants of the Deep, it featured five life-size animatronic whales. According to a Los Angeles Times article from the time, the exhibit happened at the same time a real life gray whale was migrating along the California coast. What a spectacle that must have been. One year later, Free Willy would be released to the public and feature an impressive animatronic whale in its own right.

Before there was Free Willy, there was Star Trek IV.

A tale of two humpback whales

If there’s one traditionally “nerdy” program I enjoy, it’s Star Trek. Usually, music is my major nerdy focus (and sometimes the two meet), but I’ve always genuinely enjoyed Star Trek in its various iterations. The original six Star Trek films are among some of my favorites in the series, with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home being a personal favorite–even if it’s a bit weird. The film’s plot centers around bringing whales back to the Future to stop a probe that’s destroying the Earth.

But the challenge of making those whales appear on screen and be believable to the audience was significant. At the time, there weren’t many existing videos of whales on 35mm film and it was difficult to film whales in the wild. So the effects team turned to Walt Conti to help.

As an engineering expert and special effects artist, Conti knew what he was doing. Before founding his company, he designed medical equipment. For The Voyage Home, Conti teamed up with Pieter Folkens—an illustrator and author—to help bring the two humpback whales to life.

They ultimately manufactured four-foot, free-floating animatronic models that could be controlled via RC. The models were created by the special effects artists at industrial light and magic. In addition to the models, the production also created some full size wheel parts to handle those parts of the film. All of this was supervised by Walt Conti, resulting in what we see in the finished film.

Without the dedicated efforts of Conti and Folkens, who knows what George and Gracie would’ve looked like in the final film?

The video clip you came here to see.

When the production for Free Willy began a few years later, Conti wanted to scale up the whale models he used for The Voyage Home, which required extensive work and expertise to accomplish.

When Conti worked on The Voyage Home, he created the first free swimming animatronic creature and, in the process, set in motion an entirely new initiative for helping marine animals in the real world.

Free Willy and Star Trek turned out only to be the tip of the iceberg …

“A special thing goes on in the tail of a well in which the tendon absorbs energy and contributes to the kickback of a whale. We incorporate that kickback into the whale on screen, and viewers can’t tell the difference between the real well in a scene and our fake one.”

— Pieter Folkens, the designer behind the animatronic whales, from the March/April 1994 edition of Wildlife Art News. In the article, be discusses the challenges of capturing realistic whale movement through animatronics. Folkens used foam, stainless steel, rubber, and other materials to create realistic will skeletons for animatronics on film.


Next time you watch Free Willy, see if you can figure out when the animatronic whale is used. (Warner Bros.)

Close to the edge of innovation

Animatronic animals are sort of a mix between incredibly sophisticated puppets and automatons. That very connection is part of what gives them their name. Whales aren’t easy to create as animatronic creatures. Neither are dolphins or other marine creatures. But that didn’t stop Conti from continuing to do it when he created his own company, Edge Innovations.

The company was not only responsible for some of the groundbreaking working Free Willy but they also created the anaconda in the film of the same name and were instrumental in developing the lower pod of James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger.

Today, there’s a very popular initiative to replace dolphins and whales currently in captivity–such as those in zoos, amusement parks, and the like–with animatronic creatures.

Conti is actively involved with creating realistic dolphins and marine animals to replace those currently held in captivity. The concept, known as Delle, is a marvel of modern animatronic technology.

Talking about Delle, Conti’s partner (and creative director) Roger Holzberg is incredibly enthusiastic, stating “Nobody believed it was a robot. They believed it was real.” Holzberg came up with the idea to replace marine mammals in theme parks with their animatronic counterparts. He took his idea to Conti at Edge Innovations:

I pitched the idea of a Next generation attraction for water parks. I reached out to Walt and said, do you think it would be possible to take your motion picture animals, create a new kind of Waldo control system and use them as real time animatronic figures?

It wasn’t easy to make the dolphin, either. The team had to study dolphins extensively to learn their movements and figure out the best way to train the AI to make it work. When they finally did get it to work, they noticed the fish in the aquarium believed the dolphin was real and the sharks avoided it entirely. This development eventually led to developing the concept further. Now, they’re just waiting on finalizing a contract to install their attraction in a theme park (at least as of a 2021 interview) by the end of this summer.

The animatronic dolphins are around 600 pounds and swim using a simple AI program. They’re incredibly impressive, to say the least and could be real game changers in the years to come.


The weight of a robotic dolphin currently being produced to replace marine animals in captivity. The dolphin costs around $26 million to build and the idea is to help educate people about the creatures without endangering real life dolphins in the process. The skin is made with silicon and apparently, it’s hard to tell the difference between this dolphin and the Real McCoy. Whether or not these dummy animals can replace real ones in zoos remains to be seen, but it can be an effective tool for saving the animals and educating the populace in the process.

This fight scene from King Kong is a good reminder that someone occasionally needs to rein Peter Jackson in. Naomi Watts looks like she was Photoshopped into this fight.

CGI and animatronics work well together … sometimes

Every so often, a new technology comes along that disrupts the way things are done. We’re seeing a version of this trend happening right now with the likes of DALL-E and Midjourney helping people create digital art from prompts via an AI.

Some of the images being created are mighty impressive and quite realistic, but the debate rage is on whether or not it can be considered true art or if it will replace graphic designers. It can be a pretty sore subject for some, so we’ll leave it at that.

When CGI came to prominence, it upended the special effects world. But that doesn’t stop current films from using practical effects or a mix of CGI, makeup, and practical effects to create amazing cinema.

But it makes sense that CGI would end up replacing animatronics to an extent, but they tend to work best when combined.

If you ever wanted to see a bunch of sled dogs get into a fight with a leopard seal, this one is for you.

In the 2006 film Eight Below, for instance, the leopard seals were built as full animatronics and given a layer of CGI effects to give them a more realistic look. Essentially, anything the practical puppets couldn’t do, the CG could help accomplish. The Mandalorian does the same thing with Grogu (or Baby Yoda, if you prefer).

More recently, Jurassic World: Dominion’s director spoke to MovieWeb about the virtues of using a blend of CGI and animatronics stating having the animals there as puppets gave more life to the scenes than merely making it digitally. On the other hand, poor CGI and execution with animatronics can look awful.

Then there’s the artificial intelligence factor. Very recently, an AI-generated piece of artwork won a State Fair contest—in my home state, no less. Not only did this market debate about whether AI is art or if this was fair, but it got me thinking about how AI and CGI have affected animatronics over the years.

We’ve seen what CGI and animatronics can do together, but what about incorporating artificial intelligence? Will the results be as realistic as the art that one the prize at the fair? Or will it just create something uncanny that’s difficult to watch? Only time will tell.


The year Disney’s Imagineers began working on artificial intelligence-controller animatronics. Per New Scientist, the character was supposed to interact with guests throughout the park. It seems like a good idea or not will ultimately remain to be seen, but it could make for a fun addition to visiting the park and enjoying the best of what artificial intelligence and animatronics have to offer.

Replacing animatronics completely with CGI doesn’t seem likely anytime soon, but there’s something to be said about the idea of using robotic standings for marine animals at zoos and amusement parks.

While movies like Free Willy and Jaws aptly demonstrate what animatronics can do in a Marine environment, there still seems to be untapped potential for these types of puppetry in modern film. Ideally, I’d like to see a movie that utilizes such creatures in a way that doesn’t pick up as evil monsters, but instead centers the plot around how remarkable they truly are. Yes, I’m aware that the 1996 film Flipper features a friendly animatronic dolphin. That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m still quite fascinated with whales and will continue to learn about them for a long time to come. Perhaps I’ll learn to draw eventually and create some artwork of my own, probably without the assistance of artificial intelligence. Either way, animatronic marine animals are a remarkable part of our cinematic history.


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David Buck

Your time was just wasted by David Buck

David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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