E45 – The Magic of Animatronics – Interview with Lee Romaire
Unlock the magic of animatronics – Lee Romaire’s adventures in the space of animatronics reveal the enchanting possibilities this technology holds in theme parks and entertainment. Revolving around realistic creations and interactive characters, animatronics extend the scope of immersive visuals and tangible experiences, thus invoking awe and fascination in audiences. With artificial intelligence and untethered animatronics, a new era of dynamic, seamless, and intelligent animatronics is imminent, revolutionizing how we experience entertainment.
Lee Romaire is the CEO of Romaire Studios and a true animatronics master. With a lifelong fascination for realistic creations, Lee’s journey into the world of animatronics began in his small hometown in Louisiana. From taxidermy to special effects makeup, Lee’s diverse background and passion for animatronics have shaped his career. As the leader of Romaire Studios, Lee works with a team to bring animatronic characters to life in theme parks and on screen. With a focus on attention to detail and a commitment to creating unforgettable experiences, Lee’s expertise in the field is unmatched.
Here is a transcript of the podcast. Please remember this was done via AI, so there are typos and mistakes.
Welcome to the roaming Yeti podcast where we share travel stories full of nostalgia, interesting locations and the tales behind those locations. I am your host and head Yeti Beth Schillaci. In this episode I interview Lee Romaire and animatronics expert and CEO of Romaire Studios. Lee shares his fascinating journey into the world of animatronics starting from his childhood fascination with realistic objects and moving into special effects makeup. Lee also discusses the importance of collaboration and specialization within his team and highlighting the skills needed to think ahead and conceptualize the whole process when building animatronics. He also discusses a recent project, where his team recreated animatronic characters from the famous movie and video game series, Five Nights at Freddy’s in a very short timeframe, showcasing their ability to overcome challenges and deliver impressive results. If you’re a theme park enthusiast, this episode is a must. Listen. You ready? Let’s room Hi friends. Welcome back to the roaming Yeti podcast. I have a special treat for us today. I am talking to Lee row Mayer, who is actually CEO of Romaire studios. And we’re talking about animatronics, and if you know how much I love the behind the scenes stuff as much as the front of the house stuff. I’m very excited for this conversation. So Lee, thank you so much for joining me today. Oh,
thank you for having me.
Sure. You know, I think I always like to get sort of where how people got started in what they’re doing. So I’m sort of what’s your origin story? Like, how did you get started in animatronics? Because it’s, it’s not a major, like it’s not a college major that people go into?
Okay, I’ll give you the I’ll give you the whole rundown on the very cool. So when I was a kid, I’m from a small town in Louisiana, Morgan City. And I always really liked things that were real looked realistic. Whether it was you know, rocks or tree like fake trees, fake rocks, animals. I loved going to Disney World with my family and going through those immersive experiences like you know, pirates and haunted mansion. I loved dinosaur movie Ray Harryhausen movies and Dinosaur Movies and all those kinds of things. As a kid, the monster movies. So being a kid from the south, the thing that was most in my face, where it were taxidermied animals all over the place. Everybody would have a fish or a deer or duck on their walls, and I would love those I’d study it. And I actually learned how to do taxidermy. At a very young age. I think I was probably seven or eight. Oh, wow. Yeah. So I became sort of I was kind of a Norman Bates II kind of thing. I spent, you know, most of my high school years working, I had a little shop and I mounted animals for people and and then I went to college, I went to LSU. And kind of I went into advertising and marketing. It was a kind of a compromise with my parents, you know, business, but still had a creative bit. I spent about 10 years working in the advertising business, but it just wasn’t. I just didn’t have the passion. And I wanted to do something different. So I spent some time thinking about what I wanted to do. And I was living in New Orleans at the time. And it just kind of hit me that I wanted to, you know, I love special effects makeup as as a kid as well. So I, like you know, I think I want to, I want to do that. So I just happened to be in a bookstore and I saw this magazine called Makeup Artist Magazine. And there was a convention. It was coming up in like six weeks. And so I got on a plane and I went to Los Angeles and I went to the convention and I met a gentleman named Dick Smith, who is a famous makeup artist, he he did the makeup for the Godfather and exorcist. And so he kind of took me under his wing and I learned from him and two years later, I moved to Los Angeles without any a job and took me about a month to to get a job in a in a special effects studio. Yeah, and then I worked for you know, people like Steve Johnson and Kevin Yeager and Henson’s and Greg CanAm. And, you know, all those kinds of people and I got to work on some really neat, neat movies and TV shows and then I wanted to do my own thing. So I started started my own studio.
Hey, use that mark. Getting degree after all right there, right? Well, I
can’t tell people, they’re like, Wow, you really did that fast. And I’m like, Well, I, you know, I kind of had experience, you know, in the world outside of, you know. So it helped me a lot, you know, getting contacts and things like that.
Exactly. That’s, that’s, I love sort of when there’s those sort of serendipitous moments like opening that magazine and being like, oh, that’s yes. That’s a, it’s always so interesting, that a lot of creatives and artists sort of have that that moment. So, I mean, there’s so much that goes into building animatronics, like sort of what I mean, I don’t we don’t need the full process of sort of, like, what’s the process and the different disciplines involved in you know, sort of that collaboration that goes into an animatronic? Right? Well,
there’s, you know, there are a lot of talented people here at the studio, and they all have different abilities. mechanical designers, engineers, you know, so talking specifically for about a theme park animatronic, it’s, you know, very heavily engineered, it has to last 20 years and 95% reliability. So, you know, there’s all that, that goes into that, all that analysis and everything, and there’s a bunch of good people here that do that. And then there’s mechanical designers who have worked on the movies, and they know how to, you know, design something to work exactly right. And move, right. So that’s a different, another discipline, you know, we use a lot of computer design, right now, we also use, like traditional sculpting methods, but you know, that that’s the artist that comes in, and then the finish work is, you know, getting that hair looking just right, and getting that paint just right. I mean, there’s a lot that goes up, and, you know, not to mention electronics, because none of it would work without electronics. So there’s a lot of different different disciplines that come into play. And, you know, it’s very rare to I do know, some people who can do all of it. But it’s rare. So. So, you know, it’s everybody has like, a little specialty that they do, and it’s like, you know, my specialty is really kind of creative, directing all of it and or, you know, organizing it to the team to move forward.
And so the process, like if someone summons comes to you, and and does it start with, you know, with like sketches, and then build from there the electronics come for sort of, like, it depends on that happen.
Yeah, if you’re doing something for a movie, you know, they, sometimes they come to you for designs, sometimes they already have designs in mind, but, you know, that has to be broken down into what, what the movements are, what it has to do, like, you’ll have a script, you know, what does this character creature have to do, and you build around that. And, you know, in the practical aspects of it, we do more of theme park work. So, you know, now, while we do two types of the Empire work, we do research and development, where we pretty much design, what is requested, and it’s basically just the request. But then there’s also production work, like they’re building a park, and they already have the characters and they’ve already animated them in a 3d modeling program to move and speak. And so what we’re, what we do is we translate that into the real world. So yeah, so that’s, that’s the process and you know, we do all of it, we all do all the different aspects, but like, typically in a theme park, they’ll come to us with a more realized concept. And they’ll have, we want the eyes to move from going into move 45 degrees left and right, what this we want that so you know, and then it’s a bit of a back and forth. Same way, you can’t really do that you can’t have the head spinning around. So we come to an agreement, and then we build it.
Well, this is this question was submitted by my daughter. But she, she’s in college, so she wanted to know, like, what skill would people be surprised is needed for building an animatronic? Is there is there a, that people would be surprised go into that? I guess, surprised? Wow. Um, I think you have to be able to think like six steps ahead. You have to, like really be able to conceptualize in advance. So you know, so you have to be able to see like, what won’t work what will work for you. What else that’s the one I bet just comes to mind immediately. Yeah, no, that makes a lot of sense. Because you assuming a lot of the decisions you make, at that point, are based on six, six steps ahead. Yes.
And you know, past learnings, and that comes into play, but you’re always going to come up with something that you, you know, some impossible thing that you didn’t think of before.
So, you recently recreated characters for a YouTube video from Five Nights at Freddy’s. I watched that YouTube video those things were horrifying. Like, it’s, I was just waiting for them to move at any minute. So I hope that’s a compliment. But like, what, what was that project like?
Well, yeah, we you know, we have normally what we work on, we have years, multiple years to finish. And this young director came to us, Carson Philbin, and he works with socks for one who’s the YouTube star and he said, you know, we want to recreate this entire restaurant we want to create recreate these animatronics characters, and you know, the prot, the the challenge is, we have eight weeks to do it. So, you know, we’ve done quick things like for commercials and things like that, but this this was, you know, six animatronic characters in Well, are there animatronic heads, mechanical heads, with people wearing them, that we couldn’t access because they were all the way across the country. So we, you know, it was a huge challenge. But, you know, I really enjoyed the idea of that challenge. And I knew it would get some attention, if we did, we were able to pull it off. So we, yeah, we accepted the job. And they, they picked us. So we went to work immediately. And they were really great to work with, you know, 21 people worked on that project. Yeah, in, you know, to pull that off in eight weeks. And then for them to film in one day, and get everything they needed was pretty, pretty miraculous. But, you know, it was a project that I think everything kind of worked for. And I saw that early, it’s like they, they’re cartoon characters, number one, number two, they’re very kind of distressed looking. So we were able to, you know, things that we would try, like, I guess little imperfections that we would try to hide or work on, we didn’t have to we could hide them pretty easily with the with the distressed nature of the character. And also they were supposed to be robots. So they did hire dancers in the end, to act as the robots. And I thought that was a brilliant idea, because they were able to pull off that mechanical look, you know. So we, you know, we built them, we built the head with the head were built in the computer, all the mechanisms for the head, the eyes, the mouth, that was all built in the computer. So we could spit it out at the computer and 3d printing and assemble it quickly. We programmed them to weep programmed them to all be work on one button. So the director would press the button and then these characters would go through their little song, you know, this is like a scary Chucky Cheese. So they would you know, no show. And so we would program that and the director could start and stop it. And so it’s very simple to operate.
Yeah, I would put I would say, Chucky Cheese now is still ski. I can’t believe as a kid when that first open that that was like, Oh, we have to go and now looking back like wow, that was some people
were very scared of anthropomorphic. I don’t know why, but I
don’t know. But but that video was very cool. I was it did it made me nervous watching it because they were it was just so well executed. So congrats to you guys. Yeah, great job. And I would argue the Snagit like the Lincoln animatronic is President Lincoln animatronic from World’s Fair, I would say is arguably one of the more important animatronics in history. Yeah. And you you were involved with Mr. Lincoln, what was your involvement with that?
So I when I first started my studio, I had a friend in Imagineering and they that research and development and they were working on the first electric head you know, animatronics. Usually, in the past were all hydraulic or all pneumatic, which is hydraulic is fluids moving To the arms in the head, pneumatics or air. So they decided to go in the direction of electric, they were putting everything behind electric. So they, you know, there was several characters that we worked on. And they were just coming to me directly for sort of skin type things and finishing work. And then the attraction, great moments with Mr. Lincoln was up for a refurbishment. So they decided we’re going to redo the head of Lincoln using an all electric head. So, you know, they wanted me first to sculpt it, and then I convinced them to let me paint it and do all the hair. And all of that. So, you know, that’s what I did, I sculpted that character. And that is the first human audio animatronic that Walt Disney ever did. He’s very, because one of his favorite projects. And so I was really excited and very nervous to take part in that, you know, that refurb you know, plus, you know, odd trying to honor the original sculptor, Blaine Gibson, who’s famous for all this amazing characters. But what we did with that was, you know, these, these teams that go in and keep all this up, they do an amazing job, and they have a lot to do. But, you know, we tried to make their job easier. So, you know, they these ladies go in, and they, you know, they clean the costumes, and they comb the hair, and they put the beards back on, if the, the mechanical mechanics needs to take the skin off, they put it back on, and the beard doesn’t always go back in the right place. And the eyebrows don’t always go back in the right place, because they pin them on. So we did some different things. We actually made up wigs that would pop into place exactly the same time every every time. Oh, wow, we would, we punched all the hair in the face. One at a time. We even you know, we actually punched an entire beard on to like it and then shaved it off. So there would be stubble. You know? Yeah, just a lot of detail on the skin. You know, we learned a lot on that, that project about, you know, what was done in the past versus what we were trying to like, maybe slightly improve on in with that. So that was a huge honor. And I was actually allowed to talk about that for some reason in the press. So that that actually allowed me to get a lot more work with Disney. You know, I did read did my favorite animatronic show which the country bear Jamboree, which I was able to, like, you know, help redesign the characters and I was able to, you know, work on Avatar, that that figure lots of different lots of different, you know, pirates, presidents, lots and lots of different things.
So you, you worked on the guy who floats in the Navi and Adobe. Okay, the shaman or you worked on the shaman. That thing is so yeah, I’ve ever will see that for the first time. Like that’s a person like that’s not Oh,
that’s a really big animatronic. took years to do that Disney did an amazing job on that. Yeah,
that’s and you said the I know, the Country Bears. I was excited to hear they’re, they’re getting an update. I don’t know if you involved and probably can’t, I’m
not involved now. I’m not sure what they do. I’m
I know, they’re doing new songs. So I’m very excited for that. But, um, but thinking about like the Country Bears and even the first Lincoln, and you sort of touched on it with pneumatic and then hydraulics and now electric, like, what are some of the evolution and changes that you’ve, you’ve seen?
Um, well, I’ve been really involved with you know, kind of behind the scenes, like I said, I do a lot of help with research and development as a vendor. And I’ve seen a lot of and I’ve worked on a lot of things that they’re starting to look at AI or are they not starting? I mean, they have been doing a lot with AI. So characters that are independent, seemingly independent with thought and you know, that will react to you and react to each other. So that’s something new, you know, also certain characters flying through the air we had, we had, you know, we were involved in things like that. So independent things that are walking, things that are flying through the air, things are that are not tethered down to a stage. That’s another thing that you know, seemed like a lot of emphasis put on over the last, you know, 10 years. So, yes.
Is that like when you’re all the like the spider man that Avengers campus like that, that’s sort of what doesn’t sort of fly he totally is up in the air. Right?
So that was a new concept, you know, have an untethered animatronic figure I’m doing something really interesting. And
then I’ve recently saw the little droids bopping around. But to that, that they’re saying our AI and can interact and stuff and yes, yes. So is that that what we can expect to start seeing? More of sort of that?
I think so. I mean, yeah, I think the the challenge on all of it is to make it safe, and make it cost effective. I mean, that, you know, we’re getting like, really, behind the scenes kind of stuff. But, you know, these, they’ve done some really neat stuff. Like, I don’t know, if you remember Luckey, the dinosaur was a dinosaur that walked around. But, you know, it was an amazing, amazing animatronic. It was pulling a little cart, but just the cost of that kind of thing. You know, you have to have six handlers, and you have to, you know, think about the guests and not, you know, not hurting the guests. It’s, it’s a huge deal. Even a little tiny robot, you know, can trip somebody or so you have to, all those kinds of things are really thought about carefully. So, you know, that, and it’s all getting worked out. Is there a lot of very smart people who are thinking about it, but those things are being called out, and you’ll see a lot more of that in the future. Yeah, for sure.
And I think I, and maybe it’s because of these animatronics, or I’m just noticing them more, but I feel like we’re seeing a lot shift back to like practical sets and, and puppets and animatronics and stuff in film and television. Is that something you think we’ll continue to see? I hope like it
is so. Yeah. Because, you know, in, in the end, you don’t get rid of tools, you know, and for films that films, you know, the, after the visual effects, guys, like really kind of had their time they started realizing like, wow, we could use a lot of help. Close that thing. And we could use this to that. And so they started there was a lot more cooperation. You know, to it, you know, if you look back to Jurassic Park, it was mostly animatronics. People don’t realize that but did all the dinosaurs wanted film for a very short period of time, but it was mostly animatronic figures that you saw, but it was blended so perfectly with the CG dinosaurs at the time that it just works really well. So in theme parks, so this is happening as well, because universal we worked on we just won an award for
the pets, ride Secret Life of pet, pet. Congratulations, that’s a fun ride.
Thanks a PSP award for that, as part of that group that did that. And so that’s, you know, universals first, I guess for a long time into like, a totally immersive, dark ride with a bunch of animatronics. I mean, you know, it’s, you know, you go to Universal and it was a lot of screens and motion simulation, and they’re very cool. But after about the fifth or sixth one, it’s kind of the same. So I think they, I guess their thinking was, you know, we want to have something different. So and I will tell you that that’s kind of the feature as well. You’ll see a lot more of that as well from the universal you know, real sets real animatronics real experiences you know, people that’s what people want. I mean, when they go to a theme park because they have a huge already heavy screen. Now you know, well, and
I I get those similar images. I get motion sick on them almost all the time. So I will take a dark ride any day over that. Somebody
else was telling me that like two days ago? Yeah, it’s
um, it’s not Yeah, I don’t. Universal. I always sort of start I like it, but I struggle with I just sort of enjoy the theming is what I do when I’m there. Perfect. So we mentioned you know, Mr. Lincoln, secret pets. The shaman? No, I’m leaving something. of you know what, what others like? I guess So, when you’re at a party, you’re at Disney, because you’re based in California. So if you’re a Disney, like, what is your favorite ride to go on? Are you still old school? Or is
very much old school. I just love that stuff. You know, and that’s, that’s from a different time, you know, I’m 57. So it’s, it’s a different time and a different experience, you know, you would go and you basically sit there and observe something a show. Whereas now it’s like, very, it seems like everything needs to be interactive. And, you know, we just also we just won an award, the award for the galactic starcruiser. And that was dreamily interactive experience. When I think it was an awesome, you know, I think it was an awesome thing to do. Unfortunately, the numbers didn’t work out for it. But, you know, I’m sure Disney, like really took all those learnings. And I’m gonna apply them to new things in the future. Yeah,
I keep. I keep hoping, very loud and very public, that they still keep aspects of that and like, keep the restaurant as a place that when you’re in between, you get a reservation, and you go to the restaurant, because so much of that land is the
land or so talking about the I’m talking about the hotel.
Yeah, yeah. But I hope they keep parts of that hotel that you can still go into and interact in there without doing I mean, obviously, it’s closed now. But the I think the two nights stay sort of people are like,
Yeah, were you did you were you? Were you able to go to that?
No, no, that did not make our budget?
I haven’t I didn’t see it. I sent people to it when we’re installing things, but you know, it, it looked cool. From from what I can see. Yeah,
yeah, sure. And it was, well, well loved. A lot of people were very sad to see it go. So I hope, like you said, I hope they take a lot of learnings and it’s not the last time they they take a risk and do something like that, because
now they have to do things they have to take risks like that, you know, to move. Yes. So.
And lastly, like, Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on? Or? I know, it’s probably like, picking your favorite kid, but
so many? Yeah, there’s some really cool things. I mean, you know, the Lincoln thing really was just a big, you know, honor for me to do and, I mean, I’ve had so many other things that unfortunately, like, you can’t, I can’t really, you know, with movies, you you acted yet, it’s all secretive until the movie comes out. And then you talk about it with theme park where they really like to keep it secret forever, that there have been their bases that you know, because, you know, they want to be the ones to make the magic. So like, you know, there are a lot of us who make things that you see that, you know, we can’t talk about. So we can talk about things generally. You know, we just can’t be specific, unfortunately for a lot of things. So, you know, there are like I said, there I could probably talk about five different things that I was really excited to work on. But I would say Lincoln is probably
one of the best one of the best Yeah, I we I just watched on Disney plus last night there’s I think it’s behind the attraction season two is on and we watched the pirates Swan and they were talking how like that animatronic led to pirates being what it is as as a ride. And so it’s, it was really cool than knowing I was talking to you. I was like, Wait a minute. worlds colliding here. But this was great. I really appreciate it. And I know your time is very important. I do have to ask a little. I was thinking about Halloween. Like, with all those things, because I’ve looked at your website and your work is phenomenal, though. You have a German shepherd that I thought it was a picture of your German Shepherd, not something you guys have created.
Cats and dogs too.
Okay. I can’t imagine walking through your studio at night.
It’s not that scary. I mean, it’s very, it’s a little disorganized at the moment. So you probably you might trip but it’s there’s some neat things there. You know, I was talking to a horror blog recently and they were asking me what my last horror movie was, and I’m working on I’m working on a horror movie right now. We rarely do anything very scary. It’s all you know, it’s all like kind of realistic night. These things are I mean, maybe a little creepy like my Freddy’s but we don’t. We don’t really do bloody stuff. I don’t it’s not something I’m interested in and I have friends who are just so good at it and they you know, they have studios but all they do is make dead bodies and just nasty gross, you know, disfigured makeups and all that stuff. It’s not it’s not what I want to do. So I much prefer I’m much more of a Henson Disney guy. Then, you know, a I guess a? I don’t know. Friday the 13th guy.
Well, that that’s I will take I will take Henson and Disney over Friday anytime. I much more prefer Mickey’s not so scary Halloween till Halloween Horror Nights. So, right?
Yes, I agree. Very
much the scaredy cat. But, um, but thank you so much for your time. And I really appreciate you sharing your expertise with us. Yeah,
thank you so much. Appreciate it.
Another big thanks to Lee for sharing his expertise. It was so fascinating to learn about so many of these projects. I really couldn’t listen to them all day. But I do hope that these episodes inspire you to get out and roam even in your own neighborhood. So please subscribe so you don’t miss future episodes. And if you like what we’re doing here, please leave a review and a rating. Also to help support us please head over to Yeti to shop.com to pick up some roaming Yeti March will talk to you soon and keep roaming.