Making Robots: An Interview with Ron Newman from Showtronix

Showtronix is a Sydney based company specialising in making robots and animatronics for theme parks, dark rides, corporate displays and exhibitions. You might have seen their work on the Gold Coast at Movie World, in the Toy Department at Grace Bros Myer in Melbourne or at the Australian Museum's Gargantuans from the Garden. Started in 1987, Showtronix is owned by Greg Eccles, Ron Newman and Phil Bennett and employs designers, sculptors, mechanics, pnuematic engineers and computer programmers. We caught up with Ron Newman fresh off the plane from another whirlwind work trip that included the economic powerhouses of SE Asia including Dubbo, Malaysia and Singapore where he had just visited a Showtronix exhibit that included a talking gorilla arguing with an animatronic Charles Darwin about evolution.

KC Why do you think people are so fascinated by machines that simulate lifelike behaviour?

RN I think there's a fantasy element in it. I think humans like the notion of being able to build their likeness and control it. One aspect is to relieve ourselves of labour tasks that we don't like and that is already self-evident in terms of our manufacturing robots which are very highly sophisticated things. I think we are fascinated by them, I think we're also fascinated by the issue of how real can we get. If you go to movies like Westworld and Terminator, the old TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, all of those sort of things - you're tampering with life, you're controlling nature and I think as a race we like to control nature. And there's the fantasy side of it, people like to be entertained. And because of that we've built a nice little niche business.

DC Another thing we're interested in is the aesthetic of the robot. These are amazing devices that you are building, then the 'skin' gets put on and makes all the mechanisms disappear. How do you feel about wrapping it all up so that it becomes invisible?

RN Well, that's just the brief at the moment. We've built robots that are currently in Seaworld in a ride called The Bermuda Triangle and they're actually visible mechanical robots. The brief there was to build robotic characters. In a normal theme park situation the brief is usually to build humanoid characters where they want them to look like humans and we've build animatronic characters that control rides, so instead of having a person at the beginning of a ride, the character's sitting there. And they don't take tea breaks.

KC Can tell us about some of your favourite projects with Showtronix?

RN Well, the projects stretch from where we are just the builder and our major client there is Warner Bros, all the Looney Tunes, all the Gremlins and Batman, we have just done a whole Never Ending Story ride. Also the robots in The Bermuda Triangle because Seaworld is a Warner Bros project as well. So all of those sorts of projects are fun but we don't get involved in the creative side because their designs come to us.

I also design shows myself where someone comes to us and wants us to design a whole concept that is unique to them. We've done a show up in Hong Kong - it's a 10 minute show where a whole set of fish sing to an audience in Chinese and English. We designed an educational show recently in Granite Island in South Australia for children to explain to them the issues about the penguins' life. Those type of things with a strong educational theme I enjoy doing. I also enjoyed our involvement with the Gargantuans from the Garden for the Australian Museum in Sydney which was like "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids", the designer Desmond Freeman put the audience down in amongst the grassblades. So the kids and the adults that went to these exhibitions could get a real feeling what these insects were like. Having a strong narrative is what brings it all alive, otherwise the robots are just a nonsense. Those are the sorts of projects we enjoy doing as well as our larger projects for international theme parks.

KC Most of your contracts for Showtronix involve exhibitions and theme parks and the entertainment type applications of robotics and animatronics. How would you situate the sort of work Showtronix does in relation to that done within the art world by people like Stelarc for example? Or do you see more commonality with films and special effects rather than art practice?

RN In regards to art practice and people like Stelarc, I guess it's a bit away from that. Robots are being used in many ways, we work in more of an art and design or applied arts area rather than 'art'. You talk about markets and our markets are theme parks, museums and corporate exhibitions. In theme parks we are really just putting a three dimensional storyline together. So instead of putting it on a flat screen you go on a dark ride or go through a chamber and it's three dimensional. It's a three dimensional version of film so you actually need the robotics and interestingly enough, for them to make a movie like Jurassic Park, they needed the robots and then they modified the images but they needed the robots to begin with. Those robots are different to ours, ours have to last and work continually. They have to run every day, 10 hours a day, every two minutes.

KC What's the next challenge for robotics and animatronics?

RN Artificial intelligence is the key issue, that's where we are at because the machines that we build whether they are three dimensional robots or a software program or a piece of programming or a story, they can't think for themselves. When artificial intelligence has been developed then everything will change and there is an issue of growth there and I'm not sure how you can culture that growth within an electronic system. When that technology is known and you combine it with technologies of genetic engineering and electronics, I think that every thing you see in movies, all the stories you read, it can happen. In many respects that's quite scary.

KC What did you think of 'Babe'?

DC Well, there wasn't much Australian about it. Did you see a gum tree? They came to us to quote on it but we don't find building robots for film a terribly rewarding experience. We sell our robots to the end user, whereas in the film business you're not selling it to an end user, it's being modified and played with and shot and it's a funny interrupted sort of thing. I'm not sure that's the way we should go and it's a different type of robot to what we build. We build robots that need to keep working and those in Babe don't work any more on a regular basis. It's really a cross between robotics and puppets, aren't puppets after all robots? [laugh] I think that the greatest robot is Pinnochio.

Kathy Cleland & David Cranswick 1996.
MESH#8/9 Autumn/Winter 1996 'Robotica Special Issue'. MESH film/video/multimedia/art is the journal of Experimenta Media Arts