A New Animatronic Character for the Gravesend Inn

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Our original animatronic character, eventually named “O’Skully”, first appeared in The Gravesend Inn in either 2001 or 2002; I had originally gotten the character back in 2000 or 2001 as a teaching tool. He was made by KX International (no longer in the animatronic business, apparently) and had been a demo unit. He got damaged in shipping and I had to get a friend in to do machine a part for neck surgery, and after that he lived in our light lab, and even graced the cover of a 2001 Stage Directions magazine in an issue for which I wrote an article about our program’s approach.

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At some point, probably in 2002 (our records are a bit fuzzy from back then), we started incorporating him in the haunted house. As the attraction grew to the point of being unmanageable for students, the faculty started taking on the design roles, and Chip Scott and Norma Lee Chartoff, our production designers, eventually made him a new home in the Gravesend Inn, (Lighting by John Robinson; you can see the back of his head in the Stage Directions cover above).

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We started with a Gilderfluke control system, which I can see from my early cue sheets was only connected to the main show control system via a simple “running” contact closure. In 2004 I started moving things onto the network, and by 2008 we moved to A/V Stumpfl, and at that point he was running a stand-alone system but integrated over the network with (now Barco) Medialon Manager running the main show. In 2013 we moved to Weigl animatronic control hardware (writeup here), with which we happily remain today, using Weigl’s excellent Conductor software..

O’Skully was used when we got him, and over the years his joints started wearing out. We replaced the seals on his valves and so on, but eventually his fingers stopped working (broken cable inside his arm bone) and his torso got so shaky that I started programming more and more axes out each year. And then, a few years ago our attendance started increasingly dramatically (along with a reduction in downtime) poor O’Skully was running about every 90 seconds during the shows and it became apparent that he was due for retirement. Thankfully, the increase in audience numbers meant that we were able to afford a replacement.

I got in touch with Mike Blasko at Weigl, and he connected me with Bret Woodbury at animatronics maker Life Formations at IAAPA a couple years ago. Brett said he had a used character on the shelf that he could refurbish for us. On my way way back from storm chasing in 2016, I stopped in to visit her in Ohio.

She is very well built but was a bit rusty and needed a bit of TLC. Our General Manager Sue Brandt got the payment worked out, and she arrived, shiny and updated early in 2018. Knowing this was coming, I had already expanded our Weigl system, and included a full backup, seen here during testing:

The new character, who Norma eventually named “Oshkiloni” has many more axes of control, and different wiring, so we had to create a new interface box. Dominique Hunter, a graduating student, took the construction of the box on as her senior project:

And this led to a test of all the movements in the shop:

With all the pieces in place, and a new scenic design by Cory Einbinder, the old O’Skully’s wharf was disassembled under the direction of our scenic supervisor (and Department Chair) John McCullough.

And our new character moved into her new home.

We brought in the dark creative genius Todd Robbins to direct the new animatronic show, and he even did the makeup himself:

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Todd brought in Courtney Hansen for costume design:

Norma had written a new script, and Todd oversaw the creation of a new voiceover. Sound designer Sam Kusnetz integrated all that and then I spent a bunch of time last summer programming her movements. John Robinson did a new lighting design, and she rolled out for Halloween 2018. We got a very good response, and the whole system worked flawlessly for over 6000 attendees. There are videos online, but to really experience the show you have to see it in person! And, there will be a few new surprises for 2019…