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Headin' into twilight, Spreadin' out her wings tonight...

We added an animatronic Raven to our skeleton crew at Trove Arts. What does this mean, and why is it worth blogging about?

skeleton puppet bird raven

Because sometimes an oddball idea, when seen through to the end even though it seems oddball and sometimes “not worth it,” can become an amazing piece of art. Not amazing in terms of traditional beauty or mind-blowing uniqueness or even deeply movingly emotionally expansive... or whatever. But amazing in that way that art can change perception just a bit sometimes. How art can show you a slightly different reality once-in-awhile. Anyhow... This is NOT a “how to make an animatronic raven” instructional. This IS a funny example of how a plastic bird skeleton and a wine opener can be great art. Julia and I are getting ready for our Halloween show titled TWISTED & TORTURED An evening of tales and art history from the macabre. The show is a presentation and discussion about four main artists, some of their “darker” artworks

and the sort of life-changing events that drive such work.

It's basically a one-person show with Julia performing some poetic monologues, teaching a bit of art history, and leading the intimate audience through a short and fun, themed art project. Now, while a very small show – literally in the living room of our lower flat that we have converted into our gallery/studio called The Trove Arts Art Parlour – this little production packs a solid punch with theatrical lighting, immersive surround-sound, and other effects. And while each artist discussed is a distinct and separate piece of the show, we have carefully woven them together with a spiderweb of historical facts, fictional lore, and fun surprises.

halloween crow skeleton puppet

One such surprise is our new friend Edgar.

Yes, clever name for a Raven.

Edgar began as a rough, verbal sketch of an idea. What if the show is laced together with poetry reminiscent of Poe?

And, of course, that quickly turned into late-night, moving-watching tinkering on the living room floor.

halloween crow skeleton painted black

Most rough ideas are worked out on the living room floor while screening some classic such as “Saturn 3” or “Lifeforce.”

Again, this is NOT a “how to” about animatronic Ravens. I will say that if you find that you NEED one of your own... I DO love

commission work.

And I'm also always willing to help with advice or ideas if you decide to tackle it on your own.

halloween skeleton crow with feathers

INSERT: I have found someone who made basically THE EXACT SAME ANIMATRONIC RAVEN that I have, in nearly the exact same way. Like... it's INSANELY SIMILAR. DOUBLE INSERT: Upon further viewing, this guy's raven actually looks to be much simpler to build than our Edgar. It has a bit less control, but it's still an absolutely GREAT Halloween prop rather than a character that can interact with guests.

But still. If you are interested in building a “robotic raven” check his vid out. Again, it's here: Now... Back to me making a mess on the living room floor. I had one of those cheap, strange Halloween decoration skeleton crows. It was meant to go on the shoulder of our PIRATE SKELETON that we set up on the front porch, but it didn't wind up there. For this show I had a vision of a crow hanging out above the doorway near where Julia performs (just above the chamber door) and thought it would be fun if it could silently “watch” her and occasionally flit its wings and maybe even follow guests with its quiet gaze as they walk past. So it needed a head that turned both ways, a mouth that could open and close, and wings that could flap. I watched a bunch of animatronic bird footage. Ok... I watched a bunch of footage from the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disney – and now can recite all of the jokes and songs.

jose' from the enchanted tiki lounge
Hail Jose'! King of the animatronic bird kingdom!

But besides adding some snappy and occasionally borderline racist humor to my repertoire, it was interesting to note that Jose' and friends also rocked back and forth. THAT movement really sells these things. So... (again, this is NOT a “how to”) without too many (or any) details, I cut the bird skeleton apart and mounted everything on springs and attached strings to that. And that first experiment was just a really doinky bobble-head creature that jittered around like a herky-jerky ghost in some mid 2010's horror movie. And then, unrelated, we went to my parents for dinner. TANGENT INSERT: How do YOU open wine? I used to own a theater that had a cocktail lounge attached, so I became familiar with simple and effective wine keys. Twist in, leverage out. Pop, Done. Little key fits in a pocket. Move on. But my parents – and seemingly lots of “parents” - prefer really elaborate devices with multiple handles and gears, and some of them are even mounted on stands and take up real-estate on the home bar. But opening wine at my folks' house with one of these geared, double-lever contraptions lead me to the idea that 1, this would be the PERFECT “guts” for Edgar what with the twisting “head piece” and the flapping “wings” and 2, my parents don't read this blog (who does) so they'll never know it was me that took their gizmo and buried it inside a raven skeleton.

So Edgar's head is mounted on the spinny thing and the wings got attached to the flappy bits and when you pull the corkscrew down, the wings go up and so with three strings (actually strong monofiliment) the head can move right and left, and the wings can flap up and down.

puppet control strings

I hinged the body to the feet which I screwed to a perch... and so now if the “corkscrew string” pulls past the point of raising the wings, the body tips up as well. Another spring in the mouth and string to that... and we have an articulated beak.

puppet control strings and ductwork for fog machine

All these strings run through a bunch of tiny eye hooks, down the wall and through a hole in the floor to the basement and then through eye hooks across the basement ceiling and then up through another hole to some lever controls I have mounted on the wall in my little corner where I run all the technical aspects of the show.

puppet control strings and ductwork for fog machine

So, all this for a strange, skeletal, animatronic (really more of a reverse marionette puppet) that can flutter a bit, look at guests and maybe (definitely) one day “talk” with synchronized audio.

Worth it?

As of this post, we've not done the show for an audience yet.

custom studio gear rack wearing a tuxedo
This is "Frankissco." He is part of the tech corner. He's fancy and wears a tuxedo.

HOWEVER, Edgar was up and running during the last few days of our Children's Art Camp. And while he had no audio, every single one of the children fully believed that Edgar was fully automated. And our art camp kids are NOT ding-dongs. We've managed to get some of the smartest and cleverest children we could imagine. They looked for floor sensors because Edgar would "activate" when they came near. They looked for cameras because Edgar turned his head and look at them as they moved. They looked for microphones because Edgar would strike different poses when asked. They'd greet him in the morning, find little bits of personal time to interact with him during free time, and were certain to wish him a good night as they left. So while Edgar was a bit of a pain to figure out and get just right (again, check out that other guy's vid if you want to make one a lot easier) was it “worth it?” On the final day of Trove Arts Children's Art Camp Milwaukee (keywords) the children host a gallery show. And during that fun show, the kids were keen to introduce their parents to Edgar. And each one of those parents bought into the idea that Edgar is “just kinda real. They leaned side to side to watch him follow their movements with his head. They politely asked Edgar to pose for pictures.

animated robot skeleton raven video

These parents are also not ding-dongs, nor are they dumb-dumbs. These are some very creative, witty, quick, and successful grown-ups who seem very aware of their surroundings and well aware of how things work. They weren't tricked. They weren't confused. They didn't think that Trove Arts has some supercomputer that is processing a variety of sensors, cameras and command prompts to run a not-so-spectacular skeleton Raven. They were perfectly aware that I was 8 feet away, sitting behind two computers and probably doing SOMETHING to make Edgar interact with them. But they never turned around to ruin the illusion. They didn't care to discover the man behind the curtain. They never looked close enough to see the black monofiliment running from the bottom of Edgar to the series of eye hooks. Did they NEED Edgar to be “just real enough?” Of course. We all do. We all sometimes just need a little bit of time to exist in that galaxy where we open grocery store motion sensor doors by waving our hands to apply “the force." We need a little of that twilight dimension where magicians really do make a third coin materialize in our hand... Just once-in-awhile, we need to believe that a robot bird is at least “kinda” alive.

robot owl

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