Halloween Animatronics




Build a Talking Animatronic Skull and Pumpkin
After seeing the Animatronics Workshop exhibit at the Wired NextFest, our family was inspired to try making an animatronic display for Halloween.

For your enjoyment -- The Gashlycrumb Tinies, by Edward Gorey -- narrated by Nick & Lexi.

Step 1: Materials

RC Servos are the "muscles" that make the moving parts of the animatronic do something.

A Parallax USB Servo Controller is the interface between the computer and the servo motors.

Visual Show Automation runs the show & tells the servo controller what to do.

The servo controller circuitry is powered via USB, but requires an external power supply to run the servos.

Audacity can be used to record & edit the sound track.

Step 2: Modifing the Skull Character

We found a sound activated skull that was perfect for the first figure. The existing mechanism was gutted, and replaced with a two servos. I had a couple of ball & socket joints that were perfect for the connections.

Step 3: Making the Talking Pumpkin Character

The talking pumpkin started off with a styrofoam pumpkin from a craft store.
Cut the pumpkin in half, with a zigzag in the front for the teeth.
Use a straight cut in the back so that there's no interference when the top moves.
Hollow out space for the servo & bracket.
The top is fastened to the servo horn with a piece of aluminum bent into an L shape.
Paint any visible cut surfaces of the styrofoam with a water-based paint (that won't eat away the foam)

Step 4: Creating the Audio

Audacity is a open source software for recording and editing sounds.
If you're going to have more than one character talking, or add sound effects, make sure to keep the voice tracks separate -- more on this later.
In this case, we've got two voice tracks (skull & pumpkin). Export each voice track as it's own wav file, and a third file containing both tracks.

Step 5: Starting to Tie It All Together

Each servo wire has three strands: black(+), red(-), & yellow(control). Plug the servo wires into the servo controller. Keep track of which servo is plugged into which channel. A couple of things to look out for: watch the orientation of the plugs, and note that the odd-numbered channels are flipped.

Connect a 5 volt power supply to the servo controller. Look here on Instructables for directions on how to convert an ATX computer supply to a bench-top power supply.

Step 6: The Controller Software

Visual Show Automation is used to choreograph the servo movements with the sound.

First thing is VSA configuration. The Tools/Settings menu brings up a dialog box listing the configurations for all tracks. Change the type to "Parallax Servo" & set the port number. Change the address to match the channel that the servo is plugged into on the Parallax board. You can give a descriptive label to the track, like Eyes, Jaw, etc. Check the baud rate under Port Settings & make sure it's 38400 for the Parallax board.

The +Value, -Value, & Default set the limits of the servo, and the default starting postition.

VSA has a useful tool called "WaveMotion Analysis" that can automatically generate events from the volume of an audio file (This is why we saved each voice in it's own wav file). Load each voice track & generate control events for the appropriate servo.

Afterwards, load the combined audio track.

Step 7: Setting the Stage & the Final Product

We made a stage for the figures from a piece of plywood for the base, posterboard for the backdrop, and foamboard for the mountains & tombstones. PVC pipe helps hold up the backdrop, and can be taken apart for moving.

The final result can be seen on YouTube:

Step 8: What's Next?

Future plans...

Add another servo to both the skull & pumpkin so that they can turn.

Have multiple pumpkins that talk togethers. (What do you call a group of pumpkins -- a patch?)

Servos are controled via pulse width modulation (PWM). It might be possible to control LED brightness via the servo control channels of the Parallax board. Add glowing eyes to the skull.

Thanks for looking, and Happy Halloween!

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    18 Discussions


    6 years ago

    excellent job !!!!!


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Very nice animatronic, do you think it is possible to hack a portative voice modifier to create a jaw moving big talking mask ? I have a project to make a furry mask with your method, but I don't know how to transmit the input of the voice modifier to the servos.

    1 reply

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Check this out it takes sound input and puts it into servo movements!http://www.scary-terry.com/audioservo/audioservo.htm


    9 years ago on Introduction

    The Parallax USB Servo Controller was discontinued and is out of stock. would the serial one work? also im trying to do this "on the cheap" so is there another free or cheaper software I could use? Thank you!

    1 reply

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    There a reference to other controllers at the BrookShire site:
    They mention the serial controller will work, but may need additional circuitry...

    If you only want to control one or two servos, you might be able to use an http://www.arduino.cc/en/Reference/Servo, but you'll have to roll your own control software.

    Sorry I haven't tried any other software (yet!), but I'd be interested if you come across any.
    Good luck, and let me know how things go!


    10 years ago on Introduction

    bwahaha, mask of dane cook+animatronic parts= tons of laughs!!!!!



    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    Bought it at a local Home Depot before Halloween last year. Looking back, I wish I had picked up several!


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks! That's one of the most fun steps, 'cause that's where thing's really start to come alive.

    Greetings from The Animatronics Workshop ! You have a very cool display. I'm so glad we could help inspire you. As you know, we're just some parents trying to make a difference in our schools, and we think animatronics is a great alternative to the traditional robotics programs. So now that you know how easy this was to do, go tell your local schools that they should look into it...

    --- paul

    P.S. One extra tip: you can make the mouth movements look even better by playing with the dialog tracks. The problem is that lower volume areas hardly cause any motion. Just normalize these up in Audacity before running WaveMotion Analysis. Remember to keep an unaltered version for your combined track that you actually listen to...

    1 reply

    Thanks! We all had a lot of fun and are already looking forward to our next animatronic creation.

    There's definitely some problem areas where there was little or no mouth movement. That's a great tip for improving the dialog movements -- it didn't occur to me to do more pre-processing in Audacity.

    And again, thanks for all the work you guys put into The Animatronics Workshop!