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Action Figures That Really Act

Last time you visited a museum, a zoo, or a theme park, were you greeted by a cuddly alien? Talking birds? Charles Darwin explaining his place in history, perhaps?

As a dinosaur roared at you or Mark Twain told you a joke, did you stop to wonder: How do they do that?

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The talking, blinking, gesturing machines are called "animatronic figures." Many of them are born in a tiny factory in Jacksonville, Fla. Sally Industries has built creatures to sing, growl, and wave to people around the world - from Brazil and England to Japan and Spain.

You can tell just by looking at the outside of the Jacksonville factory - it's painted with bold pictures in bright colors - that this place must be fun.

But you can hardly imagine what's inside: Stacks of silicone faces and tongues. Fake eyeballs. Halves of plastic or fiberglass bodies waiting to be put together. It's like Frankenstein's laboratory!

Every figure begins with a blank piece of paper and a lot of imagination. Artists sketch what the bear or cobra or cowboy will look like, how it will be dressed, and how it will move.

For realism, hair is blow-dried

Others write a script for what the creature will say (or growl, or hiss). That will be recorded later, and it must be carefully timed with the figures' gestures and mouth movements.

Faces and hands are then sculpted from clay. Bigger creatures, like tyrannosaurs, are carved from a rigid plastic foam. Molds are made, and bodies are cast from plastic or fiberglass. Faces and hands are molded of silicone, to give them a lifelike look, and fitted onto steel skeletons. Hair, fur, feathers, and (rubber) teeth are added. Skin is carefully painted, and hair is styled with a blow-drier.

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A simple figure, with three or four movements, might cost $20,000. Elaborate ones, like the symphony conductor recently installed at a six-story shopping mall in Hong Kong, can run $75,000. Twenty-five people might work on one figure.

The key to making these creations lifelike, says Howard Kelley, the company president, is the eyes. "You can have a crooked nose or crooked teeth" on the figure and it won't detract from the effect, he says. "But you've got to have the eyes right."

Animatronic figures are not robots. They don't respond to their environment the way robots do. They don't even have motors. The movements are caused by air shooting through valves. Compressed air makes the hand reach toward you or the head turn just so.

A shy man's solution

Sally Industries was the idea of John Rob Holland. It began when Dr. Holland was in dental school. He was shy.

He was so shy, in fact, that he didn't want to give an oral report in class. Instead, he asked a fellow student if he could make a mold of her face. Her name was Sally. He used the mold to make a mannequin head. He rigged the head so the mouth would move. Then he recorded his speech and programmed the mouth to move in time with the words.

So he didn't give his report - "Sally" did! The class was delighted.

Later, a friend saw "Sally" in Holland's garage, and encouraged the inventor. Couldn't he make money with this?

The answer was yes. Holland started Sally Industries in 1977 with two others, one of whom is now chairman and chief executive officer. Holland left the company 10 years ago, but he's still tinkering. He built an airplane in his backyard from scratch, and a minisubmarine he can ride in.

And, yes, he's a dentist, too!

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