An anonymous reader writes with this interesting look at how Disney created realistic animatronic figures in a time before programming languages and systems on a chip. Animatronics have powered some of sci-fi and fantasy cinema's most imposing creatures and characters: The alien queen in Aliens, the Terminator in The Terminator, and Jaws of Jaws (the key to getting top billing in Hollywood: be a robot). Even beloved little E.T.—of E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial—was a pile of aluminum, steel, and foam rubber capable of 150 robotic actions, including wrinkling its nose. But although animatronics is a treasured component of some of culture's farthest-reaching movies, it originated in much more mundane circumstances. According to the Disney archives, it began with a bird.
Among the things Walt Disney was renowned for was bringing animatronics (or what he termed at the time Audio-Animatronics) to big stages at his company and elsewhere. But Disney didn't discover or invent animatronics for entertainment use; rather, he found it in a store. In a video on Disney's site, Disney archivist Dave Smith tells a story of how one day in the early 1950s, while out shopping in New Orleans antique shop, Disney took note of a tiny cage with a tinier mechanical bird, bobbing its tail and wings while tweeting tunelessly. He bought the trinket and brought it back to his studio, where his technicians took the bird apart to see how it worked.