16-374/60-428: Art of Robotic Special Effects
TR 9:30-11:20AM
Hunt Library A10A (Media Lab)
Instructors: Dr. Garth Zeglin, Prof. Suzie Silver
Spring 2017 Calendar

Offered by the School of Art and Robotics Institute for the IDeATe program at Carnegie Mellon University.


Course Description

Inspired by the early “trick” films of George Melies, this project-oriented course brings together robotics and film production technique to infuse cinema with the wonder of live magic. Students will learn the basics of film production using animatronics, camera motion control, and compositing. The projects apply these techniques to create innovative physical effects for short films, all the way from concept to post-production. The course emphasizes real-time practical effects to explore the immediacy and interactivity of improvisation and rehearsal. The robotics topics include animatronic rapid prototyping and programming human-robot collaborative performance. The course includes a brief overview of the history of special effects and robotics to set the work in context.


Students should have completed one of the following courses as preparation:

  • 60-110: Electronic Media Studio: Moving Image
  • an IDeATe portal course (e.g. 16-223, 15-104, 60-212, 60-223, 62-150, etc.)
  • instructor permission

If you are in doubt, please ask; this is a new course and we would like to bring together students from both art and engineering backgrounds, so experience with either  discipline can be enough of a foundation.

The target population include undergraduate and masters students from CFA, CIT, and SCS, with a maximum enrollment of twenty students.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this course the students will be able to:

  1. Understand the historical origins of cinematic special effects and relate them to contemporary practice.
  2. Understand the cultural history of robotics.
  3. Understand the basics of camera optics.
  4. Understand and apply basic techniques for compositing images using physical sources (e.g. green-screen).
  5. Understand and apply the basic use of automation actuation and animation, including strengths and limitations of several different approaches.
  6. Understand the tradeoffs between hand-operated stagecraft and automation technology.
  7. Understand the strengths and limitations of production over differing temporal scales, including purely digital effects, stop-motion, and real-time physical movement.
  8. Innovate new techniques for small-scale physical effects for cinema.


The primary assessment will be the critique of two team projects including the following deliverables: production design of a physical effect, implementation and execution, and production of a proof-of-concept short video or film clip.

In addition, students will be assigned technical exercises individually and in pairs, each resulting in small-scale technical demonstration documented as a video clip.

The overall grading breakdown for the course is as follows:

  • 10%:  attendance
  • 25%: tutorials/skill development assignments
  • 30%: Project 1
  • 35%: Project 2

Attendance will be graded as follows: Class attendance is mandatory. You are required to sign the attendance sheet at each class. Three missed classes will cause you to lose 10% of the final grade for the class.

Grading on  assignments is based the ambitiousness of  the attempt and the quality of the result. We will spend class time critiquing both the technical designs and the video results.

We will request a peer evaluation for each project to assist with adjusting individual grades relative to the group grade to account for varying levels of contribution.

Late policy

Assignments should be turned in on the day they are due by the start of class. We will look at the time stamp on your files to verify that they were turned in on time.

Late days: A total of three late days may be taken during the semester on the individual assignments. The flexibility provided by those late days is intended to get you through the time where all your classes just happen to have assignments due on the same day. If you absolutely need an extension beyond those three days, contact the instructors.

Rationale for Course

This course aims to bring together visual artists and technologists to explore new means for creating physical effects for visual media production.  Our focus is on creating a sense of wonder and magic rather than strict photorealism.  Our core premise is that the immediacy and interactivity of physical effects can liberate filmmakers to quickly explore and discover new kinetic images during production and reduce their dependence on lengthy post-production processes.  We aim to work at a table-top scale which can keep costs low and bring many physical effects within reach of the individual filmmaker, using compositing and forced perspective to combine model-scale and human-scale imagery.

The scope of the course encompasses kinetic and animatronic effects using robotics and motion control.  This will emphasize puppetry, coordinated motion, optical manipulations, and camera movement.  Excluded from this iteration will be many other ‘special effects’ topics including pyrotechnics, chemical effects, prosthetics, and makeup.


The main deliverables for the course are organized around two main group film projects, due at the middle and end of the semester.  These will include smaller lab assignments as milestones to teach technique and guide students through the larger production process.

All assignments will be group projects.  The instructors will participate in forming balanced groups, and the groups will be reformed several times during the early tutorial assignments so each student has the opportunity to work with as many peers as possible.

All assignments will be turned in as movies via Vimeo.

Project 1: Abstract Kinetic Images

The objective of the first project is to produce an abstract film which conveys an idea using light, shadow, and physical movement.  This explores the potential for expressing emotions and ideas using raw visual form and color, rhythm and tempo, and shape and trajectory.  This project will serve as a vehicle for developing the tabletop ‘studio’ setups, learning camera technique, composing ‘visual music’, understanding the interaction of light and materials, and learning techniques for mechanical actuation and animation.

Project 2: Narrative Magic

The objective of the second project is to produce a narrative film which embodies the wonder of live magic.  This explores bringing special effects and robotic characters together with other storytelling elements such as human actors, dialogue, and representational scenery and props.  We envision these projects combining the model scale of the tabletop studio with human and architectural scale via forced perspective or live compositing.

Technical Exercises

These are in ongoing development, but may include the following:

  1. Basic filmmaking and camera technique
  2. Basic post-production and  compositing technique
  3. Small-scale animatronics
  4. Controlled Cameras and Optics
  5. Visual Rhythm in Time and Space
  6. Field trip: Bayernhof museum