Animatronic Dragon is Effective Teaching Tool for UNCSA Professor

When Professor Michael Meyer says he believes his mentee, Maggie Sackman, will be in Hollywood a year from now, earning twice as much as he does, it shouldn’t be taken as just an idle bit of praise.

After all, the previous students at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts who have been mentored by Meyer have gone on to do some pretty good things. In fact, two of them, associate professor Christal Schanes and visiting professor Holland Berson, now teach alongside Meyer, who is chairman of the Wig and Makeup Program at the university. UNCSA is one of the only schools in the country to offer a graduate degree in that discipline.

But Sackman, a third-year graduate student from Maryland, will share the stage with Meyer this week as the two demonstrate an animatronic lizard/dinosaur creation at the September meeting of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.

The duo will demonstrate how the four-foot-long, one-and-a-half-foot-tall animatronic puppet moves, thanks to 40 to 50 servos within its structured that are controlled by a series of computer programs. The puppet is a teaching tool that Meyer has used over the years with his mentees and some of his classes.

Left: UNCSA Professor Michael Meyer and student, Maggie Sackman, work on their creation in the Wig and Makeup program at UNCSA. Right: A close-up look at the electronics behind the dino/lizard creation.

“The set-up is pretty simple, but it’s complicated to program and to make it understandable to a group of people who may not have seen something like this before,” Meyer said.

Sackman said she wants to move to Los Angeles or New York after getting her degree to work in the movies with animatronic puppets, which she described as a “blending of cultures” between traditional makeup and costume work and robotics.

Working one-on-one with Meyer has given Sackman the opportunity to extend her knowledge in the field.

“The biggest thing I’ve taken away (from the mentorship) is thinking outside the box,” she said. “The simplest answer can often be the best answer, but you can also look at something new. … It’s a lot more of one-on-one time. You do a lot more research. It gives you time to problem-solve and get answers a lot faster.”

Left: Video demonstration of the dino/lizard creation. Right: A close up of the creatures head.

For Meyer, mentoring is an opportunity to get to interact with students on a personal basis. Even though class sizes in the program are relatively small – about 10 to 20 students – working with on an individual basis with a student allows him to go into greater detail with what he is trying to teach.

“You can make the lesson plan much more customizable to the questions each student has,” he said.

Berson, who now mentors students herself at the university, said Meyer encourages students to dream big and to not be afraid to fail.

“The biggest thing was getting rid of boundaries that most other schools put in place,” she said. “He would let you try things and run wild. He wants us to show our potential.”

Berson encourages her mentees to try different things, the same way Meyer encouraged her.

“The most important thing he nurtured in me and all of his students is to try things on their own and fail,” she said. “That way, you make your own discoveries. Fear of failure is the most limiting thing for artists in our work today.”

Meyer said there are about 50 students studying wigs and makeup, and the program will be a part of about 50 performances or events this year, ranging from big productions such as full operas to smaller ones, like photoshoots.

A few years ago, there were concerns in the movie industry that animatronics might be a thing of the past as computer-generated imagery, or CGI, was becoming much more prevalent in movies and TV.

“There was a concern that everything was only going to be done on computers,” he said. “But we were proven wrong: puppetry in combination with technology is actually blossoming.  We’re integrating it into the curriculum as necessary, so that students have an edge for better jobs and to get the higher-paying jobs faster. That’s when critical-thinking skills come in – it’s really important in the industry.”


Written by Phillip Ramati
Homepage Caption: UNCSA Michael Meyer and Maggie Sackman work to refine their animatronic lizard/dinosaur creation.

Published: September 16, 2015