Before I get into answering your questions, I wanted to give you a bit of background about me, so you know my perspective and experience in relation to this topic.
I've worked in effects, but for smaller productions and not directly with any of the big studios. As a result, I have not had the opportunity to work with a great deal of larger/more complicated animatronics. That said, I have worked directly with those who do, and follow the subject extremely closely. I also have some experience creating animatronics for smaller productions.
I've also worked a lot with post production and digital effects, but again, not on anything massive. (mostly video games, commercials, music videos, TV pilots, and web content)
The following is just my opinion based on my own personal experiences and a lifetime of curiosity and research.
While I have worked in the entertainment industry in the past, and do still work on small productions, my current focus is in the world of software and mechanical engineering.
1. In terms of realism and movement how do you think Animatronic character systems compare to CGI characters?
Modern animatronics are capable of very realistic organic movement. The main difference in terms of movement is that CG animators can refine very minute movements over a long period of time and make iterative changes, while animatronics either perform live with puppeteers, or playback pre-recorded animation sequences.
With animatronics you gain the ability to interact directly with performers, in the same lighting conditions and environment, and can capture the performance from any number of angles with a single expense.
With CG animation you have to composite the character into the environment, and are limited to the coverage (angles and footage) captured on set, but have more time to fine tune and tweak things (which can end up costing you more as you are typically asked to change things many times)
2. Do you think that modern animatronic characters that are built using computer aided technology act more fluid like C.G.I character systems, compared to hand built/crafted animatronic characters? and do you think this simulated process (C.A.D) takes away some of the natural elements that come with hand-crafting a model.
Animatronics where you record and playback a performance are great if you are trying to get a very specific shot, and work great in parallel with motion controlled camera systems. In this respect, it is much like the first iteration of a CG animation (without the constant refining you get in post) in terms of movement, but has the advantage of actually being in the real world with your performers.
Animatronics being controlled my puppeteers are great for more natural interaction with performers, the environment, a wild camera, etc. and also have the advantage of spontaneous moments of creation, where the puppeteers, performers, and camera crew can try out different movements/angles/ideas.
In my opinion characters crafted on a computer are just as capable of looking realistic as those created in the real world, from a technological perspective. Getting a CG character to look as real as the real thing takes 2 main things, a very skilled team and a lot of time. Often productions will go with lower bids (not higher skilled teams) and rushed schedules. This is how you end up with CG that is easily identifiable as not real. The same skill and time constraints apply to practical effects, but they are more likely to look real as they are based on real world physics and physical lighting. Rushed or low budget CG will almost always look like rushed low budget CG, but practical effects that are rushed and low budget can some times pull off the impossible.
3. Do you think if an animatronic system was created that was partially man controlled and partially autonomous e.g (Using face detection / Motion Tracking with high variables) that it would allow for the systems to almost improvise to an extent and do you think that would bring another element into how animatronic systems and be applied in films?
Absolutely. Taking advantage of new technologies like real time motion capture, more advanced servos like dynamixel, software control, etc. is very important to remaining competitive. But it all depends on the needs of the shot you are going for.
I do see a future where on-set animatronics could take advantage of computer vision systems to handle things like eye tracking. This would allow an animatronic character to recognize nearby performers and adjust it's gaze to maintain eye contact. I've actually played with computer vision a great deal, with a focus on facial tracking.
But when it comes to on-set performance, your primary focus is on control. You are typically asked to get a very specific shot, and the director may want a very specific performance form the character. Any automated processes that are not directly in control of the puppeteers could possibly be an issue.
4. What do you think the future holds for animatronic characters in films?
Electronics are advancing at an amazing pace right now. We now have access to very powerful and precise servos, micro controllers (like Arduino) that are extremely powerful and flexible, inexpensive small form factor computers like the Raspberry Pi/Beaglebone/and Inte's Edison, rapid prototyping, etc.
These advancements open up a lot of opportunities, lower costs to systems that were previously expensive, and reduce dependancies on expensive proprietary systems that are not inherently hackable.
They also decrease the barrier for entry into the world of animatronics. Lower budget productions and individuals now have the opportunity to work with resources that professionals could only dream about a decade ago.
This means more story tellers now have access to this type of technology.
5. Do you think that because animatronic characters are relative to the actual environment rather than been super-imposed onto it, that it allows for a more realistic interaction between the cast and the character?
Absolutely! They can also result in better performances from actors. When an actor gets dressed up in costume, it makes shedding their normal persona and becoming the character much easier and more enjoyable. The same can be said for giving them a real environment, or real characters to interact with.
One way to sum it up is with a single question: As an actor would you rather be on set with a massive T-Rex, or asked to react to a tennis ball on a c-stand?
6. What genre of films do you think typically implement animatronic characters? And why do you think they are the preferred medium of character creation?
Science fiction and fantasy immediately spring to mind, as you are asked to create things that don't otherwise exist in the real world. But animatronics replicas of real animals are widely used in film, television, and advertisements as you can get a much more specific, repeatable, or dynamic performance compared to the real thing.
7. Do you think that as the technology advances and improves the reliability and quality of animatronic models, that there may be a renaissance of this medium in the near future?
Without a doubt!
As technology becomes cheaper, so will animatronics. As mentioned before, this opens the door to smaller productions (often working outside the big studio model) and grants them the opportunity to use resources like animatronics that were previously out of reach either technically or financially.
8. In your opinion do you think that animatronic models could be used / adapted for post-production use, for such things as promotional and education.