Sunday, April 29, 2012

Interview with Automaton Maker, Dug North

I caught up with Dug North, Automaton maker, for this exciting interview. Check it out.  Haven't read the article on automatons?  Click here

You are obviously a very smart individual and could have used your Science degree for other things, so why the Automata?
I have always loved making things with my hands.  My automata involve a little bit of everything that interests me: history, engineering, magic, tools, woodworking, carving, diverse types of fabrication, art, and humor.  I love combining all of these things to make one thing. For me, an automaton is the perfect project.

During my research I discovered that it was usually the early clock makers who made these automatons.  Is it basically run like a clock?  Can you explain the mechanics of the Automata?  How it works?

As clock and watch-making became more widespread several hundred years ago, more people owned their own clocks and watches. Clock-making as a profession also became more common. Some of these clock-makers would make automata to show off their mechanical skill and advertise their services.

These early automata were wind-up spring driven mechanisms, just like many of clocks of that time. So the source of power was pretty much the same as a clock. The automata were different from clocks in that they typically performed a complicated action for a short time, while clocks performed a more basic action -- showing the time -- over a period of days or weeks between windings. 

Automata of this sort are different from clocks mainly in their use of cams and linkages. Cams are funny shaped wheels that attach to various parts of the automaton via connections called linkages. When the automaton is performing, these cams rotate. The funny shaped edge of the cam transfers motion to the linkage. This motion is then transferred to the appropriate part of the automaton figure.

Where do you get your inspiration for your pieces?

Ideas come from everywhere. Sometimes I start with an effect I would like to produce, like a magic trick. Then I ask myself, "Now, what kind of mechanism could do that?"  Other times, I learn about a new mechanism I would like to try out. In this case I ask myself, "How could I use the motion of this mechanism to animate a figure or scene?" I also do commissioned pieces for people who will request a certain type of automaton based on their interests.

Are all your automatons original or will you duplicate them? If not why?

So far, all of my automata have all been one-of-a-kind originals. The reason for this is that by the time I finish an automaton, I have become captivated by some new idea. I am usually so excited about the new idea that I start working on it right away.  I do plan to make duplicates of some of my automata -- or what are called 'limited editions'. Limited editions are small, numbered batches of the same piece, anywhere from a two to twenty or more.

Is there a particular material that works better for your pieces?

Historically, automata mechanisms have been made from metal. Metal is a good material for machines because it is hard and stable. Automata figures have often been made from wood, ceramics, papier-mâché , and fabric.  I choose to use wood and brass, because I like both materials and I like how the two materials look together. This is an artistic choice more than anything else.  Some woods are good for carving because they are free of knots and are easy to carve. Other woods are good for mechanical parts because they are fairly hard and do not expand and contract very much.

Which one is your favorite piece? Why?

My piece called Machini the Marvel performing 'The Study of Levitations' is my favorite so far. I like this one the best because there are so many things that move -- the figure's head, eyes, arm, and all of the items on the desk. The automaton really does perform a trick because there are no visible connections to the things on the desk that move. They seem to move on their own. Magic!

Is the automata of today considered more of an art, toy, or magic?

Automata have long been associated with magic and have often depicted magicians. Likewise, many mechanical toys were derived from more complicated automata. The type that I make are known as 'Contemporary Automata'.  They are very much like complicated wooden toys, but because they take so long to make and are rather delicate, they do not usually end up belonging to children.  You could say that automata of today are toys for grown-ups or toys for art-lovers.

So you hand carve each piece?  Can you take us through the process from concept to finish?

I do carve all of the figures of my automata. The figure carving process is something like this:

~ Research the type of figure to carve in books, magazines, sculptures, and real life
~ Draw sketches of the figure from several angles -- the front, the side, and back
~ Transfer the drawing to a block of wood of the right size
~ Cut out the outlines of the figure using a saw that is good at cutting curved shapes
~ Use a power rotary tool to begin to refine the figure's shape
~ Use a variety of hand carving tools to make the fine details of the finished carving
~ Seal, stain, and/or paint the figure

On average how long does it take to complete an automaton?

Many of my automata take several hundred hours to make. Most of this time is spent figuring out how to make the mechanism work and deciding how everything should look.

Is there anything else you would like to add for our young readers?

Yes! A great way to get started is to make paper automaton.  There are several well-known automata artists that offer books and kits for making them. Paper automata require only a few common tools: scissors, ruler, hobby knife, cutting pad, white glue, and maybe some adult supervision.  And don't think that because it is made of paper that it will be simple or crude. You can make wonderful automata from paper and cardboard!


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