Sep 24, 2011

Urban Mythology: The Nilsson Cabal

Today’s free writing, in the form of an urban legend. I started writing this in Twitter, ran too long , moved it to my Gmail Chat status, ran too long, and now it lives here.

Up to 25% of all songs in the English language were written by Harry Nilsson.

The songs were released on a secret multi-LP set in 1961, entrusted to a small group of music elites whose undying mission was to keep music alive.  They travel the world in secret, searching for Harry’s reincarnation at Battles of the Bands and $5 shows across the nation.  Sometimes, they pull the frontman aside and ask him to choose which item: a broken guitar string, a  comb, a bong, a book of matches from an iconic 1960s rock club, or a worn leather shoe, once belonged to Harry.  Only one person has chosen correctly, but he is not the Rock Messiah.  His power comes from somewhere else.  They call him the Rock Pariah.

Aside: They say Wayne Coyne was once approached, but refused to take the test, instead attempting to compose a nine-minute noise symphony using only the objects provided.  Part of the unfinished composition was reused, and became the main theme of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 2.

Sep 23, 2011

Twisting Acrylic

At last night’s Makerspace meeting, me and Doug played around with twisting acrylic that’s been engraved with the laser cutter.  We’re using a standing heat gun to provide enough heat to soften the plastic, and then twisting it by hand.

This piece had been engraved and then thrown into the scrap box.  Heating the plastic to twisting temperature doesn’t melt it enough to erase the engraving.  This is DEFINITELY going to get used in some later projects.

This piece didn’t come out quite as I was hoping, so I decided to bend the ends up,  and make it into an acrylic mustache.

Eat your heart out, MakerBot owners!

Sep 15, 2011

Majora’s Mask Felt Mosaic, Almost Done!

I’m in the final stages of laser cutting all these felt bits for my contribution to the Desert Bus for Hope Craftalong, a handmade auction benefiting Child’s Play that will be happening over several mad days in November.  This is what all the parts look like, arranged on my kitchen counter while I shoo the cats away.

Everything fits together, but I think I’m going to re-cut some pieces to remove little parts hanging off the edge of the design, before I start hand-stitching all of these bits down. Also, I forgot to cut a piece. Do you see where it would go?

Sep 13, 2011

More Laser Mosaics

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Some more work in progress images of my laser cut felt mosaic project.

If you’re already ogling this thing, and think you might want to take it home, you should know that it will be on auction during Desert Bus for Hope 5 in November, with all the proceeds going to the gamers charity Childs Play. Essentially, what they do is raise money to keep children’s hospitals around the world in games and toys. Its a great charity and I’m thrilled to crafting again for it this year.

About half the pieces of the mosaic are cut now, with most of the smaller, fussier bits completed.  Once I get them done, I’ll be sewing them together and getting the panel ready to attach to the front of…something. Stay tuned!

Sep 10, 2011

Fabric Mosaics, Made with Lasers

I’ve finally started to cut out some pieces for this year’s project for the Desert Bus for Hope Craftalong.  As with last year, I’m making a shoulder bag, and this one features a striking front design, made with pieces of felt that fit together like a puzzle.

I’m cutting the pieces on the Dallas Makerspace‘s laser cutter, and as you can see, it allows me to make designs that are really precise.  In fact, they’re so precise, you can (carefully) pick an assembled section up and move it around as one piece; the components will just sort of just stick together.

I’m using synthetic felt, which melts at the edges instead of burning, so you get nice, full areas of color.  Several parts are also made from fleece, because certain colors in the pattern don’t seem to come in felt, like the pink here.

Though they look really smooth right now, they still seem a little synthetic.  I’m planning to add stitching around the edges in matching thread to give everything an elaborate hand-made look.

Sep 5, 2011

Losing the Real

Digital props allow creators to do much more – but they also remove moviegoers from a sense of continuity that has driven fandom for decades.

I meet Jeff Koenig at his house in the Dallas suburbs, in secret. Jeff is a roboticist who is going to help me plan something amazing for my sister’s wedding.

“I had to sneak away,” I say, “she isn’t supposed to know.”

We walk into his home – a normal Texas house, two stories. I can hear dogs barking outside in the backyard, and as we turn a corner, I see it for the first time.

It took Jeff two years to build his R2-D2. It’s taller than I expected; higher than my waist, and absolutely picture perfect – they tell me his is one of the best. Everything else sort of freezes when I look at R2; like I’m a little unsure of what’s real. And then we start to practice; my sister and R2 are going to dance.

This is the second complete R2 I’ve seen in my life. The first one was part of the Star Tours ride at Disney World; he was in a viewing area, effectively behind the fourth wall. The purpose of the ride was to pull us into George Lucas’s universe; Jeff’s purpose was to bring Star Wars out into ours. And that’s what we do at the wedding; we invade the real world with a little Star Wars.

Artoo (or in this case, Rtwo – Jeff’s robot is on Facebook and of course, we are friends) is probably one of the most re-created props from any film, ever. There’s an entire subset of the fandom devoted solely to building animatronic R2-D2’s – The R2-D2 Builders Club. They collaborate remotely, supply parts to one another, hold meetups and events. They’ve even produced several issues of a magazine, R-Series, specifically about building this one particular movie prop. In fact, to give you an idea of how common R2 builders are; I met Jeff through a friend who is still building his.

Film props fascinate fans. We buy toys and collectible replicas of them, build our own, we populate haunted houses and fan conventions with them. We visit museums and theme parks to get as close to the real thing as we can – and hey, we also build museum exhibits to display them. Film has a history, after all, and that history has artifacts.

Which brings me to digital effects, digital characters, digital actors like the ones seen in Avatar and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Before I go on, let me explain that I don’t think that digital effects make for bad movies. The quality of the movies themselves is not my topic here. The fact is, for a the average viewer, it doesn’t matter whether the space ships on screen are cleverly shot models or computer renderings. But it does matter for hardcore fans.

I will never, in a million years, be able to go somewhere where I can reach out and touch one of the creatures from Avatar. They don’t exist; they’re just models in a computer that have been converted to pixels on a screen. Granted, I won’t ever be able to reach out and touch the real R2-D2 – the exact object, or rather the collection of objects that were seen on film. The chance of my ever being in a room with those props is extremely low. But it could still happen, in this universe. It is possible. And that gives it a sense of authenticity, a sense of reality.

Sometimes, fans don’t let the digital nature of the props get in the way. One of the hot items in DIY propmaking right now is the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device – the gun from Portal that shoots holes in space. The ASHPD doesn’t exist either; it’s a collection of polygons in a game program. But those of us who have played the game have an avatar connection with the object; we’ve been looking over the barrel of that gun for many engaging hours of play. It may not be real, but it is more than just visualized.

When I went to practice dancing with Rtwo, Jeff showed me the ASHPD he is building in his spare time. I’m also working on a Potato Enrichment Kit – a prop kit that turns a real potato into a housing for an evil AI from the game, with all the attendant wires and chips. We talked about putting the two props together, and shared in the joy of making these simulated objects real. He gave me a tiny Companion Cube – yet another Portal prop – as a memento. There are hundreds of re-creations of this object, too – in plastic, metal, paper, and cake, scattered across Thingiverse, Shapeways, DeviantART, and Etsy.

Props tell two stories. They encapsulate the fictional story within the images they evoke, the journey the object took, and the properties it had while inside the world of story. But, for hardcore fans and inspired artists, they also tell the story of the making of the story. They remind us that while visitors from space and wizards and cursed treasures aren’t real, there are dedicated people out there who can make them seem real. Film history is a second rabbit hole, a place to go when the story itself bottoms out. Propmaking is a challenge; a way for fans to look at a work of exquisite skill and depth and say, “I could do that.”

The other major effect that digital props and sets and characters have on fans, is how those objects get treated in terms of IP. One fan of the film Super 8 recently got a DMCA takedown over a model that he had uploaded to Shapeways, a site that makes 3D prints of digital designs. The model was of one of the “cubes” used to build the alien ship in the movie. It wasn’t literally taken from the film – that is, no one hacked into the effects studio to grab a design file – and it was small; about the size of a golf ball, as opposed to the full Rubik’s Cube sized prop from the film. But Shapeways allows users to share their designs, and even make money by adding a creator’s commission on top of Shapeways’ production costs. Having a way for fans to produce the prop, without paying Paramount Pictures a royalty, was clearly a threat.

With physical props, there are layers of authenticity: you have hobby replicas, official toys, copies made from original molds, and then the actual on-screen objects themselves. Each one is more valuable and desirable than its less “real” counterparts. When the object is digital, every digital rendering of that object is just as authentic as the thing in the film, even though – whether it’s rendered on your computer or at ILM – it’s still not a physical object.

Creating things like vehicles and characters in the computer – or in the case of Transformers, vehicles that are characters – has offered filmmakers some significant advantages. They can make better-looking, more accurate toys for their merchandising arms, and cheap and easy secondary content for the web and TV. There is less need to store and build and transport things, or to keep them looking nice once they become part of history. The film looks better overall, and the directors even have the ability to adapt and tweak films long after they’re released. I imagine Lucas, at least, is happy with his revisions of the original Star Wars trilogy, even as fans balk.

We balk, in part, because with every revision the films lose that second level of place and time that comes from knowing that the events on screen happened – not exactly as depicted, but somewhere, in some form, no matter how contorted. But the tokens of artifice that tell us it happened – the obvious fakery in effects that no longer hold up to the discerning 21st century eye, or perhaps never held up at all – drive us to learn more about the props, the sets, the director, the actors, the story of how the story was made. They invite us to pull the curtain back a bit, and that fuels deep fandom.

It’s possible that people younger than I (who have slipped over the edge of trustworthiness by moving into my 30s) will never feel the loss of that sense of depth a viewer gets from knowing the things on screen are undoubtedly physical. It’s possible it just won’t matter to them, or that new innovations will come along to bridge the gap between the visible and the tangible. But for now, in these weird between-times before everything becomes digital, fans still want something they can reach out and touch, at least in theory. And now, more than ever, if creators don’t give it to them, they will make it for themselves.

Jul 14, 2011

I Made a “Recycled” Photo Rig

So, my Etsy store has been cleared for a feature on Heartsy, which is a little like Groupon for handmade items.  In preparation I’ve unboxed a bunch of stuff from my jewelry making days which means I have to shoot Etsy-worthy photos of nearly three years of creative work.

If you’ve seen my store, you know I’m manic about good photos.  You can’t do Etsy without them, and if allowed I will spend a lot of time on them.

I needed a photo rig that would make it easy to frame and backdrop a wide variety of pieces in a way that was consistent and good-looking.  I have a few hundred pieces to shoot, here; the easier the better.  After fiddling with a lot of things, I finally came up with this.

The rig is made primarily from pieces of 1/8″ acrylic left over from my work with the Dallas Makerspace’s laser cutter.  There are also two pieces of 1/16″ acrylic in the back that still have the protective paper on one side.  That paper makes for a great neutral background.

The front piece has the highest concentration of small holes, which means there are a lot of places to hang things.

I inserted the pieces into the divider slots on  the bottom tier of a Snapware craft storage box.

The other end is held in place with a piece of scotch tape, so it will be easy to disassemble and store in the box (along with the packaged jewelry) when I’m finished taking photos.

The aggregate effect is an environment that the subjects seem to be floating in, full of interesting shapes with varying levels of focus and detail.  The photos are pretty great.

And yes, this necklace is for sale.

I really dig this rig; among other things, it allows me to get a clean shot even with all sorts of clutter surrounding the area I’m shooting – handy when you have piles of merch waiting to be photographed, or backing cards, packaging or tools that you need on hand.

Jun 20, 2011

Everybody Scan My QR Code!

SCAN BELOW FOR SPECIAL EXCLUSIVE CONTENT!  AVAILABLE ONLY TO THE ELITE GROUP OF MY READERS WHO OWN PHONES WITH CAMERAS!
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(Note: If you’re too lazy to pull out your phone, load an app, wait for it to scan the code, and then wait for it to pull down the data – or if you’re already viewing this on your phone, and find trying to scan your screen with a front-facing camera tedious and vaguely obscene –  you can click this link.)

Jun 16, 2011

More Laser Scribbling, Potato Enrichment Parts

I’ve been up at the Dallas Makerspace for a few nights,  finding new ways to utilize the laser scribbling technique I blogged about previously.  The current version of the Potato Enrichment Kit is basically covered in laser scribbles.

I used the laser scribbling technique to make settings for some of the smaller “LEDs,” which are being represented on this model by very small rhinestones.

I also used a Hatch Fill scribble to sink this tiny bezel about 1/32″ into the top of the IC piece.

This made it easy to place the tiny bezel, and allows it to be shorter than it would be otherwise.

I used a scribble to create a setting for the diffuser paper that will sit over the LED in the “eye” piece.

I also did a variation of the technique using a bunch of concentric circles for the front of the eye piece.

The bevel has three cut depths, and you can see the dividing lines between them in this photo.  When its painted, the part should look like it was bevelled using a lathe or a drill press, and it will have subtle ridges for paint to accumulate on.

Jun 2, 2011

Potato Enrichment – Now, With Electricity!

Finished putting together the insides of the model.  This was my first time soldering, and I think it came out pretty good.

Nothing is glued down yet.  Next step: Assembly, and painting.