Sunday, March 31, 2013

Building Betty for "Aperture R&D"

Wayside Creations, the folks that brought you the hit youtube series "Fallout: Nuka Break" came to me late last year and asked if I would be willing and able to build them a robot for their then-planned Portal themed web-series, "Aperture R&D".

Of course, I said yes. As with many projects that are done for movies or TV, I didn't really have the time or inclination to document this build as I was going, because it had to be done so quickly. My time was better spent actually working on it, rather than photographing it and blogging about it.

Fortunately, along the way I would occasionally snap a photo with my phone to send off to the production team for feedback or validation. This blog post reveals those photos.

But let's start at the very end. Here's Betty as she showed up on set:

What I really like about this particular photo is it shows how much emotion can be conveyed by what is essentially a puppet. This is definitely a "Betty is NOT amused" moment. I'm just really happy and proud at how well this turned out, and I feel that this photo really captures what Betty is capable of.

If you'd like some more context for this blog post, please check out episode 1 of the web series. In a funny twist of fate, Betty's face is used as the thumnail image for this episode, with her eyeball replaced with a screen cap of an actor. Yay Betty!

Take note that my goal was not to reproduce identically the lil' fellers seen in the second Portal video game. Though of course the design ethic was meant to be similar, but the direction I got from Zack at Wayside was that betty was a different model, and was maintained much better than the spheres seen in Portal II. This gave me a little flexibility in some of the details. Of course, the goal was to get it as close as possible, within the time and budget constraints I was given.

Like many projects, this build started with a lot of drawings I did in Adobe Illustrator. I found some reference pictures online, mostly in-game screen grabs. One showed a sphere from dead on center. I scaled that in illustrator and measured out all of the primary details. For example, the size of the main eye compared to the body, the eyeball, etc.

Here's how the build started:

This is a poor-man's rotocast that I made out of a globe I purchased from Target. My original plan was to buy plastic or plexi-glass sphere from someplace like Tap Plastics, but it turns out that they are hard to find and prohibitively expensive. The globe cost me like twenty bucks. I cut the globe in half along the equator, then lined it with packing tape. This made it somewhat waterproof, and therefore resin proof. I sealed the globe back up along the equator using tape, then cut a pour hole in the top. I dumped some resin in, and slushed it around. Once it cured, I separated the globe and peeled it off.

The remaining sphere needed a lot of work, as the inside of the globe had a lot of uneven texture to it from all the tape.

Realizing that not all of the globe would be exposed, I tended to the parts that would be. The circular openings were cut using a compass that I had left over from high school, a dremel tool, and a coping saw.

Here's what the primary sphere looked like after a lot of sanding, puttying, and a little bit of detailing.

I did a bit of research on the spheres seen in the game, and they are impossibly complex. By my reckoning, there are three nested spheres, each of which moves independently within the others. This would be impossible to accomplish, especially within my time and budged constraints. I settled on attempting to reproduce the look of the sphere, though eliminating some of the nesting functionality.

One of the recognizeable traits of the spheres is their handles. I originally had some plans to make them out of styrene, heat them and bend them to shape, and make them all pretty. BUT with time running out, and knowing how things in real life look differently on screen, I went with a quick and dirty approach using wooden dowel rods I got from home depot. I cut them to shape, including the angled bits, then glued them together. Not pictured, but I then brushed resin on them to add strength and hide the seams. I did some sanding and puttying to clean them up a bit. Ultimately, I was never really happy with the handles, but they ended up looking really good on screen.

The handle mounts were made from sheet styrene. I drew up a pattern in adobe illustrator, printed out four copies of it, then transferred them to sheet styrene. I then cut them out using a coping saw, x-acto blades, and a drill press. Like many other of the finer details on the in-game spheres, I ended up simplifying the design for Betty. Extra details were eliminated, or complexities were simplified.

As mentioned, the spheres in the game are a series of nested spheres, which I had chosen to replicate the look of. The primary sphere has two toaster-like slots on it, one on top and the other on the bottom. In the game, these are kind of open, revealing the inner workings and structure of the sphere. I thought a lot about how to accomplish this, but the problem with it was that it would mean the entire sphere would need to be held together by just a few tiny and thin pieces of metal or resin. Knowing how puppets are handled on set, and the rigors of on-set handling, I decided something like this was a poor choice. I instead decided to carve out a recess, and then fill it with some ribbed styrene that I had left over from my Multipass project.

Here you can see where I've marked off the recess that I'm going to cut out.

Using my dremel tool and router attachment that I got up and running for my Arkham City Grapple Gun project, I hollowed out the cavity. Note that it follows the contours of the sphere. Well, roughly. Thank you router!

Here I'm test fitting the ribbed styrene. I remember taking this picture so I could show Zack what I was doing. This was a pretty big departure from the in-game sphere, and wanted to make sure he approved.

Here's the final strip installed.

Next step was to build the outer sphere. I went back to the globe I used as a master for my main body sphere. Since I knew that globe had the proper outer and inner diameter for my existing main body, I simply used that. I cut it up into pieces that were the correct shape. I then brushed resin on the halves to give it some stability and a sandable surface. Then I glued the pieces onto the main body. In this picture, you can see where I'm doing some work with spot putty to smooth out some of the flaws in the resin coated cardboard outer sphere parts.

One of the things I experimented with for the outer sphere and for the eyeball was a poor-mans heat forming deal.

I don't own a vac-form machine, which is a total bummer, but I figured if I weighed down the edges of a piece of styrene then hit it with a heat gun, it would form to the shape underneath it. It did not. lol. Still, this is a good example of my experimenting with different techniques to get the desired result. Much of the project was like this. A lot of experimentation, and finding interesting ways to solve problems that I had never encountered before.

Up until this point in the build, the hardest part was getting the sphere spherical, and the nested sphere fitting properly. Because that stuff is SO precise, it was really hard to get right. Turns out, this was nothing but preparation for the nightmare that awaited me on the eyeball.

My research revealed that the eyeball was also really quite complex. Not only was it a series of layered concentric circles, but the eye lids blinked independently. For example, the top lid could lower all the way down without the bottom lid moving. Or vice versa. Or the top one could come half way down, with the bottom one coming all the way up. And they didn't have to meet in the middle. OY! Again, I kind of had to choose my battles, but for the puppet to have any kind of expressiveness, I felt that I really needed to get this part right.

If I had my way, I would have used a laser cutter to cut out all of these infernal circles. That way they would have all been perfect, they would have been done quickly, and they would have lined up perfectly.

Unfortunately all I had was my tools on hand, which included the aforementioned protractor that I've had for more than 20 years. And they said I'd never use high school algebra!

Using my drawings, I extrapolated measurements for all of the circles. Then it was just a matter of cutting them out, one by one. I would draw them using my protractor, cut out the inner part with a coping saw, then use files and sandpaper to get the circle to size. Very painstaking work, as I wanted it to really look like a machine made robot. Not a wonky hand built puppet.

Here's a shot of the layers of styrene, surrounded by the frame.

The frame was another piece of work too. When I cut up the slush cast sphere I made from the globe, I had some leftover parts. Including the part that used to fill the main hole. I ended up extending the edges of it, and filling in some messes I made when removing it, and this served as the frame.

Bouncing back in the process a little, here's what the eye frame looked like inside the spheres. Note that those rings on the side are actually the main bodies of some tap lights I picked up at Home Depot. As luck would have it, their outer diameter matched perfectly to the drawings I had made in Illustrator. That saved me the trouble of having to fabricate those. Which is a great thing as I had no idea how I was going to pull that off.

After some work and some paint, along with some scribe lines cut into it, here's how the eyeball was coming together. The pupil graphic was designed by Zack Finfrock. In this picture, that's just something I printed out on my computer to show them how it was coming along.

One thing you cannot really see from this picture is that the black rings in the back are actually separated from the frame by about a half an inch. They are supported on the edges by some styrene. This was to allow the eye lids to slide up and down behind the frame, but in front of the circles. Yikes, my head is spinning again just thinking about it.

A few scribe lines, some paint and some clean up later.

At this point in the project, my brain really started to come unravelled. It was time to take on the most challenging piece of the entire project, engineering a control arm for the puppeteering of the eye. I had some pretty clear requirements. First of all, the entire eye needed to move freely within the sphere. It needed to be able to move up, down, left right. It also needed to be able to rotate a bit in either direction. And move in and out within the sphere. And when unattended, it needed to maintain a respectable position. It also needed it's own light source. The eyelids needed to blink, as discussed earlier. Not just blink, but be puppeteered. Oh, and the eyelids needed to be in an closed position when "idle". This said to me that there was going to be some rubber bands involved to provide tension on the eye-lids.

All of this was a LOT to consider. After MUCH thinking about it, strategizing, and doing pencil drawings, I finally came up on a solution that I thought just might work.

I started of by fabricating a stand that would hold a flashlight in place, suspended a certain distance away from the pupil. I did this all in MDF, as it's pretty easy to work with, is available in different thicknesses, and is strong enough for my needs.

I then built two arms, each of which would be attached to an eye lid. They had pivot points on the base that I just built so that the eye lids could open and close.

This is the whole thing put together. You can see the pivot arms attached to the eyelids, and how the flashlight is suspended above the pupil. You can also see the rubber bands that are going to provide tension on the eye lids, keeping them closed when not puppeteered.

Here's how it looks from the other side.

With that behind me, I got to fitting the eye inside the sphere. Here's how it looks so far.

After that, it was really just a matter of a paint job and some details. And of course some more clean up. There was also a last minute requirement that it have a pole coming out of the top of the head so that it could run on a rail. For something that significant, it's an interesting foot note that I totally forgot about it until a couple of days before shooting.

Here's a picture I took of my workbench while working on the eyeball mechanism. I don't think it's ever looked so hectic.

Lastly, here's a picture of me on set, during filming. The portal gun itself is mine, which is one of the licensed replicas that was offered a while back. Now it's screen used, which makes it 100% screen accurate. Hehehehe. I'm standing in front of a companion cube, fabricated by my good pal and fellow builder Kai Norman. Great work, Kai!

Thanks for reading this write up. I hope you enjoyed it. Please be sure to check out the Aperture R&D webseries, and anything else created by the good folks at Wayside Creations.

Captain Jack Harkness Rank Braid

A fellow RPF member sent me a PM today asking for some details on my Captain Jack Harkness costume.

One of the things he was curious about was if I had replaced my rank braids on my AbbyShot jacket. The short answer is no I did not, but for the sake of completeness, I thought this detail was worthy of a blog post.

Here are a few reference photos of Jack's coat that I found using google. I cannot guarantee that these are all the same actual coat. If I had to guess, I would suspect they are not. But they serve to illustrate my point:

In these first two photos, you can see how the braid appears wider on the Abbyshot braid, which is in the fourth photo.

This photo, though at a profile angle on the shoulders, clearly shows that the rank braids have a thin strip of light, greyish blue in the middle. Scan ahead a couple of pics to see the abbyshot stripes, which are VERY different from the ones seen in this pic.

But here it gets a little muddy, as these ones seem a little wider, and a little more grey.

This is a publicity photo of the AbbyShot Captain Jack Harkness costume, which I completely endorse, and own one of myself.

To my eye, the Abbyshot braid appears to be a different color in the middle, and also has a wider grey band.

Here is ACTUAL RAF Flying Officer Braid, that I purchased from a seller on ebay. Honestly, looking at screen caps now, it's all getting a bit fuzzy, but this is what is believed to be more accurate to the screen used coat. I own some.

I purchased this from ebay user shiz999, who as of this writing (March, 2013) is still selling this exact braid on ebay. Try searching for "RAF Flying Officer Braid" for more results.

The irony to this entire discussion is that I actually ended up leaving my jacket exactly the way it came from Abbyshot. I acquired the "correct" braid, and even got some extra fabric so that I could extend the epaulets to more accurate lenghts. But when I sat down with the jacket to modify it, I realized that if I pulled it apart, I probably wouldn't be able to get it back together properly. The jacket is very well made, and looks great. Pulling apart the shoulders is a daunting task, and getting them back together is even harder.

I have worn this jacket and my Harkness costume to numerous costuming events, including the worlds biggest Doctor Who gathering, Gallifrey one. Not ONCE did someone stop me to point out that my epaulets were the wrong length, or that my braid was inaccurate. Not once. Out of the hundreds of people who saw me and took photos... nobody cared.

My advice is to not get lost in the details, but to focus on the overall presentation. The jacket looks great, and everyone recognizes it as Captain Jack. The time, trouble, effort and heartache involved in changing out the tiny details just isn't worth it, imho. Whatever sense of satisfaction I may have found by having a "more accurate" coat would never compensate for all the time and extra money put into it to make it an invisible fraction better. Your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Things For Sale.

A few things up for sale.

$150 - Fifth Element police car blueprint, and reference photos of the full sized filming car.

$250 - Ultra rare Blade Runner Spinner blue prints.

$50 - CRAZY rare uncut sheet of Serenity money, and... wait for it... UNFOLDED map of the verse. You just lost your mind.

$75 - Time Bandits map of the universe. Printed on canvas, and in great shape! Perfect for framing.

Drop me an email if you're interested in anything. I can be reached at yahoo dot com, BanishedInOhio.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Multipass Tutorial - Introduction and Overview

Welcome to my MultiPass tutorial!

This tutorial will walk you through all of the steps necessary to build up a MultiPass kit to look just like this one.

To see the entire tutorial listed in order in your browser, click on this link.

In fact, the picture here was taken at the end of the making of this very tutorial.

I have tried to document every detail of the build, including recommended techniques, tools and methods. If you find anything that is lacking, or think there might be ways I can improve the tutorial, please don't hesitate to drop me a line with your suggestions.

I was digging through some old files on my PC the other day and realized that this project started in August of 2000, if not shortly before that. The idea to make my own MultiPass started long before that, but the actual process of getting together a kit for myself started many years ago. I wanted my Multipass to be the most accurate kit ever made, from the body, to the graphics.

While the kit I made has a few minor flaws in it, I believe it to be the best one made. This tutorial even shows you how to fix one of the flaws.

For the record, there is one detail on the pass that I intentionally did not replicate, and a second detail that I could not figure out how to replicate. The former is a bevel that is found on the ring around the yellow button. There should be a raised lip on the inside of the ring, but I could not find a way to economically accomplish this. I may end up getting a piece machined, and then mold it later, but that's a long way off. The other detail is a small angled edge that can be found just below the LED on the front face. I don't know if this is a cut, a crack in the prop, or a step up from a different level. I have spent many hours trying to reconcile the details found in the different props in the movie with the the details that I "know" to be true about the pass. I came up with a compromise that eliminates this detail, but keeps the pass easy to make. I tried incorporating the step in a couple of prototypes, and just couldn't figure out how to engineer it.

I've seen some other great pieces out there, but none include the research, time/money spent, and just plain dedication to getting the details right that I feel this piece does.

Some steps of the process proved to be more difficult than others. In order to explain what I was thinking or doing at the moment, I often describe in great detail what is being done. The pictures reflect intermediate moments in the process and are to be used in conjunction with the text.

I recommend that you follow the steps in order. At the very least, read the tutorial through in chronological order before attempting to build your own. Some of the steps MUST be done before others, whereas some steps can be done at any time. If you familiarize yourself with the various steps involved before beginning, you can make your own construction decisions along the way.

Good luck!

Multipass Tutorial - Step 1

The most important step: The first step!

Here I check to make sure that each part that is supposed to be there is actually there.

This is what it looks like before opening. Snazzy packaging, yes??

Here's a breakdown of the parts. I will refer to these parts throughout the tutorial using the names I give here. Click on the little picture to see a bigger picture, which has all the parts numbered.

  1. Front Graphics
  2. Back Graphics
  3. Back Plate
  4. Top Plate
  5. Mid plate
  6. Bullet Strip
  7. LED Surround
  8. Red Wire
  9. Yellow Rod
  10. Thin Rings (x2)
  11. Disk (x2)
  12. Thick Rings (x2)
  13. Clear Dome
  14. LED
  15. Yellow Vinyl
  16. Ribbed Styrene (x2)
  17. Ribbed Styrene Template

Multipass Tutorial - Step 2

In this step, we remove the paper backing from the styrene parts.

One of the artifacts of the laser cutting process is the paper backing that is stuck to the styrene. I don't know why it's there, or how it effects the laser cutting process, but it's there, and it needs be removed.

The adhesive that is used to attach the paper to the plastic is not water soluble, but soaking the pieces seems to help.

Dump all the styrene pieces that were laser cut into a bowl of warm water.

Let them sit for about 10 to 15 minutes.

After the paper has softened up, user your thumb nail to get under the edge, and slowly peel off the paper backing.

Note: this is not rocket science.


Mulitipass Tutorial - Step 3

Now that we've removed the paper backing from the styrene parts, we need to do a bit more clean up. If you take a close look at the various laser cut parts, you'll see that there is sometimes some melted styrene around the edges where the laser got a little too hot, or stayed in one place for a little too long. I'm not talking about the texture inside the cuts, I'm talking about little styrene blisters that have melted onto the flat surfaces.

Here we clean those up, and get rid of some burn marks.

Take some high grit sandpaper, say about 600, and run it over the edges of each piece. You don't want to reshape the styrene pieces, or flatten them out. You just want to "deburr" the edges, and get rid of the zits that may have developed during the cutting.

Here's an example of a cleaned up piece. It might be hard to see the differences from these pictures, so use your best judgment.