Spaceship build day one

•March 25, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Went to the hardware store and bought quite a bit of stuff.  Got supplies for both the traveller ship and the pod.  Unlike this guy I decided to spend a little money, so this isn’t the cheapest of projects, but I think it will pay off. List of items for the traveller ship only:

1 inch wooden dowel rod — $4.99

2 Black 12″ planters (Ariana model) — $8.99 each

Plastic 6″ planter dish — $1.99

PVC Flange — $5.99

2 packs black rubber tips — $3.99 each

Gray spray paint (primer) — $3.99

White spray paint — $3.99

Mini hot glue gun — $9.99

Mini hot glue sticks — $6.99

Then I went next door to the hobby shop and got a few things:

Model battleship — $17.95

X-acto knife and cutting mat — $7.99

Plastic cement — $1.69

2 sheets of 1 mm styrene sheets — $3.90 each

Total (not including tax): $91.43

I already had a supply of wood screws, small nuts and bolts, and washers, but that’s probably about $10-$15 more, so I’m right around $100 for this model. I realize that’s a bit more than a lot of people would want to spend.

Anyway, on with the build:

First step was to cut the lip off the planters to make them fit together a little less awkwardly.


I must admit I didn’t do such a great job at first, so I had to go back and clean up my cut. They still didn’t fit together all that well. I knew that simply gluing the two halves together wouldn’t work, so I took a cue from this guy and decided to use the dowel rod to hold them together. First I had to measure the inner height of one of the pots:


Then I doubled the distance and cut the dowel rod to be that height. Then I decided to use washers and wood screws to hold the assembly together.


I pre-drilled the hole in the dowel rod.


Now I had a shape.


Not very pretty join. However, I figure I’ll sand that later and address it.  Could be a little gritty detail here would be fine.


I decided to use a complex bit for the top of the model. This is the PVC flange I used. I’ve used these before, and I think they’re pretty great.  Lots of detail.






However, I knew I was going to glue it, and glue doesn’t stick too well to that glossy PVC surface, so I sanded it down with sandpaper to rough up the surface.

I was excited to do the engine section, because it looked like it could be very complicated and add a lot of detail.  The intense model makers create theirs from scratch, on a lathe. But there are many other parts you can find that are conical that can do a good job of standing in for an engine. I liked the look of these rubber tips, partially because they had good lines on the inside.


I got out one of my plastic plant holders


As well as this strange thing, which actually came in the bottom of the planters.  I just popped it out. Has great texture.


I decided to put these two things together to make the engine platform, and put my four engines on top.


The rubber stoppers are a little heavy, so I decided to assemble them with some nuts and bolts and lock washers.  These are #10 size.






Obviously, I’ll have to go in and cover up those nuts and bolts.  Shouldn’t be a problem.

After I did this, I decided I should paint everything with the gray primer before I actually assembled them. So I went outside and lightly dusted everything with gray, making sure to avoid any drips. I waited 30 min, then assembled.



Ah, looking much better. Next up, I started doing the detailing, which of course is the fun part.  I broke open the battleship model and started getting pieces and gluing them on. I had read online that a really nice bonus to those models is the plastic piping that holds the real pieces together. Using those is very convincing for tubes, pipes, structure, etc. So, I just started gluing things on.  This is called greebling, where you add lots of small detail to effectively create the illusion of size and complexity.  I wanted to make this model large (it will be nearly 2 feet long) so that small details can really come across.










This is where really pro modelers shine.  They actually come up with technology (“here’s where the auxiliary engine fuel line leaves the external coolant tank”) but … come on. Only so much you can think about here. I am going for complexity and what I hope looks good. In this shot I’ve added several bits, and also did what this guy recommended (and what lots of modelers do): adding score lines to indicate plates or panels in the model. I did this with the X-acto knife. It’s tough to try to get straight lines on these curved surfaces.


Here’s the more or less finished build:



I realize one of the rubber engines looks a little warped. So, I will probably be able to straighten that out, or hey, maybe it’s a little warped because it’s a used ship.

I think that’s enough for one post – next time I’ll be back to the main part of the model.


Space ship miniature

•March 25, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I’m teaching a class in Special Effects Cinematography this quarter, and we’re mixing up old-school (in-camera) techniques with modern digital ones, such as green screen, motion capture, and a little bit of CG.  I’ll be posting quite a bit of the process here. Oh, and I’m a space and sci-fi nerd, so forgive as I depart from documentary topics to geek out.

The story calls for three different spaceships.  The first is a small, down & dirty little one person pod, the equivalent of a — well, I guess there isn’t really an equivalent. Maybe like an elevator at a public transportation stop. Used by thousands, dirty, under-maintained, ugly.  The second is a more sophisticated spaceship, again one-person, used to transport someone in a suspended-animation tube to a new planet.  Still not elegant or pretty, but bigger and more sophisticated.  The third is an enormous orbiting city-type spaceship, where the second one is launched from.  So the first one, the Pod, gets a person from Earth to the orbiting city. Then the long-range ship is launched from that.

Get it? I’ll post the story and other stuff as we go.

First, though, I’m starting with the second ship, the long-range one person transport. I’m basing it off of the escape pod in Star Wars:

OK, what’s funny is that I intended to put a picture of the actual model from the movie, but I can’t find one. This ship is so heavily modeled (by people much better than me) that all I can find are pix of other models!  And, these are built by real pros. So, here’s a few:



This one is by Jason Eaton on a website called









Huh. This one has the caption of “production model.” So maybe this is a picture of the real one.














And this is perhaps my favorite:


Made by Lasse Henning.










Go check out his build page. The amount of work some of these guys do is insane. And yes, I think it’s probably 99% guys.  I wonder why that is? Maybe women have better things to do with their time.  Anyway.  Ahem.

So I’m going to aim high for some of these looks, but do it with slightly more off-the-shelf items.  For example, Lasse Henning makes his models completely from scratch, building forms out of PVC and styrene sheets.  On the lower end of the sophisticated spectrum are people who just use household items, like this guy:


He used a couple of flower pots and odds and ends.  Very cheap, but not quite sophisticated enough to withstand the kind of camera scrutiny I’ll be putting my model through for the special effects cinematography class.  However, he has a good technique for holding his two parts together, which I’ll get into later.

I’ll end here and start up another post with my build.

Sigh. It’s official.

•January 16, 2011 • 1 Comment

The Tevatron, Fermilab’s 4-mile particle accelerator that we came to know and love during the filming of The Atom Smashers, the cantankerous engine-that-could that made European physicists sweat and curse its surprising eagerness to find the Higgs particle, the ugly but appealing underdog that generated rumor after rumor after rumor after report after speculation that it might have already found the Higgs or is likely to find it, David-style, before its shiny new, expensive and fragile Goliath, has now officially reached the end of its rope.

Yes, the announcement came last week that the Tevatron would be shutting down for the last time on October 1, 2011.  The US Department of Energy says funding will not be granted to keep it running until 2014 as previously speculated.  Our friend John Conway wrote a nice long post on Cosmic Variance describing the history of particle accelerators in the US, and it’s interesting to read all the comments at the end from science-minded folks.

Complicating the matter emotionally is that there is a fair amount of support from US scientists to let the Tevatron die.  The director of the lab, Pier Odonne, realizes that if congress were to find more money to keep it running, other aspects of research would have to be squeezed, putting neutrino research (among other areas) in jeopardy.  “I do not support squeezing the funds for an extension of the run out of the rest of the high-energy physics community,” he wrote.

We talked to some scientists who were less than weepy-eyed as well.  Most of them believe the Tevatron has run its course and to keep it alive will simply delay any prospects for building another more modern accelerator, probably a linear accelerator, at Fermilab, and to hopefully capture the big prize: the International Linear Collider. But another scientist we spoke to called it a “sad day:” “with no accelerators in the U.S., and no plans to build any, we have now become a neutrino and astrophysics country, in spite of our prestigious history in particle physics.”

I must say, given this turn of events, I’m proud of the work that we did in capturing some of the last years of the Tevatron in The Atom Smashers. And I’ll regret knowing that CDF and D0 (the two collision sites on the Tevatron) aren’t engaged in their cooperative / competitive dance any more, playing softball, cheering each other on while secretly grinning when the other makes a gaffe, and that Bob Mau and the crew aren’t donning protective suits and geiger counters as they tune up the old beast for another startup.

Progress must be made.  But sometimes it’s hard to tell what constitutes progress these days.

Give ’em hell for the next 10 months, Tevatron!

Who says science is boring?

•January 6, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Just heard a fascinating story on Bob Edwards Weekend about George Price, a mathematician / scientist / evolutionarly theorist who became obsessed with understanding altruism in genetic and mathematical terms.  He devised a formula that could explain it, then gave away his invention of computer-aided design, which would have made him a multi-millionaire if he had put a patent on it.  Not satisfied with how his mathematical formula explained why people are nice to each other, he proceeded to give all his money away to homeless people he found in London.  Once he realized that there was no way to quantify his own altruism (am I being nice?  Or am I being nice because I want to observe the process of being nice with myself as the subject of observation?), he proceeded to commit suicide with a pair of scissors.  His suicide note was addressed to a woman who had been homeless and who had no idea that he was a well-known theoretician.  She just knew him as a nice man.

Who says science is boring??

We live in a strange country

•October 10, 2010 • 6 Comments

I was reading Scientific American last night and came across Lawrence Krauss’s regular column, “Critical Mass.” He quoted some alarming statistics from the Science and Engineering Indicators report (published every two years).  Adults in our country are less willing to believe that Evolution and the Big Bang are facts than adults in other industrial countries.  But he dug deeper to find some figures that were omitted from that report.  Here are two questions and their answers:

1. “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”  only 45% answered “true” in the U.S. (Japan: 78%, Europe: 70%, China: 69%, South Korea: 64%)

2. “The Universe began with a big explosion.” only 33% answered “true” in the U.S.

I did a little more research:

American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.

I find this very depressing.  But also very strange, given that 4 in 5 American adults believe science education is “absolutely essential” or “very important” for US healthcare, global reputation, and economy.  How can these both be true?  My hero, Carl Sagan, explained it eloquently here. He got off a plane once and took a cab with someone who was very excited to find out he was riding with “that science guy.”  He was really excited because he had lots of questions about science.  However, to Sagan’s dismay, the guy wanted to know about UFOs, channeling, crystals, and astrology.  In a (compound) word, pseudo-science.  Sagan’s take was perfect:

“[my companion] was well-spoken, intelligent, curious—had heard virtually nothing of modern science. He wanted to know about science. It’s just that all the science got filtered out before it reached him. What society permitted to trickle through was mainly pretense and confusion. And it had never taught him how to distinguish real science from the cheap imitation.”

As 137 Films works on a film called The Believers about the two electro-chemists from Utah who claimed they had discovered Cold Fusion, it’s fascinating for me to juggle how I feel about that so-called discovery.  I have heard extremely rational, clear-eyed, respectable people tell me both that “cold fusion is complete nonsense” and that “we can prove beyond a doubt that it’s real.”  Monica and I got asked many times in New York when we were at the IFP Independent Film Week “so, what do you believe?  Is cold fusion real or not?”  We had to explain that that was not our, or the film’s, intention.  We are not going to answer that question.  We are going to raise that question.  And if scientists disapprove of our film and believe we are contributing to the confusion of Carl Sagan’s passenger, I would refer them to the last sentence in Dr. Sagan’s quote above and say that, in fact, I believe, is our mission.

The way Monica describes our company’s objective is that we raise scientific literacy through storytelling.  With The Atom Smashers, audience members left the theatre or turned off the TV knowing, roughly, how a particle accelerator works by following a race to make a discovery.  With The Believers, maybe someone will come away knowing that fusion is supposed to create radiation because two people claimed they had discovered a way to do it safely, on a tabletop, at room temperature.

Maybe we can bring that 10% up to 11!

Back to the grind

•August 3, 2010 • 1 Comment

I believe I mentioned The Believers has been accepted to Indpendent Film Week in NYC at the end of September.  They have a long list of deadlines we have to accomplish in advance of the event, and we just passed a major one: our trailer.  This is the short video that will be sent out to industry professionals to (hopefully) entice them to arrange a meeting with Monica and me about our film.  In the next day or two I’ll try to post the trailer so you can watch it.

But now that it’s done, you might think we can sit back and relax.  Not true — a non-profit organization’s work is never done.  Our next deadline is August 7, and it’s time for yet another application to the granddaddy of all documentary grant applications: the ITVS grant.  A very large sum of money (usually in the 6-figures), and virtually guaranteed broadcast on Independent Lens or POV.  This will be our … ahem… sixth time to apply.  However, not to jinx anything, but after our last application we made it through to the second round, which had never happened before.  So keep your fingers crossed..

Freak Destruction in Chicago

•July 24, 2010 • 2 Comments

Last night we had a massive thunderstorm here in Chicago.   All night the rain pounded on my window unit air conditioner like a crazed tap dancer, there were some decent winds, and an incredible amount of lightning and thunder.  This morning the rain had finally tapered off.  When I got to the El stop I was confronted by “caution” tape blocking off the entrance to the Logan Square Blue Line station.  I looked down the stairs and it appeared the whole entrance had been flooded.  A woman and I stood for a moment, looking at each other, and headed over to a different entrance, not sure if the whole station was closed.  It wasn’t, and we were able to get down, but gallons of water were streaming down from the ceiling and splashing all over the tracks.

I say all this to set the scene for what I saw when I was walking towards Michigan Avenue after I got out of the subway, and to explain why I was fooled.  I was on Lake street, having gotten off at the Clark & Lake stop.  I happened to turn to the left and saw this:

A massive concrete cupola had fallen from one of the historic buildings right on the Chicago river in the heart of downtown.  A couple of cars had been smashed and had burned, the pavement had understandably buckled, and the area was taped off with yellow caution tape like I had just encountered at the subway station.  There were no emergency vehicles present, which was a little strange, but I assumed that since the damage had already been done, and since you can’t really just pick up and move a several-ton concrete cupola from the street, that the emergency vehicles had left the scene.  A clean-up crew would probably arrive later to bust the thing up and haul it away, fixing the pavement later in the week.  I supposed that massive winds or a strike of lightening had knocked the thing off, or that somehow the huge amount of rain had finally loosened some corroded concrete or rusted out a support, causing the whole structure to fall about thirty stories to the street below.

Of course, the real answer is that I’m simply an idiot.  I met up with my friend and started describing what I had seen.  “Did you see this?  A massive concrete cupola fell from the top of one of the buildings on Lake Street and smashed up some cars and…” and the scene sounded so ridiculous that I decided it couldn’t possibly be real.  That’s when I remembered that Transformers 3 is being filmed in Chicago.

Here’s a link to a video someone shot from one of the nearby hotels:

Yesterday, as part of the Fermilab project, Monica and I shot our only “talking head” interviews, and Stef, our cinematographer, decided we should use not one, but two cameras simultaneously.  So I shot a wider shot of our interviewee and she tightened up her camera into a closeup.  In editing, I can cut between the two.  It looks nice, and allows me to add emphasis and variety.

In the clip of Transformers 3, you can see that there’s a helicopter, a chase car with a camera, a large jib (the crane-looking thing lower left), and in other angles on youtube you can see there are a couple of hand-held cameras, and I’m sure there’s at least two or three on tripods.  In fact, I’m guessing that there are no less than ten cameras rolling on that scene.  It was a bit of a setup for Stef and me to get our two-camera interview shoot ready; I can’t even imagine what goes into a ten-camera shoot with explosions and helicopters on a busy intersection in downtown Chicago.

But one more thing about the broken pavement and fallen cupola.  After I left my friend and was walking around the mayhem still left after the shoot was over, I found a parking lot between two buildings where they had stored some extra “rubble” that they apparently didn’t need any longer. After the massive rain (that I thought was responsible for the whole thing), that piece of concrete in the lower right of the picture was … floating.  That’s right, as anyone who has ever worked near a film shoot or theatre production knows, there is no better substance for simulating concrete than styrofoam.  You can do amazing things with texture, paint, and it looks incredibly realistic.  So a shout out to all the set dressers and production designers who created such a realistic bit of destruction that it fooled me into thinking a real disaster had occurred.  In fact, I bet I could probably lift the fallen cupola, or at least shove it along the street for a few yards by myself.  As much as I hate Michael Bay movies, I gotta hand it to his production designers.  Nice work.