Foam Board, Old Electronics, And Imagination Make Movie Magic

When it comes to building sets and props for movies and TV, it’s so easy to get science fiction wrong – particularly with low-budget productions. It must be tempting for the set department to fall back on the “get a bunch of stuff and paint it silver” model, which can make for a tedious experience for the technically savvy in the audience.

But low-budget does not necessarily mean low production values if the right people are involved. Take [Joel Hartlaub]’s recent work building sets for a crowdfunded sci-fi film called Infinitus. It’s a post-apocalyptic story that needed an underground bunker with a Fallout vibe to it, and [Joel] jumped at the chance to hack the sets together. Using mainly vintage electronic gear and foam insulation boards CNC-routed into convincing panels, he built nicely detailed control consoles for the bunker. A voice communicator was built from an old tube-type table radio case with some seven-segment displays, and the chassis of an old LCD projector made a convincing portable computer terminal. The nicest hack was for the control panel of the airlock door. That used an old TDD, or telecommunications device for the deaf. With a keyboard and a VFD display, it fit right into the feel of the set. But [Joel] went the extra mile to make it a practical piece, by recording the modulated tones from the acoustic coupler and playing them back, to make it look as if a message was coming in. The airlock door looks great too.

Like many hacks, it’s pretty impressive what you can accomplish with a deep junk pile and a little imagination. But if you’ve got a bigger budget and you need some computer displays created, we know just the person for the job.

[Matt] tipped us off to this one. Thanks!

10 thoughts on “Foam Board, Old Electronics, And Imagination Make Movie Magic

    1. I’ve been watching some interviews with the actors from “The Expanse” and they all universally praise practical sets and props. They say it’s like a playground that really lets them use their imagination to create the character, and I think it really shows in the quality of the product. There’s a big difference between doing everything in a big sound stage with green walls while trying to play off of someone prancing around in a bodysuit covered with ping pong balls, versus being able to look at real actors on real sets holding real props that do something when you push a button. CGI has its place, but it’s not the answer to everything.

      1. There is a sweet middle ground between 100% practical (now always as good as people give it credit, immersion goes out the door the second actor presses computer panel and everything bends/shakes because foam board) and giant green screen sound stage.

        IanHubert of Blender-Lazy Tutorials has some amazing examples blending the two:

    2. The computer game “The Daedalus Encounter” did a lot of virtual sets, integrated CGI additions to real sets, and even had CGI spacesuits – in 1995. It’s one of Tia Carrere’s early acting gigs.

  1. Old keyboards, mounted flat on a set wall at chin height as in the article header picture, are nearly universally recognized as an ergonomic improbability.. I feel some designers now put them in as a conscious callout to the fun, low-budget nature of their sci-fi set creation. I wouldn’t be surprised if tvtropes has some entries related to improbable (intentional or no) computer interfaces.

  2. I wonder how many gizmos used on the set were purchased from the Park Street St. Vinnies Dig&Save where I often met Joel. The UW SWAP shop probably also provided some vintage tech.

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