It’s no surprise that the hacking and making community has traditionally had something of a love affair with movie props, especially those of the science fiction variety. Over the years we’ve seen folks put untold hours into incredible recreations of their favorite pieces of fictional gear — and by the time this post goes out, our 2022 Sci-Fi Contest will be entering into the final stretch. So it’s a safe bet that if you make your living by creating the electronics behind all that Hollywood movie magic, you’ll find ours to be an especially welcoming community.
We were fortunate enough to see this in action this week when Ben Eadie stopped by to host the Hack Chat. It’s no exaggeration to say that he’s been living out what most of us would consider a dream, having worked on films from iconic franchises such as Star Trek and Predator. But perhaps his most enviable credit is that of propmaster for 2021’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, where he got the chance to work on the proton packs and ghost traps; arguably some of the most well-known props in the history of cinema.
Not bad for a guy who only recently got in the game. Ben spent 20 years working as an aerounatical engineer until a friend from his local maker space mentioned they were working on a film and could use a hand. Suddenly he found himself behind the scenes of Star Trek: Beyond in 2015, helping to design and fabricate one of the largest rotating sets ever made. He figures he must have done something right, because Hollywood has been calling ever since.
This anecdote about his first time working on a feature film helped answer what many wanted to know early on in the Chat, which was how one manages to get into the prop and special effects industry. Ben once again confirmed a truth well known to this community: that what you’re capable of is far more important than where you went to school and what you studied. There’s not a lot of formal education out there that can train you to make the impossible possible, and Ben says the majority of his day-to-day knowledge came from a lifetime of fiddling around with electronics. In fact, he attributes much of his professional success with hanging out in maker spaces, reading Hackaday, and watching YouTube. If that’s the recipe, then we should all be in pretty good shape.
Over the last few years, Ben has been trying to pay that forward by documenting some of the tricks of the trade on his own YouTube channel. In a particularly interesting piece of marketing on Sony’s part, some of Ben’s videos have even been featured on the official Ghostbusters YouTube channel as part of a “Maker Monday” series. In fact, we first got in contact with Ben when he left a comment on our coverage of his “PKE Meter” prop build. This is the kind of advertisement we can get behind, and wish more companies would embrace the hacker and maker culture with this kind of interactive content. Ben says the best way to make initiatives like this more popular is to consume it — if Sony sees people watching and sharing this kind of content, hopefully more will follow.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Hack Chat unless some arcane compartmentalized technical knowledge was dished out. In this case, several of the questions were about the unique challenges posed by operating custom electronics on a movie set. For example, Ben says he always uses addressable LEDs controlled by the APA102 chip as it offers an external clock pin that he can feed with a different frequency to avoid on-screen flickering. The radio spectrum also tends to be pretty noisy on set, so if at all possible, you want to make sure your gear has a wired connection. Otherwise, you’ll need to get intimately acquainted with what other RF signals are being used on set so as not to interfere with the production.
But while some of the challenges he has to deal with might seem pretty foreign to us, the technology itself is in some cases more familiar than you might think. It turns out there’s plenty of Sparkfun and Adafruit gear behind the scenes, with Ben specifically mentioning the Feather nRF52 as one of his go-to microcontrollers. Sometimes the graybeards on set grumble about his “consumer grade” tech, but when his gear is up and running in half the time, it’s usually he who gets the last laugh.
Towards the end of the Chat, Ben says the most important thing he’s learned over the years is to always have backups. His motto is “One is None”, and if he can help it, he usually builds four of everything: that gives him two to learn from, and a pair to actually use for whatever the project is. Even if our own projects don’t quite rise to the level of a key prop from a summer blockbuster, there’s no certainly no harm in being prepared.
We want to thank Ben Eadie for taking the time to talk with the community and sharing some of his fascinating stories and tips with us. At the risk of sounding a bit sappy, stories like his are what motivates us here at Hackaday. If we can provide even a small part of the what it takes to help people like Ben achieve their goals, that’s reason enough for us to keep the lights on.
The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to Hackaday.io make sure you don’t miss out.