Retrotechtacular: The Bell Laboratory Science Series

For those of a certain vintage, no better day at school could be had than the days when the teacher decided to take it easy and put on a film. The familiar green-blue Bell+Howell 16mm projector in the center of the classroom, the dimmed lights, the chance to spend an hour doing something other than the normal drudgery — it all contributed to a palpable excitement, no matter what the content on that reel of film.

But the best days of all (at least for me) were when one of the Bell Laboratory Science Series films was queued up. The films may look a bit schlocky to the 21st-century eye, but they were groundbreaking at the time. Produced as TV specials to be aired during the “family hour,” each film is a combination of live-action for the grown-ups and animation for the kiddies that covers a specific scientific topic ranging from solar physics with the series premiere Our Mr. Sun to human psychology in Gateways to the Mind. The series even took a stab at explaining genetics with Thread of Life in 1960, an ambitious effort given that Watson and Crick had only published their model of DNA in 1953 and were still two years shy of their Nobel Prize.

Produced between 1956 and 1964, the series enlisted some really big Hollywood names. Frank Capra, director of Christmas staple It’s a Wonderful Life, helmed the first four films. The series featured exposition by “Dr. Research,” played by Dr. Frank Baxter, an English professor. His sidekick was usually referred to as “Mr. Fiction Writer” and first played by Eddie Albert of Green Acres fame. A list of voice actors and animators for the series reads like a who’s who of the golden age of animation: Daws Butler, Hans Conried, Sterling Halloway, Chuck Jones, Maurice Noble, Bob McKimson, Friz Freleng, and queen and king themselves, June Foray and Mel Blanc. Later films were produced by Warner Brothers and Walt Disney Studios, with Disney starring in the final film. The combined star power really helped propel the films and help Bell Labs deliver their message.

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Can a Bundle of Soda Straws be a Camera?

This one is hard to classify. Is it a hack, or is it art? Perhaps it’s both. However you want to classify it, it’s pretty cool to turn a bundle of drinking straws into a camera.

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If you’re looking for the technology here, you won’t find much. There’s no lens, no shutter, and no electronics of any kind in [Mick Farrell] and [Cliff Haynes]’ Straw Camera. This is literally a box full of drinking straws standing on end, with a sheet of photo paper behind it. Each straw sends a spot of light that represents the average hue and luminance of its limited view of the subject directly to the film. The process of making an exposure consists of composing the scene, turning out the lights, loading the camera, and setting off a flash.

The resulting images are defocused but recognizable, like seeing familiar sights through a heavy fog. The straws make a strong texture over the ghostly image of the subject – indeed, the straws are the only thing in focus. The fact that the straws don’t form a perfect honeycomb due to settling and imperfections in the bundles is jarring at first, but as you see the images you get used to the extra texture.

When we first saw this, we wondered about the possibility of putting a simple photosensor at the bottom of each straw to capture similar images digitally. The TCS3200 would be about the right size, but given that there are about 32,000 straws in the bundle, the BOM might get a little out of hand. Still, a scaled down digital straw camera might yield some interesting images.

Thanks to [Stuart Rogers] for the tip.

A 3D Printed Camera (Including The Lens)

Barring the RepRap project, we usually see 3D printers make either replacement parts or small assemblies, not an entire finished product. [Amos] is the exception to this rule with his entirely 3D-printed camera. Everything in this camera is 3D printed, from the shutter to the lightproof box to the lens itself. It’s an amazing piece of engineering, and a testament to how far 3D printing has come in just a few short years.

35mm film is the most common film by far, and the only one that’s still easy to get and have developed at a reasonable price. This 3D-printed camera is based on that standard, making most of the guts extremely similar to the millions of film cameras that have been produced over the years. There’s a film cartridge, a few gears, a film takeup spool, and a lightproof box. So far, this really isn’t a challenge for any 3D printer.

The fun starts with the lens. We’ve seen 3D printers used for lens making before, starting with a 3D print used to create a silicone mold where a lens is cast in clear acrylic, 3D printed tools used to grind glass, and an experiment from FormLabs to 3D print a lens. All of these techniques require some surface finishing, and [Amos]’ lens is no different. He printed a lens on his Form 2 printer, and started polishing with 400 grit sandpaper. After working up to 12000 grit, the image was still a bit blurry, revealing microscopic grooves that wouldn’t polish out. This led him to build a tool to mechanically polish the lens. This tool was, of course, 3D printed. After polishing, the lens was ‘dip polished’ in a vat of uncured resin.

The shutter was the next challenge, and for this [Amos] couldn’t rely on the usual mechanisms found in film cameras. he did find a shutter mechanism from 1885 that didn’t take up a lot of depth, and after modeling the movement in Blender, designed a reasonable shutter system.

Building an entire camera in a 3D printer is a challenge, but how are the pictures? Not bad, actually. There’s a weird vignetting, and everything’s a little bit blurry. It’s hip, trendy, and lomo, and basically amazing that it works at all.

Using Robotics To Film the Perfect Hamburger Shot

It’s no secret that a lot of time, money, and effort goes into photographing and filming all that delicious food you see in advertisements. Mashed potatoes in place of ice cream, carefully arranged ingredients on subs, and perfectly golden french fries are all things you’ve seen so often that they’re taken for granted. But, those are static shots – the food is almost always just sitting on a plate. At most, you might see a chef turning a steak or searing a fillet in a commercial for a restaurant. What takes real skill – both artistic and technical – is assembling a hamburger in mid-air and getting it all in stunning 4k video.

That’s what [Steve Giralt] set out to do, and to accomplish it he had to get creative. Each component of the hamburger was suspended by rubber bands, and an Arduino timed and controlled servo system cut each rubber band just before that ingredient entered the frame. There’s even a 3D printed dual-catapult system to fling the condiments, causing them to collide in the perfect place to land in place on the burger.

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Drones, Clever Hacks, and CG Come Together For Star Wars Fan Film

We weren’t certain if this Star Wars fan film was out kind of thing until we saw the making of video afterwards. They wanted to film a traditional scene in a new way. The idea was to take some really good quadcopter pilots, give them some custom quadcopters, have them re-enact a battle in a scenic location, and then use some movie magic to bring it all together.

The quadcopters themselves are some of those high performance racing quadcopters with 4K video cameras attached. The kind of thing that has the power to weight ratio of a rocket ship. Despite what the video implies, they are unfortunately not TIE Fighter shaped. After a day of flying and a few long hikes to retrieve the expensive devices after inevitable crashes (which, fortunately, provided some nice footage), the next step was compositing.

However, how to trick the viewer into believing they were in a X-Wing quadcopter? A cheap way to do it would be to spend endless hours motion tracking and rendering a cockpit in place. It won’t look quite real. The solution they came up with is kind of dumb and kind-of brilliant. Mount a 3D printed cockpit on a 2×4 with a GoPro. Play the flight footage on a smartphone while holding the contraption. Try to move the cockpit in the same direction as the flight. We’re not certain if it was a requirement to also make whooshing and pew pew laser noises while doing so, but it couldn’t hurt.

In the end it all came together to make a goofy, yet convincingly good fan film. Nice work! Videos after the break.

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20kW Light Is As Bright As You’d Expect

[Photonicinduction] purchased a very very bright light. This 20,000 Watt half meter tall halogen will just about light the back of a person’s skull with their eyes closed. These are typically used to light film sets.

Most people couldn’t even turn such a light on, but [Photonicinduction] is a mad scientist. Making lightning in his attic, it’s easy to mentally picture him as the villain in a Sherlock Holmes novel. Luckily for us, if he has any evil tendencies, they are channeled into YouTube videos.

He gives a good description of the mechanical and electrical properties of the light. The body is as one would expect for an incandescent light. A glass filament envelope with the filaments supported within. The envelope is evacuated and filled with an appropriate gas. This light is dangerous enough that the outside must be thoroughly cleaned of fingerprints to keep a hot-spot from forming, which could cause the lamp to explode.

After some work, he managed to convince himself that the filaments within were not, in fact, garage door springs, and gave a demonstration of their properties. For example, their resistance goes up as they are heated. In order to keep from tripping the power supply, filaments this large must be preheated. Failure to do so passes a very large number of amps.

The next step was to hook the lamp up to his home-made 20 kW power supply. He gives a good demonstration of just how bright it is. Within seconds he’s sweating from the heat and definitely can’t even open his eyes to see with the tiny sun occupying the center of his abode. Video after the break.

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Home Made 8mm Digitizer

The 8mm film look is making a comeback, but distributing it is an issue. [Heikki Hietala] wanted an easy way to digitally capture the 8mm movies he made. So, he built an 8mm digitizer from an Arduino, a cheap Canon camera and the guts of an old 8mm film camera. When you throw in a few 3D printed components and some odd electronics, you get an impressive build that captures 8mm film with impressive speed and quality.

This build started with a Canon Ixus 5 camera running CHDK (the Canon Hack Development Kit) to lock the settings down. This points at the film strip through a macro lens so each frame of the strip fills the frame. An Arduino then triggers the camera to take a photo using a USB cable. The same Arduino also controls a motor that winds the film and triggers the film gate from the camera that he salvaged. By reversing the function and triggering it with a servo motor, he can easily blank off the edges of the frame so no stray light shining through the film material causes any problems. Once the camera has captured every frame on the strip, he feeds the captured images into Blender, which processes them and spits out the final movie.

This is a very impressive build overall. [Heikki] has obviously put a lot of thought into it, and the whole thing looks like it runs very efficiently and quickly. The captured video looks great, as you can see from this sample. The decision to use a salvaged film gate was a smart one: there is no point in reinventing the wheel if engineers of previous generations have solved the problem. Kudos to [Heikki] for also documenting the process in a lot of detail: he has produced a 5-part series on his blog that shows how and why he made the decisions he did. This series goes over the overall view of the project, using CHDK to control the camera, 3D printing parts, wiring the Arduino and writing the code that controls the system.

This sits nicely alongside the 8mm to video camera hack that we wrote about recently. This one doesn’t involve taking apart the camera (except for the sacrificial one that supplied the gate), and you still get that wonderfully grainy, jumpy look of 8mm film.

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