Obsessively Explaining The Visual Effects In Flight Of The Navigator

[Captain Disillusion] has earned a reputation on YouTube for debunking hoaxes and spreading a healthy sense of skepticism while having some of the highest production value on the platform and pretending to be some kind of inter-dimensional superhero. You’ve likely seen him give a careful explanation of how some viral video was faked alongside a generous dose of sarcastic humor and his own impressive visual effects. VFXcool is a series on his channel that takes deep dives into movies that are historically significant in the effects industry. For this installment, [Captain Disillusion]’s “intern”, [Alan], takes over to breakdown how filmmakers brought a futuristic spaceship to life in 1986’s Flight of the Navigator.

Making a movie requires hacks upon hacks, and that goes double in the era when the technology and techniques we now take for granted were being developed even as they were being put to film. The range of topics covered here is extreme: from full-scale props to models; from robotic motion control rigs to stop motion animation; from early computer graphics to the convoluted optical compositing that was necessary before digital workflows were possible. The tools themselves may be outdated, but understanding the history and the processes allows for a deeper insight into how we accomplish these kinds of effects today. And, really, it’s just so… cool.

[Captain Disillusion]’s previous VFXcool is all about the Back to the Future trilogy, and it’s a little shorter with more information on motion control rigs. We also love seeing how people make DIY effects in their own homes. LEGO actually seems like a pretty popular option for putting together whole scenes in amateur filmmaking.

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Kerbal Space Program Goes To The Movies In Stowaway

Fans of the lusciously voiced space aficionado [Scott Manley] will know he often uses Kerbal Space Program (KSP) in his videos to knock together simple demonstrations of blindingly complex topics such as orbital mechanics. But as revealed in one of his recent videos, YouTube isn’t the only place where his KSP craft can be found these days. It turns out he used his virtual rocket building skills to help the creators of Netflix’s Stowaway develop a realistic portrayal of a crewed spacecraft in a Mars cycler orbit.

The Mars cycler concept was proposed in 1985 by Buzz Aldrin as a way to establish a long-term human presence on the Red Planet. Put simply, it describes an orbit that would allow a vehicle to travel continuously between Earth and Mars while needing only an occasional engine burn for course corrections. The spacecraft couldn’t actually stop at either planet, but while it made a close pass, smaller craft could rendezvous with it to hitch a ride. The concept can be thought of as a sort of interplanetary train: where passengers and cargo are picked up and dropped off at “stations” above Earth and Mars. It’s worth noting that a similar cycler orbit should be possible for Earth-Venus trips, but nobody really wants to go there.

An early KSP proof of concept for Stowaway.

The writers of Stowaway wanted their film to take place on a Mars cycler, and to avoid having to create the illusion of weightlessness, they wanted their fictional craft to also have some kind of artificial gravity. The only problem was, they weren’t sure what that would actually look like. So they reached out to [Scott], who in turn used KSP to throw together a rough idea of how such a ship might work in the real-world.

As you can see in the video below, the CGI spacecraft shown in the film’s recently released trailer ended up bearing a strong resemblance to its KSP prototype. While naturally some artistic license was used, [Scott] is excited by what he’s seen so far. The spinning spacecraft, which uses a spent upper stage to counterbalance its crew module and features a stationery utility node at the center, certainly looks impressive; all the more so with the knowledge that it’s based on sound principles.

While Netflix has had a hand in some surprisingly realistic science fiction in the past, they’ve also greenlit some real groan-worthy productions (if you haven’t watched Away, don’t). So until we can see the whole thing for ourselves, we can only hope that [Scott]’s sage advice will allow the crew of Stowaway to fly safe.

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sample of automatically generated comics

Read Your Movies As Automatically Generated Comic Books

A research paper from Dalian University of Technology in China and City University of Hong Kong (direct PDF link) outlines a system that automatically generates comic books from videos. But how can an algorithm boil down video scenes to appropriately reflect the gravity of the scene in a still image? This impressive feat is accomplished by saving two still images per second, then segments the frames into scenes through analysis of region-of-interest and importance ranking.

movie to comic book pipeline diagram

For its next trick, speech for each scene is processed by combining subtitle information with the audio track of the video. The audio is analyzed for emotion to determine the appropriate speech bubble type and size of the subtitle text. Frames are even analyzed to establish which person is speaking for proper placement of the bubbles. It can then create layouts of the keyframes, determining panel sizes for each page based on the region-of-interest analysis.

The process is completed by stylizing the keyframes with flat color through quantization, for that classic cel shading look, and then populating the layouts with each frame and word balloon.

The team conducted a study with 40 users, pitting their results against previous techniques which require more human intervention and still besting them in every measure. Like any great superhero, the team still sees room for improvement. In the future, they would like to improve the accuracy of keyframe selection and propose using a neural network to do so.

Thanks to [Qes] for the tip!

Movie Magic Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, January 20th at noon Pacific for the Movie Magic Hack Chat with Alan McFarland!

If they were magically transported ahead in time, the moviegoers of the past would likely not know what to make of our modern CGI-driven epics, with physically impossible feats performed in landscapes that never existed. But for as computationally complex as movies have become, it’s the rare film that doesn’t still need at least some old-school movie magic, like hand props, physical models, and other practical effects.

To make their vision come to life, especially in science fiction films, filmmakers turn to artists who specialize in practical effects. We’ve all seen their work, which in many cases involves turning ordinary household objects into yet-to-be-invented technology, or creating scale models of spaceships and alien landscapes. But to really sell these effects, adding a dash of electronics can really make the difference.

Enter Alan McFarland, an electronics designer and engineer for the film industry. With a background in cinematography, electronics, and embedded systems, he has been able to produce effects in movies we’ve all seen. He designed electroluminescent wearables for Tron: Legacy, built the lighting system for the miniature Fhloston Paradise in The Fifth Element, and worked on the Borg costumes for Star Trek: First Contact. He has tons of experience making the imaginary look real, and he’ll join us on the Hack Chat to discuss the tricks he keeps in his practical effects toolkit to make movie magic.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, January 20 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

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E-Paper Display Shows Movies Very, Very Slowly

How much would you enjoy a movie that took months to finish? We suppose it would very much depend on the film; the current batch of films from the Star Wars franchise are quite long enough as they are, thanks very much. But a film like Casablanca or 2001: A Space Odyssey might be a very different experience when played on this ultra-slow-motion e-paper movie player.

The idea of displaying a single frame of a movie up for hours rather than milliseconds has captivated [Tom Whitwell] since he saw [Bryan Boyer]’s take on the concept. The hardware [Tom] used is similar: a Raspberry Pi, an SD card hat with a 64 GB card for the movies, and a Waveshare e-paper display, all of which fits nicely in an IKEA picture frame.

[Tom]’s software is a bit different, though; a Python program uses FFmpeg to fetch and dither frames from a movie at a configurable rate, to customize the viewing experience a little more than the original. Showing one frame every two minutes and then skipping four frames, it has taken him more than two months to watch Psycho. He reports that the shower scene was over in a day and a half — almost as much time as it took to film — while the scene showing [Marion Crane] driving through the desert took weeks to finish. We always wondered why [Hitch] spent so much time on that scene.

With the proper films loaded, we can see this being an interesting way to really study the structure and flow of a good film. It’s also a good way to cut your teeth on e-paper displays, which we’ve seen pop up in everything from weather stations to Linux terminals.

P-51 Cockpit Recreated With Help Of Local Makerspace

It’s surprisingly easy to misjudge tips that come into the Hackaday tip line. After filtering out the omnipresent spam, a quick scan of tip titles will often form a quick impression that turns out to be completely wrong. Such was the case with a recent tip that seemed from the subject line to be a flight simulator cockpit. The mental picture I had was of a model cockpit hooked to Flight Simulator or some other off-the-shelf flying game, many of which we’ve seen over the years.

I couldn’t have been more wrong about the project that Grant Hobbs undertook. His cockpit simulator turned out to be so much more than what I thought, and after trading a few emails with him to get all the details, I felt like I had to share the series of hacks that led to the short video below and the story about how he somehow managed to build the set despite having no previous experience with the usual tools of the trade.

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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.

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