The Sci-Fi Contest closed out on Monday, and we put our heads together and picked our favorites. And it was no easy task, because in addition to many of the projects simply looking stellar, many went all-out on the documentation as well, making these stellar examples that we can all learn from, whether you’re into sci-fi or not. But who are we kidding? From the responses we got, you are.
[RubenFixit]’s Star Trek Shuttle Console is a Trek themed escape room in a box. The project’s extraordinary attention to detail and exhaustive project logs absolutely won our judges heart. From the LCARS graphics to the 3D printed isolinear chip bays and mimetic crystals, it’s all there. [Ruben] estimates about 300 hours of work went into this one, and it shows.
We had no shortage of robotic projects in the contest, but [RudyAramayo]’s R.O.B. won our judges over. This one is not a joke, weighing in at over 140 lbs of custom metalwork and righteous treads. It’s also made out of some expensive hardware all around, so maybe this isn’t your weekend-build robot. We love the comment on the Arduino test code suite: “For gods sake man, you must test your code when it becomes an autonomous vehicle.”
Finally, [zapwizard]’s Functional Razor Crest Control Lever is a prop and a video game controller in one. We can totally see Grogu playing with this, and we were wowed by the attention to detail in the physical build — with custom gears and a speed limiter — as well as the attention to prop-making detail. Some parts are custom-cut stainless steel plates. 3D printed parts are covered in aluminum tape and chemically aged. Awesome. Oh yeah, it’s also a working USB joystick.
These three winners will be receiving a $150 shopping spree at Digi-Key.
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.
At this point, everyone knows that the print quality you’ll get from even an entry level UV resin printer far exceeds what’s possible for filament-based fused deposition modeling (FDM) machines. But there’s a trade-off: for the money, you get way more build volume by going with FDM. So until the logistics of large-format resin printers gets worked out, folks looking to make things like replica prop helmets have no choice but to put considerable time into post-processing their prints to remove the obvious layer lines.
But thanks to this somewhat ironic trick demonstrated by [PropsNstuff], you can actually use UV resin to improve the finish quality of your FDM prints. The idea is to put a layer of resin over the layer lines and other imperfections of the 3D print, cure it with a handheld UV flashlight, and then sand it smooth. Essentially it’s like using resin in place of a body filler like Bondo, with the advantage here being that the resin cures in seconds.
With the tough spots addressed, he then moves on to coating larger areas with resin. But this time, he mixes leftover resin from his SLA printer with talcum powder to make a mix that can be brushed on without running everywhere. It takes a few thin coats, but with this mix, he’s able to build up large swaths of the print without losing any surface detail.
Is it still a hassle? Absolutely. But the final result does look spectacular, so until we figure out how to build the replicators from Star Trek, it looks like we’ll have to make up for our technological shortcomings with the application of a little elbow grease.
Unless you’re sonically savvy, trying to sleep, or simply on edge, you probably don’t realize just how noisy common items can be. Pretty much everything makes enough racket to ruin a sound man’s day, or at the very least, their chance of picking up the dialogue between two characters. What you need on a set are noiseless but realistic versions of common noisemakers like paper bags, ice cubes, and to a lesser extent, billiard balls.
If you’ve spent any time at all on Reddit, you’ve probably seen frustratingly short GIFs of [Tim Schultz] quickly explaining how this or that noiseless prop is made. Embedded below is a compendium of prop hacks with more information worked in along the way. Talk about dream job! Problem solving and then hacking together a solution for a living sounds terrifying and delightful all at once.
Speaking of terrifying and delightful hacks, there’s still plenty of time to enter our Halloween Hackfest contest, which runs through Monday, October 11th. Halloween is the best time to go all out, so show us what you can do!
[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.
With the laws in Cyprus, using anything off-the-shelf like an Airsoft pistol was simply not allowed. Instead, he had to start from scratch, creating a design outwardly similar to the Colt 1911 to suit the era of the film. Using green gas canisters for power, the first focus was on getting a realistic semi-automatic firing cycle happening. With that done, the next goal was to get the cases to eject from the weapon on each shot. To achieve this, a lever was used, actuated by the slide moving back after a shot, pushing the “spent” cartridge out of the port.
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.