Movie Magic Hack Chat

Borg-building 101

Wednesday, January 20, 2021 12:00 pm PST Local time zone:
Hack Chat
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Alan McFarland will host the Hack Chat on Wednesday, January 20 at noon Pacific Time.

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Join Hack ChatIf 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.

  • Hack Chat Transcript, Part 1

    Dan Maloney01/20/2021 at 21:07 0 comments

    Hi everyone, welcome to the Hack Chat. I'm Dan, and as usual I'll be moderating. Today we welcome Alan McFarland to talk about his job making movies believable. Hi, Alan - care to start us off with a little about yourself?

    scubabear12:01 PM
    Hi Dan, and thank you for this opportunity. I actually wrote this out in advance and I'm going to paste it in, its a touch lengthy!

    scubabear12:02 PM
    I’ve always had a love of science fiction, going back as far as I can remember. But as a young kid growing up in a small Texas town, I never gave much thought to where TV shows and movies actually came from. Then in 7th grade, I came across a book called “The Making of Star Trek” and it fascinated me. These shows were made by people, and mostly in a magical city called Los Angeles! By the time I finished reading the book, I knew I wanted to be one of these folks. I was initially interested in cinematography, and got my training in that at the American Film Institute Conservatory. But when I started working in 1987, it was hard to get a break doing camerawork. On the sets I was on I noticed that the special effects guys were having a lot more fun than I was as a camera/lighting guy, and compared to the entry level I was at, they were making better money too. So I took a look at what they were doing and realized when they did electronics, it was very primitive and janky. My dad was an EE for General Electric for his whole career and had taught me a lot, so I sort of approached these guys and said, “ya know… I could help you make that gag better/brighter/more reliable/easier to control/more interesting…”

    SimonAllen12:03 PM
    and ...

    Mark J Hughes12:03 PM
    I like it "Let me help you crank it up to 11"

    scubabear12:03 PM

    Mark J Hughes12:04 PM
    Do your parts on hand guide the design, or does the design guide the parts you source?

    scubabear12:04 PM
    You know that quote of Henry Ford's, when someone asks you if you can do something, you say "Yes!"...

    Mark J Hughes12:04 PM
    The reason I ask is because I often build crap out of other crap I have close at hand

    Wild, I too loved that "Making of Star Trek" book too. Devoured it, really.

    Mark J Hughes12:06 PM
    Have you learned nothing from Scotty?

    Mark J Hughes12:06 PM

    Do you mind a little advice? Starfleet captains are like children. They want everything right now and they want it their way. But the secret is to give them only what they need, not what they want.

    Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge:

    Yeah, well, I told the Captain I'd have this analysis done in an hour.


    How long will it really take?

    Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge:

    An hour!


    Oh, you didn't tell him how long it would *really* take, did ya?"

    scubabear12:06 PM
    @Mark J Hughes That's a great question. Many times I'll get a call, "we need a XXX that does YYY, and we need it in two days!" I love the challenge of that, and I get to charge big rush charges too ;-) But when that happens, yes, I have to let what I have on hand and what software knowledge I have guide the design, no time for a learning curve in such situations.

    Mark J Hughes12:06 PM
    Also -- where are your favorite places to source parts?

    Mark J Hughes12:07 PM
    "Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge:

    Well, of course I did.


    Oh, laddie. You've got a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker."

    scubabear12:08 PM
    Nowadays, Amazon and Digikey. I like to shop Aliexpress but on deadline there's no time for shipping from China. But I do get a lot of the stock I keep onhand from Aliexpress and occationally Banggood.

    SimonAllen12:08 PM
    Have you worked on the other StarTreks

    Mark J Hughes12:09 PM
    @scubabear what FX parts do you consider essential enough to keep on hand?

    scubabear12:10 PM
    I worked mostly on Star Trek First Contact, with some small stuff for Voyager and Enterprise.

    darkmoon3d12:11 PM
    demo reel showed helmet lighting work on First Contact. What did Voyager and Enterprise entail?...

    Read more »

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