Hack Chat Transcript, Part 1

A event log for Movie Magic Hack Chat

Borg-building 101

Dan MaloneyDan Maloney 01/20/2021 at 21:070 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? helmets and props I'm guessing?

So I take it Hollywood is still in production now, even though nobody is going to the theater right now?

scubabear12:11 PM
Hmmm... in no particular order, LED tape, high-intensity LEDs, an assortment f logic-level MOSFETs, various Arduinos, and lately, ESP32 boards, fiber optics, 3D printer resin, wrap wire...

Mark J Hughes12:12 PM
What about for power?

scubabear12:12 PM
@darkmoon3d Helmets, space suits and Borg suit lighting. I also did the Borg Suits for the Star Trek Experience in Vegas. I loved that place, sorry they shut it down...

Morberis12:13 PM
I like your quote about Henry Fords and saying Yes. Has that ever come back to bite you in the ass?

Michael Gardi12:14 PM
You mentioned 3D printer resin. Do you prefer SLA to FDM?

scubabear12:14 PM
@Dan Maloney Actually no, they shut it down again, mostly driven by the Screen Actors Guild (of which I'm a member, that and IATSE Local 44) due to COVID concerns at the moment. In Los Angeles the estimate right now is that 1 in 3 people has or has had COVID. It's scary at the moment.

Mark J Hughes12:15 PM
@scubabear -- how about Apex Electronics? Anything useful there these days?

scubabear12:15 PM
@Morberis Not that I'm aware of, LOL.

darkmoon3d12:17 PM
what 3D printer do you use?

scubabear12:17 PM
@Michael Gardi I love SLA. I've had a Form2 since 2017 & it's been great. I have an FDM but haven't really learned how to master it. The Form2 just works all the time for me, but I'd like to get the FDM going because the parts produced by it are much sturdier, even when using PLA.

scubabear12:19 PM
@Mark J Hughes I love going to APEX, it's always fun and I've spent hours in there. But everything is so expensive I rarely buy much. I like the Ham Radio Swap Meet in Los Angeles for getting cool looking stuff for props and such though.

Michael Gardi12:21 PM
Do you have a favorite prop/effect that you have done?

Morberis12:21 PM
Are there things that you've made or worked on that required UL or other ratings on the parts or do you just pick parts that will work mechanically/electrically?

neotechni12:22 PM
Do you hide any easter eggs in your work? like how some hide Star Wars bots/ships

scubabear12:23 PM
I'm really proud of how Fifth Element turned out. Also like how the Tron suits look onscreen. Overall my favorite movie of all that I've worked on was Watchmen; that was just such a terrific on-set experience up in Vancouver.

Mark J Hughes12:23 PM
How do you power the actors? All those lights must burn through batteries.

neotechni12:24 PM
The same way you power nerds, Mountain Dew and Doritos

neotechni12:24 PM
Oh you meant the lights, a guy off camera on a treadmill

scubabear12:24 PM
@neotechni ;-) Yes...! The borg suits were flashing messages in Morse code. But I'm not gonna say what they were saying. ;-)

Morberis12:24 PM

OK, rewatching First Contact tonight to decode. Will report back

Tom Nardi12:25 PM
Yes, time for research.

neotechni12:25 PM
excellent. I await the report

Michael Gardi12:25 PM
Thanks Dan you will save all of us a lot of time!

Mark J Hughes12:26 PM
@Michael Gardi Yeah -- it takes a while to learn Morse :)

I'm gonna guess that the Borg intercepted Voyager and the Golden Record at some point, so the message is, "Send more Chuck Berry"

neotechni12:27 PM

scubabear12:27 PM
@Mark J Hughes For the Borg and spacesuits on First Contact, I used 9.6V Makita batteries. Easy to source and charge. For Dr Manhattan I used some 9.6V RC car batteries, because they were smaller. For Tron Legacy I had to go to lithium ion, 18650 style. I used some really new Li-Ion tech that had been made for Tesla, and I had to sign nondisclosure agreements to get those batteries.

Michael Gardi12:28 PM
What modelling software do you use?

Mark J Hughes12:28 PM
@scubabear Outstanding! Thanks!

neotechni12:28 PM

Mark J Hughes12:28 PM
I've got to go for now -- but it's been great! I sent a connection request on a particular professional social networking website :)

Any concerns with Li-ion safety around actors?

neotechni12:29 PM
yeah, those actors have sticky fingers. They might have stolen the Tesla battery!

scubabear12:30 PM
@Michael Gardi LOL I was kinda hoping no one would ask that, cuz I'm embarrased... I have a lot of training in Autodesk Maya and Epic's Unreal Engine, but my favorite software for banging out ideas is actually TinkerCad. I amd starting to study Blender now, and I signed up for the course that HackadayU is doing on Rhino3D because I know a few FX shops that like using that program...

scubabear12:31 PM
@Dan Maloney Absolutely. And we had two LiIon accidents on that show, but no one was hurt, it just was messy and stank.

Michael Gardi12:32 PM
Sorry for asking. I think TinkerCad rock for noodling and simpler designs.

Tom Nardi12:32 PM
For all its faults, TinkerCAD is definitely convenient and a quick way to knock out a concept on short notice.

darkmoon3d12:32 PM
am curious, you mention Unreal engine. have you done any experiments with led lighting using it similar to Mandalorian tech?

scubabear12:33 PM
@Dan Maloney The bigger concern on Tron Legacy was that when the actors would sweat in those (essentially scuba-type) wetsuits, they would get electrical shocks from the electroluminescent power. This wasn't harmful per se, but it made it difficult for them to act when they were getting a sensation that felt like being jabbed with a pin.

nahuelbosing joined the room.12:34 PM

neotechni12:34 PM
thats just mor emotivation to get a scene right on the first try

neotechni12:34 PM
when the director says to turn up the brightness, you know they've messed up too much

scubabear12:35 PM
The way the producers fixed that shocking problem was to bring in five 4-ton air conditioners, and chill the set to like 40 degrees, just above the point where you couldn't see their breath. So then they didn't sweat, but the rest of us offscreen were in parkas and layered clothing and such because it was so damn cold on stage.

Impromptu on-set electrophysiology experiments aren't good -- got it ;-)

neotechni12:36 PM
yessir, never again sir

Morberis12:38 PM
When sourcing LED's to stock where do you get them? And do you use more expensive and hopefully more reliable strips/leds in place of cheaper leds for any reason? Like in something harder to repair

Michael Gardi12:38 PM
What tool do you find yourself reaching for the most?

scubabear12:38 PM
@darkmoon3d A little bit, but I only started learning Unreal Engine in August. Epic sponsored a fellowship program where they paid 100 people $10,000 to spend a month with their instructors online to learn Unreal. There were 6000 applicants, and I got chosen to be one of the 100 people. It was a great experience, and it was phase 1 of the fellowship program. Phase 2 will be on stages with a video wall, mocap and linked cameras, but it'll have to wait til there's full-on herd immunity.

Guru-san12:40 PM
Hi @scubabear I beyond love the electroluminescent suits in Tron, I can't tell you how much I stared at them, thank you so much for your work on them! What kind of light were they using? and how much was post processed CGI work was there? It looks like LED with very good diffuser, but it's so thin!

neotechni12:42 PM
Since you have some knowledge of Unreal, you considering getting into Videogame development?

scubabear12:42 PM
@Morberis Good question, but I'm going to expand the scope to all the parts I select, and explain why. On a film set, there is the "shooting budget" part of teh film (excludes writing, post production and marketing), and there is the time that the film has available to shoot. On Tron Legacy, it worked out that every minute on set cost about $6000. SO if I had a problem that took 5 minutes to fix, it cost the production $30,000. For that reason I always choose parts that have the highest reliability I can find, because no producer/director wants to hear that I saved $5 on a microcontroller board that just failed...

Morberis12:43 PM
That makes a lot of sense. Just not worth it.

Sounds like the movie version of "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM"

So that raises an interesting question: what parts do you favor for reliability? Or better, what parts have caught you up with their unreliability?

scubabear12:49 PM
@Guru-san In 2008 there was a company called Oryon Technologies that had licensed an EL technology from a British inventor that had figured out a method of screen-printing EL, like silkscreening a T-shirt. This stuff was crazy flexible, and supple like cloth. but it DID NOT stretch. Stretch it and it breaks. It was also really expensive. The hero suits like the protagonist wore had about $50,000 worth of this stuff on it. Some of the lights, especially during stunts, would have to be replaced after a single take if the action stretched them. SO we had full sets of lights ready to be swapped out on the suits quickly, and on set. They were backed with thin velcro, and I had these super-thin connectors going to them to facilitate that. If you want to talk more about it later, feel free to PM me!

scubabear12:52 PM
@Dan Maloney Well the best story I have about unreliabilty is the story I just told from Tron Legacy. That EL material was the ONLY EL material in the world that got us the look we needed, so we just had to have plans to mitigate the fragility of the stuff. And yeah, no one ever got fired for buying IBM. ;-)

Morberis12:52 PM
I've seen that stuff! A small sample kit was something like $1k. After having worked with it would you or could you do anything different to increase its reliability?

scubabear12:55 PM
@Morberis If they made that movie today (or a sequel), I doubt they'd use EL at all. Probably do the suit lighting with CGI at far less cost. You wouldn't get the interactive lighting aspect, but it would be so much cheaper to do it that way. That's one way to up the reliability, just eliminate the cause of unreliability.

So, regarding Tron - I remember the original and it's then-mindblowing "computer graphics". Did the way that movie looked influence your designs on Tron: Legacy? Or is that more of an art director thing?

scubabear12:57 PM
The great days of models, miniatures and even much of the suit lighting gags are behind us. This is one reason I'm retraining to work with Unreal Engine. Well, that and they paid me ten grand to learn it, LOL

scubabear1:00 PM
@Dan Maloney I can't really speak to that, because I don't know what they were thinking. I had no real input on any of the "look" besides begging them to stop shrinking the disk hub on the back of the suit, as that's where we'd planned to put the batteries. But they made it smaller than they originally told us, so I redesigned the battery packs, and then they shrunk it again. In the end the batteries were on their belts, in what looks like a high-tech soapbox.

So the art department sets the look of the film, and they rely on you and your colleagues to pull it off. Interesting dynamic.

scubabear1:02 PM
I controlled all the suits over a version of Zigbee, using the SNAPpy modules. From my on-set Mac I could turn all the suits on or off, and get battery status. We got about 11 minutes out of a battery pack on the main suits before we had to recharge it.

bbarrick1:03 PM

So, we're up at the top of the hour, which means we've got to wrap things up and let Alan get back to work. Everyone should feel free to stick around, of course - the Hack Chat is always open. I believe there's an LED Art chat coming up next, kind of aligned with this in a way.

Nicolas Tremblay1:04 PM
Thanks for the great chat

Lazer.Coh3n1:04 PM
Do you ever use some of them old time logic circuitry or is that too old for what you do?

Guru-san1:04 PM
Thanks for the reply! That's so cool! I thought from the glow it could be EL but had no clue it could be made flexible!

scubabear1:04 PM
Awesome! And thanks guys, it's been fun!

I just want to thank Alan for coming on today, this was really interesting stuff. I've always had a thing for movies, and this was really exciting. Thanks Alan! And good luck with the fellowship.

scubabear1:04 PM
I'm happy to elaborate on anything, feel free to PM me here!

SimonAllen1:04 PM
Thanks Alan I really enjoyed your talk.

scubabear1:05 PM
Bye for now!