Sunday, September 30, 2012

It's not easy being green screened

My Empire Uncut chunk includes a scene in the Millennium Falcon cockpit, with asteroids and laser blasts moving past outside the windows. If it's worth doing, it's worth overcomplicating, I say, so I decided to recreate it in a composite shot, using a green screen and a cockpit miniature.

I have an alcove in my bedroom that's just about the right size for the cockpit, so all I need to do is turn the end of it green. Fluorescent posterboard from CVS, taped together and supported with foam core struts, makes a dandy green screen:

Or possibly a hang glider. Unless I've reinvented baseball.

Then I sketched out the cockpit window struts on graph paper, pinned it to foam core, and began cutting out window panels:

Once I had my cockpit miniature, I set it up with my camera and a black background and shot a few seconds of footage to test the concept:

Finally, I shot the back of my head against the green screen, and combined the footage in iMovie:

And there I am in the cockpit, with Tom Servo (actual height: 4") saying hi from outside! For the scene itself, I'm going to have to pay more attention to relative scale and lining up the footage — my head's too big, and in the wrong place. But for a ten-minute test shot, I'm pretty pleased with how well it worked.

That was all last night. This afternoon I took another trip to Blick to get materials for the Boba Fett costume, which is already coming together. His dented helmet is staring at me from the coffee table, waiting for the weather to brighten up so I can give it a coat of paint.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Oh, Sith

Initially, I was planning to put a diving mask over a black zentai hood and call that Darth Vader, but Kendra convinced me that a Dark Lord of the Sith deserved at least a fraction of the attention paid to IG-88 (who is, in my mind, the star of the scene). Another trip to Blick netted me a sheet of black foam core, and on Monday evening I went to work.

I knew the chest plate would be easier than the mask, so I started there. It's just a cross pattée of black foam core scored, folded, and glued to make the base, then a few scraps of white foam core for the buttons and lights. I used blue and red markers to color the buttons and a silver oil-based Sharpie paint pen for the box details. (I love those metallic paint pens.)

I really had no idea how to approach the detailed origami piecework involved in making Vader's mask, but I knew I wanted to incorporate a broken pair of sunglasses I had lying around, so I measured them, drew them on graph paper, and sketched around them until I had something that looked plausible. Then I made a mold of my lower face in aluminum foil and pulled some estimates about angles and distances out of my butt (keeping in mind that someone else would end up wearing the costume). I held the partially completed mask to my face at each intermediate stage, coming close to putting out an eye with the pins I was using to hold the joins until the glue set. Here's the final mask, with ribbons for wearing:

And here's the full look, with cloak, black shirt, zentai hood, and biking gloves:

(It turns out it's quite difficult to take a picture of yourself with an iPad while looking through a black z-hood and a pair of polarized sunglasses. This is as good as we're going to see until someone else puts on the costume.)

I think the mask looks more accurate off than on; I'm seeing a little Tusken Raider, a little Baron Karza, a little Doctor Doom in the finished product. But it's recognizably Vader, provided you don't hold it up next to a movie still. I toyed with a lamp shade for the helmet and cowl, but I don't think I'll be able to get it to work in the time remaining. The hood of the cloak is perfectly serviceable, Kendra's needling notwithstanding.

It's going to be a claustrophobic, legally-blind kind of shoot for my Vader, but she'll sure look good.

The last remaining big build is Boba Fett. Ten days to principal photography!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Foam Wars

Two of the shots for my Empire Uncut! scene are miniature space effects shots, with a Star Destroyer pursuing the Millennium Falcon. For that, I'm going to need some miniatures, so on Wednesday I convinced my long-suffering wife to drive me to the art supply store, where I acquired some sheets of foam core, a steel straightedge, and new blades for my X-acto knife. I adapted some papercraft patterns I found online, and set to work:

It's fifteen inches long, all stuck together with plain ol' Elmer's glue, and weighs a grand total of four ounces. To crease the layers of superstructure, I scored the underside with the X-acto knife, then used the butt to crush the foam down to create a hinge. The support rods slide through holes in the interior supports.

That's the beauty shot above, all smooth and gleaming white. Unfortunately, it'll actually be shot from this angle:

The nose-on angle really highlights every flaw, thanks to my old enemy foreshortening. If I have time, I might spackle the little gaps beneath the creases, and add some greebles.

Then, tonight, I put together model #2: a one-inch Millennium Falcon. The tiny sensor dish is the top layer of paper on the foam core, cut free and flipped up.


Last night, I made a list of everything I have left to do before filming: Vader's costume, Boba Fett's costume, the green screen cockpit windows, a couple of screen tests, and a few other lesser bits and pieces. I found some of the necessary elements at a thrift store today, including a fetching blue turtleneck for Boba. At a party tonight, I think I completed casting. Principal photography will be Sunday the 7th, with VF/X a couple of days before that, which gives me a little less than two weeks to get everything together. Delivery on the 11th!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The IG stands for Instagram

IG-88 is pretty much finished. I laid him out in the back yard yesterday and gave him a couple of coats of Rust-oleum's Dark Steel, followed by a couple of coats of Aged Iron. I wasn't happy with the eyes in the previous post, so I swapped in hotel shampoo bottles for the corks. In the photo above, he's wearing his bandolier (my kilt belt) and has a black sock stuffed in his mouth to soak up light. Here's the head just after painting, showing the neck of the 2-liter bottle that serves as his neck joint:

The dome is still a little transparent, which means the bike tail light I'm using to illuminate his sensors shows through where it shouldn't. I might need to touch up his paint in a few spots, depending on how I'm shooting him. But he's mostly done!

Next I move on to the EXT: SPACE shots, which means constructing a miniature Millennium Falcon and Star Destroyer, a few asteroids, and a clean black stage. Also possibly Silly String, fingers crossed.

Monday, September 17, 2012

IG-88 fluid ounces

I'm just about finished assembling IG-88, which should be the hardest build for my Empire Uncut scene, particularly since I'm viewing it as "an opportunity to make an IG-88! Plus some other stuff." Those are two 2-liter bottles forming his head. Not sure about the eyes — I'll have to see how much he looks like Beaker after a coat of metallic paint. Tomorrow will be spray-painting-in-the-back-yard day.


The pink circles on his forehead aren't acne — they're paint shields. After I'm done spraying, I'll peel them off, and hopefully the plastic beneath will still be clear. Then I can stick an LED inside his head and make them glow, just like the real IG-88 (seen here waving from big IG-88's shoulder).

If you look closely, you'll see a white rod running up through his head. That's a puppeteer's control rod:

Well, okay, actually it's a curtain rod. But it'll allow the puppeteer to reach inside IG-88's back and rotate his head 45°, which is all IG-88 needs to do.
I've taken a lot of liberties with IG-88's appearance, but I'm not too concerned about details. Like, at all. I'm not going to run out and find exactly the right Derwent flame tube for the head. I've got 25 days left, and IG-88 appears in only two of my six shots — I have Vader and Boba Fett and a Star Destroyer and asteroids and lasers and the Millennium Falcon and the Falcon's cockpit to worry about. Slapdash construction is all in the spirit of Empire Uncut, anyway. It's all fun and shoestrings and chewing gum. That's a feature, not a bug — part of what makes this exhilarating is being forced to turn off my inner perfectionist. There's simply no time. In the spirit of Roger Corman and Ed Wood Jr., it doesn't have to be good, it has to be done. That's good for me.

I also picked up some green posterboard for use as a green screen (!). I spent some time last night playing around with iMovie's green screen function, and found it blessedly easy to use. I know I'll use it for the starfield outside the Falcon's cockpit; I'm not yet sure about the two EXT: SPACE shots.

This continues to be wildly euphoric.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Oh gee, hey gee, you should see my IG

Work on Houses of the Muses continues apace. I hit the hundred-page block for a couple of weeks, but put my head down and bulled through instead of going back and starting the second draft.

But this isn't about that. This is about Empire Uncut, and the scene I have thirty days to film.

Star Wars: Uncut chopped Star Wars into about 800 fifteen-second chunks, then handed them out to amateur filmmakers to recreate. Which they did, using action figures, Lego minifigs, computer animation, traditional animation, pencil sketches, cats, dogs, ferrets, terrible costumes, excellent costumes, excellent terrible costumes, puppets, adorable children, greenscreening, machinima, rotoscoping, repurposed footage, shop vacs, stop motion, fast motion, slow motion, no motion, instant messaging, an Oscar statuette, a hamburger, and My Little Ponies. Then they stuck them all back together and added John Williams's soundtrack back in. I saw the final result at the Brattle Theater in June, and it was joyous and jubliant and ridiculous. (If you want to watch it, it's on the internets.)

I couldn't resist signing up for the sequel, which is why I have thirty twenty-seven days to film fifteen seconds of Empire Strikes Back. That sounds like a lot of time, but the chunk I selected has six shots, two locations, two F/X shots, four speaking parts, and a life-size IG-88. I'll be posting updates here — it's not exactly writing, but it is a creative endeavor slathered with fandom sauce, so here it is.

I've never filmed anything before, so I expect this to go extremely well. If you feel like signing up for a scene of your own, or watching the chunks as they're uploaded, go here:

My first storyboards. Adorable!
Plans for IG-88.
IG-88's torso, the early stages