Monday, October 15, 2012

My buddy Burtt

Ben Burtt is one of my heroes. Apart from popularizing the Wilhelm Scream, he did sound design for all of the Star Wars films. He gave us Artoo's voice, Vader's breathing, the footsteps of AT-ATs. By embedding Lucas's fantastic, alien visuals in an organic bed of sound, he made the Star Wars universe feel real in a way no other fantasy world ever had. R2-D2 didn't just beep and bloop; he spoke, and his fans whirred, and his servos whined when the sands of Tatooine got into them. Ben Burtt gave Artoo life.

I wanted, in my own fumbling way, to honor Burtt in my Empire Uncut clip, so I did all of my own sound recording — no downloaded clips, no computer-generated sounds (though I did edit them electronically). Kat looped her own dialogue for Admiral Piett, since her face is visible on-screen, but everything else was me:

  • Vader's voice was my voice, slowed incrementally and filtered a bit.
  • Threepio's voice was my voice speeded up slightly. (Threepio was one of the first impressions I ever tried to do, when I was wee. "Artoo Detoo, you found a cigarette!")
  • Boba Fett had my voice as well, processed to sound like it was coming through a speaker.
  • The Executor's bridge hum was the whirring of my iMac.
  • Vader's breathing was me breathing through a snorkel, trimmed and spliced to match the timing of Vader's actual breathing.
  • The Star Destroyer's blasters started life as water in a steel bowl, struck by a spoon, with a lot of layering and flanging and whatnot. (Probably my least successful SF/X. I had high hopes. Ah well.)
  • The explosions were layered "bssh" mouth noises.
  • In the shot between Dengar and IG-88, there's a mechanical clattering in the right channel that I took to be IG-88's mechanisms. I replicated them with mouth noises.
  • I added a couple of subtle bloops for IG-88's "voice", which were really reversed kazoo noises put through a flanger.
  • When the Falcon is hit, the crash you hear is a slowed-down sample of some art supplies and rolls of tape pushed onto the floor.

It took hours of nudging and tweaking to get things sounding more or less right, and I'm sure I could have spent hours more. My first mix was overwhelmingly noisy; I had to dial back all of the background noises to 12% or 20% to make the ambience feel more or less natural. To make Piett's off-screen voice come out of the left channel, I had to export the audio to GarageBand and tweak it there, because iMovie doesn't handle channels (what, really?!?). But I'm very proud of the end result; listening to my clip with headphones will enhance the experience, not detract from it.

I spent the night before sound editing editing the video tracks, which went pretty smoothly — except for the green screen compositing. For the other five shots, it became clear quickly which take I wanted to use, and iMovie's clip editor made it easy to fine-tune the start and end of each clip. I just measured the frame count of each shot in the original, and made sure my shots had the same number of frames (although I extended the circular wipe a smidge, because it looked too fast otherwise). I have a continuity mismatch or two around Vader's movements, but (don't tell anyone) one of them's there in the original, too.

The green screen cockpit, though, was a nightmare. I had "hot spots" of light on the screen, which were washing out the green, and enough green on my actors to create artifacting on their heads. If I adjusted the color balance in iMovie to correct the problems, my asteroid field began to wash out, and eventually vanished altogether. Even worse, the camera I was using didn't have an exposure lock, so when everyone leaned out of frame the exposure compensated, changing all the values. The desaturated, blurry, noisy cockpit scene I have in the final cut — it looks like the Falcon is driving slowly through a blizzard — was the best I could achieve after about three hours of tweaking.

But that is part of the fun, isn't it? Making the best of the shots you have, no matter how meager, and calling the result good. After three nights of editing, I was ready to upload.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

"The possibility of successfully filming a scene with these resources is approximately 3,720 to one!"

On Sunday, I whipped up a batch of ice-cold bantha milk, and my cast and crew got down to the business of making movie magic. We had a hoot and a half — maybe three quarters!

A communications snafu waylaid my Boba Fett (Trish), so we shot the cockpit scene first. I'd had a lot of fun assembling found objects to make something that would read on-screen like a cockpit — a soldering iron, some Christmas lights, a big military decade box, a couple of plastic pen carriers, and (as a nod to the Satellite of Love) a couple of spray paint caps. We wrapped my C-3PO (Herbert) in aluminum foil, dressed my Leia (Kat) and Han (Kendra) in their color-coded jackets, and convinced Rosie to lie on the floor and shake the Wookiee. ("I always knew my film debut would be on my back," she said.) They all crammed themselves into the cockpit and did their best Star Trek lean as the Falcon "was hit by lasers" and "avoided asteroids."

(Those two hot spots of light on the green screen will come back to bedevil me during editing. Live and learn.)

Boba had arrived by the time I got my shot, so we all trooped downstairs to the "Super Star Destroyer bridge" I'd turned my living room into, and my long-suffering actors suited up. Vader (Rosie) wore a black zentai hood and sunglasses that made her nearly blind; Dengar (Yossi) strapped a baking pan to his chest and stood on a rickety stool; the Imperial Trooper (Will) wore a bowl on his head. Boba Fett (Trish) and Admiral Piett (Kat) had less onerous costumes — though Boba did get cardboard pieces duct taped to her chest — and Herbert played puppeteer for IG-88.

Everyone did a bang-up job. Vader hit her mark every time, despite being unable to see. IG-88's head turned just like it was supposed to. Boba Fett slouched to make Vader look taller. Dengar really stepped up — literally, since he had to stand on a stool to make it look like he and IG-88 were looking down from a raised walkway. (It's a shame that only his midriff appears in the scene, since his costume was surprisingly successful.) Imperial Trooper Will, apart from having the perfect slightly confused military-stern expression of an Imperial Trooper, offered deep insights into Star Wars character motivations. Admiral Piett held Vader's train as IG-88 presided over her marriage to Boba Fett:


I spent most of the shoot standing on my coffee table, directing people and framing up shots in the viewscreen of Kat's little camera. (My camera doesn't shoot HD video.) I learned I'm better at building things to go in front of the camera than I am at standing behind it — I don't worry about foam core and duralar getting impatient with me. But I got all four of my shots, and even though nobody drank the bantha milk the peanut gallery seemed duly impressed:

Monday, October 8, 2012

When theory meets practice, practice wins

Shooting is when theory collides with practice. I can spend hours and weeks getting all the little details right with my models and my costume, but when I've got a limited time window, and a limited supply of Silly String, to get my three shots, all of my clever plans run up against the cold, hard wall of physics. For miniature photography, I had fixed lighting options, a limited depth of field, support rods that bobbled around more than I expected, and support structures that didn't quite get out of the shot the way I expected them to.

But, thanks to my technical support crew (Kendra and my friend Kat), I got my three shots.

The first was relatively simple: the Star Destroyer moves ominously toward the camera, chasing the Falcon. I opted to hold the two ships steady and move the camera, which required a makeshift dolly:

Three Matchbox trucks did the job, though they refused to go perfectly straight, and the Falcon never was in focus. But it's a one-second shot that may not even make the final cut.

Shot two was the background for the composite cockpit shot. It was my job to make the cockpit "shake" at the right moment, by pivoting it on a clothespin stuck into half a music stand. Kendra slid the asteroids closer to the cockpit, to give the illusion of flying through space, while Kat fired Silly String "lasers" across the bow. The asteroids bobbled all over the place, especially when the Silly String hit the support rods, and weren't in focus anyway. But I got the shot. (God only knows what it will look like when it's composited with the green screen.)

For the "pursuit" shot, in which the Star Destroyer chases the Mini-llennium Falcon for about five seconds, I had Kendra rotate the office chair the Star Destroyer was mounted to, to simulate linear motion with rotational motion, while I manipulated the Falcon at the end of a support rod. Kat lay on her back with a can of Silly String hidden by a fold of backdrop fabric and fired "laser blasts" at the Falcon. The three napkin asteroids held still in the foreground.

(That's Kat standing in for me for the production still.) We shot takes until the Silly String ran out, Kendra slowly and smoothly swivelling the chair while I puppeteered the eensy-weensy Falcon.

A couple of pre-production tasks remained before I could turn my mind to principal photography. I did some weathering on Boba Fett's chest armor, to make it match the helmet:

That's a bit of metallic silver paint pen, a bit of Sharpie. Then I finally sorted out IG-88's sensor lights, duct-taping the inside of his dome for opacity and rigging up a little duct tape loop to hold the bike light:

I spent Saturday evening setting up the Millennium Falcon cockpit set in my bedroom alcove and prepping my living room for the Star Destroyer shots. Then a horde of actors descended on my house on Sunday...about which there will be more anon.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Predator and spray

Spray painting on Wednesday was an adventure. Outside there was a steady drizzle, which ordinarily would have forced a delay. But I was out of time — filming is on Sunday, so it was Wednesday or nothing. The solution: a spray booth, made from a cardboard box:

My office was heady with the fumes of spray paint, and I had to scrub the floor with turpentine after, but it worked well enough...except that the too-clever trigger-shaped nozzle of the black spray paint was broken right out of the box. I jury-rigged another nozzle, but if I didn't depress it juuust right paint dribbled out over my fingers, or (not preferred) squirted out backwards towards my face. This is what the can looked like afterward:

I had to bathe in turpentine later, but it got the job done. Here're Boba Fett's rocket and the "invisible" support rods for the miniatures, against the starry backdrop:

And here are Boba Fett's helmet and armor, after a couple of coats of Rust-oleum's moss green:

To detail the helmet, I bought a pack of acrylic paints (black, white, and the primaries) at Blick, then remembered that I hadn't mixed acrylic paint in about twenty years. But my mom (the artist) gave me some tips, and late Thursday night I ripped up some sponges and set to work. To produce crisp edges with the notoriously squoogy technique of sponge painting, I used a paper stencil for the visor:

Two hours later, here's the final helmet (sans rangefinder):

Weathering, it turns out, is a lot of fun. Through all the painting, I left the Duralar's protective film on the T-shaped viewport, and when I peeled it off I was pleased to see it had worked beautifully to protect the transparency.

The emblem on the chest plate is a duplicate of the one from the film, meaningless at the time but subsequently retconned to be the crest of Jaster Mereel, a Mandalorian commander. Mine was daubed on with bamboo skewers.

I just finished weathering the chest plates, gluing the rangefinder, and working the kinks out of IG-88's head dome illumination, which means I am completely finished with props and costumes. Earlier tonight was miniature photography (more on which later). Tomorrow I'll set up the Falcon's cockpit and turn my living room into a sound stage. Sunday will be principal photography. Then (up to) four days for editing, S/FX, and delivery!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Fine Fettle

It's funny — as this thing progresses, I'm spending more time worrying about accuracy. IG-88 looks like a gray 2-liter bottle with eyes, but Boba Fett's helmet is scaled to the nearest millimeter. I'm gaining confidence in my skills, I suppose, and the internet offers up a heck of a lot more detail on Boba Fett's armor than IG-88, so it's easier to set my sights higher. But I hope I haven't lost sight of the amateur charm of the project.

...On second thought, I'm pretty sure there will be enough goofiness on-screen to carry me through. I'm using Silly String instead of lasers, after all. Being amateur enough is probably not my primary concern.

Anyway. For Boba Fett's helmet, I'm wrapping sheets of styrene around an old bicycle helmet. Here are some of those aforementioned templates being traced onto the styrene:

The trapezoidal wedge of graph paper is there as a spacer — the bike helmet tapers in the back in a way the real helmet doesn't, so the wrap-around panels need to be extended.

Here's the assembled helmet, pre-painting. That milky T is what's left of the translucent protective sheet that styrene comes covered by. I peeled most of it off, but left it in place over the visor, so it'll remain transparent when I paint the helmet. Clever!

Looks a bit like Jango, actually.

The rangefinder is foam core, and the circular "hinge" it rises from is the end cap of a poster tube (IG-88's left arm, actually). Duct tape covers up the holes in the helmet, and holds gray acetate in place against the visor so it won't be totally see-through. Note the screen-accurate dent in the forehead.

Internet templates also provided me with the chest armor, here portrayed by corrugated cardboard. (Fett only appears from the chest up, so I don't need to worry about the rest of it.) Once they're painted, I'll attach them to a light blue turtleneck I found for $2 at a thrift store.

Finally, his rocket will slide through loops in my hiking backpack and be seen poking up over his shoulder. I made mine out of a few cups, a mop handle, some leftover posterboard, and the panacea that comes on a roll, duct tape:

If weather permits, I'll put a couple of coats of spray paint on tomorrow afternoon, then detail the helmet with sponged-on acrylics when the spray paint is dry.

In the last few days, I've also: spent some time figuring out how iMovie's voice over features work, tested my microphone with said features, greebled my Star Destroyer model so it doesn't look quite so clean, and bought black starfield fabric for miniature photography.

Boba Fett was the last big build before principal photography on Sunday. Once he's all painted and pretty, I'll still need to futz with the lights in IG-88's dome and make a couple of asteroids out of napkins and glue, but I'm very nearly ready to take off my modelmaker / costumer hat and put on my director hat. Almost time to start figuring out lights and camera angles!