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    Engineering Alien's Original Xenomorph's Head

    H.R. Giger's recent passing has brought to light some new accounts of the film production for which he was best known, Ridley Scott's Alien. The Strange Shapes fan blog recounts the little known story about how the original headpiece for the eponymous creature was created for infamous reveal shot. Apparently, two effects teams were hired to design a mechanized head for the scene--one at Shepperton studios which had previously build the R2-D2 droids for Star Wars, and a second led by Italian effects master Carlo Rambaldi, who was then best known for designing E.T. for Spielberg. (This is the same Rambaldi who took the E.T. design job away from Rick Baker.)

    As the story goes, both teams failed to please Giger (who was famous for being difficult to collaborate with) and rushed to build their animating Xenomorph heads by the shoot date in Fall of 1978. Rambali's team won out with a complex skull made of fiberglass, metal tracks, and puppeteering cables, while the Shepperton team was given the task of mechanizing the creature's tail (which was eventually just puppeteered with external wires). There was a lot of politicking on-set between the teams, it's the kind of tension and drama that happens on every film production that behind-the-scenes fans love to hear.

    Scott wound up not using most of Rambaldi's mechanisms, opting for an extended close-up of the Xenomorph for its glamour shot. But the Alien franchise would continue to have a close relationship with practical effects artists--Stan Winston's studio created the animatronics for the sequel, and released its own effects test videos not too long ago (embedded below).

    How High-Quality Ink Is Made

    An oldie but a goodie: Peter Welfare, Chief Ink Maker at The Printing Ink Company in Canada, walks us though the delicate process by which vibrant printer ink is created from scratch--combining raw color pigments with chemical binders and a carrier. It really is an artisan craft.

    Animating Adam Savage's Workshop

    Adam invited animator Marty Cooper to the Cave to geek out about traditional hand-drawn cel animation and Marty's creative augmented reality cartoons. Using overhead projector transparency sheets and a stop-motion app, Marty lets loose one of his creations in the shop!

    Building a Custom Computer Desk, Part 3

    On this week's episode, Will continues working on the steel legs for his custom computer desk. He makes more refined cuts to the steel tubing that will make up the legs, and begins welding them together! It's an honest day's work of building and learning from practice. (This video was brought to you by Premium memberships on Tested. Learn more about how you can support us with memberships!)

    Stop-Motion Short 'Euphoria' and Making-Of Videos

    Talented sculptor and stop-motion animator Alexander Unger (who goes by the name Guldies) has released this surreal short film that he's been working on for the past few months. Guldies explains that this animation consists of about 2200 photos, edited in PhotoShop, stitched together in DragonFrame, and rendered in Sony Vegas. He also has a supplementary video that slows down each of the animation's frames to let you appreciate the craft, as well as a short video tutorial of how to sculpt a human face. Really lovely work.

    Bits: The Idea That Birthed the Digital Age

    "Information is the resolution of uncertainty." That was the premise behind mathematician Claude Shannon's 1948 thesis--which proved that boolean algebra could be used extrapolate information from a series of binary numbers. That meant if data was recorded as a series of ones and zeroes, it would be possible to transfer that data from one point to another with a much smaller risk of signal degradation than through analog systems. That idea of digitization changed the world, and this short video pays tribute to the little-known mathematician who thought it up.

    In Brief: Finding Innovation in Vinyl Record Technology

    We've previously written about Third Man Records and the process of creating vibrant vinyl records, but Jack White's record label is doing more than mixing colors into the vinyl press. This Smithsonian story explores different technologies and tricks being used by small labels and makers to mix up the venerable analog record. Some are experiments in materials, like the laser cut maple wood record by Amanda Ghassaei, but others, like adding hidden tracks in grooves beneath label at the center of the disc, are functional easter eggs.

    The Art of Hand-Making Scissors

    Ernest Wright & Sons of Sheffield, is apparently one of the last companies making scissors completely by hand. According to the company's site, each pair of scissors is hardened, tempered, hand-ground, and assembled by professional "putters." This short documents the process of crafting one pair of scissors by Putter Cliff Denton. And if you're curious about how scissors are mass produced by machines, this 2009 video shows that process for a pair of hairdressing scissors. (h/t Gizmodo).

    Oculus-Driven Narvaro Telepresence Robot Prototype Demo

    A team of Georgia Tech graduates have put together a demo of a telepresence system with head-tracking, named the Narvaro 3D. Not too much is known about the product except that it's made to work with the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. The current prototype is a wired system, with the Oculus' motion being translated to a stereoscopic camera system on a three-axis gimbal. The cameras can theoretically pipe stereoscopic 1080p video to the Oculus, and Narvaro's creators are experimenting with wireless control and using brushless motors. According to one of the developers in this Reddit thread, the current prototype has no detectable latency because of its wired setup. Narvaro 3D is still a long way from becoming an actual product (I expect that they'll launch a crowdfunding campaign first), and the Narvaro team has to address technical issues like making the cameras adjustable to match the user's interpupillary distance (IPD). Looking forward to seeing how this project comes along.

    In Brief: Sugru Builds a Multi-Chamber Water Cannon

    It's totally a marketing project, but the team at Sugru have machined a pretty sweet multi-chamber water pistol. Its use of the actual Sugru product is clever--this Instructables guide shows how the team utilized the putty to connect and seal PVC pipes for the pistons and insulate the electronic switches. Maybe a little superfluous when building an overly complex water gun, but a cool project nonetheless. I've used Sugru in the past for more practical applications, like repairing frayed laptop power cables (an alternative to electrical tape) and making recessed buttons on smartphones more prominent/proud. It's also very compatible with LEGO bricks.

    Animating AT-AT Walkers' Stop-Motion, in Time-Lapse

    From director Joe Johnston, who was the effects technician and concept artist on Star Wars: "Original Trilogy fans...here's the digitized super 8mm clip of Phil Tippett, Jon Berg and Doug Bestwick stop-motion animating a snow walker shot from The Empire Strikes Back. As I watch this for the first time in thirty-five years I am truly amazed at the amount of work that went into the creation of just one shot in this iconic sequence. I love stop motion with all it's archaic flaws and charm. This is a great example of what will hopefully not become a lost art form." Johnston's personal YouTube channel has plenty of lovely behind-the-scenes stories and time-lapses of his drawings.

    In Praise of the Mechanical Typewriter

    When was the last time you used a mechanical typewriter? With the current state of computing, there's no need at all to use one--even the computer keyboard is losing ground to touch and voice interfaces. Yet if you grew up with a typewriter, and learned to spell your name on one, you’ll be happy to learn that like vinyl, typewriters are indeed making a comeback. Even if not to be used regularly, then at least to be appreciated.

    All around the world, typewriter enthusiasts have been organizing events to celebrate the history and design of the machine. The American one has been dubbed the “Type-In,” and have been hosted in Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles. Louise Marler, an L.A. artist who organized the event, tells us, “It seems like the day the news was published that the last manufacturer of typewriters was closing it doors, it was a call to action among the niche typewriter community to come to the rescue."

    Berkeley Type-In event in 2013. Photo credit: Flickr user mpclemens via Creative commons

    Says Marler, “Typewriters have been out of the market and general use just long enough for the younger generation to be intrigued by the industrial age antiques. The kids took right to it. Once the younger ones were shown by their parent how it worked, it was natural for them. They could make sense of the action and reaction, press key and see it strike page and leave mark... They really liked it, stayed, played like with any other toy. And it was a blast to see the education and joy taking place.”

    The Type-In even had famous typewriters on display that were owned by John Lennon, Orson Welles, and Ted Kaczynsky, aka The Unabomber. “The LA Times published an article about Steve Soboroff's famous authors typewriter collection,” Marler explains. “I found him on twitter and sent him a short note. He responded instantly after reading my history at TypewriterStories.com and LAMarler.com. He invited me to the Malibu Library Reopening where he was offering typing on them as fundraising for them. Mr. Soboroff is just as nice and approachable as he is rich and powerful.”

    It’s also amusing to think that for some artists, hanging on to your typewriter is a luxury. Most screenwriters have to be part of the computer age to write and turn in a script, but Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen had a faithful typewriter repairman in New York, who only retired last year. Bino Gan, the owner and operator of Typewriters ‘N Things, repaired the typewriter Coppola wrote The Godfather on, an Olivetti, as well as Woody Allen’s faithful Olympia.

    As for why typewriters have had a recent resurgence, many will tell you it’s much easier to focus on a typewriter than it is on a computer. Reuben Flores, owner of US Business Machines tells us, “The generation of the last seven years wants to slow down so they can go forward. A typewriter only allows one thing, to be creative. A typewriter can help them be more creative and be more focused. I’m seeing more college students using typewriters because computer monitors irritate them give them headaches.”

    Animatronic Android Head for Prometheus

    Disney's Imagineers may have invented the animatronic robot half a century ago, but their approaches to cinematic puppetry are now more based on CG animation and light projection than rigged mechanics. So we're fortunate that creature FX artist Gustav Hoegen carries on the animatronics tradition, designing and building amazingly life-like puppets for films such as The World's End, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Prometheus. This video from 2012 shows the test of a detached Android head--Michael Fassbender's David--and its full range of expressions and movements. It's both mesmerizing and creepy. Hoegen's showreel has more examples of his work, and here's an interview with Blender Cookie in which Hoegen details his process.

    The Craft of Foley Artist Gary Hecker

    And oldie but a goodie. "From "The Empire Strikes Back" to "Robin Hood", award-winning Foley artist Gary Hecker of Todd-AO says it takes "timing and a huge creative mind" to be the man behind the sound. Here, he shares tips and tricks he's learned during a career that has spanned more than 200 films." The side-by-side comparisons of the film action and Hecker recording the foley are the best. My favorite: the sound of a sword being unsheathed is that of a metal spatula being dramatically brushed along the edge of an old blade.

    Logan's Run: The Sci-Fi Blockbuster That Wasn't

    In the future, you can live a life of complete pleasure, but you have to die when you turn twenty-one. Not everybody’s going to go along with the program of course, and two people decide to flee for their lives. That’s the premise of the novel Logan's Run, which differs a bit from what eventually became the cult classic film. And among your Hunger Games and Divergents and Maze Runners, it's the kind of story that could make a great blockbuster for today’s audiences. In fact, Hollywood’s been trying to remake Logan’s Run for the last eighteen years, most recently with a script being penned by game designer Ken Levine. Whether or not this version gets off the ground and makes it to the theater is anyone's guess, but this is is one sci-fi story that actually deserves a second chance on screen.

    When you go back and watch the 1976 version of Logan’s Run, it really feels like a missed opportunity. The film came out the year before Star Wars, before science fiction films proved they could reach a mainstream audience. Logan’s Run definitely had big ambitions, and you get the feeling that there's a great movie hiding in between the frames of the finished reel. We chatted with the writers of the novel the film was adapted from, as well as the son of the film's director, to hear what the original vision was for the story.

    George Clayton Johnson and William F. Nolan wrote the first draft of Logan’s Run--the novel--back in 1965. “I came up with the idea of reversing the old cliché of ‘life begins at forty,’” Nolan says. “In my original concept, life ended at forty, which I scaled down to twenty-one in the novel. It was much more frightening to have young people just out of their teens being executed by the state.” This was, of course, a very dark idea, and there’s a strong message at the core of Logan’s Run that society could learn from, but Nolan says, “As a writer, I feel that you must never preach to your readers. The message must always be subliminal. In Logan’s Run, the message is that you can’t run a civilization with middle-aged and older people eliminated. The society collapses on itself."