Visual Guide to The Han Solo DL-44 Blaster Prop Replica Saga

Behind the Scenes of Our Visit to the Intrepid Museum

Maker Profile: Catching Up with Volpin Props’ Harrison Krix

One of the more prominent names from the prop-building community is Harrison Krix, who builds prop replicas under the moniker Volpin Props. Along with prop makers like our pal Bill Doran (aka Punished Props), Harrison almost exclusively builds replicas of items from video games–futuristic assault rifles from Mass Effect, swords from Soul Calibur, and helmets from Skyrim are just a few projects he’s worked on in the past two and a half years. And of course, there’s that famous Portal Gun replica he made in 2009, way before those mass produced replicas from NECA were even announced.

Last September, we invited Harrison to our offices to show off some of his projects, and he amazed us with his chromed and wired Daft Punk helmet. We recently caught up with Harrison to see what he’s been up to in the year since we saw him last and what new toys and tools he’s built for his workshop.

For people who don’t know you, can you give a history lesson on how you got into videogame prop making and made it your full time job?

I guess the short version would be “Halloween.” My wife (then girlfriend) and I were really caught up in playing Zelda back in October 2007, and with Halloween a week away, we realized we didn’t have any costumes. We decided to go as Link and Midna, and split up the work; she did the sewing and I decided to make the props.

I took a few furniture design classes in college, and I’d been building random stuff my whole life. At that time I was actually pretty heavy into the rebuild of a 1975 BMW as well, and I figured if I could build a car, then making some stuff from a videogame would be a snap. I was completely wrong, of course, but I still managed to get it done! The props were just one big learning experience and I learned a whole lot about what not to do, but they got finished and we were a hit at our Halloween party, so all was good. A few friends there told us we should take our costumes to Dragon*Con in 2008, a giant sci-fi convention here in Atlanta.

So we went to Dragon*Con, and WOW the costumes and props there were mindblowing. I came home from that experience with a desire to build everything I saw in the games I was playing.Portal had just came out, and fresh off my massive learning experience with the Zelda props, I decided to try something incredibly complex and really test my completely inadequate abilities. The Portal Gun was my first “real” replica prop, and there were a ton of screw ups, but I was very proud of the result. I tossed a few shots on Flickr and a costuming website called Cosplay.com, and went to bed one night in January 2009 not really thinking much else about it.

The next morning, I had a couple hundred emails. A guy from Gizmodo wanted to talk to me about the project. Kotaku had posted pictures of it on their site. VALVe wanted one for their offices! I figured if people thought I knew what the hell I was doing, I’d better start learning! I set about making a new prop every month or so, and in June 2011 I quit my full time graphic design gig to make videogame props as my full time career. It’s been crazy.

Can you describe your approach to designing a new prop from start to finish? What are the crucial steps and how have they changed since you started?

I found out early on that references and good blueprints are key. I know that seems kind of silly to say but it didn’t really dawn on me until I had a few projects completed. When I made my first Zelda Halloween props, I just sort of winged the shapes. Everything was eyeballed for dimension and proportion and it showed in the finished results. Now, these were Halloween pieces made in a week and they did their job well enough, but they were seriously lacking in accuracy.

When I made the Portal Gun, I based my build off of a set of screenshots someone had posted on a forum of a pepakura file. That’s kind like a photocopy of a photograph of an oil painting when you’re trying to match the colors… ever seen Multiplicity? My blueprints for this project were the third generation Michael Keaton, and I was basing my replica off of those!

Starting with a couple of later projects, I began making my own blueprints in Adobe Illustrator. I don’t have any 3D modeling knowledge, so everything starts out as flat drawings from the side, front, top, etc. These take a while, especially if the prop in question is something that’s not very well known or popular in the gaming world, but the results when making a project are worth the effort. If you consider that every shape, angle, line and seam will need to be proportional and relative to all the ones surrounding it in order to make a convincing replica, the need for quality blueprints makes itself evident. It’s the foundation of the project, and the final result will only be as accurate as your references.

With blueprints finished, there’s a matter of what the prop will be used for and what the budget is. A display-only piece can afford to be a little bit more fragile and intricate than a piece for a film shoot or a prop needed for costuming. Same thing goes for weight–my Gravity Gun clocks in at 12lbs. That doesn’t sound like a lot until you try to hold the thing for anything more than 10 minutes or so, then it starts to get annoying. Does it need to be hollow in order to run a bunch of lights through it? Should this gun have a moving trigger or a magazine release? Does it need to make noise and play sound effects, and how easy will it be to change the batteries? Sort these things out first before you start building! It’s a lot easier to cut a hole in the middle of a prop in the planning stages before you start gluing things together.

From there, I take the project and break it down into smaller components. Some people can look at a big brick of foam or wood or plastic and figure out how to carve their model out of it, but I’ve never been much of a sculptor. For my build technique, I divide the piece into several smaller more manageable chunks. My preference is to work on my props in layers; I’ve heard some 3D modelers call this “slicing.” Whatever the term, I’ve found that it’s easier (for me anyway!) to work additively. A rifle will start off as a one inch thick “spine” of wood or plastic, which will have various other “slices” added to it in areas to build up thickness or dimension as needed. My N7 rifle is a good example of that – I don’t have the fidelity of a CNC mill with my hands and a dremel tool, so recessed lines are actually just two layers of raised panels sitting next to one another that have been blended into the overall shape.

I recently got a small laser cutter, which has made my “sliced” process of making props much easier. My dad also salvaged a roll-fed plotter from the trash bin of a local school (it took some repairs to get up and running again) which has allowed me to print my blueprints fullscale. These 2 things were huge helps in my build technique. I’ve also started molding more parts than I did back when I started making more accurate replicas a few yeas ago. The layering technique works great for the base form, but you end up with something that’s a mishmash of several different materials which tends to be heavy and fragile. A small part built from several pieces acrylic with only glue joints holding them together will be a lot more fragile than the same part cast in solid resin.

About 2 years ago I made a small vacuum former out of an old toaster oven and a shop vac. This was a revolution for my build techniques, and I found myself using the little machine on tons of small accessories for projects. If I needed a curved piece of plastic, I could find the proper diameter PVC pipe and pull a copy in styrene. Same for domed shapes; suddenly everything in my house with a curved surface became a vacuum forming buck. The little machine still works to this day, which is amazing considering the mishmash of scrap parts it was borne from. I stepped up and built a much larger machine earlier this year – a 24×24″ former with it’s own dedicated pump and air tank, and I’ve been able to use a wider variety of plastics in much thicker sheet size as a result. I’ve done a couple projects that are all vacuumformed parts as well, and the weight savings is phenomenal, especially for something like costume armor.

With new tools also comes new techniques and new build ideas. The ability to cut parts on my laser cutter has changed the process, and I do a lot of 2D prototyping on that machine now to mock things up in paper or cardboard before transferring the shapes into something like metal or plastic. I recently bought a small mill which has opened up the ability to work in aluminum, brass, and other softer metals. The planning and build process is always going to change with the new toys, but the beginning and planning stages remain the same – how do I get the most accurate results with the tools I have available? Before I had a laser cutter, I’d use double stick tape on sheets of plastic to cut out identical shapes simultaneously. You don’t need all the fancy tools, just a bit of ingenuity and planning. Everything I make is built in my head first, the workshop stuff is just going through the motions.

Most of your skills are self-taught. But what are the resources that you find yourself visiting when learning new techniques or working with new materials?

I know Adam tosses this out there all the time, but a fantastic forum that many builders visit is the Replica Prop Forum. I joined in 2010 and the forum has exploded since then. More and more builders join each day, and the amount of information there is really staggering. Mostly I stick to the “props” section, but there are also great resources for sculpting, modelmaking, and costuming as well.

Generic as it sounds, I spend a lot of time just Googling or trawling around on YouTube. You’d be amazed how many hundreds of builders out there have a little blogspot account you’ve never seen with the exact trick that will make your project work perfectly. This morning I was researching vacuum degassing chambers for silicone molds. Followed a few links, read some DIY articles, ended up finding a great blog entry about retrofitting a painting pressure chamber for vacuum.

I have recently gotten into a lot of moldmaking and casting, and the guys over at Smooth-On have a world of information compiled about that stuff. Tons of video tutorials, step-by-step processes with great photos and documentation. I haven’t ever taken any classes on moldmaking or casting – my entire knowledge base comes pretty much exclusively from the Smooth-On website!

The other one I’d toss out is Instructables. There’s a lot of information out there–some great, others a little lacking–that can get you pointed in the right direction. It’s all very DIY, much like the RPF, so two people might have wildly different techniques for arriving at the same conclusion (case in point, check out how many DIY CNC machine projects are on there!) but the ideas within the projects are where the true value lies. You might not have any interest whatsoever in making a replica of 9-foot-tall Space Marine armor, but what about how he did that thing with the paint in step 18 of his helmet sculpt? That is how you learn online. Take a little bit of knowledge from everything.

Last year, you showed us a few of your amazing projects, including your Daft Punk helmet and Mass Effect rifles. How has business been since we saw you last? Looks like you’ve been on a helmet kick lately!

Woof, busy! I kind of got into an organic-thing I guess. My first attempt was a Female Draugr helmet from the videogame Skyrim. Admittedly I had a bit to learn, most specifically with making the hammered texture on the piece look less predictable and random. The follow-up to that project, the “Helm of Yngol” also from Skyrim, was a lot more successful. The aesthetic of that game really grabbed me and I ended up making a full set of the armor along with a couple helmets, and an axe and shield. There’s still a lot more I want to make from that universe as well, some of the weapons are “glass” and have a sort of translucent blade which would be an absolute blast to figure out how to make convincingly.

Business has been great though. I switched over to making props full time in July of last year and have, so far, been able to keep myself out of bankruptcy! I’ve had some great corporate clients and built a few things for the release of Mass Effect 3, and also got to participate in a really cool charity project for the Make-a-Wish Foundation at Star Wars Celebration VI. You can tell I was still on the Skyrim kick when I did that helmet – horns and corroded metal and all – but I did manage to sneak some LEDs into the piece too.

The helmets and sculpted pieces were fun, but I’ve kind of met my personal quota with the organic stuff for a little while, so I’ve been switching back into the more geometric world of videogame projectile weapons. I just wrapped up a project for a short film called Nuka Break which takes place in the Fallout universe. There’s a drum-magazine automatic 12 gauge shotgun in the game Fallout 3 called the Terrible Shotgun, and I was able to break in the new milling machine on it just last month. The finishing touches went on it a couple days ago, and it’s headed out to Los Angeles for it’s big Hollywood debut in a few weeks.

How has your workspace evolved in the past year? What new tools or toys have you set up to help with your work?

Well, the newest member of the family is my mill. Its nothing spectacular, just a little bench top hobby piece, but it does let me work with materials I hadn’t been able to try before. A friend of mine also dropped off a huge box of urethane tooling foam a few weeks ago which I’ve been playing around with on the mill and lathe. That stuff is fantastic.

There’s smaller stuff too. Friends of mine chipped in for my birthday and bought me a new lathe to replace my horribly dangerous Craftsman. I did bet the living snot out of that old piece though, so while it might not have been the safest machine in the world, I definitely got my use out of it!

The biggest two additions have been my laser cutter and my large vacformer. The laser cutter is a “desktop” machine, but in reality I had to build a huge cabinet to house the air/water pumps and power supply. I’ve been finding tons of uses for it, and so have my other costuming friends too! I never used to work with acrylic before, but having this thing around means it’s become one of my most used materials lately. Might need to step up to a larger machine in the future as the 9×12″ work area can be a little restrictive, but when you’re building something like the Gravity Gun from Half Life 2, which is built almost entirely from laser cut acrylic, having a home machine beats the heck out of needing to go to a place like Ponoko or Shapeways (not that they don’t do excellent work, but you can’t beat the convenience of laser cutting parts in your bathrobe at 7am when you’ve got a quick deadline!)

The vacformer was a tool built out of necessity, really. One of the first projects I ever had commissioned was a mascot robot head for the website Destructoid. The original was made from masonite board and fiberglass, and was unbelievably heavy and uncomfortable. Version 2 needed to be lighter, but also stronger as well. I decided that vacuum forming the entire piece from .10″ styrene would be best, but my little machine was way too small and didn’t have nearly enough power to do the job.

A few Google searches later, I found a website called build-stuff.com where a gent was selling incredibly detailed (hundreds of pages!) instructions for building a vacuum forming machine. He calls it the “Protoform” and there have been dozens of them built – just check out YouTube for every proud builder’s “first pull” videos (I’ve got one too!)

It took a little over 2 weeks and I eventually had to have my garage re-wired for 220V power in order to run the monster, but the build instructions from build-stuff.com were amazingly detailed and furnished me with a fantastic machine. I modified the plans a fair bit to suit my needs–budget minded, mostly–but the core design remains largely unchanged. I’ve actually finished a full set of armor for a character called Flemeth in the game Dragon Age 2, built entirely from vacuumformed ABS sheets. Three years ago I had never heard of ABS, last year I would have told you I hated working with it because of how difficult it was to sand and glue together. Today, its one of my favorite materials. Funny how things change when you gain the right tools and a little knowledge!

What are some of the pieces that you’ve worked on in the past year that you’re especially proud of? Did you encounter any specific challenges that required creative thinking to overcome?

Around this time last year I decided I was going to make a Gravity Gun from Half Life 2 for the Child’s Play charity dinner in Seattle. I needed a whole lot of precision parts, because this thing is supposed to look like a really complicated piece of tech. Sort of cobbled together and a little rusty, but a precision instrument nonetheless.

I hadn’t ever messed around with laser cutting before, but figured this was a project that could teach me to understand the process a little better. Ultimately, I gained a lot of respect for people that 3D print, CNC mill, or laser cut their projects. There’s a sort of animosity sometimes with builders who think that making a CNC piece is as easy as hitting “print” on a model, and a lot of people scoff at automation as the loss of artistic integrity, but I don’t think I’ve ever spent as much time in blueprint planning as I did when i was laying out the laser files for that Gravity Gun.

I had a 3D file to work with, but all of the layered pieces and parts were drawn by me after looking at that model and inspecting how best to interpret the design and make it actually work in reality. Essentially I had to envision how these parts would stack on top of one another while I was drawing out the shapes in 2D. I had a notebook filled with little scribbles of parts layered on top of one another, drawn in side perspective so I could make sure I wasn’t missing some insert or outer ring or making one part 2mm when it needed to be 3. The final list of parts was something I was very proud to have figured out, even if it was just a scrawled list.

I looked at those blueprints a LOT. I made dozens of paper templates and hand cut them to double check my measurements before sending the off to Ponoko. Cutting 9mm acrylic isn’t cheap, and I didn’t have cash to burn if I got it all wrong! The final tally was something like 120 individual pieces cut from 5 different thicknesses of material, all with registration points and alignment keys to make sure the assembly went as smoothly as possible. It was a huge logistical nightmare, but it paid off in the end. The accuracy and precision I had in those parts just isn’t something I could accomplish building by hand.

Your Daft Punk helmets had some really impressive electronics work. Any plans to return to implementing lights and electronics in your props?

Definitely! I recently stumbled onto a Logan’s Run blaster by another member on the RPF who had quite an impressive electronics package embedded in his gun. There’s a company out in the UK that had an excellent little chip capable of controlling lights and sound for blasters, and I think I’m going to start tossing those into my weapons for a little more realism and interactivity.

Recently, the game Borderlands 2 landed, and that game is FILLED with crazy weapons. Assault rifles that shoot grenades, pistols that fire acid, you name it. There’s a few SMGs in the game that have a side-mounted horizontally oriented drum magazine that spins very fast when the gun is fired, but sort of slows down and coasts to a halt after you release the trigger. Of course, all the weapons are bristling with LEDs and glowing bits too. I think it would be an awesome challenge to get that magazine to spin correctly, but also make it so you can remove it like it does in the game. Lights, sound, motion… I think that’s everything, right? Unless we introduce lasers.

On the note of stuffing all the electronics possible into something, I’ll also be making the Holophoner from Futurama in 2013. I think that thing is going to have a couple hundred LEDs in it and I’d like to to get it to play Fry’s Opera as well if I can find some decent audio files for it…

One of the best things about your work is how well you photograph and document your builds, like on your Flickr page. What’s your approach and thinking behind that? How do you set up your props to be photographed?

I can only take credit for the progress photos, really. The philosophy there is twofold: Firstly, to share what I know and how I work with others. As noted above, I’m sort of a student of the internet. Other builders have come before me, documented their process and shared their insights, and I’ve been educated through their efforts. If I can help someone in the same way, I’ll feel like I’m passing that knowledge along. It was given to me freely and I’m just trying to distribute it and maybe add a little bit of my own perspective here and there if I can.

Secondly, shop shots remind me of what I did to a build 2, 8, 24 months ago. My memory is pretty crap, to be honest, so I take pictures. I have an iPhoto library of nothing but progress photography of props that has to be somewhere in the 20,000 photo range about now. Often times I might come up with a neat solution to a problem I had 2 years ago, but don’t recall it off hand. I don’t keep many of my replicas either, they’ve been sold to clients or donated as they’ve been completed, so the progress photos remind me of how the trigger mechanism inside that one gun worked, or how I mounted those circuit boards inside that one helmet. Without the progress shots, all that info would be lost somewhere in my brain. Probably next to everything from high school.

In a sad turn, my “shop camera” finally passed on a few weeks ago. I had a Fuji Finepix S5200 that shot easily 15,000 of those photos in my progress library, but a lifetime of shop dust and WD-40 overspray finally killed it. Poor guy.

As for the finished pics, most of my really impressive final photography is done by my friend Dan Almasy – its nice to have a fellow nerd friend who’s into gaming and also kicks wholesale ass with a camera.

Dan is generous enough to shoot and edit my work, and even for the props where I’ve done the final photography, I think solid and comprehensive photos of the finished product are essential. I know too many builders who get done with a great prop, then toss it onto a floral print couch and snap a flash photo with a point and shoot. Space guns don’t belong on a floral print couch! I’m not saying everyone needs to go hunt down my buddy Dan, or their closest friend who has the nicest camera, but take the time to shoot your work in front of a neutral or appropriate background. Grab a few drop lights, point them at some sheet styrene or scrap foam core for some reflected light, and grab some well lit photos in front of a drop cloth. You’ll be amazed at how much more impressive your work looks with good photography.

If you’ve put in the time and effort to make this truly awesome replica, you’re only selling your hard work short by not showcasing it properly.

I see you’re selling your digital design files online now. What was the decision behind that? What can someone expect to get with those docs?

Really, those are just little sales to offset the cost of web hosting and such. The files are all vector based PDFs of the blueprints I use in my projects. These can be scaled to whatever proportion you need them without losing resolution, and if you’ve got a copy of a vector editing program, they can be edited as you see fit.

One of the issues that comes from making video game replicas is the problem of resolution. Sometimes rounded shapes will have jagged edges, details will be pixelated or hard to make out in some areas, and there can be a lot of guesswork involved with figuring out small details. If you’re interested in one of the pieces I’ve made, then I’ve taken the guesswork out of the blueprinting phase for you! Sometimes I can spend 2 or 3 days gathering research images before even starting to illustrate a blueprint. There’s a lot of time that goes into accurate references!

For most files, they’re just the illustrations shown on my website. More intricate projects like the Daft Punk Thomas helmet also include the EPS files I used to laser cut the LED holder and frames for the electronics, as well as a PDF for sculpting the glove plates. Other blueprints, like some of the Mass Effect rifles, have a second file of vector shapes that are used as vinyl masks for the decals on the sides of the guns.

Do you see yourself selling kits in the future for original prop designs?

As much as I love building, I’m really a crap designer. If the right partnership comes along and there’s someone out there with a real knack for designing original stuff, I’d totally be down to give it a shot! For now, I find plenty of inspiration in the videogame world, and I’ve been really happy with the designs coming out these past few years. I think it’s just going to get cooler from here on out.

For more of Harrison’s work, check out the Volpin Props website. Look forward to more maker profiles and project spotlights–like this awesome Blade Runner blimp replica–in the coming weeks. And in case you missed it the first time around, here’s our interview with Harrison last year when he visited our office to show off some props:

Photos courtesy Harrison Krix

The Awesome Robot Battles of ComBots Cup 2012

We visit the ComBots Cup championships, where 220-pound robots clash and destroy each other in thundering deathmatches. Veteran BattleBots competitors share their strategies and show off exactly what makes an awesome combat robot. These fights are loud! And read our post-mortem with Combots drivers, where they share the secrets of their machines.

Maker Profile: Jason Eaton’s Blade Runner Blimp Replica

Here’s a prop replica build that even Adam envies. Jason Eaton is a custom kit builder who frequently contributes to the Replica Prop Forum, and reached out to us to share the story of his Blade Runner Offworld Blimp project. Jason, who has worked on licensed replicas from collectible model companies like Master Replicas (no longer in operation) and eFx, spent over three years researching a prop which was only on screen for a few moments in Blade Runner. His replica is 1/2 studio scale, meaning it’s about half the size of the model used for filming, and features dozens of LEDs, four servo-controlled spotlights, and two mounted LCD panels displaying the original video advertisements seen in the movie. Just watch this video of the completed build.

Below, Jason tells us a little bit about his model-making career, how he approaches kit design, and the behind-the-scenes story of his awesome Blade Runner Blimp.

How did you start your model-making career?

I’m 39 now, and I started like most kids in the late 70s and early 80s, cutting my teeth on Star Wars model kits. My parents helped me build that first Millennium Falcon (the one that came with the tiny grain of wheat bulbs) when I was very little, and were always very supportive of my creative pursuits. I started working at 13 at an art store, and stayed there for ten years, so by the time I got my first professional job, I had been able to play with and half-ass-master every art supply under the sun (except encaustic, which bugs me to this day. I need to learn that some time). In my mid-20s, I rediscovered my love of model building, and began thinking that it could be possible to scratch build, or even attempt to recreate the work ILM did. They were my heroes growing up–I wanted to “blow up TIE Fighters” as a job, but I was on the wrong coast, and about 10 years too young to get in on it. When the internet exploded in the late 90s, I suddenly realized I was not alone, and a group of like-minded people banded together and started ID-ing everything under the sun. Hand props were my “gateway drug”, and for me it started on the RPF in 1999.

How did you start designing your own models and garage kits? What were your first custom models?

One of Jason's Maschinen Krieger kits. One of Jason’s Maschinen Krieger kits.

It was all born from a desire to have designs that were not kits already, or poorly made kits that I knew could be better. I also realized that if I did stuff like that, I could use the profits (if any) to fund more ambitious projects that I didn’t have actual money for. My very first custom model was a kit bash boat I made from a Vulcan Shuttle and other bits, in 1990. A friend and I were making a movie, and there was a scene with a “space boat” exploding. So I loaded this thing up with fireworks, black powder, smoke bombs, and anything else I could get my hands on, and we set it in the water near Annapolis MD, where I lived. It was just an excuse to blow things up and it looked cool. I then kit bashed and scratch built a spaceship of my own design in 1992 for a friend’s movie that never took off, and around 1995 I started customizing Star Wars figures, out of a desire to have ones that Hasbro hadn’t made.

By 1999, with the internet and the RPF, I was buying ILM donor kits here and there, to make Studio Scale replicas. By 2003, I was making friends in Japan who worked in the SF3D/Maschinen Krieger licensed garage kit arena, and by 2006 my wife and I were traveling to Tokyo to sell licensed Ma.K. kits I had mastered!

What’s your process for turning a design into a tangible kit? What materials and tools do you use?

The first thing is gathering reference on the design, which can make or break an interpretation’s “accuracy”. When you make a Studio Scale model, you automatically enter into a locked room with an angry mob of cranky 40-somethings that only exist to point out what you got wrong, so you have to be ready to ignore them. I use every tool I can to get the job done, and every project seems wildly different. I call on my sculpting skills and love to use Apoxie Sculpt, I will use math and scale things to size, and a critical “Rosetta Stone” can always be found in the donor styrene model parts that can be referenced and measured.

How these parts relate to one another and the over-all shapes is a road-map in a build. This is where it gets really fun, and rewarding. I am also fortunate to now have a laser cutter in my studio, so I can draft files and the laser can cut, etch, and accidentally melt all sorts of armatures, sub-structures, and panel lines onto all sorts of materials. I also want to point out that I don’t work alone on a lot of these things, as I can call on many talented friends who can do things I either can’t do as well as they can, or at all. Mostly molding and casting in resin, as I am not set up to pressure cast, and more sophisticated electronic packages.

Let’s start from the beginning of this Blade Runner Blimp build. What were your ambitions and original plan? Did you have to scale anything back or get more ambitious in the process?

Like a bird that spies a piece of tinsel for it’s nest, I like lights in models. The blimp is like an unholy disco football that made love to a Christmas tree, so it was a “I have to do this” model. Ambition-wise, I realized I could use two of those LCD picture frames that also played MPEG videos on the blimp’s sides, and actually make it “work”! I started with the little reference that existed in 2006, and thought to myself “hey, I’ll figure out the graphics later… maybe recreate the ad with a Japanese friend or something”. I bought the screens and scaled this one very low-resolution photograph from a Christie’s auction where Warner had tried to sell the Blimp (it didn’t sell). The screens scaled the model to about 24″, which made mine a 1/2 Studio Scale replica, according to the text of the auction entry.

As word spread that I was going to try this, things started falling into place and everything got a little more ambitious. I was going to hand-sculpt the body from foam, but a friend knew a 3D guy that helped me with refining the shape, and I had a buck milled from foam, which was then vacuum formed. When I realized that the Blimp was comprised of a half shell mirrored top and bottom–with an additional half-cap placed on top–this made the most sense. Project creep, man… project creep. Things just get complicated!

Did you study or learn anything about the studio model used for the movie to help with your version?

Oh yeah! At some point relatively early on, I was introduced to a fella that had a goldmine of data on the blimp, and was given the photo reference of Bill George building the model, as well as the film’s Offworld Ad and Geisha b-roll footage! Once I had the actual ad, I knew I could make this model look amazing. The photo reference showed the three stages of the Blimp, which was famously tweaked by Ridley Scott.

The original Offworld Blimp had three screens, large turbine engines, was 1/35th scale (a Quad Gun Tractor cab with pilot formed the original gondola), and none of the photoetch antennas or smaller ad boxes. The second stage was the teardown, which was well represented, as the model was converted to a larger scale, with the saucer-shape gondola and photoetch forest around the equator. The final stage, as it appears on film, was not a part of this photo reference in any resolution I could use, so there was a good 60% of the small ad work that was not visible, but I had all of the structural data I needed.

The Offworld Blimp as it appeared in Blade Runner. The Offworld Blimp as it appeared in Blade Runner.

I also was given scans from the original art used to make the photoetch (you can tell they used graphic tape and technical pens to make the art!), and was told about the process Trumbull used to make the model come to life on screen, which were a lot of the same optical techniques used in CE3K, and did not exist practically on the prop. Lucky for me it’s 30 years later, and technology allowed me to make it all work reasonably well in-situ!

What is your lighting setup for the blimp? What about the LCD display?

The lights were my specifications, translated into the real world by a very talented man named Dan, who runs Lightbenders. He’s one of those guys I mentioned earlier that can really help model makers at all levels achieve pretty sophisticated things! I know enough about EL sheet and wire and LEDs to make models light up and blimp, but the blimp features four spotlights in the film, raking the ground. This was done with composited lit motorized prisms in the film, so I asked Dan if it were possible to have obnoxiously bright leds randomly swing around in a housing, searchlight-style. He brilliantly designed a dual axis rig that did just that, and it just made sense to have his board drive all of the lights, saving my brain from having to do math, inelegantly. So I had him make a cool setup that drove the four spotlights (with four separate housings he had made at Shapeways), all of the static LEDs, the blinking leds that sit inside the smaller “light box ads”, and he even drove the inverters for the EL wire that simulates the neon bezels around the video screens, as seen in the film.

The video screens were the LCD picture frames I had mentioned earlier, stripped down to the bare screen and board(s), with the four speakers (stereo sound for each screen) hiding inside the body of the blimp.

Did you encounter any interesting challenges that you had to overcome during the build?

Every. Damn. Day.

The challenge of getting everything to fit inside the blimp shell was a big one. Being told that the scanned photoetch art would need to be redrawn in vector art (and then interpreted as I was shrinking it by 50%, to avoid blow-outs with too-fine lines) was a rough one, and I spent a good six months on and off, endlessly tracing and interpreting the antennas. The most frustrating thing was seeing the pics that Doug Trumbull released online, via his website, after I had the vacform shells in-hand. There was a dead-profile shot that I had not seen that showed that my interpretation of the front curve was a little off. Nothing bad, but it’s those kinds of things that really frustrate.

However, as I mentioned, I was missing reference on a good 60% of the paper-based ads that were glued to the blimp body itself, and these new pics showed almost everything I needed, so in the end, I am only missing about 10% of the ad references, and those were just made up by me from era-appropriate corporate logos. That was a fun challenge to overcome, as it let me be creative. It’s not completely accurate, but no one knows what it should be!

What are your plans for the blimp now that you’re completed? Any plans for a kit?

Well, I built the one for a client, and have two more in-progress (client build, and my personal Blimp – I get to keep one!). While I’d love to make it a kit, the model is so complicated, I don’t have the time to generate the materials, or hold-hands. Most kit builders are used to turn key kits, and this Blimp is a nightmare of scratch building and expensive components. Plus, I spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars to get photoetch made, and I only have enough for mine, now!

What’s your next project?

I’m currently building a couple of Studio Scale Probe Droid models–a kit and a complete scratch build (using vacformed shells a friend made available to model builders), which both feature servos, lights, and sounds. I’m laying the ground work for the next Studio Scale Maschinen Krieger model (a master pattern that I hope to get licensed), and there’s a certain six-foot Studio Scale ship from A New Hope that I’ve started amassing donor kits for, so I hope to build that in the next few years. Baby steps!

I see you have an impressive prop room. Can you share some highlights and favorites?

Dang, thanks! I always have these awesome things come out of my studio, and then get whisked away to clients, so I feel like the prop room always suffers! If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be the 1/20 “studio scale” Lunadiver from Maschinen Krieger that I mastered, had cast, and sold at Wonderfest in Japan a couple of years ago. It’s a very organic and strange shape, and the 1/35th Hasegawa kit did not exist when I made the pattern, so I had to work from photographs I had taken of the original, from a previous trip. It was very gratifying to have the designer Kow Yokoyama tell me that I had achieved “the essence of Lunadiver” in my interpretation, so that model sends me over the moon.

Other personal highlights are the Cylon Raider I painted for the Revell box top (they were cool enough to send the paint master back to me after they used it for promotional reasons) so that fulfilled my desire to “see my name on the side of a model box”, some Buffy The Vampire Slayer props I made for Palisades Toys/Factory X, and the Studio Scale replicas Master Replicas made, as I worked on those projects, from the AT-AT to the Millennium Falcon. I did paint master and project spec work on these models, and during the process was paid to travel to the Archives at Skywalker Ranch a half-dozen times back in the mid-2000s, so you can imagine how much of a dream-come-true surreal situation that was!

At the time, Adam Savage had said something to me along the lines of “I built some of the stuff in there, and even I don’t get access!!” so those amazing memories are wrapped up in those models, and simply cannot be beat. Dream come true! I recently did the decal art for eFx’s TIE Fighter, so as soon as I get it, it will be my new favorite “child”. Any time you get to be a part of the official product process, no matter the genre, it’s a really amazing experience. Even the really bad ones are a good story! Also, anything that I have made that isn’t a part of someone else’s intellectual property is something I have a fond affection for. When you make something original, you operate on a different level, and it’s something a lot of people don’t do often enough and probably should.

Thanks so much to Jason for giving us a glimpse into his model-making world. Find more of Jason’s projects on his site, JasonEaton.com!

Episode 150 – Snuck In Under the Wire – 12/6/2012

On this week’s episode, Will gets some glue, Norm corrects an error, and Wes shares an imporrtant after-school lesson. All that, plus the latest on new iTunes, Kindle FreeTime Unlimited, the Wii U and Google Maps, and another episode of fake outtakes.

Still Untitled: The Adam Savage Project – On Cooking – 12/04/2012

When building awesome props and machines is your job, what’s your hobby? Well it turns out, cooking is what Adam indulges in during his spare time, and that just so happens to be the topic of this week’s episode of Still Untitled.