Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Wraith Stone

I had an idea to replace the Lara Necklace I was wearing for a while (until I loaned it to my sister). And that is the Wraith Stone worn by Amanda Evert in TRL and TRU.

Well, maybe.

I did some general research. It hasn't shown up on the Replica Props forum, but there have been a few Amanda cosplayers here and there (including an excellent Young Amanda cosplay I spotted at DeviantArt. She must have hand-embroidered the shirt -- it looks perfect.) There haven't been, to my eye, any decent recreations of the Wraith Stone.

It has been illustrated by several fans (there's a surprising amount of Amanda fanfic out there. I didn't realize so many people would find themselves leaping to her defense and trying to show she wasn't really the whiny, self-centered, back-stabbing brat depicted in the games). But these depictions have such a range, it is hard to look at them as building upon what was revealed in the games.

So to the source. I viewed every minute of cutscene from both "Legend" and "Underworld." (There's no use viewing gameplay; you don't play Amanda directly, and as Lara you rarely get close enough to her to see the Wraith Stone properly). And as is far too typical for Tomb Raider, the prop is inconsistent.

As far as I can tell, there are at least two in-game models in "Legend." Possibly three, and you might or might not count the one she wears, as that is probably part of the character mesh. And they don't look particularly similar. However; they look more like each other than either looks like the in-game model visible in "Underworld."

In Amanda's character model and in all but the close-up model, the Wraith Stone is just a teardrop-shaped black rock with an elongated white skull pattern on it that looks bas-relief. In the close-up model, it is a purplish stone with a slightly more complex carving. (In the "Underworld" in-game model, it appears to be a clear turnip-shaped stone with a skull appliqué on one face.)

What attracted me to this prop is, in fact, only realized in one place; in the opening movie of "Legend" there is what appears to be the Wraith Stone -- rendered in the same style as the Excalibur prop central to that particular game, as if it might be an artifact of the same culture.

The Excalibur Fragment depiction is of a dark grey-and-black material with strong isotropy; it catches the light in complex ways as it moves, like certain polished minerals. It is speckled, as well, with well-defined blobs of green. Now, this may be an artifact of the limitations of the in-game render engine and intended to depict greenish glow issuing along veins/flaws in the stone. Or it may be intended literally, as actual gemstone-like green nodules.

In any case, despite the almost completely unique nature of this single reference, I am prepared to argue the limitations of in-game models and, more importantly, that this is a heck of a lot more interesting to look upon (and to sculpt), and, thus, this is the version I am going to take a shot at.

Of course me being me, one of the things that excites me (and this may not be the prop for it) is the challenge of doing those greenish glows not just with LEDs, not just with individual surface-mount LEDs, but with a self-contained driver circuit that will flicker them in an interesting and deliberate way. Of course that may mean interpreting the depiction more as flecks of light along full-length crystalline inclusions in the base matrix, but...hey, that's interesting enough to look at and way challenging to model and cast that I think it is a worthwhile direction to go.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Wrong Soapbox

I've gone and written myself into a corner again on my TR/SG1 fanfic.

Well, sort of. The plot will proceed just fine. But I may have made it impossible to indulge in the polemics I had planned.

I've got Lara somewhere between the midwestern states and northern California; somewhere where I can preferably look at relics of the Mississippian culture. And I was going to go off a little on hyperdiffusionism; I originally created "Colonel" Newberry to not just be arguing that Vikings or Egyptians or one of the lost tribes of Israel were responsible for the creation of the spectacular burial mounds, but to wander even further afield into Giants, Nephilim, bits of biblical literalism and even some Young-Earth Creationism.

Two problems, though. One is that the Colonel's character is rapidly evolving on me; he is turning into someone more intelligent and competent and perhaps a nicer person as well. The other is that at this juncture Lara is undercover (or, rather, she thinks she is) and not in position to make the scientific and rationalist arguments. Worse, though, is this; when you think about it, her whole career has been based on the reality of some kind of hyperdiffusionism. In her world, there were gods/aliens who gave gifts of advanced technologies to primitive cultures. She's held the real relic -- an alien weapon -- that gave rise to the legend of Excalibur. She's met at least one of the rulers of Atlantis (and shot her in the face...but Natla got better).

On the other side of the pond, I'm sending Daniel Jackson to Croft Manor so Alister can let him know Atlantis was real and start him on the right track to bring all my mice up to the right spot for the climax. Thing is, Daniel is hardly one to harp on the obvious problems with the Atlantis myths. He spent his career arguing that the Egyptian gods were aliens from space, and has very, very good proof that he was right. Those very "gods" shot him in the face (Daniel also got better). And later in the official SG1 canon he not only searches for Atlantis on his own impetus, he finds it.

About the biggest wriggle room I've got here is that Alister could chose to put one on, and bring up the counter-arguments. Also, of course, the one he knows is not the one Daniel later finds (or so they think...I'm not sure anyone but Lara is actually going to realize over the course of this particular story just what the Ancients/Lanteans have been up to).

Well, losing polemics is probably good. Although without the chance to talk about the Mad Hatter logic that led from a Mayan codex to the continent of Mu, or the social trends that disinherit people from the accomplishments of their own culture, I may have to work harder to fill my 8,000 words.

Well, I did just do a little reading on climate cycles, and I am very, very tempted to do another long aside -- similar to the Ariadne vignette -- of Seh and her family, early agriculturalists in that moment where even their god can't project them from a shift (some 8,000 years ago) in the flood patterns of the Nile....

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Lighting the Stage

One really wants to have a few things. Enough time to do a proper design, hang the show, and rehearse the technical elements before you have to go in front of an audience. Enough lights and dimmers and consumables to accomplish something useful and pretty. A script is nice, too.

And then there's shows where you are already working three jobs, the script is still being written, and the rented hall is between management teams: coming off a long string of other productions, and everything is mis-labeled if not broken outright. The design I just completed was one of those.

Lighting for the stage has two tasks, two tasks which somewhat blend into each other. The first is functional; to put light on actor's faces. Live theater is all about being in the same room with a live human being who needs to express themselves through voice and features, and you need to see those features. (Or, in the case of dance, see their body, as that is the expressive organ there.)

This sounds simpler than it is. Unlike a portrait photography studio, a stage is large. You have to put those lumens across the width and into the depth of it, and evenly; so an actor in the back left is equally as visible as one in the front center. The angle needs to be low and straight enough so shadows are not cast across the face. The colors need to be neutral enough so they look reasonably human and in the appropriate health (yellow and green, as well as some of the lavender range, will make people look jaundiced, as well as bring out any blotchiness in their complexion).

And yet, there needs to be enough angle and color and complexity to reveal the planes of the face. A simple flat front in white light is like a bad flash photograph; all you get is a white oval, with no definition. No character.

Thus the complex variety of schemes -- and the large number of discrete lighting instruments with all the associated wiring, dimmer requirements, ladder access and time spent, documentation, and so forth to accomplish just this basic task. As a generic rule, unless you have huge surpluses available the majority of your lighting assets are going to go towards simply "putting light on faces." Even when you have the options for multiple systems, a majority of the lights will still have that as one of their tasks -- if not their primary task.

The second task is artistic. And that is to make use of the light as one of the tools to enhance mood, to indicate location and season and time of day, to underline enhance or provide certain specific items or events called for in the story, and more than anything else, to make distinctions. To make clear when a play is going on and when it has yet to start. To make clear when the action has moved from one location to another, or into a different emotional space, or gone through some other important change (such as an inner monologue or an audience aside). That is, light is also used to focus the audience's attention and make distinctions spatially and temporally.

This idea of differentiation is why one of the two major approaches I apply is to find these divisions, these changes, these axes of something that changes. They may be simple poles, or they may be a continuum; in the latter, think of Under Milkwood in which the period of the play covers a single day, with the changing of the hours, the sunset and moon and dawn, being of equal importance to the physical location within the town.

In, say, "Two Gents" (that is, Two Gentlemen of Verona) the major axis is town versus woods, as the action flips back and forth scene to scene from one to the other. Which leads us naturally to "Midsummer," in which the woods is a magical place and quite distinct from the town, but the thrust of the play is absolutely dependent on the difference between the woods during the day and the woods at night.

And you can often achieve these axes within your area plan; that is, within the same lights that give you that necessary and functional light-on-faces. A typical scheme is to cover the areas with three lights each. Say, one warm and one cool, matched against a neutral. By changing the relative levels or omitting one of the three, you change the look.

And if this is super-imposed on an area plot -- that is, on those banks of lights necessary to cover the width and depth of the stage -- you also have given yourself the ability to focus in on one specific part of the stage. That is, it allows you to isolate and separate to make it clear that the action stage left is taking place in a different country or time than the action simultaneously occupying stage right, or so it is clear the monolog's the thing, and the people moving around upstage are merely shifting scenery and should be ignored. And, of course, to focus the audience's attention more sharply on that corner of the stage where the most important action is taking place.

This degree of control pretty much happens whether you need it or not. And that is because it is extremely rare to be able to plug everything in to the same place. Theater instruments are power hogs; the standards are 750 and 1000 watts, plus the increasing number of energy-saving 575W lamps. The math rapidly becomes instinctive; two of the big ones, or four of the small ones, to any particular circuit. Anything more means wires on fire, breakers popping, expensive repairs to dimmer packs.

And why is this? Scale, again. Think of it this way; if you have a two-bedroom apartment, you could probably get away with plugging every wall lamp, chandelier, desk light and so forth into a single wall outlet. But these lights rarely top 250 watts; the faces they are trying to light are not much more than five feet away, and the total space is lucky to be twenty feet on a side.

Even a black box theater space is twice that dimension, meaning four times the area, meaning at a first approximation it would take four wall outlets to power those lights (regardless of what the lights actually were). Of course, theatrical lights are directional, not omnidirectional like most household lighting -- but theatrical lights also (for various reasons) need to push more lumens than the lights in your living room.

(As another comparison, insolation at the Equator is about a thousand watts per square meter. Out here in northern latitudes and with cloudy days the average is less, but basically think of a 500 watt light bulb pointing at every single square meter of ground when you are outside during the day. Theatrical lighting -- even movie lighting -- is a good magnitude less than that. And that's why theater lighting designers hate matinees.)

And, yes, you can light a scene with a single candle. I've done it. But it took half an hour of progressively dimmer cues to dark-adapt the audience to that moment. But back to circuiting. At the theater I just opened a show at, the built-in wiring over the stage -- and the rack-mount dimmers, dating from the 70's -- could handle up to four instruments on a channel.

Out in the house, all I had available were "Elation" portable dimmer packs. Very useful for small and traveling shows, these are four 5A dimmers in a little box that can be hung on a lighting batten or tucked behind scenery. And at 20A total, they can be (and often are) plugged into a standard wall outlet. At 5A a channel, though, that's one instrument. Period. And even if you could power more, the wiring is extension cords and cube taps, none of which are rated for more than 15-20 amps. And, yes, there's a very narrow window by which the Fire Department allows theaters to pull crap like this.

The point being, that I have individual control of each and every light just as a side effect of having to get power to them. So you leverage this by carefully planning the focus points in what most of us call an Area Plot. That is, you plan so when you turn off three and leave two up, those two define a part of the stage that, at some point in the action, you will find it useful to define.

When you have the inventory you cover the stage multiple times; each cover is with different angles, in different colors, and otherwise in different qualities of light. This allows you to make those changes that make it clear to the audience the story-telling point, "Here we are in the Forest of Arden" as well as the emotional point, "It's spooky here in the woods."

Covering from a multiplicity also brings the light around the face and body to clear up obscuring shadows, and provides a controlled contrast to reveal contours. This is why one of the most common area light schemes remains to this day the one developed by Stanley McCandless in 1932; two lights separated by a 45 degree angle, one of them gel'd "cool" and the other "warm," so that they mix together to white light. Many variations are possible.

And this brings me at last to my most recent design. A tale within a framing story within a prologue. The prologue is modern-day and was written to be performed in one, that is, in front of the main rag, that is, with the curtain closed. We couldn't get the curtain to work so this removed one of the options that would have otherwise made that distinction clear.

The other distinctions I wanted to make clear were the difference between framing story scenes -- taking place amongst the travelers on pilgrimage to Canterbury, aka the Canterbury Tales -- and within the tale being told; that of Arthurian legend. And within that legend, I wanted to be able to delineate between interior (Camelot) and exterior (the generic woods where knights-errant find adventure). And lastly, I wanted to be able to find a moonlight look both in support of specific dialog and also as an emotional underscore to Sir Gawain's journey (and, says the playwright, as a foreshadowing of the fall of Camelot -- which does not take place within this particular story).

And I didn't have the assets. An additional wrinkle (no pun intended) is that the minimal set design included a cyclorama. That is, a large seamless cloth that covers the entire back of the stage. The typical way to light a cyc is with specialized fixtures called variously strips, striplights, and cyc strips. These achieve the usually-desired even coverage of this flat plane by using a large number of individual lamps arranged in a line. Usually (but not always) grouped electrically by threes or fours, allowing you to put different colors in each set and thus produce various blended colors on the surface.

I had some old ones but the wiring was shot and would need to be re-done. Rental, upon investigation, was beyond our finances. That left an old trick; re-purpose a bunch of par cans. The original par light was basically an automobile headlight in a tin can. Newer ones are built around purpose-designed lamps, and the most recent designs omit the integrated lamp-reflector-diffusor assembly (aka a headlight) for standard theatrical lamps and interchangeable front lenses.

The very latest wrinkle is LEDs. The great attraction of these is real-time color changes within a single fixture, as they are built with red-blue-green, or that plus amber, or even plus amber and white. A second and not small advantage is they don't take up a dimmer, and also don't require much power; a whole bank of seven of these things could easily and safely be powered from a single extension cord. And since they take DMX-512 control, a single daisy-chained data cable is enough to control them all.

This left me with only fresnel lens fixtures in sufficient number to light the acting areas. That is; these are theatrical lights with a hemispherical reflector and a fresnel lens on the front, giving a soft-edged light that can only be gently shaped by means of barn doors; metal flaps that are attached to the front. I lit my areas flat and with a high angle, and gel'd them in x09; that is, I colored them by placing pieces of transparent polyester manufactured with carefully controlled tinting by high-temperature dyes. The Roscolux series number 9 is a warm, pleasing amber reminiscent of candle-light.

My intent was that this read as candles for the framing story, and as warm and somewhat old-fashioned (like the famous sepia tints of the Kansas segments of The Wizard of Oz) for the tale-within-the-tale. This was combined with a daylight blue -- x65 -- from the top back, standing in for the blue-ish light of a clear sky, and I had just enough instruments left to double this system with an additional set of back lights in x79; a deep green-blue for a moonlight effect.

I had a very small number of ellipsoidals. Also referred to by lighting people as ERS for Ellipsoidal Reflector Spotlights, these are in fact instruments with a stack of plano-convex lenses much like a camera or telescope, with the light focused into a theoretical point by an ellipsoidal reflector placed behind the lamp. This quality of being brought into a tiny focal point means you can produce a hard edge, shaping it with shutters that slide into this small gap. In addition, a piece of metal punched out with patterns can be slipped into this spot, and that pattern will be reproduced faithfully at the point where the beam is in focus.

One of these instruments I hung almost directly overhead to isolate (and, emotionally, to "crush down") Gawain at a particularly bad moment for him. And, more importantly, to allow the rest of the stage to go dark enough to permit a "dead" body to be dragged off without the audience seeing.

Another I gave a stock foliage pattern and threw that over the stage in an attempt to make the outdoors scenes seem more outdoors. This only partially worked; you need a lot more light, a lot more instruments to carry that trick off properly. It did however provide a nice bit of magic for one scene where I was able to reduce the rest of the front lights and let the foliage show up properly.

The last two provided a method to keep the framing story -- and the oft-present narrators from that story -- in the light without putting them in the world of Camelot. Gel'd in a distinctly different amber, they were additionally framed in gothic window shapes. Which were not available when I stopped by the lighting supply story, so I purchased a roll of blackwrap -- the manufacturer calls it Cinefoil -- and cut out the shapes I needed with an Xacto knife.

All in all, there is a lot less flexibility in the plot than I would like. I didn't have the sheer power to allow me to change intensities or bump at the end of songs. I didn't have the color choices to make different looks through the longer musical numbers (about all I could do was dial up different colors on the cyc). But I did manage to achieve good coverage and modeling that felt "right" for the environments I was describing, that gave some sense of evolving and changing through the changes of the story, and that provided some contrasts. And there was just enough left for a few "special" moments here and there.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

More Mini-Shows

Doing a school tour right now. We go around to different Bay Area K-12's; arrive at eight in the morning, unpack the van, do a one-hour performance at nine, pack it back in the van and out of there by 11 or so.

My sound set-up is minimal, considering I have wireless, floor mics, pre-recorded backing tracks, sound effects, special effects processing, foldback speakers, and we bring our own mains.

Yamaha MSR100's (self-powered 8" cabs pushing 100W ea) on 6' speaker stands for front of house. Jolly5a's (self-powered 5" wedges pushing 80W in a bi-amp configuration) as foldbacks from the edges of the apron facing back towards the actors. A pair of CAD CM217's (mini cardiod condensers) on the lip of the apron.

All that runs back towards a rolling rack via a 100' stage snake. At the rack I have a Behringer mixer (sigh) of which I'm leveraging the onboard effects for a cavern scene. And the rack-mount receivers for eight channels of wireless microphone (Sennheiser G3's, of course). Since I'm pushing channels on the poor Behringer I have an outboard pre-amp with phantom power for the two stage mics.

Backing tracks and effects are on laptop, coming in via a Behringer USB adaptor, and QLab is being triggered/controlled in performance by a Korg nano-key using the optional MIDI license from Figure 53.

The set-up will cover a house of 100+ children and 100' of depth but I'm very close to unity gain everywhere; the mic inputs are just barely seated in the on-board compressor, the output faders are a hair below unity, and the Yamaha inputs are turned all the way up (but Yahama inputs tend to run cold).

The lighting rig is also minimalist. Manual 16 channel board, two Elation 4x5A dimmer packs, each one feeding a fresnel with barn door set to flood most of the acting area, and a Source-4 with drop-in iris on a swivel mount, which is used as a follow-spot. Since the packs pull a maximum of 20 amps they can be plugged into ordinary wall outlets. In fact, with only four instruments (all lamped at 575W) and since I never have to open up my speakers, we can (and have) run the entire show on a single wall outlet, stringing daisy-chains of extension cords all over the cafetorium.

(A lot of schools have these; they are a large-ish rectangular hall with linoleum floor adjoining the school kitchen, outfitted with folding tables for the school lunch hour. One end has a raised area that is, oddly enough, often outfitted quite well for a small stage, with main rag, wing space, speakers and lights, even a fly system (although none of them actually have the height to fly scenery properly).

Friday, March 25, 2016

Amazon is like Chinese Food

As soon as your order arrives and you unpack it, you go, "Is this all? I was expecting a lot more stuff." And before you know it you are putting together another order.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Schedule Conflict

I suspect it is surprising to outsiders that theater people end up with things scheduled right on top of each other, resulting in having to juggle substitutes, re-work rehearsals, and of course do lots of terrible crunches -- ten hour days in tech on one show and going home to work on drawings for another that has to go to the shop by Friday.

There's two reasons it happens more often than you would hope.

First is that seasons overlap. The summer stock season starts building before the regular season is over, and is still in performance when the first shows of the next regular season are already in rehearsal. Theaters also overlap; if there are two theaters sharing an audience they often try to stagger their shows so one opens on one weekend, the other opens two weekends later. And individual theaters also overlap, even those that only have one stage to work on; since rehearsals and build go back five or six weeks, and run is five or six weeks, you will be in the middle of prepping one show long before the previous one closes.

The second is that schedules change. Opening night is a given -- perhaps the only given. But performances change; shows get extended, the "optional" Thursdays get added or cut, extra shows are crammed in. And sometimes a big group calls and a special performance is set up for them on a Wednesday or something...something that didn't come close to appearing in the original schedule.

And practically all of the key days fluctuate. When you are talking a musical, and you are in Sound, then there's first orchestra rehearsal, sitzprobe, first dress, the first full dress with orchestra...and all of these dates remain in the great unknown until access to the venue, progress in rehearsal, musician's schedules, the availability of the leads, etc., etc., etc., gets hammered out.

Which means, in short, you sign a contract saying, "I will be there on that day" many months before anyone knows what day that may be. Do that for two different productions...and you've got a problem.

Sunday I worked two performances plus load-in and load-out and a long drive in the rain back from the venue de jour. Then across town to watch as much rehearsal (on another show) as I could keep my eyes open for.

Today called in at my regular work and spent twelve hours hanging lights then watching rehearsal, without, of course, a meal break. At seven tomorrow morning I head out to another load-in and performance of Sunday's show, then probably back across town to try to get in as many hours of hanging lights as I can before rehearsal starts.

Then I really need to show up at my full-time job before that description becomes a misnomer. So a full day Wednesday, then run out to pull another 4-6 hours of hanging lights and with luck will be ready to write cues...until 11 PM at night. And back up at 7 AM to once again follow the truck out to load in and perform that other show. (Then back to my day job for as many hours as I can cram into the afternoon before racing out to do the final tweaks before preview night).

Oh, and I'm still trying to shake a cold. I'm spending eight hours in bed, but I'm sleeping as little as four. Things are getting better -- at least I got the car fixed, and the fire alarm hasn't gone off again, but....!

(I type this as I'm trying to wolf down some basmati and something out of a packet before I fall into bed).

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Holo promises

I just got a message through the RPF, reminding me there are still people interested in the idea of a cheap-and-simple Holocron kit.

The first one I built, I extensively modified a kit I'd purchased. I documented the build on my Instructables page. I got enough expressions of interest to start an INT thread over a the RPF.

Besides the ideas I'd already tested, like using the laser engraver to frost the inner walls with a pattern, I knew I could improve on the assemble-ability of the kit. It took quite a few weeks of tinkering but I at last had a set of shell parts that would snap together and make for quite a bit less time spent in trying to line up everything so it could be glued together, and patch it up once the glue was set.

Another element was boiling down the somewhat baroque electronics package of the first attempt into a simpler board suitable for a more typical end-user; based of course on my LED driver board in progress:

But then problems surfaced. I spent way too much time working with one prospective client on a design with proprietary elements. He never did quite get to the point of actually paying anything for this work, and as this dragged on I lost all trust in him as well as desire to continue the relationship. He got a complete holocron kit out of me for free (minus the majority of the electronics, though):

All this time meant a lot of the design elements had evolved along a path towards adaptations that simply didn't exist anymore. I wasted more time trying to pick up from that point, but at last have accepted I need to throw away the most developed designs, go back multiple generations, and work from design elements that are more suitable.

I would say "canonical," but there is sadly little canon yet on holocrons. The best-documented holocron comes from one of the 3d animations, and is the so-called "stolen" holocron:

This design however is difficult to realize in the materials I've chosen to work with. The frosting pattern simply doesn't work, the groove interferes with the mechanical structure, and worse yet, one of the keys of the thing in the canonical (well, Extended Universe!) depiction is that the corners rotate.

At least it is easier to realize in laser-cut acrylic then this over-sized prop made entirely for an advertising photograph:

So this leaves me without really clear directions to go in order to find a design that really speaks Star Wars. That looks like it could be canon.

This was as far as I got before I decided that the "shapes surrounding a central engraved image" approach was the wrong one. And believe me, there were a lot more shapes that never got past the Illustrator file stage (but there were still more than this example that got as far as the laser).

I am stalled here by the inescapable understanding that even limiting myself to this particular technology (aka laser-cut acrylic) I should be able to make a very deep and interesting shape (aka using multiple layers, diffuse elements, etc.)

But also by the realization that problem-solving how this can be assembled without glue stains and fiddling around and so forth is an ongoing challenge and whatever I dream up is going to have to go through more rounds of materials and time-expensive test cuts.

Probably all this would sort out if I could come up with a vision that I really liked. Some kind of a look for the thing that uses the strengths of the materials I have available but that is exciting (or, at least, as exciting as the original proved to be).

And then hopefully that would give me enough impetus to struggle through solving how to make an electronics package that is cheap and flexible and is easy enough for the end-user to work with.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Teal Deer

So in the middle of working a morning show and doing overtime at my regular job to try to make up those missed hours, and with a lighting design racing closer and car breaks down. And it has been raining hard all week.

Yesterday walked to work and back in the rain, worked ten hours in soggy shoes, came back cold and exhausted. Weird. Usually I just grab something from the deli across the street, but I was so tired I actually decided to cook something. And before I could start a curry, I found myself cleaning the kitchen.

I still haven't gotten the benefits package at work, but they are promising a raise with it now. When it happens. I still miss building scenery. Also weird. I'm helping to make a physical product -- heck, I've assembled some of the final product myself -- but it doesn't feel "real" in the way that the (obviously ersatz) theatrical scenery or props do. Maybe it's the theatrical audience that makes it seem more real.

But with all that said, I'd be just as happy not working any shows for a while. I'm finally starting to adapt to work, and yes it is a little boring but not so much as to drive me stir-crazy. And I'd just as soon spend my evenings running out to TechShop or otherwise working on props-related projects. I don't have a huge need right now to get involved in the craziness of Tech Week on top of this full-time work.

(Especially this coming couple weeks; lighting is going to take some long nights, I still have the kid's show in the morning, and I don't want to take a lot off time off work because my boss is on vacation and I'm covering for him!)

So a good curry, ten hours of sleep, dry clothes, and a Saturday morning on which I have nothing explicitly scheduled. I need to go up and look at the roof. I'd love to do more cleaning. The radiator guy may call about my car. And there might be a rehearsal and I'd really like to watch one or two and take notes before things go crazy there.

But right now I'm listening to 20's jazz and finishing a mug of fresh-brewed coffee and thinking about electronics projects. I just threw together a sound board light that I'm using on the current gig, but that -- as well as a couple other ideas that came up during the show -- would be easier if I had some DuckNodes already created and ready to pop in. (For this, I was able to clumsily re-purpose the simple driver board I last used inside a prop radio).

Over and over, I feel I should be able to grab something out of a bag when someone at a show I'm designing asks "How can we make the gunshot sound match what the actor is doing?" or "How can we put a light inside the magic lamp?" But as hard as I try I can't seem to get over a basic conundrum.

I'm fine with making something that is too complex for the task -- a Swiss Army Knife when all you need is a pair of tweezers. I'm even okay with the larger footprint. The power issue is a little messier, as is the question of command direction (aka, does it send a command from the stage, or get a command from the booth?) But the real stumbling block is that the real flexibility is in software.

In software, the same physical circuit board can either run a pre-programmed chase sequence, or can respond to a voice Dalek-eyestalk style (or do it multiband, graphic EQ style) via software DSP. But these possibilities, plus interactive behaviors I haven't yet dreamed up (because the show I need them for hasn't started production meetings yet), exist because of software.

We've basically entered Star Trek (Next Generation) technology here. I can make a black box that is essentially agnostic as to the input(s), power supply, output(s) -- the same box can without any physical alterations take a microphone input or a photocell or a microswitch or a radio link, and output to high-power LEDs or rope lights or solenoids or servo-motors -- but Geordi needs to be in the loop.

I've tinkered with this for a while with the DuckLight. The DuckLight, to recap, is a bank of constant-current drivers backed by a microprocessor. I've already built these so you can select (via a dial) what it does when turn on... a candle-like flicker, an Apple Product pulsing, a back-and-forth flashing. It is quite possible to let the end-user dial up some variety to these pre-programmed behaviors with a bit of tricky programming. Possible, that is, but annoying in that programming-the-VCR way of holding down one button and pressing another to try to get at what you want.

The next step up in flexibility is to create a user environment that runs on a personal computer. This is the most economical solution, but it bumps the per-device cost by at least ten bucks to permit full USB connectivity, and even then probably requires the end-user fiddle with drivers. And then there's a terrifying amount of programming to try to forecast what the end-user might want to do and break it into a simplified presentation of options via a custom GUI.

So, really, it makes the most sense to just go right to programming the device directly. The physical infrastructure is no more costly or complex. In my opinion, the learning curve is no worse, either. And the flexibility is vastly greater. But to a lot of people, being asked to program is an insurmountable barrier. They won't get the thing because they fear they won't be able to do this. (And if they have the confidence to program it, they are already half-way to just building their own physical layer as well!)

So thus I keep stalling on the idea. I can make these things for myself. But I can't figure out how to make ones that would be useful to other people. Not ones that will offer the inherent flexibility to do everything from connect a physical doorbell on stage to a sound effect played from the booth, to putting a pulsing lighting effect inside a stage prop.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Catching Up

Only made four sections of Imperial Highway -- at approx 6" each, that's two feet of road.

I'm really not happy with the paint. Well -- in person the texture shows up much better. As a reminder, the entire thing was sprayed with Krylon hammer-finish before casting, and that texture does come through on the model. But in pictures, even the grooving between the stones sort of drops out...and the dry-brush work looks even splotchier than it is.

Because they don't stack well and are somewhat bulky even broken down into wall and road parts, I whipped up a box out of birch ply and stained it with whatever I had in the shop over at work. Didn't get any pictures of that. There's room in the box for at least two more sections, if and when I feel like casting up some more.

Also, several people have been asking at the RPF when I will be ready to take more orders of M40's. I guess it's about time to go out to the machine shop and cut a few more. I have six left over from the last run, at least.

And there's been some new print orders for V150's at my Shapeways store, and my Renderosity store just sent me a small check. So feels like the economy is slowly turning up again. As of today, there's officially enough air between me and living from paycheck to paycheck that I actually have two undeposited paychecks...and I don't even need either of them to make rent!

(But I'm still far from having the savings to get my water pump repaired, or get some needed dental work done. I'm getting less per hour than I have on any hourly job over the past two decades. The biggest difference is that I'm getting forty hours every week.)

(Well, a few less this week, but that's because I'm taking two mornings a week off to work a children's show. Which pretty much makes up the difference in paychecks, plus I'm putting in extra hours to make up hours at my first job, and at OT rates the difference goes away real quick).

Slowly, I'm adapting to full-time work again. Still haven't moved on a lot of my electronics and props or other projects (have this sudden terrible urge to do a solo jazz piano arrangement of the Black Mesa theme). Since I can do research during work hours (aka listen to a lot of history) I've managed to put up the latest chapter in my now 95,000 word Tomb Raider/SG1 epic cross-over. That chapter has a grand total of 163 hits and 1 comment, so take that accomplishment with a grain of something. Feels like one of those shows where the people on stage outnumber the people in the audience. Been there. Been there.

That, and the fact that the next chapters are wandering around Croft Manor, dealing with an illegal dig at an Indian Mound, and learning about (sigh!) Atlantis, is no big surprise I'm a little more motivated towards propwork at the moment...

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Those who do not study history....

...can listen to the podcast later.

Here's the ones I'm hitting right now:

A Podcast History of Our World.  Simply excellent, this is a labor of love by a young history grad. Rob Monaco's voice is wonderful to listen to; clear, engaging, quirky enough to stay interesting. This is the good kind of history; the names and dates are there, in what even here can become an indigestible flood at times, but it is framed with a solid grounding in the trends underlying the bare facts, and enlivened by those quirky little details only real life can invent.

A History of the World in 100 Objects.  From the BBC, narrated by the director of the British Museum. This is analytical, big picture history at its finest, but done via an extremely close look at individual artifacts. Most episodes start in the museum, giving you a feeling of walking those halls and being shown the artifact under discussion. To give the greatest context to the themes of social, cultural, and technological change each object is looked not just through a historian's lens but by interviewees from chefs to political cartoonists (as appropriate, that is).

Extremely well produced, with music and sound design and a pleasure to listen to.

In Our Time. Also from BBC 4, this show tackles a single subject at a time in an open, lightly-moderated discussion. It has a sort of Charlie Rose vibe as the host lightly prods and leads his guests in a lively discussion. The radio equivalent of a BBC "Talking heads" show but really gives you  the feeling of being at the table sharing in a discussion between people who know a subject very well and are intensely interested (and often opinionated, in that confrontation British style of interview) in it.

Stuff You Missed in History Class. I'm still a little on the fence with this one. The hosts have good voices and the stories are intriguing and well-researched, but the style it just a little too fast, too glib, too well-rehearsed; the way the hosts alternate lines, particularly, destroys that illusion that you are listening to someone talk extempore on a subject. It is also very frequently interrupted by various advertisers, and yes such things do need funding, but any production in which the hosts personally deliver some of the advertising immediately places their integrity on a suspect footing. If they are willing to lie for the advertiser, what guarantee have you they won't lie for that same dollar within the context of the program? Not saying this element of financial disclosure isn't a question with all these podcasts, but it is a particular failing of this show to draw your attention to it so frequently.

Hardcore History. Dan Carlin's show is also in my "maybe" pile at the moment. He knows his subjects well, communicates them well, is a very interesting speaker. But all the ones I've listened to tend to run quite long on very little, belaboring certain points. Belaboring them in a fascinating way, certainly, but I didn't really need to spend forty-five minutes getting the point that historical revisionism and the credit for the spreading of Helenic culture does not make Alexander a nice person or absolve him of the rivers of blood he also left behind.

Rules for Fanfic

Well, okay, first off, there's no rules. That's the glory of fanfic; it is done for love and distributed for free, and with all that comes the freedom to do whatever the heck you like.

There are a lot of reasons to write, including but not limited to "fix fics" (when a writer takes something that really annoyed them -- like the end of Mass Effect 3 -- and writes an ending they like better), or the inclusion of other voices, or random fun, or porn, or to practice writing in general or show off or try out techniques you might not want to risk in a more "serious" work.

But if chief among your reasons is the desire to be read, then there are a few things that it usually works better to follow:

1. Attend to canon. The very act of fanfiction on an existing intellectual property produces the first paragraphs of an implicit contract with the reader. If you don't know this concept, think of it this way; if you dress a book in autumnal colors and decorate it with people with long hair and swords and name them "Elisival Half-Elven" and "Tanis the Horse-Master" the reader shouldn't open it to find a gritty near-future cyberpunk novel that stops for fifty pages at a time for a Libertarian rant.

You can write whatever you like, but you owe it to the reader to clue them in to what to expect before suckering them into investing their time with you.

It's also a bit like the thing about fantasy magic; if anything can happen, then nothing can surprise. For the fantasy problem, there's no suspense when the writer hasn't promised the heroine can't just rub two feathers together and make the Armies of the Night disintegrate in their tracks. And for fanfic, if you write what looks like a Harry Potter story, and Harry has made it as far as confronting Voldemort, then you don't just have him reveal he was actually a Jedi all along and chop Voldy in two with a lightsabre.

(Well, actually, you can -- but it behooves you to be clear to the reader that this is that kind of story -- and do it before you've made them invest a couple hours reading you.)

And this is tough, because with fix fics and AU stories and cross-overs and re-castings and so on and so forth you've got to put in the work to be clear what the ground rules of your particular fic are going to be.

2. Trim. Especially for cross-over works, there is a temptation to put it all in. There are many stories in the Buffyverse, say, and although you can say the show premise in ten words, the temptation of far too many authors is to set their story late in or after the television series. Which means you've got Angelus and the Initiative and Dark Willow and Ripper and the Potentials and the Buffy-Bot and everything else that was created over seven regular seasons and tons of spinoff.

But go back and look at the actual show. Even late in the run, everything doesn't show up on screen at once. Individual episodes can and usually do maintain a narrower focus.

Me, I think if you are going to muck with the very premises of a property, with or without cross-over, you'd do best to pick an early season/first movie/first or second book. Because there's just too much stuff there, and boy does it all get distracting. That's why my AU Sailor Moon story is set in the Negaverse cycle, and not after you've got Pluto and the Starlights and all the rest mucking things up.

But you can do it with even the more complex properties just by being selective as to what you feel is necessary to include. It's the Checkov's Gun principle; there's going to be a heck of a lot of interesting brick-a-brack in a traditional parlor but you lightly wave over everything but the one thing you describe in detail -- the one thing that will actually come up later in the story. In my SG1 fic, the Asgard are going to play a role in the plot so they get mentioned several times even quite early on. On the Nox, the Tollan, the Furlings, or even the Tok'ra....I have given not a single word.

3. Describe. Two reasons here. First is, you want to be accessible to any reader, not just another die-hard fan. Oh, and even that die-hard fan might not have the same up-to-the-moment familiarity you have if you just archive-binged on the whole thing and are writing with one tab open to the Wiki page.

Second, whether you intend to diverge from canon or not, your take on the characters and situations will be unique (and, really, if it isn't, then why are you writing in the first place?) So you need to describe, describe, describe, because your reader can't be counted to have the same internal image and the same understanding.

And if you've said nothing about your characters, then you aren't doing fiction, You are doing some sort of Mad-Libs with a bunch of names.

And I don't mean hair color. I mean give enough hook into the characters (and places, and conflicts) so the reader can care. Give enough understanding into the characters so the reader feels like they understand their inner workings. This doesn't require a word of narrative description; many plays give everything you really need to know in dialog alone (and so do some classic works of fiction).

And don't just do it once. Especially if someone hasn't been seen for a couple of chapters, catch the reader up. Remind them who this is and why they should care. This even had multiple uses. If you change up from "Buffer Summers" to "The Slayer" every now and then it gives more variety to the narrative, and it gives you a tool you could chose to use to focus in on different aspects of her personality and story.

4. Watch your POV. Even in a visual medium, where it seems like the viewer would be seeing everything and has equal access to the interior lives of everyone, an omniscient point of view is rarely an effective dramatic choice. And fiction is tougher. It is tempting to dive from one head to another, showing the thoughts of every one of your favorite characters and letting the reader know what is happening behind them, in the next room, three hundred years from now on another planet.

But at best, it is distancing. You end up less emotionally involved than if you picked a pair of eyes to filter the experience through. And, harshly, it is rarely done at this level of best. Mostly, it becomes confusing. Pick your POV, clearly indicate your POV through verbal and visual and textual clues, and when you have to shift POV, signal your turns.

(One of the easiest tricks? Name the POV character in the first sentence. Even better, have them viewing or acting or thinking in that first paragraph).

(And, yeah, half the fun of using limited POV is being able to Rashomon events and characters through multiple eyes, through the filter of different perspectives.)

5. Don't be either enthralled by or afraid of "Said." I know, this is really a flaw of bad writing, not a specific to fanfic. But it strikes me it comes out of a style of fanfic that violates at least one rule above; which is to say, uses an omniscient viewpoint and doesn't bother to explain to the outsider. The style of "Jack came up and said, Sue said, the others said, the war was happening outside, all of them said..."

Some writers get afraid of "said" and this is a path that followed too far will lead into Tom Swiftys and worse. It's fine to emphasize a line or two with "shouted," or "whimpered," (and I totally over-use "smiled" myself.) Same for "Said softly" and "Said with a grimace" and so forth. But, really, ninety-nine percent of the time "said" is enough. In certain dialog scenes, even the "said" itself isn't needed, but it is a sort of invisible mortar; it rarely calls attention to itself and thus can be safely left in.

Related to this, there's the great little lesson Mark Twain sneaks in during "Connecticut Yankee"; a story is being told in run-on style, all the dialog mixed together, and the titular yankee stops her and suggests that she give each a distinctive voice. "This Irish knight of yours...have him say 'Begorrah' every now and then."

Well, you need more than that for a good voice. Although when writing fanfic, you can get a certain mileage out of signature phrases and familiar lines. "I'm a Doctor, not a Scriptwriter!" Try to hear the rhythms, the kinds of word choices, that are emblematic of a particular character. It helps greatly to say all your dialog out loud.

And, yeah, these apply just as much for regular fiction. And get violated out there in the real world, even by surprisingly big names.