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26Feb/110

My brush with greatness (aka Penn & Teller)

Heather & I were on vacation in Las Vegas the last few days, and one of the highlights was seeing the Penn & Teller magic show at The Rio.  In fact I was picked from the audience to assist with the very first trick they performed.  Here's a rundown of what happened, first from my point of view and then a full description of what actually happened.

From my point of view

Penn started explaining that they needed somebody from the audience with a smart phone for their first trick, and that they were going to let that person use the phone to record video of the trick so they could see exactly how it was done.  I, along with hundreds of others in the audience held our phones up as Teller started walking up the isle.  He spotted my iPhone, came over, and asked if somebody else in the audience could call the phone while I was on stage.  I told him that Heather could do this, so he asked me to take my iPhone out of the case and come up on stage with him.  Penn asked me my name and also verified that somebody in the audience could call me.  I told him my girlfriend Heather could, so he asked Heather to make a quick call to verify it.  After my phone rang (and Penn made sure the audience heard it by holding it up to his microphone) they first started playing around with me a little.  They had me turn the video recorder on then held the phone up to record themselves and introduced themselves, introduced me, then panned across the audience.  They then said that as I'm on stage with some Vegas magicians that I undoubtedly wanted video of me and a famous magician.  At that point they brought out a short cardboard cutout of Kriss Angel and had me pose with it, which got lots of laughs from the audience.  After that bit of fun they had the cardboard Kriss Angel carried off stage and proceeded with the full illusion.

Penn picked up a large Starbucks coffee cup that had been sitting on the stage.  He placed my iPhone in the cup and had me look inside to verify it was there.  He put the top on the coffee cup but it fell so I bent to pick it up.  At this point I heard a loud roar of laughter from the audience but didn't know why.  I gave the top back to him, he put it on the cup, then placed it on the stage floor in front of us.  After saying one or two things he promptly stomped on the cup with all his might, crushing it into a pancake.  Obviously the phone wasn't in the cup any more.  Teller also walked up and tapped the crushed cup with his foot for good measure.

After a minute or so of vamping Penn asked Heather to call my phone, which she promptly did.  When the phone started ringing Penn asked the audience to point where the ringing was coming from.  Most of the audience was pointing towards the stage but I heard the phone back in the house somewhere so I pointed towards the audience. At that point the audience realized the ringing was coming from the house as well so they started pointing towards the center of the audience as well.  Penn drew everyone's attention to an empty seat in the middle of the center section and asked the people sitting on either side to look under the seat since that's where the ringing was coming from.  They pulled a styrofoam box  out from under the seat and passed it up through the audience to the stage and handed it to me.  Penn asked me to read the label on the box, which indicated it came from a seafood restaurant next door to the theater.  It was sealed with tape, which Penn asked me to pull off.  I opened up the box and found a fresh fish lying in a pile of ice.  Penn asked me what kind of fish it was but I didn't recognize it so I just said something like "I don't know.  A dead fish." which got a great reaction from the audience.  Penn said it was a tilapia.  As Teller showed the fish in the box to the audience Penn handed me a microphone.  Teller placed the fish on a table that had been wheeled out as Penn had Heather call my phone.  Sure enough I heard the phone ringing from inside the fish and I held the microphone up close to the fish so that the audience could hear it as well.  Teller picked up a knife, cut the head off the fish, and there inside was a sealed plastic bag with my phone inside.

Penn & Teller have named this illusion "Cell fish".

What the audience saw

The audience saw a little bit more than I did in one sense.  When Penn dropped the lid to the coffee cup he already had my iPhone inside the cup.  As I bent down to pick up the lid for him he apparently threw his hand up, causing the iPhone to fly up out of the cup behind us where Teller caught it in a big red plastic bucket.  This is what caused the audience to roar with laughter and why the phone wasn't in the cup when Penn stomped on it.  Teller took the red bucket and suspended it from a cable that was raised up over my head, so the phone was suspended ten feet or so above me inside this bucket.

When Penn prompted Heather to call my phone this is why a lot of the audience pointed at the stage, assuming that the ringing was coming from the bucket suspended over my head.  But it was obvious that the sound was coming from the empty seat in the audience, so that's the crux of the illusion as far as the audience goes - how did the phone magically move from the red bucket that was suspended above my head the entire time to inside the styrofoam box that they pulled out from underneath that seat?

I was actually able to find a couple videos on YouTube of this trick as the audience saw it.  Here are two of them - one has good video but lousy volume and the other has better volume than video so check them both out if you want:

How it worked (spoiler!)

If you don't want to know how they did it then stop reading here as this explains exactly how it was all done.

When the Kriss Angel cardboard cutout was brought out on stage both Penn & Teller pulled out some fake jewelry to add to the cutout.  As they attached this fake jewelry (a large necklace and a glittery cross) Penn apparently slipped my iPhone into a pocket on the back of the cutout.  He swapped it for a fake iPhone that I think was already attached to the back of the cutout.  When the cutout was carried off stage my iPhone went with it.  Penn put the fake iPhone into the Starbucks cup then tossed that one into the red bucket as I was misdirected by the lid that he "accidentally" dropped onto the floor in front of me.  The audience thought it was my iPhone that flew through the air into the bucket, but it was obviously just a prop.

As Penn & Teller explained what they were going to do to the audience, a stagehand off stage retrieved my iPhone from the Kriss Angel cutout, put it in a plastic bag, and then put it inside the fish, which had been slit open on one side.  I never saw that side of the fish until after Teller had cut the head off, so I wouldn't have known that the cut was already there. This fish simply was laid flat in the tray that was wheeled out to Penn & Teller.  It wouldn't have been visible to the audience while in the tray.  The box that was found under an audience members seat and brought up on stage had a similar looking fish packed in ice, but that fish was physically attached to the box.  When Teller flips over the box as if he's dumping the fish out onto the table he's only dumping the ice out for effect. The prop fish in the box remains (and he hides it in the way he puts the box & lid down), and the fish containing the phone is left on the cutting board with all the ice.

They've obviously been doing this trick for a while since there's a ton of video of it up on YouTube.  Just search for "Penn & Teller cell fish" and you'll find them all.  Well here's mine to add to the mix:

1Mar/100

Feb 2010 Vacation (St John, Disney, Kennedy)

The following is Heather's journal of the vacation.  All the photos I've published from the trip can be found here:

Here is a recap of our trip to St. John in the USVI, Walt Disney World and Cape Canaveral, FL.  It was a wonderful trip (albeit much too short) and getting to spend time with Bruce was very special.

Saturday, Feb 6

Waking up at the crack of dawn in Boston we made our way in the bitter February cold to the airport.  The check-in, TSA screening and flight was uneventful.  We arrived at the airport in St. Thomas an hour later than expected due to the major snowstorms going through the Mid-Atlantic States.  It made me thankful that we had a direct flight.  We rented a 4-wheel drive Jeep from the Budget rental company at the airport and headed to Red Hook to catch the car ferry to St. John.  The ferry runs hourly on the half hour and the boat was pulling in as we got there.  The ferry was very easy and after backing the Jeep on to the boat we were on our way.  We got out of the car to catch some breezes  on the upper deck and had our first view of St. John.  The weather was sunny, mid-70’s, slight breeze and not a raindrop in sight all week…absolute paradise especially given the freezing weather we had just left.  Upon arrival in Cruz Bay we headed to Starfish Market at The Marketplace to get some provisions for breakfast the next day.

The drive to Concordia from Cruz Bay took about 45 minutes along Route 20.  What a beautiful drive and Bruce was especially thankful that he had the fortune of driving partway behind a large construction vehicle that took up most of the road and honked loudly warning oncoming traffic that it was approaching the switchback.  Above and beyond having to “keep-left”, the switchbacks on St. John are brutally steep.  As you come up some of the hills the road seems to just disappear from in front of the car.  We were tired upon arrival and decided to eat at Café Concordia that night to keep it simple.  The meals there were a tad expensive, but the food was good and a bonus that it was steps away from our tent.  Bruce had a salmon dish and I had a flatbread with Manchego and prosciutto along with a couple of iced teas to wash it all down.  So good after the long drive and we could not have asked for a better view looking out over Salt Pond Bay as the sun set, absolute paradise.  We unpacked our bags and settled in for the first night to the night sounds of crickets and gentle waves lulling us to sleep.

Sunday, Feb 7

Waking up with the sun we started a routine that we carried out each morning on the island.  I would wake up, head to the bathroom, douse myself with bugspray so as to not get eaten alive and then set the table on our porch for a leisurely breakfast.  Bruce would get up, head to the bathroom, douse himself with bugspray and then try to capture the wildlife through his camera lens while eating breakfast and enjoying the view.  He set up some very creative lures throughout the week and we have some great pictures of the visitors enticed to our porch by his sugar-water, mango and banana pieces.  We came to St. John to snorkel and snorkel we did on our first day.  We drove by Cinnamon Bay coming in and headed back there for our first day.  The parking was easy and our tour book indicated that the beach was great for beginners.  First, we stopped by Maho Campground to buy some sandwiches and drinks for lunch and then checked out the charter options endorsed by Maho.  Cinnamon Bay is absolutely gorgeous and we tucked ourselves under a Maho tree that provided shade for the entire day.  After getting out our snorkel gear, we headed in to see what we could see.  Not 30 feet into the water we spotted a turtle munching away carefree on the grassy bottom.  He was a good size and I was very excited for what this meant we were going to see the rest of the week.  We continued on snorkeling our way around a point to Maho beach and saw plenty of coral and fish on the way.  There were a lot of people on Maho beach from the campground and we decided to head back to Cinnamon Bay as it was much less crowded.  Swimming back around Bruce noticed a guy standing in the water looking at the hillside facing Maho campground.  Soon he noticed that there were two very large iguanas scrambling up the hillside and knocking sand down as they moved.  Very cool and I regretted not stopping to look at them more as we didn’t see anything that big for the rest of the week.  Getting back to our towels we dried off and opened up our lunch.  We were not alone on the beach for long as 3 resident chickens began to circle hoping for a handout.  Little did they know that I was not a rookie and realized that if I handed out anything that would have been the end of our peace and quiet on the beach.  They soon wandered off looking for easier targets.  After a nap and more swimming, we headed back to Cruz Bay to purchase some more food to stock up our fridge.  We also stopped in to the National Park Service Visitor Center to ask about signing up for their guided tour of the Reef Bay Trail.  They do a guided tour where you hike down the length of the trail and then get picked up at the bottom and ferried back to Cruz Bay eliminating the need to climb back up the rather steep elevation.  Unfortunately they were fully booked up so we didn’t get to sign up for that tour.  Getting back to Concordia we started our second daily ritual of taking a dip in the pool to cool off from the days activities and then taking a shower using the solar shower.  We found that the afternoon was the warmest time of day to take advantage of the solar shower.  That night we dressed up and I tried my hand at driving and “keeping left” as we headed to Coral Bay to Island Breezes for dinner.  In my opinion they had the best buffalo wings and burgers on the island.  This perhaps was influenced by my consumption of an absolutely beautiful island concoction called a “painkiller”.  It is a yummy mixture of dark rum, OJ, pineapple juice, coco lopez and topped off with just sprinkle of grated nutmeg.

Monday, Feb 8

Today we decided to stay even closer to home.  After breakfast and cleaning up the tent we packed up a lunch and hiked down from the campground to Salt Pond Bay.  It was a relatively easy trail and we ended up getting to the beach so early that we had our choice of spots to set up.  We found a shady spot with a picnic table and set up camp for the day under a nice shade tree.  At Salt Pond we had the fortune of seeing a group of cuttlefish and a rather large barracuda.  A lot of the week I felt that ignorance was bliss.  The group next to us later asked if we had seen the 4ft specimen and only then did I realize what I had been looking at.  Bruce had a chance to test out his video equipment while snorkeling this day and we had a fun time exploring the different reefs mostly off to the left-hand side of the beach.  A quick nap under the shade tree and we hiked back up to Concordia later in the afternoon for a refreshing swim then shower.  We made dinner on our deck and watched the best sunset of the week.  Bruce had read somewhere that Concordia had mosquito netting for the beds and we asked at the store.  The mosquitoes were eating me alive and it was hard to sleep being woken up by their incessant buzzing in the ear.  I was so grateful that he did this as it made for much more comfortable sleeping.  No need to go to bed coated in bug spray=happy girlfriend.

Tuesday, Feb 9

Today we switched it up by heading out for a hike.  We wanted to do the Reef Bay trail, but didn’t want to hike down and then back up the 947 foot 2.4 mile trail (we are on vacation).  After some research we headed to the Lameshur Bay trail instead.  This trial has about 467 feet of elevation and is 2.6 miles long down to the Reef Bay sugar factory.  There are some sugar mill ruins that we inspected before setting up for lunch on the beach.  At some point during lunch Bruce looked behind us on the beach and noticed that there were mongoose (plural of which is mongoose-dem on St. John) loitering behind us as we ate.  We proceeded to finish our lunch and get both video and pictures of the “shy” creatures.  Heading back out from the beach got plenty sweaty during our hike back.  As we were driving out, we noticed two people hitchhiking and pulled over to give them a ride.  Their names were Scott and Anna and they were the glass blowing artists in residence at Maho campground.  During our drive together they informed us that Friday night was prime rib night at Maho, advice that we took full advantage of later in the week.  We got home and after dinner and watching the sun set from our porch, then we headed down to listen to the steel drum artist playing that night at the Café Concordia pavillion.  We had several drinks (one of which was a “mistake” given to Bruce by the bartender) and then stumbled back to the tent.

Wednesday, Feb 10

Back to snorkeling…today we decided to head out to the Waterlemon Cay area.  We checked out the ruins of an old suger mill at Annaberg before heading over to participate in a Waters Edge Walk led by a park ranger from the National Park Service.  The ranger pointed out animals and plants native to the island near the shoreline.  There were several small boys on the tour and I’m sure it’s because of them that we saw so much.  They pointed out queen conch, sea cucumber and even our first sting ray of the trip.  I say leave it to young boys to find all the animals hiding in the shallow water in the grass.  The ranger also pointed out the Machineel tree nearby and discussed its caustic properties.  She said you should never locate yourself below this tree especially during rain.  She also let us know that she had noticed a Machineel tree located at Salt Pond Bay with a picnic table underneath it last time she was there.  Yet another reason for me to believe that ignorance is bliss.  Thankfully we did not have any ill effects from our day possibly spent beneath this caustic tree at Salt Pond Bay.  After this walk we headed over to a rocky beach to access the water closer to Waterlemon Cay.  We had lunch then started our swim out to this cay.  One side of Waterlemon was full of fish and coral, the other had mostly died out.  Waterlemon was probably where we saw the best coral of the week.  After Waterlemon Cay, we decided to head to the grassy beach area and saw some more cuttlefish and two rather large rays.  Just as we were about to leave a lady yelled that she was looking at a turtle and we went back into the water to chase the turtle around for a bit.  Wrapping up our snorkeling we headed over to the East End of the island to check out Sloop Jones and his t-shirts.  On our way back we stopped at Vie’s Snack Shack for some yummy conch fritters with hot sauce.  The goats across the street from the snack shack were particularly vocal and it was fun to watch them chase each other.  Dinner that night was at Skinny Legs, it seems that they have some sort of New England connection as they had Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins and Celtics banners displayed prominently on the walls.  They also had a great t-shirt store called The Jolly Dog adjacent where we found a lot of nice shirts including the “Dip” shirt that Bruce purchased outlining all of the dip signs that had been modified by locals on the island, very whimsical.

Thursday, Feb 11

We awoke early today to head over to Cruz Bay to catch our charter on the Stormy Petrel.  Rick and Rachael were our guides for the day.  Rick even let me pilot the boat on our way over to Spanishtown, Virgin Gorda where they had to process our paperwork through British customs. On the way to Virgin Gorda Rick pointed out a dolphin in front of the boat as well as a rather unusual yacht called simply “A” which we later googled and found to be owned by Russian Business Tycoon, Andrei Melnichenk.  From there, we went to the Baths at Virgin Gorda. What an amazing place! The current was incredibly strong today everywhere we went and we needed to take a lot of care just to get onto the beach at the baths.  People were being pulled off their feet as they attempted to get to shore.  Rick led us through the baths while giving us an overview of this incredible rock formation.  From there, we went to the Cooper Island Beach Club Restaurant for lunch. They called our lunch orders in ahead of time so that they were ready when we got there. This island has roughly 15 people that live there and they run the hotel, restaurant and gift shop.  The beach was lovely and the food was absolutely delicious.  Both Bruce and I had the Chicken Roti wrap with mango chutney…so good!  Properly fueled we headed to The Indians to snorkel.  The current was again a factor here and a lot of the passengers onboard elected to not snorkel too far from the boat.  We then headed back to Cruz Bay to go through US Customs.  We did a brief bit of shopping at Mongoose Junction and then headed back to Coral Bay and dinner at Shipwreck Landing before heading home.

Friday, Feb 12

We headed out today with the idea that we would rent kayaks from Maho and go out to Whistling Cay to snorkel.  Upon arrival we discovered that our plans were to yet again be effected by the storms in the mid-atlantic.  The waves were so strong on the beach at Maho that they were not allowing anyone to take out kayaks.  The guy at the rental shop suggested that we check out Haulover Bay on the East End of the island instead.  He assured us that this beach was protected by Tortola and was not going to be as affected by the current.  This was a very easy access beach and we had the entire beach to ourselves for the most part.  We snorkeled over to the right hand side of the beach to rest for a bit on an isolated stretch of sand.  We sat in the gentle surf for a bit and I collected some nice shells for my nephews.  After watching some pelicans taunt us by posing close enough that Bruce could have gotten some good shots, we headed over to the other side of the beach.  The center of Haulover bay was fairly deep and soon we were unable to see anything.  I kept referring to it as primordial ooze and it took us a good 20 minutes to snorkel across it.  As we got over to the left-hand side of the bay we found some excellent coral, lobsters and huge schools of fish.  Just before we were going to get out of the water we spotted a 5-6 ft long nurse shark swim slowly by.  From turtles to nurse sharks the progression of our snorkels throughout the week was just great.  I don’t think I breathed while the shark went by and I was certainly shaking a bit after it had passed.  It swam by so gracefully.  That night we headed over to the absolute chaos that is Prime Rib night at the Maho Bay campground.  Bruce and I were absolutely floored at the number of kids/people running around.  We were unprepared for a cafeteria style dinner service and it was in full swing when we got there.  After the dinner, we headed down to check out the glass blowing demonstration put on by Anna and Scott, the hitchhikers that we had picked up earlier in the week.  We stayed for two of their demonstrations where they made a swordfish and attempted to pull a flower together that just didn’t work out.  I was fascinated as I had never seen glass blowing this close.  It is amazing the steps they go through till they get to the finished product.  The glass seems to look like nothing at all until the end couple of steps when it emerges into its final shape and then goes into the annealer to cool down slowly overnight.  We then headed back over the rough Maho road to Concordia to hop into bed for the night.

Saturday, Feb 13

Our final day on the island, we woke to watch the sunrise over Drunk Bay.  We made breakfast for the final time and packed up for our trip to Orlando.  We checked out of Concordia and filmed our final drive back to Cruz Bay for posterity.  When we arrived at the car ferry we thought that we were going to be left on shore waiting for the next ferry, there certainly did not look like there was any space left on the boat.  Somehow the car parkers were able to get two more cars on besides us, the parking guys on this barge know their stuff.  We were not able to open our car doors, but we were on the barge.  We drove around St. Thomas for a bit and then found a place to pick up some lunch.  After lunch we found a scenic point that overlooked the airport.  We stayed there watching the planes take off and land until we finally had to admit that we needed to catch the plane and return our rental car.  Saying good-bye to St. John and this portion of the vacation was hard.  It was such a special week to have had with Bruce.  The flight from St. Thomas to Charlotte was uneventful.  At the Charlotte airport I had promised Bruce that the last time I was there, they had some excellent BBQ restaurants.  Unfortunately, we were not able to find one when we looked around.  From Charlotte to Orlando we ended up sitting on the plane for over an hour while they attempted to “redistribute the fuel”.  We arrived in Orlando past 11 and then waited for another hour plus for the Not-So-Magical, Disney Magical Express service to whisk us to our hotel for the night.  We ended up walking into our room at the Coronado Springs around 1am and getting into bed around 2am.

Sunday, Feb 14

Valentine’s Day and for some reason we were up by 9am and ready to start our day.  We found the breakfast at Coronado Springs and then headed to the Magic Kingdom for the first part of the day.  We went on several rides including the Haunted Mansion and the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.  We went to an exhibit that had debuted at the 1964/65 World’s Fair called Innovations.  They had a comedy show modeled after Monster’s Inc called Laugh Floor that was very funny.  Then I was nostalgic to see the Disney that I remembered as a kid so we went to see the Country Bear Jamboree show followed by the Hall of Presidents.  The animatronics at Disney is amazing and yes they even had Obama up and giving a speech.  We headed by bus to Hollywood Studios next where we saw several more shows including Muppets 3D and the Indiana Jones stunt show.  The Indiana Jones show had way too much of a cheese factor for me.  We next headed over to see the final viewing of Fantasmic!  It is a show that Disney runs on two days a week.  This show was incredible with all the latest water/projection/laser and fire effects.  Very well integrated and just an amazing story to watch being performed.  Some of the effects really took your breath away.  The park closed after the show and we headed back to the room.  Bruce had very thoughtfully ordered some chocolates and a carmel coated apple and rose which were waiting when we got back to our room that night.  What a great guy and a great first day ending to this part of the trip.

Monday, Feb 15

We woke up early today to take advantage of the early opening of Animal Kingdom for guests that were staying at the Disney Resort Hotels.  I knew the animals were going to be most active in the morning and wanted to take full advantage of that.  We went on a Safari Ride, to the Bugs Life Show, had unknowingly walked into a character breakfast that featured Daisy Duck and Goofy.  The Safari ride was a little too cheesy for my taste.  Too much “keeping a look out for the poachers ahead mates”, and not enough information given on the animals we were actually seeing.  We did go to a show entitled Flights of Wonder in which Bruce was picked as a volunteer to go up on stage and take pictures as an owl came swooping over his head and landed on a perch behind him.  Very cool and the other birds in the show were amazing to watch flying around.  Animal Kingdom was a little bit of a let down for me in that I had expected more information about the animals and not so much Disnification.  We headed back to the hotel room for a quick nap and when we woke up; Bruce got a call from his parents letting him know that his Cousin Caryl and her daughter Andrea were down at Disney.  We called Caryl and found out that they were at Epcot.  We just happened to be heading for Epcot for the second part of our day so we made plans to sit down with them.  What a small world and a nice surprise for the afternoon.  It was good to catch up with them.  We went on to ride the Mission: Space ride and then see a film on the Circle of Life.  We had reservations at the Morocco restaurant at Epcot and had a nice meal with a bit of belly dancing and Moroccan music entertainment played on a Kanoune.  We finished up the day watching the Epcot fireworks and speaking with a girl who was doing an internship at Disney.

Tuesday, Feb 16

Today we wanted to finish up the final couple of rides and attractions that we wanted to see at Epcot and Hollywood Studios.  We got up and headed to see Soarin',  a new ride at Epcot which simulated a glider ride over the California coast.  Pretty neat ride that included scents that were sprayed into the air as you rode over different scenes such as orange groves and pine forests.  We then headed over to try out the Test Track.  All I have to say about that is that Disney has nothing on some of the switchbacks and roads on St. John.  We had a fancy lunch at Chefs de France in the French pavilion complete with a visit by Ratatouille.  After lunch we caught a boat over to Hollywood Studios where we went to check out Star Wars and then proceeded to wait almost 3 hours in line for the new Toy Story ride.  It was a great ride that was super interactive and much too short.  We went to go see the Fantasmic! Show for the second time and finished our night with dinner at the Brown Derby.

Wednesday, Feb 17

Bruce woke up and went to get the car at Hertz while I stayed in the room to putter around a bit and pack luggage.  We had breakfast at Disney and then headed off to our next adventure at the NASA Visitor Center.  They had a 3-hr bus tour of the NASA grounds including the shuttle launch pads, the vehicle assembly building and a Saturn V rocket.  We also learned that during every space shuttle launch there is an armored personnel carrier left idling near the launch pad as an emergency escape for the astronauts.  If a problem occurs the astronauts ride a zipline from the top of the launchpad to a point a half mile or so away from the pad.  The astronauts then have a decision to make - either run into a nearby bunker or risk their luck driving off in the armored personnel carrier.  The Saturn V rocket we saw is one of three that were built but never used due to cuts to the Apollo moon program.  The grounds around NASA are protected by the Department of the Interior and are home to many wild animals including 12 nesting pairs of bald eagles.  Our tour guy even referred to the numerous armadillos we saw as "rats in spacesuits".  We also had the opportunity to touch a  moon rock, and finished up our day at the visitor center watching an IMAX movie on the space station.

Thursday, Feb 18

We went to the Astronaut Hall of Fame where they had numerous astronaut memorabilia and also had the Mercury capsule flown by Scott Carpenter.  We then went back to the NASA Visitor Center and finished up a the last couple of exhibits, including a hall of images taken by the Hubble Telescope and a visit to the rocket garden.  We headed back to Disney to catch the Magical Express back to the Orlando airport and then back home to Boston.

12Nov/090

DIY Fake Fireplace Effect

I recently was asked to put together a fake fire effect for a small community theater. They wanted a fireplace full of burning embers, not a full flame effect that can be done with flame lights.  To create this effect you basically need two things: a light source that flickers like a flame and something translucent that looks like burning embers that will flicker in the light.

I initially did some searching for fire glass to see if there were any readily available products to simulate burning embers, but didn't have any luck finding anything that looked realistic enough.  Eventually I came up with the idea of trying to make my own, and with a little more research I came across a handy tutorial that demonstrates how to make fake ice cubes out of plastic.  I ended up using that as a template for making my own fake burning embers, expanding on the concept by including colored plastic in my fake ice cubes.  Here's a quick tutorial:

Go to your local hobby shop and purchase some clear plastic beads.  Kyle, the guy behind the ice cube tutorial bought his at WalMart.  I found mine at AC Moore, a craft store chain with stores all along the East Coast.

Beads

Get some sheets of lighting gel, preferably a few different shades of orange/red.  If you don't have a ready supply of gel then you can order some on-line from places like Production Advantage.  Depending on how much you need to make you might not need entire sheets of gel so you might want to see if you can get one or more companies to send you a sample swatch book for free.

You'll want to shred the gel(s) into small pieces in order to mix it up with the plastic beads.  I ran a few small sheets of orange & red gels through my paper shredder:

DSC_0008

Make some forms out of aluminum foil in various shapes (you don't want all your embers to be 100% identical).  I used things like batteries, a flashlight, and small cardboard boxes as forms, wrapping aluminum foil around them.  Then fill the form up with a mix of plastic beads and strips of the shredded gel.  Don't overdo it with the gel, at least at first.  You probably want to experiment a bit to figure out the right mix:

DSC_0019

Fill up the form with more plastic beads, then place it in an oven at 400 degrees for approx. 20 minutes.  You should keep an eye on it to make sure the form doesn't leak and the beads are melting.  If the beads aren't fully melted after 20 minutes just leave them in the oven longer and consider turning up the heat slightly.  The gel strips have a much higher melting point (after all, they have to sit directly in front of 1000 watt stage lights for long periods of time) so don't be surprised if they don't melt like the beads to.  The color should still spread out throughout the mold as the beads melt.

Once the beads have melted take the mold out of the oven and give it plenty of time to cool.  Remove the foil and you should end up with a translucent block of plastic:

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If you're not happy with your first attempts then don't fret.  You can always break up the plastic blocks using a hammer and then melt them down again in new forms.  Add more beads and/or pieces of gel to get them to look more like what you want.

The next important aspect of making a good fake fire is making a good flickering light effect.  If you're doing this in a theater and you have a good quality DMX-based lighting system you might be able to program an effect to simulate this, but that's a lot of work and can be a hassle if it has to be added to multiple cues.  After hunting around a bit I found a product called FauxFlame which is an electrical device you wire to an incandescent light to make it flicker randomly.  I bought a couple of these to add to my inventory of lighting toys and wired them into a couple electrical boxes so I can plug any light into them that I want.

The theater had an existing hearth with a few lights mounted inside it.  I installed a couple regular household incandescent bulbs wrapped in orange/yellow gels in the hearth, then put a dozen or so plastic embers on top, along with some fake fireplace logs that were bought from a local hardware store.  The lights were plugged into a FauxFlame and the result is quite impressive.  Here are a few photos and a link to a video showing the effect in action.  The set isn't complete yet, so pardon the appearance of the fireplace.

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And here's a video of the fireplace in action:

17Oct/090

DIY DMX Dowser

A few months ago I was working on a show where I needed the ability to dowse a video projector.  The problem with using video projectors in theater is that even when projecting a solid black image the projector is projecting light, so you can still see a big dark square when in a blackout.  To work around this you use a dowser, which is essentially just a piece of black plastic that drops in front of the projectors lens when not in use.  Companies like City Theatrical sell DMX dowsers that do precisely this.  They are just a box that you attach to your projector that drops a plastic shield in front of the lens upon the appropriate DMX command. The problem with these dowsers is that they are EXPENSIVE!  The City Theatrical dowser will set you back approx. $600, which is rather steep for what it does.  If you hunt around you can find other DMX projector dowsers for sale, but they're all over $200.

I had a servo from a radio controlled airplane lying around unused and with a little bit of hunting I came across a company that sells a DMX to servo controller.  This lets you control up to 8 servos via 8 DMX channels, so it gives you a lot more flexibility than the commercial solutions.  With a little bit of work, if you're into tinkering, you can build your own custom DMX dowser with more features than the $600 City Theatrical one.  I initially only needed a single dowser so I hacked together something quick using this DMX/servo controller and the spare servo, but at a recent show I needed to be able to dowse two projectors located 20 feet apart, so I decided to make more of a project out of my dowser.  Here's what I did:

First, you'll need the DMX/servo controller board and one or more servos (if you don't already have them).  The DMX/servo controller operates at 12 volts, but servos typically run at 4.8 volts, so you need a way to address this difference.  The answer is a relatively simple adjustable DC power supply.  These are the guts of what I used for my dowser, just three components:

Item Cost
DMX/servo controller board from Northlight Systems $49
Hi-Tec HS-422 servo from ServoCity $12.50
Positive Adjustable Power Supply available many places $20

So for three components that cost approximately $82 you can build your own dowser rather than spend $200-$600 for a commercial one.  Note that the power supply is a kit that you'll need to solder together yourself.  If you hunt around a little you can find for sale for around $5 less, but most websites I found are selling it for around $20.  I actually purchased mine at a local DIY/hobby shop in MA called "You-Do-It" Electronics.  Of course you'll probably also want to buy a case to put everything into and some other hardware components, but your total cost will likely still be in the neighborhood of $100.

When I built my dowser Northlight Systems only offered one DMX/servo controller with the DMX addressing switches mounted directly on the board.  I bit the bullet and used this, deciding to set it to the address 505 so that it would use the 8 channels 505-512.  I figured this was the safest range to use as it's less likely to be used except in really large venues or where lots of other DMX devices are used.  Of course I can always open it up and change the addresses if I need to.  But you now have the choice to buy a controller with the address switches mounted on the circuit board or on an external board that you can mount separately.  It's entirely up to you.

Depending on how fancy you want to get you'll likely want to purchase a few more things like a plastic case in which to mount everything, XLR connectors for the DMX connections, etc.  I'll leave all of that up to you to decide how you want to do it.  At the very least I would suggest you purchase a coupler to connect your servo to a shaft, a matching shaft, and a clamping collar.  The collar gives you an easy way to attach a dowser or other items to the shaft.

I decided to splurge when I redesigned my dowser.  I put everything in one case to make it easy to use, but I also built two remote servos that I could easily add to it if necessary.  To support the remote servos I added two XLR connectors to the dowser that let me plug in the other servos.  Each remote servo is just mounted in a smaller box with a long cable connecting to an XLR cable.  The controller has no problem controlling servos 10 feet away or more.

Here's what my device looks like:

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The 12 volt input feeds to both the variable power supply and directly to the 12v into the DMX/servo controller.  The variable power supply is tuned according to its instructions to provide the 4.8 volts needed for the servo power inputs on the DMX/servo controller.  Everything should be very straightforward.

Once you've put all the components together just take a piece of cardboard or heavy plastic and cut an appropriately sized dowser out of it.  I bought a black plastic report binder from a local office supply store which works quite well.  Mount the device where you need it and measure the distance from the servo shaft to the farthest edge of the projectors lens.  Add a couple inches to make sure it's not too small.  To mount the dowser to the servo shaft you can make use of the clamping collar and an ordinary paper clip.  Just unbend the paper clip into a U shape then pass the U through the tightening nut of the clamping collar.  Then bend the ends of the paperclip so that the entire thing is flush with the edge of the clamping collar.  Use some gaff tape to tape the paperclip to the dowser and you're all set.  Here's a photo showing how to do this:

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That's all there is to it. A fully functional DMX dowser for less than the cost of a commercially available one.  And you can easily make use of other servo devices, multiple servos, etc. with his home-brew version.  Before I built my dowser I worked on a show where I had to have rose petals flutter down onto the stage from overhead.  If I had my dowser for that effect I would have just taped a small piece of cardboard horizontally to the servo shaft and put the petals on top of it.  At the appropriate time just turn the servo and the petals would have dropped onto stage on cue.

A couple things to keep in mind if/when you're building one of these:

  • Use a 12 volt power supply since that's what the controller board requires.  If you use servos that require 4.8 volts or some other voltage then use the variable power supply to convert the 12 volts to whatever you need.  Make sure to measure the output of the power supply and adjust it as necessary before hooking it up to the controller board.
  • The servo shaft couplers are rather large.  If you mount your servo in a case like I did then make sure the servo can turn through its entire range of motion without the shaft coupler hitting anything.  You may need to turn the servo all the way in one direction to figure out the appropriate positioning of the coupler, then turn the servo all the way in the other direction to make sure the coupler swings freely.
  • Servo's don't have a ton of torque so make sure the hole that the servo shaft passes through is large enough so as to not introduce a lot of friction.  Also be sure the servo is lined up properly so the shaft passes through the hole without rubbing against the sides.

If you'd like any more details on this or have any specific questions feel free to post a comment or e-mail me directly (click on "About" at the top).