Odds and Ends from my brain and interests. Given that it is meant to be much like my old cartoon strip at the Lowell Connector, I suppose it is eponymous (I also like that it does make an oxymoron of sorts)

If there is to be anything here of any regularity it should be about sci-fi, computers, technology, and scale modeling with origami thrown in on the side (at least not infrequently). Oh, I would also expect some cartooning too

Monday, January 25, 2016

Mod Mon: Paper Dragons and Workshops

Workshop Models: Paper Dragon - a simple paper models for beginners

Umpteen apologies. This link should have been put up ages ago, but I kept putting it off. This is the posting for the dragon paper model I created for a Fast Track workshop at Arisia 2014. The original purpose was for a fast paper model that kids could build. It needed to be easy to put together, require minimal instruction, and at the same time would look somewhat interesting. I had a chance to do this again for 2016, so here's the update. Since then, I did another workshop and another model which I will be adding soon (a familiar telephone box).
     The initial section is some ideas and experiences of doing card modeling workshops. If you just want that dragon, then skip down a bit.

A word about Workshops - Read if planning for one

     The thing about workshop models is that typically you have very little time to work on them, generally not much more than an hour. Age is also an issue when designing or picking out a kit for it. You should consider the subject matter. While some of the simpler things to do are basically boxes or cones, it pays to make it somewhat interesting to your intended audience. Young children don't always sit still for long periods of direction and instruction, particularly if the rest of the room is running around doing something else. Even when working with adults, consider that the time for direction and instruction will take away from the actual build time. As a result use a kit with few parts that glue together easily. You can take advantage of subjects where the location of parts are more self explanatory, such as cars for example - where the wheels go is fairly obvious (see discussion about Knowledge in the World and Knowledge in the Head from Don Norman's Design of Everyday Things).
     While there are many things that are just a box, even a box can be made a little more interesting with a little detail skinning, like a Borg cube.It is possible to do interesting things with cubes as well. if you stretch a cube out into a rhomboid and it can be a racer or a rocket, and still be not much harder to build. Some Minecraft and Hako subjects can fit that bill nicely.
     One thing to also consider are the costs of running it. While it is nice when the people running the workshop can print the kits for you, ideally on a color laser printer, the cost of color print outs can add up. Picking a kit that uses only a few pages, say just 1 or 2, can make that more manageable (truth be told, I can barely manage a dozen builds at a time, so 16-20 kits is pretty much my max for print outs). Another strategy is picking out kits that are basically monochromatic. Here you can take advantage of using a standard black and white laser printer or even a photocopier to create the kits and simple use colored card stock instead of that valuable ink. Sci-fi subjects might have an edge here given the number of subjects that are mostly white with just a dash of color here and there.

The Dragon - a beginner model

     The dragon is a design idea that allows participants to color in and finish it in whatever fashion they saw fit. Given that the original workshop was for Arisia's Fast Track, which is for ages 6-12, I also wanted to keep it fun and light, but more intricate than a Borg cube. The model has very few parts, goes together easily, and be very forgiving of poor folds and missed attachment points. There are also certain obvious locations for the parts, i.e. head goes in front, tail in back, feet over the leg stumps. The only drawback is the zig-zag of the tab/scales can take a while to cut, but it doesn't have to be perfectly cut either.. It's also cheap, being just a black line drawing; ready made for photocopiers or black and white laser printers.
     The design doesn't use internal tabs, but instead uses the outward spines as external tabs to attach several parts. These are matched up and glued together. You shouldn't need an X-acto or any such implement to cut this up - safety scissors should do just fine. Tabs are fairly broad and cut at obvious angles so while scoring folds would help, it isn't necessary. The parts should naturally fold along crease lines.
     I encourage builders to color it in any color you want and it will be easier to color in before assembly. Felt tip pens are better as you are less likely to accidentally draw over glue points, but the way the glue points are designed (external tabs), you should be ok even with crayons (the wax in crayons would normally make gluing pieces together difficult). Another design idea is gluing things onto the finished version, such as from colored paper scraps or construction paper. The wings themselves are only printed on one side, so you will definitely have to finish them off on the reverse side. While ideally you do want to use card stock, which is available in various colors from office supply stores or craft shops. I have printed this model on construction paper (you will probably need to cut it down to 8.5"x11" to fit into your printer) and it does work, but construction paper is flimsier though and dragons made of this are more likely to suffer from wobbly legs and flimsy wings. In this case, some strategic reinforcement from scraps might solve that problem.
  The model(pdf)    the model (png)    the instructions 

Basic Dragon Instructions (text)

You will need some scissors and glue. The parts represent 2 mirrored halves of the dragon, the left half and right half. Let's start with the head+body first:.
  • The body consists of 5 parts: The left, the right, the head spacer, the stomach spacer, and the tail spacer. Instead of tabs that glue on the inside, the "spines" are the glue tabs. After cutting those parts out, fold the spines out slightly
    1. Glue the two halves together. Bend the spines back a tad, and put a drop of glue on each of the top spines. Then match the spines from each half and press them together to glue. Allow it to dry. Suggestion, don't do all at once, start at middle, then do the ends.
    2. Open up the body in the middle and glue the stomach spacer by gluing the spines together like you did before. You will need to fold those spines outward a bit to make that easier. I have found it works easier if you only do one side at a time, put glue on the dragons spines on one side, attach the spacer, allow to dry a bit and then do the other side. Once dry (2b), pinch the nose and open it up a bit by squaring off the "upper lip" (unless you like it pointy).
    3. Get the smaller head spacer, and glue these spines to matching spines under the head much like you did for the stomach (one side first, then the other). The head spacer also includes the lower jaw, so just glue the spines.
    4. The tail spacer and fins attach like the head spacer. Simply match the tail fins to the underside fins on the tail of the body
    5. The front legs carry the wings. Glue the center of the roundish shoulder of the front leg, and on the leg stump on the body, but not the base of the wing. You might want to fold the wings outward slightly at this point to glue the wings pinned back.
    6. Attach the back legs by gluing the hip area of the leg over rear stump on the body. Once dry you can spread the feet and legs as necessary to get a proper stance for it
  • To some extent, the positions of some items can be shifted slightly. Perhaps more importantly, feel free to modify some parts to better suit you. If you want different wings (say butterfly wings), feel free to cut them off and draw up your own. Another idea is to paste stuff on it like bits of paper to make scales or build out the wings and tails with strips of colored paper, whatever.
The jpeg version can be modified with simple photo imaging software. The original design was limited by keeping it to a single sheet of paper. Whatever you can imagine would be fine.

Gallery of Dragons - Papercraft workshop Arisia 2016:

Arisia Fast Track 2016 Bonus

I had a spare set of kits for an experimental one I was ironing out at the time. This character, a certain Encoded Bill is a fairly simple build, and still kind of beta, but if you are willing to try it out, the kit and instructions are here. I'll go into more detail for the next workshop blog entry. The only thing to say here is that I did make it with a "following eye" feature which you can try out. It involves cutting out the drawn eye, and placing the pupil piece provided against the inside back wall behind the hole. It's otherwise a fairly straightforward triangular box, arms and legs fold over for strength and to create feet arms. A simple forehand and flame part allows you to finish off the hands nicely. Good luck trying it out.

In Black and White (color it in) or in Color and the instructions (Links included as soon as I perfect the "following eye feature).

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Arisia 2015: Miniatures and Modeling for Gamers and Fans

Various recent releases (clockwise)
Monarch Models "Ghost",
Revell Star Wars 7 Tie, Pegasus Luna,
Moebius Colonial One, Airfix Angel
Interceptor, Revell Ger. Enterprise,
Bandai Gundam, Dragon Tranquility
Base, Moebius Ranger and Flying Sub
McFarlane Walking Dead, Pegasus
Nautilus, Fantastic Plastic Avatar
Shuttle, Moebius Johny Quest
In spite of being in one of the most hidden rooms in the hotel, and placed right up against Masquerade (which is single most attended item this weekend), we actually had a fair amount of people there. Most of the audience were familiar with one or another aspect of the topic, but there were a few self acknowledged newbies in the group which was nice. My fellow panelist were T. Christopher Davis who specialized in gaming miniatures and terrains, and John "Madman Lighting" Cook who is an award winning scale modeler as well as a manufacturer of lighting kits for models. I brought along several of my old models and a couple of new paper ones, and not surprisingly for me, got to talk about the paper end of the hobby.
     Arisia has a large gaming component among its attendees. The
gaming track at Arisia consists of various active game rooms, discussions about games, video games, and LARPS. It is definitely a con that doesn't forget that science fiction and fantasy is just fun. Part of this is also reflected by the amount of the con
Dwarf gaming miniature
from Basicks kit
devoted to costuming, both as a topic of discussion and visibly displayed by participants in costume reflecting their fen interests (be it creative anachronism, cosplay, subject fandom, or just whatever comes to mind).  It was nice that this year we got at least one panel devoted to those of us who like to craft our fandom in miniature instead of wearing it.
     The thing about this hobby is that it is currently in a kind of golden age. Never before have so many different subjects and areas in this genre been available for builds. The greater number of genre films and TV shows, comic books, and games is part of the reason. Another reason for the growth of this niche in the hobby is the increasing number of fans who really embrace their "geek"ness. So you prefer working with miniature starships and dwarves, so what, they are cool.

What was it exactly?

Basically, science fiction and fantasy in miniature for a variety of purposes. There is of course the replica of the science fiction vehicles we are all familiar from film and television. I personally believe this also covers the replication of props, sometimes to a higher fidelity than those that were actually used on film (admittedly this can crossover into costuming). There is also the creation of elaborate stages in miniature and game pieces for use in table top gaming. It is a creative aspect of fandom that also extends into other media such as Lego construction and 3D virtual models and 3D printing. Another expression of the hobby is in figure modeling, either full figures or busts (aside from game pieces). These figure models tend to have a wider span covering not just science fiction, but also horror, fantasy, and even popular culture and humor.
     Given the collective experience of the panelists, we initially spoke on the nature of our hobby from our individual point of view, how we work, what we found interesting, what it seems to be like (something which I think this internet cartoon captured quite well.

We focused on discussing the techniques and tools involved in how to put our stuff together. We mostly opted for opening the floor to questions to get a sense of what attendees wanted to know.
Lindberg models released in 1954 what is perhaps the first science fiction model, although given the saucer craze at the time, they may have thought it was an educated guess at a real artifact. It has been re-released several times since.

How does one get started?

A fairly basic question which we got early on. Well I guess the starting point should be your nearest hobby shop, or perhaps (given that these have become fewer and farther between than they used to be) a nearby crafting chain. The latter choice is problematic in that your choices, particularly in the SF/F area will be limited. Some stores specialize in gaming resources and carry miniatures. Comic book stores may also stock both gaming miniatures and SF/F models as well as limited supplies for working on them. Occasionally major franchises, like Star Wars, will license miniatures, but toy stores nowadays only rarely carry models (although some starship modelers are currently thinking about how to work with the new giant Hasbro Millennium Falcon and X-wing toys. Reworking actual toys into quality models is not unheard of, but it is a bit of work). Of course there is always the internet where you can either find many items on amazon.com or other more specialized sites (I'll put the link list at the end).
Revell SnapTite
     The range of models and miniatures can also vary. One can start with the finished collectible or nearly ready finished variety. Many models currently are designed as simpler "snap-fit" kits that don't require glue, and are frequently already painted. A whole series of small scale Star Wars figures are marketed this way with very few pre-painted parts in bubble packaging. This is ideal for children or people who have never built any of these types of models before. On the other hand, more experienced modelers prefer the traditional paint and glue type. This is because all kits often reflect a compromise of one kind or another between price, ease of construction, size and so forth. Pre-painted kits may not be the "right color" and since you can't "test fit" a part, or sand seams (it ruins the finish) it can create problems. This all depends on questions of accuracy* and detailed finish.
Madman's EarthForce Starfury from Babylon 5
Madman's EarthForce (B5) Starfury
with his lighting kit (on display
during this session)
    While in general, it is not a particularly expensive hobby, one can expect to spend a certain amount in setting up a basic workshop (see tools next section). Some kits can indeed get expensive, particularly if one starts adding aftermarket parts such as detail sets and limited run "garage" kits. If you have your heart set on something that is out of production or only available in Japan, well that is an order of magnitude more. Of late the ultimate kits are huge, limited run, 3D printed ones such as the 1/700 scale Cygnus from "The Black Hole" which was available from Shapeways (in sections, runs up in the thousands).
     Take for example the Moebius updated re-release of the old Orion III model from Aurora. The basic kit is actually not a bad starter kit. It is reasonably sized, has relatively few parts, and no particular assembly problems. It typically retails for $30. Unfortunately, the classic Pan Am markings are still under trade mark, so it doesn't come with any. Fortunately you can get aftermarket decals from a couple of decal manufacturers. Prices range from $7 to $17 (the latter include alternate versions, such as NASA or USAF). DIY inkjet decal sets to make your own run around the same price, although you should get enough material to do several models. If you want to get really fancy, you can add interior and exterior detail with a brass photo-etch set at $27. So you could make this model amazing for about $60-70 (paints, brushes, cement, and fillers are overhead).
     One aspect not to be overlooked is scratch building with whatever you can find. Many amazing subjects are created from found items and interesting packaging such as Easter candy eggs, empty pill canisters, and wood. It is also important to know that from a commercial point of view, some things are unlikely to receive a wide release, and garage kit version releases that may happen can also be very expensive. A little creativity can go a long way (see this "pickled alien" display for instance)

*Accuracy - a side note:

     The thing about accuracy is that these are fantasy objects (real space excepted). Accuracy is thus a relative thing. Often the subject may only have existed as a variety of shooting models which don't entirely agree with each other. The true color is an endless question, particularly since that depends on a variety of unknown aspects of the model's photography: lighting, exposure, color balance, monitor and can be very subjective. Even scale can be open to question. It is well known that most SF ships on film are generally smaller on the outside than what is portrayed as the insides.

Tools of the hobby

The topic most asked about in one way or another regarded tools and their usage. The question is often one of finish and how much you want to spend in blood and treasure. Typical tools depend on your media: plastic, resin, paper, clay, Legos or old pill and film canisters. Paints are also necessary and can vary with different surfaces. Paint can be applied with brushes, air brushes or even specialized markers. Additional after-market parts or decals, or even kits for adding lights or extra details such as photo-etched brass (PE sets) for commercial releases are also available.
      Chris Davis and myself admit that on a very basic level, we don't want to spend too much money on this, so we may rely on substitutes. An interesting comment Chris made is that often the railroad hobbyist have developed specialized tools and materials that you can find at the hobby shop at a premium price, but cheaper equivalent may be available at your local hardware store.
     A classic example of going for the cheap solution is the usage of pink insulation foam to build up terrain for a game field or a diorama. The material is relatively cheap in bulk (one sheet should last a long time), and can be carved with typical carving tools such as small files and hobby knives and easy to paint (just not spray enamels which will melt it, although I've seen that done for effect). The only specialized tool it needs is a hot wire cutter to make smooth cuts (it melts through the foam without tearing it).
      John Cook recommends a good airbrush to really improve the finish, both in overall coating as well as detail paint finishes on a model. To demonstrate he brought in his Klingon BOP as well as a Babylon 5 Starfury. Both kits were meticulously painted and carefully shaded as well as equipped with lighting kits which he sells as aftermarket add-ons. Many find lighting a key component to many a starship miniature (You can see a detailed article on his Starfury at the Starship modeler site in the "Wrecks" gallery).
      I myself added that in the case of paper models, you don't need much more than glue, scissors and a good printer to get started (or printed kit as some are now available in your local bookstore). That being said, sticky glues are better than white glues, sharp blades with a steel edged ruler can sometimes be handier than scissors, and a variety of paper weights will help, not just cardstock. I have more details in a previous posting.
      You can find better detailed listings on hobby web sits, but this is a brief overview of things we said:
  • An X-acto knife or its equivalent (yes! the knife of Exact-Zero!)
    • It is handy for all 3 types of modeling: plastic, gaming, and paper. Note, blades can come in several types, not just the classic no. 11 (with regards to kids, these are also very sharp)
  • Jewelers files
    • These often come in sets to provide a variety of sanding possibilities and even limited drilling into surfaces and punching into soft surfaces. 
  • A pin vise (a favorite of Chris for gaming miniatures)
    • Basically a small hand drill. Allows you to drive small holes into an item accurately with good control. Handy for adding steel pins to help hold parts together.
  • Cyanoacrylate glue (aka Super Glue or Krazy Glue Brand - The KraGle)
    • While plastic models can be made with just plastic cement (check to see that it works with polystyrene), Cyanoacrylate can make particularly strong bonds and works with a wider range of materials and mixed materials (e.g. brass to plastic). Accelerators make the bond instantaneous, but can burn due to the chemical reaction (and since it is glue, if it's burning you, it's also stuck on you). Some people also use it in paper modeling as it will soak into paper and make it hard and plastic like (I personally use nail polish for that effect).
  • A vent hood
    • If nasty chemicals and fumes are involved you may consider this. Spray paints and some of the nastier solvents (such as acetone) can be problematic indoors. The internet can provide many DIY designs. There is some science to this, so check out user results. If on the other hand you stick to brushes and fewer volatiles, you should be ok without one (just watch for spills).
  • Some miscellany: sanding paper, sanding blocks, and filler
    • We did mention the use specialized sanding tools that can bend around parts, but generally a means to sand from medium to extra fine is useful in trimming mold seams and joint seams. The use of a block is important, but you can make these yourself by using a bit of wood or foam when it has to conform to a shape. You can even use nail files and for finer grit, glue finer paper onto it. In plastic modeling you may also need this to sand down filled in spots. All this sanding is often in conjunction with plastic filler putty used to fill in gaps in seams or smooth out joins. Putty is available in most hobby shops, but curiously my local hobby shop guy pointed out you can get this cheaper from the auto supply shop as the small ding filler putty (not to be confused with the 2 part can of patch resin).
Oh, something we did forget which is both trivial and very important: If you buy a kit that was molded (plastic, resin, etc), wash it in dish washing detergent to get the mold release agent (grease) off of the parts before you start working on it. This will greatly improve the hold of glues and cements as well as paint and paint coverage.

Where to go and look

To end this posting I just want to set out some links to find more information about participating in this hobby.
The truth of the matter is that it is hard to give a complete picture of making miniatures and models from one panel session and one blog post (this one is already a tad large). Again it is a question of satisfaction with the finished product; you can pretty much make do with the appropriate glue/cement, a hobby knife, bottle paints and brushes (and even dispense with the latter if the subject is pre-painted). You can visit general modeling sites or books (almost every library has books on model railroading and a lot of the techniques discussed there apply here) for more advanced techniques such as weathering, oil washing, decal placement, painting, finishing clear coats, airbrushing techniques, dioramas, etc.
      Well, I hope this gets people interested in the hobby, or if they are modeling interested in this niche, I also hope that this is looked up by those that were interested, but didn't make it to the session because of Masquerade (hec, my daughter was in it and I missed it).

My cardstock Narcissus which was on display at the session(will be downloadable soon...promise)

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

More Flying 'Round: real saucers (sort of) - Part 2

When researching this topic, as mentioned earlier, there was more stuff to this that I could confortably deal with in one post. If we look at it from the pre-history of flight to the great revolutionary period of development with the second world war, there is plenty to look at. While many of the "round" aircraft of the first half of the 20th century were often not much more than curiosities, the round shape would be revisited, sometimes to take advantage of some of the more surprising aerodynamic effects of controlled airflow.

The Cold War

Much of the aviation research work generate by the Luftwaffe in World War II was captured by the Allies after the wall, as well as equipment and perhaps more importantly personnel. Fans of a genre referred to as Luft'46, often extol the amazing performance of many of the aircraft designs that were being put to paper and could have theoretically been put into production by the Germans if the war had continued. The had by this time already designed ocean crossing jet bombers, supersonic fighters, transcontinental missiles and advanced tactical missiles such guided air to surface missiles. In practice, it is doubtful they could have implemented the wide scope of proposals given the dire situation of Germany at the time. It is telling that in spite of all the captured material, very few of these designs made it more or less directly from those blueprints to a production model in either the Soviet Union or the United States (and yes, there are a few exceptions). Still, a great deal of their ideas were applied such as swept wings and engine layouts.
     The Cold War created a golden age of military R&D. It would in a very real sense be undone by the great cost of the weapons systems being developed. However in the 50s, when enough time had passed to make anything developed at the end of World War II thoroughly obsolete, it seemed money would be thrown at any vaguely promising advanced idea.
Among the many research air vehicles developed during the Cold War, several of the shapes tried out for vertical take off had vaguely saucer-like shapes.  In the end, none proved truly practical.
     The Heikel annular wing designs lived on in some post war designs carried out by the allies after the war for high performance vertical take-off aircraft (Note: to what extent isn't certain, since the ability to take off vertically by basically aiming propulsive forces down should be fairly obvious). The French Coleoptere was very reminiscent of the Heinkel design. It consisted of a very powerful jet engine housed in a fuselage surrounded by its  wing. On it's test stand it gives off a very futuristic look. In spite of this, it hardly ever truly flew. The craft was flown tethered and found difficult to control. Still, untethered flights were attempted, but it crashed early in its development program. It looked really cool, but it flew like a brick balanced on a skewer.
     The US also tried tail sitter designs, although not in that form, and while they did fly, they were found to be nearly impossible to land. They did try other forms of VTOL, such as simple fan powered hovering. The Army tried various designs that mounted powerful fans to lift infantrymen and behave as a kind of flying jeep or platform. Some of these must have been positively frightening as the infantryman/pilot would stand just inches above the rapidly whirling blades (the DeLackner DH-5 Aerocycle and the Hiller VZ-1 Pawnee). In spite of this, the practicality of such as craft was fairly limited and did not offset traditional light helicopters or ground vehicles.

The Coanda Effect machines

Henri Coanda was a Romanian engineer who invented the first jet airplane in 1910(!). In the process of testing his aircraft he observed the effect that would carry his name. It is interesting to note that he had the presence of mind to observe that the engine's flaming jet exhaust began to wrap around the flame deflectors and hit the fuselage of his very inflammable aircraft while he was simultaneously crashing it. To put it briefly (and over simply), a rapidly flowing fluid will tend to adhere over the surface it is flowing. You can try it out by feeling the air flow around a can of soda when you blow on it.
     As he examined the effect, he postulated that he could create a new method of propulsion that would not make use of a propeller because the rapidly flowing air would create a region of low pressure. If the effect was created above the craft it could generate sufficient lift to fly the craft without wings. He explored the effect and proposed a saucer like aircraft that would use the Coanda effect alone to fly. During the war he continued his research and afterwards patented the idea as a flying saucer.
     The idea was picked up by a couple of aerospace companies, but perhaps more notably by the Avro Canada aviation company. The idea was to create a craft that could use the Coanda effect to lift off vertically, and once at altitude would shift to forward flight using its basic shape as the airfoil. The most ambitious of these was to use an extremely thin saucer like wing to allow the craft supersonic performance. Avro first had to test out the idea and it did so with an early subsonic prototype called the Avrocar.
The Coanda Effect describes how a stream of rapidly moving air will follow the contours of the shape it is flowing over. A coanda effect craft will achieve lift by blowing air pressurized by some mechanism out the sides of the craft. This air curves around the periphery and accelerates surrounding air creating a large volume of low pressure above it. Note that the Avrocar's jet exhaust slot is around the very edges of the craft. The intake for the engine is NOT the main source of lift, although it does contribute. Instead the rapidly flowing air from the edges pulls the air around it creating low pressure over the entire upper surface.
     The Avrocar VZ-9 was developed using US Army funding (as part of the flying jeep program) and the US Air Force, to study the use of the Coanda Effect for a future VTOL fighter. Unlike a conventional jet aircraft, these Coanda Effect aircraft were intended to fire the exhaust radially around the edge of the aircraft. This would create the rapidly flowing stream of air around the edge of the body creating low pressure above it and high pressure below. In practice, the aircraft never proved easy to fly. At low altitudes, the craft's lift was augmented by the ground effect of the exhaust gas being trapped underneath it. As it rose, the gases would escape unevenly out one side or another causing serious instability. It appeared that the benefits of using this effect would be much harder to realize than at first thought (added to the difficulty of developing a suitable radial jet engine). While more advanced versions of the design were proposed, in the end the Avrocar never flew more than a few feet off the ground and was canceled.
     In spite of the failure of various Coanda Effect saucers, the effect is used to enhance the lift of various aircraft by controlling the flow of air over wings and control surfaces.

Dream Saucers

Various designers have proposed serious designs for flying saucer like craft. Some perhaps inspired by the popular accounts of UFOs, others by the lure of VTOL and new ways of flying. Unfortunately, after the war the economic costs of creating radical new aircraft designs meant that unlike the inventors of earlier days, many of these ideas remained as nothing more than paper drawings and mock-ups.

    French aviator Rene-Couzinet designed what I considered one of the prettiest aircraft ever, the Couzinet Arc-en-Ciel. In 1933 this aircraft made the first non-stop crossing from Africa to South America. Couzinet's life though was apparently marked with the kind of up and downs associated with very headstrong designers. Somehow he ended up in Brazil after the war designing his dream aircraft, a flying saucer. The design really consisted of using the circular planform to hold airfoil blades along the perimeter in two counter rotating rings to lift the craft vertically. Once airborne, these short blade sections would not be a hindrance to horizontal flight the way full sized helicopter blades are. While he did build working models and mock-ups of his design, he never acquired the funding to build a full sized version. The situation apparently weighed heavily upon him as he and his wife committed suicide.
     The Weygers Discopter is another idea that was presented with much art by its inventor, Alexander Weyger. The basic premise was in essence to replace the open rotating blades of a helicopter with a set enclosed within a disk shaped fuselage (akin to the FW Rochen proposal), The smaller personal transport enclosed the passenger at the center of the disk. Plans for a commuter version show passengers enclosed in individual pods along the periphery of the disk. While never developed in his lifetime, he appears to have been happily involved in many other fulfilling projects in his life.
     One of the downsides of many of these designs when compared to helicopters is that they are very limited in their flight capacity due to engine failure (helicopters can parachute down with their rotors through a property known as "autorotation"). Paul Moller ameliorates this problem by using many cross-linked motors in his design so there is no catastrophe due to a single engine failure. He is perhaps one of the more famous designers of personal flying saucers. This is because he has frequently been mentioned in media as the creator of a future flying car. His designs use multiple ducted fans to generate lift. While his Skycar design is not saucer shaped, he has tried out a variety of his ideas using a series of saucer like prototype craft culminating in his current M200 Neuera craft. Moller International has continued to develop these machines for over 30 years and may yet enter the mass market.
     Airship industries which created a market for lighter than air travel commercially in the 80s with their Skyship blimps initially produced a saucer shape airship (rigid?) designed to minimize turning moments on the craft caused by cross-winds. In the end the company went on to a series of more conventional blimps having made no more than a scale flying model version of the ship. Pictures of the original saucer skyship model frequents many UFO pages out there on the web.


The light ship may perhaps be the closest we can get to flying space saucers with current technology. The idea is to use the shape as a focusing mirror in some designs to focus the light energy of a laser to superheat the air and thus propel the aircraft in a very rapid series of bursts. Models have been flown successfully and it does present a theoretical model for a ship that can attain very high velocities without having to carry it's own fuel. The shape has also been considered as a shape that can receive transmitted microwave energy. This energy can be used similarly to superheat air and thus achieve extremely high velocities. While they couldn't make do without using some reaction mass for the last part of the journey outside the atmosphere, they can make use of the beamed energy to heat it potentially making them extremely efficient orbital boosters.

Links and Resources

Many are the same from the last post, but in addition, here's a few more
  • Tail-Sitter VTOL projects, sometimes referred to as "pogos" including the infamous Coleoptere
  • The US Army's VZ series which included various flying platforms
  • Henri Coanda information page at Florida International University
  • The VZ-9 Avrocar can be visited at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton. Their website has the factsheet
  • The Discopter site which continues to promote Weyger's craft
  • Moller International, the corporate site for Moller's aircraft and engineering work.
  • A short video excerpt which describes lightships very well on youtube.
  • and yet again: Identified Flying Objects - An interesting set of articles and links to various saucer projects, particularly those tied to VTOL.
  • and a link back to the previous Saucerful of Spaceships post

Monday, December 22, 2014

Flying 'Round: real saucers (sort of) - Part 1

A look at some real saucer and roundish aircraft

I recently picked up a book on weird aircraft at the bargain bin. The book could use some serious editing, but it did go over a variety of interesting designs that are not often mentioned in aviation books - often with good reason. Many of these I have also seen around the web, particularly since I'm fascinated with designs that didn't go anywhere. There was also a comment on one of my blogs about a real saucer that I decided to follow up on (the comment is on the wrong page somehow as it should really be part of the "Saucerfull" post, but anyway.) It is an interesting story, but nevertheless not that unique in aviation history, that is the idea of a flying disk. It is also an idea that predates the classic flying saucer story from 1947.

The more I prepared this post, the bigger it got, so I'm going to break this into separate parts to make it easier to digest (particularly for me).

What is a round wing?

There is some variation into what may be considered a round wing. One could say that it is of a circular wing planform (looking from top down) or a flat ring like (circular) wing planform. Disk wings are also described as low aspect ratio wings, meaning that the width of the wing (the chord) is large when compared to the wing's length. The surprising benefit of this type of arrangement is that it provides a considerable amount of lift at low speeds and high angle of attack (the angle of the wings with respect to the airflow). As a result these aircraft could fly at very low speeds and were attractive designs in the era pre-dating helicopters.
     Another type of round shaped wing comes from annular wing design. In this case the wing is encircles the fuselage. It is sometimes flattened out and made boxier for a shape that resembles a stretched box kite. This general design is also referred to as a closed wing design.
     A variation of round shaped flying machines is perhaps closer to what we would think of as a flying saucer. In a sense, these are wingless, because while the shape is generally considered to generate a certain amount of lift in flight, the main aspect of the shape is to house primary lifting devices that operate symmetrically. The more traditional lift devices make use of exhaust jets or ducted fans of some sort to redirect a mass of air directly downwards to counteract gravity. A more sophisticated method makes use of the Coanda effect to create an area of low pressure over the surface to lift the craft. More esoteric methods described are sometimes more whimsical than practical, such as electromagnetic levitation. One practical method that has been investigated is the usage of the shape as an energy receiver in the form of microwave or laser energy which can then be used or focused to superheat air at the base of the disc to generate thrust.

 Flying Pans and Pancakes

DaVinci's Helicopter
The prototypical flying saucer?
It is recalled that 19th century Yale students indulged in the aerodynamics of flying disks as they threw either the empty pie platters or cookie (can?) lids embossed with the name of the baking company; the Frisbie Pie Company of New Haven, CT. The shape of the these plates imparted some lift, but spinning it gave it the stability to maintain a positive flight attitude through its flight. While there are some images of spinning circular wings, the mechanics of spinning a wing simply to impart stability seems not to have been thought the best way to achieve that result (exception being Guido Fallei's design on the cover of the Sept. 1930 Popular Mechanics?). On the other hand, some inventors looked at the possible added strength from wider or ring like wings as a possible solution of building wings with enough lift area to heave up their weight and not collapse at the same time. The thing to remember is that in the early history of practical manned flight (and particularly pre-flight), there was generally a poor understanding of the mechanics and forces involved in flight, so in truth when some of these designs proved effective it was perhaps more a matter of luck than actual thoughtful, researched, design. The British aviation pioneer George Cayley achieved some success making small gliders with large kite shaped wings which were rather long in chord and narrow in span. Along these lines other 19th century inventors created saucer like designs such as John Wootton and Alphonse PĂ©naud, (1850 - 1880).

George Cayley's early gliders featured kite-like wings in various configurations (bi-planes and triplanes). One design for a helicopter featured saucer-like rotors. John Wootton patented a flying machine that operated like a helicopter and featured a large fixed circular parachute wing for safety. Alphonse Penaud designed a very modern looking flying machine with a large oval wing with engineer Gauchot in 1874. This last design was refined by 1876 with many modern features such as retractable landing gear and automatic controls. Penaud built many models that featured his forward concepts, but was never able to get financing to build a full sized version of his design.

     The advent of actual flying machines did not initially discourage inventors from trying unique and imaginative variations on flying machines. This was due in part to the availability of the resources in lightweight materials and powerplants that finally made these plans viable. There was also a lack of specific knowledge of aerodynamics that might have been used to better analyze these aircraft. It has also been noted that the Wright brother's aggressive protection of their patents did encourage investors to find "different" ways of flying. Louis Bleriot and Gabriel Voisin for instance working in Europe had very sketchy information about the Wright's success (in fact many in Europe doubted they had really flown at all). They chose an annular design for their biplane creating a sturdy structure for their floatplane. In the end, the design did not work and after some modification both designers went their separate, but ultimately successful, ways.
The Bleriot III used an annular or closed wing shape. It was eventually abandoned. The MCormick-Ronne circular aircraft did manage to fly eventually around 1912, but also proved a dead end. The Lee-Richards design of 1913 was a development from the earlier biplane design.
The McCormick-Ronne "Umbrella Plane" or "Cycloplane" had an interesting development history. Originally based on designs by William Romme, it received funding from Harold McCormick of farming machinery fame, and the millionaire John D. Rockefeller Jr. starting in 1910. The aircraft's basic design made use of a wing roughly in the shape of a regular polygon, held on a set of radially distributed spokes which in turn were supported by a large centrally mounted mast. Other aspects of the craft changed with time, such as the position of the controls, and the propeller and engine assembly which was variously either pusher, puller, and sometimes connected to the engine by a long shaft. At some point Charles Vought worked on the project as a young engineering graduate. Vought would later found a company that would revisit the "round" airplane concept. In the end the Umbrella Plane proved to be a dead end and was apparently abandoned around 1913.
     The J.G.A. Kitchen, G. T. Richards, and Cedric Lee designed aircraft that used a circular wing planform. Initially Kitchen created a circular biplane which was refined with Richard's help. Disagreement between the designers resulted in subsequent work being developed by Richards with Lee. The Richard Lee Monoplane went through various versions (1,2,3) from 1912 up to 1914. The final version crashed with Lee at the controls, who managed to escape with minor injuries, but the aircraft was a total wreck.
    Stephen Nemeth's, another "Umbrella Plane" built in 1934, mounted a circular wing above a standard fuselage looking like some of over-sized parasol and hence the name. It could take off and land in very short spaces due to that low aspect ratio wing. The circular wing was also only 15 feet in diameter making it easy to store in a hanger "not much larger than the ordinary garage" as the Modern Mechanics of June 1934 noted.

The Nemeth "Umbrella Plane" of 1934. If you can find newsreels of it, it flies surprisingly like a gyrocopter
Some of the more notable aircraft of this type were developed by C.L. Snyder, a podiatrist. He noted the interesting gliding properties of heel lifts and decided to try creating an aircraft around that shape. He did indeed employ actual aviation engineers in his company, the Arup Manufacturing Co.,  so the wing design was not totally based on an artifact of shoe manufacturing. Still, you can see the heel in the designs. It was developed through several models, Arup S-1 thru S-4 and even one off-shoot created by a former Arup engineer Raoul Hoffman who designed the similar Hoffman Flying Wing.
     All these aircraft show remarkable STOL flight characteristics and unique flying characteristics such as maneuvering at slow speeds. In fact newsreels of the craft show them taking off with very little space and practically dropping straight down for landings with rolls of only a few feet. The claim that it could take off and land from your own backyard does not look far fetched.

Strangely enough, the Nemeth and Arup aircraft did not really capture the interest of manufacturers that could have marketed and mass produced the aircraft. Perhaps it was the result of the fairly specific performance envelope at the time. They were also not the only ones to create such designs, the moth-like Aubron-Payen AP-10 being an example. While these aircraft did exhibit remarkable STOL (Short Take Off & Landing) capabilities, they were not that unique for a world dominated by relatively slow, fast climbing biplanes that could operate from small unpaved fields. The contemporary autogyro (precursor to helicopters) could match that performance and even show limited vertical take off capacity. More effectively marketed by Cierva (the inventor) and Pitcairn, autogyros were not limited to one-off prototypes.

World War II

     The U.S. Navy has a strong interest in aircraft that could easily take off and land in short spaces. They considered a design proposed by Charles H. Zimmerman from Chance-Vought. Zimmerman reportedly visited the Arup Company and investigated using the combined effect of the disk-like wing with air blown at high speed from the propellers to enhance lift. Test models of the design were shown to rise practically vertically with good control. Moreover, the design could potentially have fighter-like performance. The prototype V-173 was flown several times and showed much promise. The fighter prototype was the Chance-Vought XF5U-1. It's development was protracted and not completed by the end of the war. After the war it was undergoing engine tests prior to flight tests when the program was canceled. It was a victim of the jet age, as most cutting edge propeller designs were at the end of World War II.
     When talking about World War II saucer aircraft, some mention must be made of Nazi projects. It is true that several strange and unusual aircraft designs were produced by German aircraft designers during the war. It is also true that even stranger, futuristic designs were still on the drawing boards (or actually just left there) at the war's end. They had developed rocket and jet technology to the limits of engineering capacities at the time and in many ways were considerably more advanced than what the Allies had developed by that time. Even so, the stories of highly advanced "flying saucer" designs based on advanced electromagnetic devices or supersonic turbines have to be taken with a relatively large sized grain of salt.
     One of the few documented German "saucers" was fairly conventional and along the lines of Arup and Zimmerman. The Sack AS-6, had a truly circular planform. It was powered by a small engine and in that form would have been limited to simple utility work such as reconnaissance or field courier. Beyond research into that type of wing,  nothing really came from that design.
Various World War II era "round" aircraft (*design only, ** not flown). The Payen 112 (based on the PA-22 racer) was not round, but was perhaps an introduction of low-aspect ratio wings in the presently more familiar delta wing. Of these only the Eshelman Flying Flounder, the Vought V-173, and the Sack AS-6 actually flew. The XF5U was cancelled before flight, whereas the Boeing 390 and FW-Rochen were never built

     Other designs appear to be nothing more than quick paper studies: the Focke-Wulf Rochen that would have hidden a lift fan inside it's teardrop shaped lifting body fuselage, and the Heinkel Wespe and Lerche II designs which were tail-sitters with annular wings. It is doubtful that there was any way these technologically advanced craft could go much beyond theoretical work at the time. After the war much of this information fell into Allied hands, and truth be told, many of these designs proved impractical even with the huge military research budgets of the Cold War. As far as anything else, I really don't want to delve into some of the crazier rumors out there.

Next time:  More human flying saucers...

Links and Resources for Part I

There is of course many areas on the Internet to find out about flying saucers, real and imaginary. Unfortunately, due to their connection to alien technology, they can be pretty odd. In the case of the speculative human saucers, they can also be rather odd (particularly the Nazi ones, which seem to be in a mythological class by themselves). If one can overlook some of the personal points of some of these sites one can find out quite a bit on the real designs. The grain of salt comes when looking at designs that may have been nothing more than a sketch on a piece of paper by people with little aeronautical expertise that's been lost for decades.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Rounding out flat paper

Some observations on problem surfaces

One of the biggest problems with paper models is the fact that you can't really curve paper in two different directions at one time. I should actually qualify that statement that you can't do that severely or easily in two directions at one time. The other problem is that many 3 dimensional surfaces are not directly mappable to a 2 dimensional space. This second problem is easily illustrated by taking a large section of orange peel and flattening out on a surface. The peel will inevitably crack and split.

Getting paper to go around in more than one direction

The reason for the former has to do with the material itself. Paper is a mesh of microscopic fibers (typically wood pulp) that are woven together under pressure. There is often a general alignment of these fibers that result in the paper being easier to roll in one direction rather than another. Some model designers actually recommend taking advantage of this property when fitting pieces for printing to take advantage of this natural roll which in most factory milled paper would be around its long axis. A crease or fold in the paper actually breaks some of these fibers creating a hard corner, but a roll will simply bend and stretch the fibers into a curve much like the way you would cup your fingers to give someone a "leg up" somewhere. While in theory it should be possible to stretch and bend those fibers around in more than one direction, like the way fabric will stretch and wrap, in practice paper fibers are too static.
     A limited amount of orthogonal roll (that is rolling around 2 axis) can be done by rubbing the paper over a curved surface such as the outside of a large spoon bowl. This technique is unfortunately limited to small areas and curvatures that are relatively shallow. If the paper is damp, it can be molded to some extent, of course if the paper is printed in a water soluble ink, this is not an option. Don't expect very dramatic curves, but it might be OK for miniature dishes and the like.

A sheet of paper is Euclidean

If you try to wrap paper around an apple to match the curve you will quickly come to the reason for the second problem. When one is first introduced to geometry, one of the first tasks is to draw a typical flat X/Y (Cartesian) coordinate system. Parallel lines will always remain equidistant to each other. This is a geometry whose properties were initially described by Euclid, and so hence Euclidean. On a non-Euclidean surface, by definition this is not true. So two parallel lines, being lines who can share a normal (a right angle intersection), do not actually remain equidistant. The classic example are longitude lines which while parallel at any particular latitude, in that they meet the common latitude at right angles, they do actually meet at the poles. This critically means that the area covered by any section between these two lines is not constant. This is why the orange peel splits, since there isn't enough area of peel to compensate for the increase in space as you try to map non-euclidean parallel lines to a flat euclidean space. The inverse with paper is the appearance of folds that try to take up the extra area.
     Surprisingly, not all 3D surfaces result in this type of area difficulties. Consider the rolling of a sheet of paper into a cylinder. This is a 3D surface, and it is quite trivially mapped onto a planar sheet of paper. Similarly you can bunch it up in a cone shape and again, this is not a problem. It turns out that a cylinder is basically a subset of a cone section, that is a segment of a cone whose vertex lies at an infinite distance from this segment. For a trickier shape, consider rolling over two corners like a cone and hold the other corners flat on the table. This shape is still related to the cone, but contains a more complicated set of curvatures.

A standard flat sheet on far left, curled up into a cylinder, then roughly into a cone, and finally the pseudo hood like shape that is flat at one end and curled at the far end
     The ability to create relatively complex curves that are based on shapes that can be mapped onto a plane is discussed in an article downloadable from papermodelers.com (alas membership required) called "Cardboard Models Design Principles" by Mad44ms. The paper can actually be a tough read if one is not well experienced in 3D geometry and CAD software, but it does provide some insight into what can be done with flat paper and how to minimize the number of parts to make a curve. To create the examples, Mad44ms takes advantage of the software to maintain the plane-mapping qualities of the surface that is being worked. This is unfortunately not always an option since the ability to do this may not be part of your software or at least a feature that is not easily understood - 3D software is often very complex and the learning curve can be very steep.
     Still, the basic cylinder and cone can provide a variety of different surfaces to work with, even in cases that the cylinder or cone are sectioned and somewhat asymmetrical.

Cylinders and cones. Note that a tapered cylinder is just a cone cut off horizontally. Similarly a cone section can be cut at any angle and the resulting shape can be mapped to a plane. Even a cone where the vertex is offset can be mapped to a plane (and a section of that type of cone as well). See next figure
On left, a simple cone. Center, a cone with an off center vertex,. Right, tapered cylinder.
     Regarding exceptions, if you recall the rolled sheets, it can be possible to extend some shapes along a line which indicates a change in curvature. If the line is straight in 3D space between the faces they can be kept together. In practice, without software assistance to maintain the required constraints (matching slopes on both faces, etc), this isn't really possible.  A possible surface that can be done manually by visualizing denting a cone in, or adding a cone in from the opposite direction such that the slope of the intersecting line segments are exactly opposite. The easiest example is with centered cones in which case the common seam is centered and circular making a crater-like shape. There often isn't much call for this particular shape, but I've seen it used for creating fancy eyes on dinosaurs and dragons.
The particular crater-like surface on the right consists of two intersecting cones of exactly the same absolute slope (although one is negative the other positive). The flattened pattern can then be two concentric sections (right).  The inner seated inside the outer. In theory, when folded it automatically generates a perfect circular section (in practice it's somewhat hard to glue perfectly...oh well). 
The crater does not need to have equally long slopes on each side, it doesn't even really need to be centered. This last point is because it only requires for the absolute slopes to match at the point of intersection, but not that the slopes on the whole be equal (the flattened version of the such a shape would have the middle circular fold line off center). To see the range, make a paper cone and dent the apex in such that you get a smooth surface on both sides. Without software to help you get this right, only the centered one is easy: make a cone, then halfway up, subdivide, reset apex to same height as base, then set segment lengths to required lengths by subdivision or translating vertices along the line to keep the slopes unchanged..

Triangles...why I mentioned them

An unfolder script for SketchIt made use of the fact that any face can be flattened against another face along a common edge. This can be then be extended to the next face and so on. Some designs that use this algorithm can appear as long snakes or like some kind of angular octopus.
     While Blender does allow for polygons of pretty much any size, the paper folder software only likes faces that are co-planar, i.e. flat. If for some reason you stretch them unevenly or apply a change to any individual vertex, you may very well introduce a twist in the face. This is also true if you make new 4 vertex faces on your own. When this happens in Blender, it is easy to find non-flat faces as the unfolder script will highlight them (although the feature can be buggy). A better method to deal with this is converting suspect faces, or even whole suspect sections, to triangles. Converting triangles not only guarantees flatness (3 points define a plane), you can also control the type of twist the surface gets for your purpose, such as a more complementary curve to the shape itself.
     Now when looking at a set of adjacent triangular surfaces, you can conceive a part that consists of the entire path of adjacent sides. You can also continue the path outward on additional sides provided that they only meet the main part along only one adjacent side (Note: exceptions do exist). If the curvature reverses (say from concave to convex), you may have to separate the part the mapping might cause an overlap.

A nonsense pseudo vampire with flowing cape that can nonetheless be mapped onto a single sheet.  Simply follow the path of the triangular edges from left to right. The "head" is also attached to only one triangular edge and itself has appendages that are only hinged on one edge.

Concave and Convex and Overlaps

So some intricate shapes are possible, but there are limits. As seen, it is possible to accommodate surfaces that twist and present concave and convex surfaces. Objects with both concave and convex surfaces can create faces that when unfolded results in overlaps. Sometimes with careful planning, you can allow the parts to unfold in a manner that the parts will miss each other when unfolded. In the Blender unfolder script, this is not always caught and you end up with an unworkable part. When it is caught, the part might be cut off arbitrarily and placing it back where it belongs can be tricky.

This surface consist of a rolled surface with down angled sides. The colors refer to the particular parts that overlap when unfolded ; the overlap being shown as blended colors(bottom). In this case, this part would need to be cut into different parts (at least 3, center plus 2 outer panels)
    Unfortunately, I don't have a sufficiently mathematical background to address when this would happen based on the geometry involved. Some surfaces that go in and out can be resolved without a problem, others can't. On the other hand, you may be able to visualize the problem parts as you plan the path of the common seams. Unfold it mentally and you may see not only where the problem arises, but how you can unfold it differently and avoid the problem altogether. I'll talk about decisions regarding seams and patterns for parts in a future posting.

Nautilus ice breaking ram from ongoing project. The highlighted section is only made up of triangles with single common "hinge" segments. It should unfold as one part if so desired.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fanciful Engineering and Frank Tinsley

The art of Frank Tinsley and Sci-Fact-Fic

Some time ago I participated at a panel on spaceships for artists at Arisia (see old post). One of the odd things I was surprised at was the lack of familiarity in the panel and others with Frank Tinsley, an illustrator who did quite a bit of work for pre-war pulps and Mechanix Illustrated magazine after the war. While many SF illustrators were famous for the SF pulp cover work they did, Mr. Tinsley did no particular work for the many science fiction pulps or paperbacks during his career that I can find. On the other hand, he did quite a bit of work in an area which doesn't really have an adequate description. I suppose it is an area normally referred to as futurism, but in some ways I  think the terms science factional fiction or science fiction engineering is closer, or even Futurama. I don't mean the TV show, but rather the hugely popular GM pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair designed by Norman Bel Geddes.

"To New Horizons" the GM industrial film to introduce their Futurama Exhibit at the New York's World Fair of 1939

The reason I believe in the difference is perhaps because futurism does cover a lot of work that is actually rigorously thought out and modeled with reasonably hard data regarding technological and social trends. The type of work I would consider under sci-fact-fi or S/F/E  covers the type of documentary work  that talks about subjects with an air of hard technical background or specificity that is really at best an excessively overly optimistic view of technological and social trends and at worst pure hyperbole.

In spite of that last sentence, I do believe there is a great deal of value to this type of work. Whilst on the one hand, it is not really useful as any sort of foundation for creating a real functional piece of technology or social engineering, I do suppose it has in the past served as much an inspiration for young future engineers as the appearance of technology in science fiction romances. In fact, such articles were perhaps even more inspiring since they were normally presented as a non-fiction subject sometimes in quite serious publications such as Life or National Geographic.
Life magazine speculative article illustrated by Robert McCall about the future of space travel that accompanied the "First Man in Space" issue April 21, 1961 (find original at Google Books)

Frank Tinsley

Frank Tinsley was born in 1899 in Manhattan. Turn of the century Manhattan was perhaps the living embodiment of a future city in its day. Already having some of the tallest buildings in the world, it was a hub of continent wide transportation arteries. It contained the largest and highest bridges in the world, an elevated and subterranean suburban transport system, and collected a truly polyglot community perhaps unequaled anywhere at the time. Perhaps more importantly he was born in someways along with aviation and it was the aviation pulps where he did a lot of covers.
Variety of covers and art work Frank Tinsley did for the Air Trails/Bill Barns pulp magazine
As dated as these covers may seem to us, they are drawn with an air of passion about flying machines, colorful and dynamic. I dare say much more exiting than even what comes out of the marketing department of Boeing/McD-D and Lockheed-Martin these days. Many of the aircraft shown in these covers and stories represented slight variations on existing aircraft or protototypes.Some of Bill Barnes aircraft were truly inventive designs with some rarely implemented features on real aircraft such as retractable floats and sky hooks for areal dockings.
Some of Tinsley's fanciful futuristic designs that accompanied his articles for Mechanix Illustrated. From top right: A suburban saucer, a nuclear airship, a walking jeep or mechanical mule, and an airborne hover police car.
After the war, Frank Tinsley also began to write articles of speculative engineering projects, S/F/E involving many different forms of transportation: space, terrestrial, and maritime. He also illustrated a memorable series of advertising for American Bosch Arma in the 50s. These ads featured various nuclear and solar powered spaceships and lunar bases with descriptive copy of the futuristic settings, although the company was not in the business of building or designing spacefaring hardware at the time (just their electronics). I still have fond memories of the ads having come across them in old Scientific American issues from the 50s.
Two of the American Bosch Arma Adverts

As prolific as he appears to be in this area of illustration, I can't find any mention of him connected to any actual science fiction magazines or covers at this time. Given the nature of his articles, I can only imagine that he must have been a fan

More on this

While his images are out there, and not always credited, there is very little about Frank Tinsley himself. A brief bio as available at The Field Guide to Wild American Pulp Artists: Frank Tinsley. Also some more information here at the Lambiek Comiclopedia. The Flikr user X-ray Delta One (Call sign for the "Discovery" if you didn't know) has a collection of his images including some of the text of some of his articles. The articles for Mechanix Illustrated are available at the Mechanix Illustrated blog (I've put the link off the search term here to hopefully make it faster to find). A gallery of the ABA ads can be found at Vintage Ads on LiveJournal.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

SFX: People Prefer Old School?

I've been very late getting back to this blog, and normally I always make at least one post after Arisia (2014) about something that happened there. This year there were at least two (probably more), but oh well, I'll get to at least one.

I ended up participating in couple of panels that dealt directly or tangentially with film. The first was actually regarding the looks and trends of current genre film, and the former tangentially in that it dealt specifically with design of fictional genre items. The topic that came up repeatedly though at this con (as well as similar panels at the subsequent Boskone 51 which I was able to attend this year) was the feeling that modern computer aided scenery and effects were not all that "good" and not up to the standards of much more classic FX done in older, particularly pre-CG days.

Some of this can be assigned to a lot of films which seem to revel in the extremely complex CG subjects that are animated up the wazoo, such as the Chitauri Leviathan from the "Avengers" movie or even the new Tranformers as visualized in their film appearances. These are not unique instances, but to some extent creates a kind of "what's with all the whirly bits" feel to it which perhaps to some extent detracts to how believable these objects are as "real" functional objects. Well, at least it does to me.
Wiggly Leviathan
The other and perhaps more pernicious problem is the usage of CG to create monumental sequences. These sequences used to require filming in some borderline Iron Curtain country so you could rent an army cheap to dress up in gear and charge across wheat fields or below a glass matte. The problem here is rather odd because programmers go through quite a bit of work to create realistic renders, and provide a certain amount of individual behavior through AI, and other variation in details that can easily exceed what you may get out of a set of mass produced props. Moreover, in situations where real life stunts would have been required, deadlier action can be more easily (and safely) visualized. This immense attention to detail, however, makes it obvious in the mind of a viewers that what they are seeing is of course fake.

On discussing the acknowledgment of Ray Harryhausen in the recent "Pacific Rim" credits,  a repeated remark was how much people preferred the artistry of his animation techniques. The artistry and talent required in many of the sequences involved in many of his films is undeniable, but is his animation technique comparable to even the early animations of dinosaurs seen in "Jurassic Park" which marked the first break away of stop motion for this type of movie.

The film short "Stop Motion vs. CGI as presented at the 2001 SIGGRAPH animation room (Will Vinton Studios). Details at the Inet Archive
Another aspect of old time effects that was commented about was the use of solid models as opposed to CGI in 2009's "Moon" directed by Duncan Jones. Jones used traditional miniatures as opposed to CGI to create the vehicles and exterior scenes in this movie. While this was done in the interest of the budget, Jones was also interested in capturing the look and feel of older space movies and programs such as those created by Gerry Anderson's programs (more on this below).

Pacific Rim

The context of much of the discussion I participated in was around the recent "Pacific Rim" and its clearly stated homage to Japanese kaiju genre film - i.e. the Japanese monster movie. This adds another aspect of "old timey" type effects, and that is "the man in the suit" to animate aliens and 60 foot monsters - the latter effect traditionally done though extensive use of scaled miniatures that are animated in real-time though motors and wires while interacting with a man or woman in costume. Guillermo del Toro, the film's director, made extensive use of CGI to create his kaiju, but expressly asked that all designs be able to theoretically fit a person inside them. The film also made use of some scaled miniature shots.

The film's jaegers, giant robots, pay homage to Japanese mecha genre. Mecha were also traditionally operated by a man inside when filmed as live action, but are perhaps more generally known from anime subjects such as Macross and Gundam. The mixture of monsters and robots is not unique either, as such battles were not unusual; even Godzilla and King Kong have battled their mechanical counterparts.
Godzilla vs. Mecha-Godzilla (1974) and King Kong Escapes (1967) Toho films.
Gerry Anderson's designs are also part of this design palette (that being directed by Derek Meddings special effects work for Anderson). Shows such as Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, and U.F.O. featured realistically designed vehicles based at elaborately engineered bases, often underground. The elaborate mechanisms of boarding and launching ships is definitely echoed in the elaborate boarding and launch procedures for the jaegers in Pacific Rim.

Thunderbird 1 launch sequence from Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds (1965-68). If you are a glutton for punishment, look for the Mars ship launch sequence in Thunderbirds are Go
It seemed to me at the time that the overwhelming positive reaction to the film in these panels had much do to the care with which the director and creative crew went to recreate the look and feel of these older movies. At the same time, there is no denying that a great deal of this work was only possible through the extensive use of computers for scene rendering, lighting effects, composing, color balance, and perhaps a slew of other visual details that were transparent to the audience.

Old vs. New

I have to admit there is a definite generation gap aspect to whether you like or dislike modern effects vs. old. In watching a recent documentary (ref below) there is repeated admiration for the artistry and talent of Ray Harryhausen and other stop motion animators, and yet is the work as "accurate" as a CGI rendition of similar subjects? Traditional stop motion animation, as well as matte or combined miniature shots, generally required fixed camera angles, and a limited set of those angles for the shot to work (unless the camera shots could be accurately computer controlled, see Magicam). The stroboscopic movement of the models was always hard to correct for, and there were always visual differences between small scale details between miniatures and combined live action were sometimes quite noticeable as being "off" (fur vs. hair for example just never worked 100%),

I think the mistake is to criticize these efforts as failures, but rather it is good to remark on their strengths. Even the "man in the suit" efforts and the usage of puppetry in effects could be remarkable for their time. A film that illustrates this type of effect quite successfully is Jim Henson's "The Dark Crystal" of 1982.

On the other hand, it is impossible to compare the original puppet Yoda to the much more detailed and nuanced Yoda of the second trilogy. While in still shots, both are very good, in movement, in spite of Frank Oz's talent, there is a bit of a giveaway - maybe if the audience didn't know beforehand?

As for miniature shots, as a model maker I certainly miss traditional models. For one thing, given their original solid existence, they were easier to recreate. Still, the multiplier effect of computing power allows new vehicles to be designed with a much higher level of detail than what was possible with traditional kitbashing. Moreover, whereas one may have done much with a collage of mixed parts (a bit of a sherman tank here, half a tractor engine, a section of a battleship deck, etc), CAD tools allows the design of a ship based on the original concept art illustrations directly and by the original concept designer. CAD tools even allow for the inside of the ship to actually fit inside the outside as designed! CG vehicles are accurate to themselves regardless of the scale of the shot or number of vehicles. This is as opposed to traditional models which would differ among themselves depending on whether it was for a long shot or a "hero model" to be used for a closeup. Traditional miniatures are also associated with other problems. Limits on possible shots due to issues of depth of field or the static nature of the occupants give away the scaled nature of objects. Miniatures, as in the case of stop motion miniatures mentioned earlier, have problems in that they can't scale their interaction to flame or water making such interaction appear "off", in spite of various photographic effects to minimize the problem.

There are so many things that computers have done to improve the appearance of fantastical ships, creatures, and environments as well as recreating scenes that would otherwise be impossibly expensive. True scale physics can also be integrated to the animation so objects and events can behave properly to the objects designed size and mass.  As a result, I cannot criticize their use in film and genre film in particular.

If there is fault, it is perhaps in the creators of these films that genuinely believe that more is more. One of the interesting things about looking at older movies is the focusing on the near as opposed to the grand, the individual as opposed to the epic. Perhaps more importantly, these creators need to know that epic visuals will not substitute for a missing plot, particularly as the tools for creating epic sequences are available pretty much to everybody (if you got to see the original version of "Star Wrecks: In the Pirkenning" it is impressive to think it was basically made in some guy's apartment). When everybody makes grandiose epics, are they still epic?

Perhaps sadder still, at least for old foggies such as myself, is that viewers no longer look at a special effects shot and wonder "how did they do that?" but instead just think the computer did this.

Stuff that's out there...

Netflix has a few rather interesting documentaries available on classic SF movies, namely a documentary on Ray Harryhausen, "Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan" and "The Sci-Fi Boys" that also covers a lot of the classic creature effects and makeup. The "Making of the Godzilla Suit" covers the creation of the seminal kaiju in 1954. "The Making of the 21st Century" covers the puppet productions of Gerry Anderson in the 1960s (found it on youTube in 2 parts: Part 1, Part 2 ). For commentary on analog vs. digital, another Netflix documentary is "Side by Side", where we follow Keanu Reeves as the film looks into digital film making technology.

The argument of stop motion vs. CGI is discussed in Ethan Gilsdorf's article "Why Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion effects were more real than CGI" at boingboing.

DVD extras now provides ton of materials with regards to "behind the scenes" or "the making of..." type of titles (such as an odd industrial film "2001 a space odyssey: A look behind the future" made before that film's release). Many of these shorts have leaked to the internet and a search with the appropriate keywords will return a lot of interesting tidbits. Good hunting.