Category Archives: Video

Making films, television, and more

Secret Surveillance Garden Birdhouse – Notes and Plans from my Build

This Friday I’m doing a workshop for Craftsman in Chicago, for their first annual blogger summit. The different presenters each introduced themselves by building a birdhouse project that represents them.

I started the project by drawing a set of blueprints, knowing that I wanted something with multiple compartments and a remote-access rear hatch. I adjusted things on paper a few times, and then built a small model of the birdhouse to make sure the pieces would work together, and the hinge apparatus would function correctly. Glad I did this first because there were a couple key modifications from it.

Once the model was built, the actual birdhouse came together fairly easily, with just a few small changes. I really like the way the tiny bird apartment conceals the high-tech inner workings.

I painted the exterior green and stained the roof red. I’ve been wanting to use the dead, dried tree from my yard for a project (or as fuel in my pizza oven) so did some resawing, cutting it into rough 1/2″ planks. The addition added a fantastic rustic charm that would make this birdhouse look great in any garden.

On the inside, I used an RC servo to control the rear door, with a second servo that pans the webcam side-to-side. A high-gain wifi antenna allows the setup to be placed a distance away from the house but still have access to internet signals, in case you want to stream the video feed, or just check up on facebook while gardening.

There are a number of tweaks I’d still like to do, including transitioning the entire thing to Arduino, but for now, I’m very happy with how the birdhouse came out.

Check it and the others out on Craftsman’s Facebook page.

Continue reading Secret Surveillance Garden Birdhouse – Notes and Plans from my Build

A Very Peculiar DIY “Hip-Neck Mount” Camera Extension

Check out this wacky “above the crowd” camera rig spotted at the royal wedding. What IS this thing?

My friend Travis is an awesome guy and a talented photographer. He’s the type of guy that I admire for finding life curious and fascinating. Case in point: an email he sent this weekend about the photos from the royal wedding, not of the newlyweds, but of the crowd that gathered to watch the event.

flickr had a post this morning with the official royal wedding photos. while i don’t care about the wedding, i was interested in seeing the photos and what they were like. looked few a through. flickr pointed out one large, overhead crowd shot. it was like a “where’s waldo” illustration. flickr also recommended to view the photo at the original size. it was pretty cool to drill into the photo and see people’s details. i noticed one guy with a crazy camera contraption so he could shoot over the crowd. i thought it was pretty genius. hence this email. thanks for playing.

Here’s a link to the full size image.

An impressive gathering, no doubt – but the “above the crowd” camera extension Travis spotted really piqued my curiosity. What exactly is that thing? And how can I make my own on the cheap?

Looking closely, it appears to be a long extension pole/monopod with an adjustable head (this one fits the bill, only costs $22). A leash/nylon strapping connects to the top of the pole; the bottom of the leash straps around this inventive photographer’s neck (it appears the neck segment has padding of some sort).  Buckles adjust the length of the strap to control the angle/height of the pole.

I’d love to see the base of the extension pole. A flag-pole holster would work well to help keep things stable.

Maybe most importantly, triggering the camera. A wired remote for the shutter release? Or, perhaps easier, an IR remote (I recently got this $10 remote for my Nikon – and I love it), although I imagine there might be interference issues with a crowd that size.

A shame that this photographer is anonymous – I’d like to chat about his setup, and see the resulting photos he took. Regardless, I might try to build one of these things for kicks too.

Using Your iPhone as an Audio Recorder Will Make Your Videos Better

A fast way and easy to make your videos better is to improve the audio quality. It’s a proven fact that poor audio will turn people away from a video much quicker than poor video.

Have you ever seen a video that sounds like it was filmed in a large, empty room? Or one that sounds like it was filmed in a wind tunnel? How about a video where the sound of the person holding the camera is louder than anything else on the clip? Most videos on YouTube fall into this category, and are examples of shoddy sound killing what might have been a good video otherwise.

While the professionals use an array of audio recording devices to guarantee flawless audio (and even then, I’ve worked on a high-end project or two that had its own share of audio issues), most people don’t have access to this type of equipment. But without a expensive recorder, or even a regular corded microphone (assuming your camera has a mic input – does it?), a decent standalone digital recorder, held close to the subject, will give great results, especially compared to the alternative of using just the internal mic on the camera.

Turns out that the iPhone has respectable recording capabilities. It’s highest-quality setting is 44.1khz – the same as audio CDs. And the iPhone 4 has a double-mic noise-cancellation system built into it that does a surprisingly good job keeping things sounding clean. Set up right and placed near the talker, you’ve effectively got a good, wireless audio recording solution.

Here’s what you need:
-Audio recording app (I use Griffin’s iTalk (free version), but other recorders like the one from Dava work just as well)
-Video editing software that lets you see wave forms and import audio (iMovie works perfectly well for this, and is what I used for the above video)
-iPhone headset (optional, personally not recommended)
-Shirt with breast pocket (better option than the headset)

-Set the iPhone sound recorder to best quality
-Start recording on the camera (video) and iPhone (audio app)
-Put iPhone in shirt pocket, or very close by (assuming the subject won’t be mobile)
-Stand in front of camera and give a single, sharp clap (sync clap)
-Film! And talk!
-Stop recording on both devices
-Transfer audio to computer (most apps let you email it to yourself. Griffin’s app lets you email small files, or wirelessly sync larger ones)
-Import video and audio to editing software
-Display wave form
-Search for the audio spike from the sync clap on both waveforms (camera’s internal mic and iPhone’s mic)
-Using the spike, line up the wave forms as closely as possible
-Mute or delete the audio from the camera’s internal mic
-Edit as desired

Find the corresponding "spikes" and line them up. The sound just got magical.

That’s it – it’s a very simple process. And really, it works with any audio recorder that lets you export the audio, so if your Android phone has a sound recorder, go to town.

One note about using iMovie – it doesn’t let you lock the audio and video together, so be careful when doing fancy edits after importing the audio. It’s not impossible, but it does create potential for the sound to detach from the video, which can be a bit frustrating. So far, this hasn’t been a big issue for me.

Whiskey Tricks: Proving Alcohol Content and Preserving Matter

(Quick reminder: add me on twitter and sign up for my newsletter for more cool science demos and awesome DIY projects) A few months ago I appeared in a couple episodes of How Stuff Works on Discovery channel. One of the episodes, “How Whiskey Made America,”had three segments I shot:

  • Demonstrating how the term “proof” was developed by sailors who would soak gunpowder with their ration of spirits and then ignite it to prove that it hadn’t been watered down. Spirits over 57.15% alcohol content will burst into a colorful flame.
  • Showing how organic material (like fruit, or more gruesomely, dead bodies), can be preserved by leaving them submerged in a high-alcohol container.
  • How the early days of rocket technology initially used ethanol as a fuel, shown by demonstrating a small pulse jet engine that was filled with Everclear.

The first two parts were fast and fun, but the last part took a bit longer to shoot – the small pulse jet we were using didn’t arrive to the location until late, it took a bit of time to set things up, and we were racing the clock before having to wrap up the shoot. When I got things firing, and pulled the clamp to show the rocket propel itself on the track… nothing. It just sat there making the ungodly throbbing noise that is distinct to pulse jets. The segment was cut using stock footage instead. Bummer! Airing at the same time, I also shot a segment for “How Summer Changed The World” where I demonstrated how the tilt of the earth’s axis helped distribute even eat around the globe, creating an environment much more conducive for life. And there are a few segments for two upcoming episodes as well. Fun stuff.

My Chevy Volt Q&A and Engineer Interview – Watch Here

EDIT: Here’s the video for those that missed it. Things begin at about the 7 minute mark.

The Chevy Volt is a very exciting car, just named both Motor Trend’s and Automobile Magazine’s 2011 Car Of The Year.

After a few years of excited anticipation, the Volt has arrived and Chevrolet is taking its new electric car on a nationwide tour to celebrate. One of the final stops on the tour is happening at the Craftsman Experience workspace in downtown Chicago on November 18th – and I will be leading a discussion with Chevy engineer Valarie Boatman about the car’s design, features, and capabilities.

You’ll be able to watch live via Craftsman’s live-streaming enabled Facebook page. Make sure to click the “Watch Live” tab on the top of the page. The event happens from 6-9pm Chicago time (4-7pm Pacfic), and the Q&A will be from about 7-8pm. Check it out!

My Halloween Pizza Bash Video

Halloween is a big deal on my street. This year I invited a few friends and neighbors over to pass out candy while I made pizzas. It was a blast. Many, many thanks to PizzaHacker for creating the PizzaForge oven and for working with me to build a prototype of a one-piece unit. Anyone that follows him and has experienced the pizza his creation produces knows that he’s designed something truly awesome.

Also, thanks to Chris McMains for delivering a fresh batch of starter to use for the dough. I used the Varasanos recipe (with a pinch of dry yeast) and everyone, including myself, was raving about the flavor.

Here are the technical details on the video:
Camera: Nikon D80
Lens: Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8
Tripod: Manfrotto
Image capturing software: Sortofbild
Runtime: 4 hours 15 minutes (stopped when the battery died)
Assembled with Quicktime Pro, edited on iMovie
Color correction in Photoshop (removed some of the overpowering orange coloring and lightened shadows)
Music: “Ghosts N’ Stuff” (Hard Intro Remix) by Deadmau5

This might be the best thing I’ve ever made. It also might be the weirdest thing I’ve made. Watch in HD on Youtube.

Only got one photo of a pizza cooked that night, but it was a good one. Everything was really clicking.

Calculating Trajectory – A Few Notes In Case You Ever Find Yourself Near a Giant Slingshot

Not every episode of Catch It Keep It involves saving falling objects – but as the title of the show indicates, it does happen from time to time. And when an object is launched through the air, it helps to know how to track the trajectory of it.

There are a number of calculators available online, ranging from simple three-field layouts to impressively complicated, with every ballistic variable definable. But when you need to, sometimes you just have to get down and dirty and crunch some numbers. For CIKI, I built my own spreadsheet based off various trajectory formulas that allowed me to get the specs and graphs I needed – handy when launching an object off the roof of our workshop, for instance.

Ehow has a pretty simple breakdown of calculating trajectory. It requires some easy trigonometry (get your money’s worth from your calculator and use the Sin/Cos/Rad functions). This will give you a good start.

1. Break the initial velocity into its vertical and horizontal components. You will already need to know the angle at which the object was fired and its initial velocity. For this example, an archer fires an arrow at 30 degrees with a velocity of 150 ft/sec.
V0x = 150*cos(30) = 130 ft/sec
V0y = 150*sin(30) = 75 ft/sec
2. Choose a value for time and calculate the horizontal distance at that time. It’s best to start with zero and work your way through the trajectory incrementally. For this example, the value is calculated at
t = 1.
x = V0x*t = 130*1 = 130 ft
3. Calculate the value for vertical distance at the same time interval. The value for gravitational acceleration in English units is 32.2 ft/sec^2.
y = V0y*t – 0.5*g*t^2 = 75(1) – 0.5*32.2*1^2 = 58.9 ft
4. Plot the horizontal and vertical values on a sheet of graph paper. Choose another time value and calculate another set of coordinates. Continue until you have enough points to define your trajectory.

Joe, the engineer challenged to find the landing spot of the Big Green Egg for his team, was awesome. He pulled out all the notes you could use to check and re-check, given the data and measurements they pulled from the demonstration. I really enjoyed spending a few days with him.

Where will it land?

The hard part is adding in other elements (launch height, air resistance, rotation); things get a bit trickier. With so many variables, the safest bet was always to eliminate as many as possible by trying to take trajectory calculations out of the equation altogether… Giant butterfly nets are always a good thing to have near a giant slingshots.

Another Homemade Near-Space Balloon Project – This Time With Video

There’s a short but growing list of awesome people who have successfully launched DIY aerial photo and video rigs. Add to that list father/son duo Luke and Max Geissbuhler and their personal homemade spacecraft. This is my favorite of the many I’ve seen so far due to the ingeniously effective system to keep the corkscrew-like spinning to a minimum, as well as the choice to use a HD video camera instead of time-lapse photography. The two pieces actually work well together – many of these projects have spun too violently for any video output to be enjoyable.

The Luke and Max project used the following materials:
– Weather balloon designed to pop when it reaches 19′ in diameter (the balloon grows in size as it elevates into thinner parts of the atmosphere)
GoPro HD camera (the best lightweight, rugged, waterproof camera – Mythbusters uses them a lot, and they only cost $250. They’re seriously awesome)
– iPhone with GPS and Instatracker enabled for measurement and recovery
– A couple handwarmers to keep things running in the cold, windy extremes 90,000′ over the surface of the planet

Launched from upstate NY and collected 30 miles away, it completed the journey to space and back in just over an hour and a half. Wonderfully, much of the process leading to launch and immediately afterward was documented and is available to watch and inspire you. Enjoy.

Afterdark – Short Film Starring Me, and Some Notes On Making Your Own Short Film

A couple years ago I acted in a short film, one of the few things I’ve done as an “actor” (a term I use reluctantly), rather than as a host or behind-the-scenes. Directed and edited by the talented Camilo Restrepo, Afterdark is a post-apocalyptic thriller that blends the lines between right and wrong while playing with time and space.

The piece was shot late at night over a couple weekends in early November 2008. Primarily filmed in the basement of a building in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, with one shot taking place in a studio near North Beach. Camilo and his staff had good vision and execution on this film, especially coaxing a decent performance out of me and co-star Clouchard Barbone.

Some technical notes, for those of you like me who love gadgety stuff:
Camera: Sony Z1-U
Audio: Zoom H4 and built-in
Microphone: Sennheiser MKH 416
Tripod: Manfrotto 055XProB; Homemade platform tripod; Dolly cart
Lighting: Bare light bulb; Ikea dimmer; Two worklights; High-power Arri lighting kit (final scene)

Interested in making a short film? eHow has a decent series of videos explaining the general steps and process, to help you organize the pieces needed and get started putting something together. One tip they may have overlooked: always feed the crew and actors. It’s a lot easier to get people to cooperate when they’re not thinking about how hungry they are.

Les Paul vs Thermite: The Catch It Keep It Episode That Haunts Me

On Catch It Keep It, I had the weekly challenge of designing and building an insane method for destroying an object of considerable value, and then figuring out and building a solution to the same challenge in order to show the contestants that the objective was not impossible, should they fail.

Being who I am, I often found my solutions breaking the “keep it simple” rule – partially because the contestants usually took the simple route, and partially because I wanted these things to be awesome. That created situations with considerable potential for failure, when failure really wasn’t an option. But the show was real, and just like in real life sometimes things don’t go as planned…

This is not going to end well...

Episode five was the Les Paul challenge. Who doesn’t drool over the idea of owning a heavy, thick slab of rock lore? I sure do (although, sadly, the prizes were only for the contestants). The method of destruction? Surround the guitar with 100 lbs of thermite – a compound that burns at 4500 degrees. That’s a LOT of thermite – we had to special order the materials (aluminum powder and iron oxide) due to the quantity requested.

As the episode geared up, I had two solutions in mind: surround that heavy, thick guitar with a heavy, thick box, and shield the whole thing with ceramic tiles and sand (interesting aside: I successfully fused sand into glass during testing), or mechanically extract the guitar from the stage. The contestants wisely, but boringly, chose a box solution – essentially building a fortified dog house, not the most exciting build to watch for an hour, but it had the best potential for winning. Thankfully, they added a small external cooling system to keep things interesting; I thought Bruce’s idea to wrap the entire thing in copper pipe and pump cold water through like a radiator would have been brilliant, but it got vetoed by their team.

I wanted my solution to be big and exciting, and I had drawn up plans that were just that: a pulley system that would loop the guitar and fly it off the stage along a line that ended in a protective net. In order to actuate the lasso/pulley, the system needed a tall tower for a counterweight fall from, connected to the pulley via a block and tackle system that would move the guitar quickly.

It worked great in testing, over and over. But perhaps we tested it one time too many, perhaps a line got tangled, or perhaps the lasso connection was tied too tightly and didn’t want to release. Either way, I never imagined I’d be responsible for torching a $2000 Les Paul.

As frustrating as that was, I’ll admit that the footage of the flames raining down on the guitar is absolutely mesmerizing and beautiful, especially in slow motion. I put the clip online, and as a bonus added a couple other slow motion shots from the show as well.

Watch the series via iTunes (or get it on Amazon).

Build your own Les Paul style guitar with this Saga LC-10 kit.