Saturday, August 03, 2013

Toy Store Find: a 1/6th iRobot Packbot bomb disposal robot

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If you have a blog, I guess you should post on it every two or three years whether you need to or not.  Frankly, the 1/6th hobby has been pretty quiet these last few years, and I haven't been acquiring much that's new, nor doing a lot of 1/6th projects.  And then there have been family health misadventures that have consumed a large part of 2012 and 2013, and that I shan't further bother you with.

But hey, the hobby seems to have turned around a bit, even though most 12" action figures worth mentioning, especially GI Joe, have remained absent from store shelves.  One bright spot has been the revived Captain Action line from Round 2 Toys.  And Hot Toys has been doing some spectacular high end figures based mostly on movie properties (including GI Joe), though at a price point a lot of us can't touch.

But I am seeing a LOT more action on the various on-line discussion groups recently.  I don't know if it's a sign of a somewhat improved economy, or if the "figure fatigue" of the boom time has finally passed, but many of my old on-line buddies, and many new ones, are back posting and trading again.  But as for new stuff at retail, there isn't much to report.  So it's always exciting when an interesting 1/6th scale item shows up, even if it isn't SOLD as a 1/6th item.  That's what we're here to talk about today.

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I'm not sure where I heard about these Wild Republic brand Galaxy Quest playsets.  Probably some space-toy list or another, but something made me curious enough to check them out.  They looked like fairly standard off-brand toys of the sort you often see in nature stores, educational toy stores, and museum gift shops: plastic astronaut figures paired with a variety off off-scale space shuttles, capsules and other accessories.  But one set in particular, the "Lunar Robotic Mission" set caught my eye.  That "rover" looked kind of familiar.  In fact it looked like a real life robot I had seen before.

In fact it was an iRobot (the same people who make Roomba robot vacuums in addition to robots for the military) Packbot 510, a model used for bomb disposal and emergency response by various militaries as well as police, fire, and rescue agencies.  Moreover, it seemed that it COULD be in the ball-park to be 1/6th scale.  iRobot makes several robot models in various sizes with this unique track configuration, so I hoped it would be close enough to one of them to be passable.  In any case, I figured that, even if the size were wrong, it would make a passable bomb-disposal robot for use with one of my police or fire figures.

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Of course, I hadn't actually seen the thing, and the store pictures (I bought mine on Amazon, but I also checked listings on eBay for additional info) gave little solid information on the size.  I guessed the astronaut to be about 3-4" tall and again, drew the conclusion that it would be close to what I wanted in size.  But, I was already making an order to Amazon, and it was only $10, so I decided to take a chance.

Well, I'm happy to say that it paid off.  The set arrived today, and not only is this thing a fairly accurate 1/6th Packbot 510, it's better quality than I could have hoped for, and there were several other useful bonus items in the set as well.

First of all, let's talk to scale.  The real-life Packbot 510 measures about 27" long in the stowed position (meaning those outrigger tracks sticking out the front are swung back next to the main tracks, and the arm on top is folded).  The toy version scales to 24", meaning it's darned close.  The Packbot is literally designed so that a soldier (or emergency responder) can strap it (and the control unit) to their back and take it into a combat situation.  It's a light, small, robot.  But thanks to its very long triple folding arm and those articulated tracks on the front that help it climb stairs and over obstacles.  Of course, this set DOESN'T include a backpack frame, and I have no idea if they use something custom, or a standard military backpack frame that might be already available in 1/6th somewhere.  Still, I doubt it would be that difficult to kitbash something.  There's also no remote control unit, but in some of the photos I've seen, that seems to look pretty much like a generic laptop, and there have been plenty of those made in 1/6th scale.  There's also a larger briefcase sized controller with a video screen in the lid, buttons and controls on the inside bottom, and wi-fi type antennas on top.  Other control accessories include a fairly standard video game controller (!) pad with a joypad on the left and four buttons on the right, and a helmet-mounted eyepiece that allows a moving soldier to watch through the robot's cameras without limiting their own mobility.

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While the overall shape and configuration of the toy robot are very close to the real thing, if you'll look closely, you'll see a lot of details don't line up.  Hard to tell if that's to avoid a copyright or trademark suit, if the sculptors who designed it just got sloppy, or if it's simply modeled after an earlier prototype or version of the robot, which comes in a lot of different configurations, and has evolved since the program was announced.  For instance, the bodies on the forward tracks have curved spokes, not straight ones as on the toy, and the side details are different.  The cameras on the arm seem different than most production models, but from what I can, there are a LOT of different camera configurations, so this probably matches some version or prototype.

As for the functioning of the toy, I was rather surprised that the tracks
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are molded separately and made of flexible plastic.  They actually turn (though the track is stiff enough to frustrate any kid playing with it).  The forward tracks are molded in one piece, but like those on the real unit, the arms rotate 360 degrees, back to stow, forward up or down to assist with going up or down stairs or over obstacles.  Some photos even show the real robot "standing" with the tips of the arms down, to give the arm more reach to peer in a window for example.  The toy can replicate all that.

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I didn't expect much of the arm, and had even considered the possibility that that it would be molded as one piece in the folded position, and might not move at all.  What could you expect from a $10 playset after all?

But no, it's well articulated, with hinge type joints at the base and "elbow."  The last segment of the arm is unusual that it is double-ended.  One end has a box with a manipulator claw.  The other end is a long extension pole with a camera on the end, useful for checking the way ahead and spying on bad-guys and potential hazards.  The end arm rotates 360 degrees, and also has a twist joint that turns 360 as well, giving you some side-to-side reach.

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As I said, most versions of the robot I've seen pictures of have additional cameras and often LED lights, but these would be fairly easy to kitbash.  For a real challenge, you could even add working lights!

The claw, unfortunately, does not open or close, but it is molded in an open position and has hooks on the end of the claws that allow it to hook and hold a variety of items.  (One play-value aspect of the design that I noticed is that a child could take the camera end of the arm and use it as a handle to "remotely" operate the claw and pick up or move things.  That may explain why they didn't add more and bulkier cameras to that end of the arm.)

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As for paint and markings, the body is a dull gray that wouldn't look out of place in a military or rescue situation. There are various spot trim colors of gold, silver, and a kind of orange primer color.  These could easily be retouched with a brush.  Mine has some nice, crisp markings that appear to be painted on.  These are "USA" in white lettering on the top and front, and "United States" on the rear.  Also on top is a full-color US flag.  These are all generic enough that they wouldn't look stunningly out of place in either a military, space, or emergency response setting. The toy is also assembled with screws, so it should be easy enough to tear down if you want to do a full repaint, you should be able to easily tear it down for easier painting.

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Overall, this is a really nice piece that has a lot of potential applications in a 1/6th setting.  For example, I've paired it up here with my kitbashed GI Joe Adventure Team demolitions and bomb disposal specialist.  This would have been a great set if Hasbro had done it.  But oh, well, now we can do it for ourselves.

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By the way, I don't want to finish without address the REST of the boxes contents.  Sure, I'd have been happy to pay $10 for the robot alone, but there's more in there.  The astronaut isn't much use in a 1/6th setting, but some of you may have a use for him, and you can always give him to the nearest small child of your choice.  And as for his accessories, well, those may have some use after all.

The astronaut is both better and worse than I expected.  First thing that jumped out at me was the face paint.  It's just barely NOT white.  Not white-guy white, but albino white.  Put the helmet on and you won't notice.though.  It actually has a clear, yellow tinted visor that hides the face paint pretty well.  The helmet actually goes on with a "twist to lock" feature that keeps it from falling off and getting lost, and there's an operating (opaque) sun visor over the faceplate, and there's a removable backpack.

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He's about 4 1/4" tall with the helmet on, and has nine points of articulation (swivels at shoulders and hips, hinged knees, elbows, and to my surprise, ankles.  And of course, the head turns.  Not a ton of articulation, but you don't expect somebody in a space suit to be doing yoga poses.

The big surprise was that he came with a ton of small accessories.  There's a plastic coil of "rope," a cell-phone/radio, a briefcase (which would make a good satchel-bomb for the robot to pick up, and hooks nicely on the claw), a movie camera (cut the handle off, glue it on, and use it as an upgrade camera for the robot), some oversized binoculars (they look Mego scale), a strange "box on a stick" instrument, and a double-ended wrench and pliers (they're a little small, but would look fine in a 1/6th toolbox or on a workbench.  There are also a couple of long handled tools, a blunt ended stick that reminds me of a diver's shark-stick, and a trident-style pick-up claw.  Both of these might be adapted for 1/6th use of some sort.

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The bad news for play value is that the astronaut's hands aren't molded to hold ANY of these accessories.  You can't throw the coil of rope over his arm, but that's it.  Several of them would work well with 3 3/4" GI Joes or other small action figures though.

The other coolest-thing in the set is a gold-colored, tripod mounted camera/weapon/scope/telescope thingie.  It MAY well be a 1/6th laser target designator of some sort.  It certainly looks similar to one, but I haven't found anything specifically like it in a quick Google image search.  If any of you military-minded folk recognize it, leave me a comment.

Whatever the danged thing is, it looks cool, and the generic shape means it could pass as a surveillance camera, a video camera, a telescope, a remote sensor platform, an evil freeze ray, or any number of other things.  The tripod does not seem to detach, and the legs do not fold.  But the yoke that supports the "scope" turns, and the scope itself swivels up and down about 30 degrees.  You can also carefully pry the yoke open enough to slip the "scope" and put it back in inverted for a slightly different look.  Anyway, a cool little piece with a lot of potential.

So that's it.  A nice lot of stuff for ten bucks.  Highly recommended.
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Monday, May 09, 2011

Sometimes I find good things

I always drop by the local Goodwill when I'm in the area, which happens at least several times a week.  Admittedly 1/6th figure related stuff has been scarce to non-existent lately, but I find other goodies and prop items that weren't INTENDED for 1/6th.  Enough to make my visits worthwhile anyway.

Today though, was the first time in a while that I found multiple 1/6th intended items worth bringing home.  Here's my haul:

Max Steel was annoyed to find two drunk ninjas on his front lawn...
The two GI Joes are from the Target Snakeeyes vs. Storm-shadow two-pack.  No accessories or boots, but that's okay, since I was mostly interested in them for the jumpsuits (especially the white one, which I use as the basis for my "Minions at Work" Minions uniform.

The Max Steel is a rare Ultra-Action body with no modifications or action-features.  This is a great body for customizing,  It's flexible, durable, and proportioned like modern Action Man, making it a great upgrade or replacement for some of those bodies.  I've got a bunch of these already, but I can always put one more in the project box.

The best find, however, was the nifty little folding dollhouse for $3.99.  Sadly, I have no idea what this thing is called, or what doll line it comes from.  Given the quality of construction and detail, and the subdued, non-Barbieish colors, I have a vague idea it might be from the Hanna Montana doll line (which had some interesting accessories and props in some of its sets), but I'm just guessing.  If anyone knows, leave a comment.

Anyway, I've picked up a couple of folding fashion-doll dollhouses/playsets over the years, with the intention of doing something with them, but mostly they just gather dust.  Most are molded in terrible colors: pink, purple, white.  Most would require disassembly for proper painting, but they aren't designed to come apart. Also, many of the plastics used are very hard to paint.

Most are designed to look good from outside, but inside walls often have bizarre indents that match details on the outside.  Often they have molded in hearts, flowers, logos, and other stuff that would have to be hidden or removed to make them usable for my purposes.  They also tend to have unrealistic and toy-like details, especially where it comes to windows and doors.

Several of them are also just too big to be set up on a table for easy inside photography.

Get inside!  It's freezing out here!
This little house is an exception in most every way.  Let's start with the colors.  Very subdued, and bordering on realistic.

There are a bunch of neat details, like the separate door knobs and the working mail-slot in the door.  (Though, who has a mail slot any more?)  That little gray button off to the right is a working (though batteries installed in the back of the house) doorbell.

The whole house is big enough folded to serve as a photo backdrop, and looks decent when folded, but small enough for easy storage.

The center brick section (behind Max's leg next to the door in the above picture) is a hidden latch that allows the house to unfold.  The front splits next to the door.  Let's open it up and have a look inside.

This room could use some decorating...
It doesn't look like much, but just as it sits, this is a pretty versatile little set for photo work.  With the visible sink and washer-dryer, the right side could serve as a utility room or the corner of a basement.  Shoot to the left with the door and window, add a table to make it a breakfast room, or a chair to make it a living room or other generic interior room.  Hide the washer and sink behind a potted plant, wall hanging, or piece of furniture, and you could also shoot the right side as an entrance hall.

But we're not done there.  The little hose has other secrets...

That's no closet!  It's a WATER closet!

Open the wall section with the door, and there's a bathroom hiding behind it, with a toilet and shower.  The sink and mirror we saw earlier now become part of the bathroom.  The toilet bowl actually folds up to store flat behind the door.  Even so, the lid and seat can be lifted individually.  When you do, a flushing sound-effect is activated!

I like some of the details here: the toilet paper roll on the wall, the chromed towel ring, the shower wand, the yellow soap dish, and the realistic window.  All this stuff is undersized, but as background items, they work just fine for photo purposes.

If you need a larger, more open bathroom, you could use it like this, but if you want something more compact, like a motel or apartment bath, just swing the wall to the right...

Is this microphone on?
That gives us a compact, three-wall bathroom set, and if anything, makes it look more realistic.  The  shower head is removable, and there's also a shower sound effect when you push down the water handle.  There's a way (short of removing the batteries) to turn the sound off.  More on that in a minute.

The next step of transformation is to swing the wall with the sink and mirror all the way to the right, folding the toilet up as you do.  This exposes the kitchen.

Yes, I said, kitchen.  And not just ANY kitchen, either!  This is the GI Joe Adventure Team kitchen/laundry!

Yes, you heard me right.

Have a look below.  You've already seen the orange washer and drying, but you really don't get the whole effect until you've seen the yellow kitchen appliances that go with them!

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Again, everything here is really undersized, especially the stove, which has burners sized for coffee cups  But again, might work for a background piece.  As you see below, most of the doors, fridge, oven, washer and dryer, open.  Strangely, if there are any sound effects for the kitchen, I haven't found them.  There is an action feature though.  The projection on top of the washer and dryer pair is a button.  When pushed, it activates a mechanism to spin the drums inside the laundry machines.  Like I said, the doors open.  Unfortunately, these aren't very deep.  You won't get much in there beyond a couple pair of scale-sized socks!
I suppose if this were REALLY the Adventure Team, it would fold into a backpack!
Here's a closer detail on the kitchen with all the doors open.

There's a little slide switch under the stove knobs.  This turns the sound-effects on and off, and makes the apparent lack of sound in the kitchen area all the more puzzling.  Why put the switch there when the sounds are next door?  (Actually, the battery compartment may be hidden under the stove or in the bottom of the fridge.  I haven't checked to see where the battery compartment door on the outside back wall is relative to them.)

If you could find a way to rip these things out, given their size and color, they'd look right at home in some kind of GI Joe Adventure Team Motor Home.

All-in-all, this is a great little play-set that lends itself to a lot of "domestic" photo opportunities with no modification at all (other than the addition of some furniture and props).

I expect I'll use it for some future "Minions at Home" type cartoons, once I think up the jokes to go with them.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

4 Things You Didn't Know You Needed in Your Toolbox or on Your Workbench

Boy, look at the cobwebs here! It's been a long time since I posted, but I've been working on some 1/6th projects (including a "guard shack" for my photo-illustrated "Minions at Work" web-comic, and it brought to mind some of the more unusual, but useful, hobby tools I keep around.

Here are a few items you probably don't have on your workbench (though you may already have them around the house) that you'll find invaluable once you have them.

Cast aluminum roofing square

If you check your local home-improvement or hardware store you'll find a variety of squares available, and just about all the smaller ones have uses in 1/6th projects, but if you are only going to have one, this might be the one to have.

I like it because it's a good size for many 1/6th construction tasks.  And because many of the materials you'll be trying to mark and cut are flexible, floppy and irregular, it's good to have a straight edge that's heavy enough not to move around on its own, and stiff enough to draw a straight line even if it isn't well supported.  It's even solid enough that you can clamp thin materials to the square itself to hold them for marking.

I also like the large raised lip along the left side that gets a firm grip on the corners and edges of things you're marking (and thinner materials can be put on TOP of the square and butted against the lip to secure them).  The built in ruler and protractor are also useful additions.

Scotch-Brite Pads

Sanding is a common task in any kind of building or refinishing project. and sanding materials tend to be expensive and not hold up very well against the edges and sharp corners found in many 1/6th projects.  Also, there's never a piece of sandpaper around when you need one.

That's why I like these pads, which can be purchased any place that sells household cleaning supplies.  They come in sheets or glued to the back of a cleaning sponge (which means that can be used like those flexible sanding blocks, only they're much more durable).  They're cheap, durable, and can be cut into smaller pieces for those small jobs.  Unlike steel wool, they won't leave little bits of wire (which can actually short out electronics and cause other problems) or rust.  By definition they're water-proof, so you can use them for wet sanding.  And they're easy to toss into your tool-box for emergencies, so you'll always have one around.

I find them especially useful when prepping larger items (like 1/6th vehicles and large equipment) for painting.  Just running the pad quickly over a plastic or metal part will rough up the surface and make paint stick much better.

The main drawback to the grocery-store variety is that they're equivalent a very course grade of sandpaper.  There are "professional" versions that are finer through, and you can find them in an auto-body supply shop.  Be aware that they're usually in different colors (grey, maroon, and white I believe) depending on how fine they are, and may not actually be called "Scotch-brite" even though they're the same product from 3M.

Speaking of, those Scotch-brite pads are tough.  How are you going to cut them?  Why, with...

Kitchen Shears

This may be the best single tool (except for maybe a good hobby knife and razor saw) you'll ever by for your hobby bench, and you'll find it sold in among the cooking gadgets.

What's the big deal?  They're just scissors, right?

Yes, but they're BAD ASS scissors.  The blades are strong and straight.  The handles are big, have wide loops so you can put lots of pressure, and are designed to give you lots of leverage on the blades.  They're designed to cut THROUGH stuff, not just paper or string.  Things like meat, and chicken bones.

They cut paper and cardboard just fine, but they'll also cut plastic like butter.  They can even be used to cut thin wood and doweling. (I rotate the scissors around the dowel, scoring a neat, shallow, cut all the way around.  Then you can just snap the dowel off and smooth end end off with sandpaper or a file.)

When picking a pair to buy, look for sturdy blades and large loops in the handles.  I like symmetrical designs that can be used equally well in the right or left hands.  It's also good to look for a design that has a slip-joint in the pivot so that the blades can come apart for easy cleaning or sharpening.

 PVC Pipe Cutter

This is probably the most expensive and least versatile tool I'll mention today, but it's still worth considering.

If you haven't looked into working with PVC pipe before, you should.  It's cheap, easy to get, and incredibly versatile.  There are a million different fittings and connectors you can get in any hardware or plumbing supply store.  You can use it to build 1/6th steam pipes, street-lights, power-poles, antennas, pontoons, fuel tanks, all sorts of things.  You can also use it to make tables, shelves, supports for photo-backdrops.  I've even built a PVC "lighting grid," around the bench where I shoot "Minions at Work," that I can clamp lights to, and use to hang props from overhead

But the trouble, especially for those of us who don't have a full work-shop is the cutting.  Cutting with a hand saw is a pain and creates plastic "sawdust" and the edges aren't very clean.  A power chop-saw (or band-saw) works better, but how many of us have one of THOSE on our hobby bench? (I do have one in my shop, but that usually isn't where I usually do hobby work.)  Only recently did I spot this tool in the plumbing department at my local hardware store and decide to give it a try.

It works BEAUTIFULLY!  It's a heavy metal handle with a thin, razor-sharp blade (replaceable on a good one).  There's a ratchet mechanism in the handle so it's easy to open, and then you just put the pipe in the jaws, squeeze the handle repeatedly, and the blade cuts smoothly through the pipe almost like butter!  It's very quick.  The edge is clean (though it's sometimes tricky to get an exact right angle, a power saw is still better for that), and you can get precision to within a millimeter or two if that's important for your project.

Drawbacks?  Well, expect to pay $15-20 dollars for this thing, and cutting pipe is pretty much all it does.  And though it's perfectly safe when used carefully, this is by far the most frightening non-power tool I've ever used.  As you watch it cut through pipe, it's easy to see how it could easily cut off a finger or thumb.  Now, it's impossible to move the blade quickly, so you'd have to be incredibly stupid to do this to yourself, but if you have a vivid imagine like I do, well, just try not to think about it!

But the blade is VERY sharp and exposed when the tool is open (it's covered when closed, and most tools have a handle lock to keep it in that position when stored), and you could cut yourself directly.  I imagine the blade is also brittle, like a hobby knife, and if you tried to use the tool to cut something it isn't designed for, you could possibly apply enough pressure to shatter it and maybe send sharp flying bits flying around the room.  For all these reasons, this is NOT a tool I'd EVER leave where a child could possible get it.  A locked drawer or toolbox or at least a high-cabinet is called for here.

Still, I just love this tool, and I use it a lot.  I'm doing far more with PVC then I've ever done before, and with far less effort.

So that's it.  If there's a lesson here, is that you'll find plenty of useful tools for your hobby projects outside the tool section of a hobby shop.  Don't be afraid to check some of the odder corners of the hardware store, or even the kitchen or auto supply.  There are plenty of cheap and useful alternatives to expensive hobby tools.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Where does he get those wonderful toys?

I'm assuming that most anyone who would be reading this is familiar with my weekly photo comic, Minions at Work. MaW is created (mostly, some occasional photo manipulation is used to) using 1/6th scale action figures, sets, and props.

The other day, I got this note from Minions reader Phil M.:

I love your comics. I was wondering, where did you find all the scaled down items? most of them look like the correct scale for the "minion" you have. I have never seen trash cans, golf carts, etc.
Just wondering...

Fair, question, but one I figured only a fraction of Minions readers would be interested in. So rather than cluttering up their space with what would have to be a lengthy post, I decided to answer over here, at my seldom-used hobby blog, where it was more likely to be seen by interested parties (and where interested Minions readers would be able to find it).

So, just for starters, let's take a look at the latest cartoon (you can, by the way, click on any of these to view a larger version):

Okay, the pat answer to Phil's question is, "everywhere." I've spent several years obsessively building up huge collection of figures, set-pieces, props, and accessories. Some are made. Some are found as action figure or doll accessories. Some come from the most unlikely places.

So what I'm going to do is use some cartoons as examples, talk about where the various items in them came from, and use that to offer more general advice about where you might find things of your own.

Let's just kind of go left to right and discuss things as we find them.

Number Two is talking on a pretty nice phone. The phone is a modified kitchen magnet I found at a kitchen store. I had to do some cutting and modification to make the hand-set removable.

Since the set is non-magnetic, I stuck it to the wall temporarily using a putty-like reusable adhesive clay sold for mounting posters and the like. You can find it in most any office supply stuff, and it's good for a million and one things when making dioramas. It doesn't dry out, so I keep blobs of it stuck to the side of a cabinet adjacent to my "Minions" workbench/studio, ready for immediate use. Like I said, it's reusable, so when I pull down the blob holding the phone to the wall, it will go back up there for reuse.

In the foreground there are some sandbags. Those are accessories that come with "Power Team" military action figure play-sets. Since most of my Minions use Power Team bodies, I've bought a lot of those over the years. The bags are actually hollow plastic, and open on the back, and so only look good from the front. I almost threw them away at some point, but I'm glad I didn't.

Not only are they handy for giving a set that pseudo-military "lair" look, but the hollow backside is great for hiding battery-powered LED "puck" lights, which I often use to as blue fill-lights in my photo set-ups. Actually, there's a light hidden there, but I forgot to turn it on before shooting. Whoops.

The rats fighting on top of the bags are toy-store items, sold as part of line of clear plastic tubes carrying various plastic animals. Some tubes are sold with nothing but various colored rubber rats, and I've bought a bunch of these. Again, handy around the lair, and I use mostly the black ones, which most of the rats in the tubes are white or tan. Save those for the lab-scenes.

The broken table and green storage drum are also Power Team items. The table isn't broken. It just snapped together in the first place, so I just snapped it back apart to make it appear smashed. It will be good as new next time I need it.

You can't see it well here, but the cell door is scratch-built. It's made from foam core, cardstock, toothpicks (for bars in the window), craft store hinges, and a padlock-charm found in a bead store.

1/6th scale doors are hard to come by, and I should make some more in various styles.

The wooden crates were found in thrift stores. Crates like these are used as containers for gift-soaps, bath products, little jars of jelly and jam, and other such things. I think the fad for these may be over, but there are still zillions of them cluttering up grandma closets everywhere.

The trash cans also came from thrift stores. They're at once surprisingly common, and hard to find. They're made as promotional items and sold to garbage and recycling companies, usually imprinted with their logos. The idea is you use them for pencil cups, paper clips, and the company's number is on your desk next time you need trash service. I've managed to pick up maybe half-a-dozen different ones in various colors. I don't know ANY place to pick these up at retail, but if you really want one, calling up the various trash companies in your area might turn one up. Good luck explaining WHY you want it.

Okay, let's move onto another prop-intensive cartoon.

Phil mentioned the Minionmobile, so I had to include it. The Minionmobile is obviously a golf cart. It was sold as part of some die-cast vehicle line a few years back, and it's actually more like 1/8th scale, not 1/6th. The roof was way too low for a 1/6th figure, so I had to extend the metal rods that support the roof and raise the seat to allow for more leg-room. You can see details on how I did it here. It doesn't look bad, and actually, I think the "clown car" aspect adds a subtle bit of humor everywhere it appears.

The clips in the back are designed to hold golf bags, which were missing on my example of the golf cart (I saw it in stores, but mine came from a thrift store again). So, instead, we have a GI Joe anti-tank missile launcher back there, and a scuba tank from an 18" knock-off action figure sold at Wal-Mart a few years back. (I bought some on clearance with idea of making giants or monsters out of them.)

While this golf-cart may be hard to find (check eBay), there are alternatives. Wal-Mart sold an RC Yamaha Rhino 4-wheel ATV last year, and there's a golf cart in the current "High School Musical" fashion-doll line that has possibilities.

The traffic cones are Power Team items again, and I wish I had more of them. They're great little props.

The high-tech curbs are rails from an Imaginex building set I think. More thrift store finds. The nukes are actually launchers from a Quest Aerospace Micromax model rocket starter set. I bought a bunch of these on clearance a few years back, mainly for the rockets and motors. The launchers I didn't have much use for, until I noticed how much they did look like some kind of nuclear storage canister or warhead. Now they show up regularly in Minions at Work sets.

Now onto something that shows a whole variety of prop-sources:

Going left to right again:
The wonderful console is part of a "Muppets in Space" action figure playset from a few years back. I got a bunch of these very cheap on clearance, and they're just full of great parts and set pieces. The console was plenty big enough, but it was too low, so it's removed from its original base and mounted on an inverted plastic cup sold as a desk organizer.

You can see the edge of an arched doorway in the back. This is actually one of those "sold on TV" gizmos called a "Can-A-Round." They're white plastic tracks designed to allow you to slide cans of soda and beer around to the back of your fridge. Or something. Seems like a stupid idea to me, but when painted gray, they look like high-tech girders and bulkheads. I have two or three sets, and I use them all the time.

The back wall is foam-core board (office supply or craft store) painted silver. It's decorated with PVC plastic pipe from the hardware store, held on with metal clips, screws, and nuts, also purchased there. The louvered vents are sold as under-eave vents for home roofs. Lots of goodies can be found in the hardware store, if you browse everywhere, and thing of things in terms of form, not intended function.

The equipment rack in the background is another one of those wooden gift crates I mentioned earlier. I painted it black, and stuffed it with a variety of military field radios (Hasbro GI Joe, Power Team, 21st Century toys), again, repainted and detailed using hardware spray paints and craft acrylic paint.

The chairs are all fashion doll items. Fashion doll lines are good sources for furniture and household items, though they often need repainting (lots of pink). Barbie, Bratz and My Scene lines are all good sources of stuff.

The table is thrown together. The top is just a piece of scrap wood put in as packing material in an "assemble it yourself" bookcase I bought a while back. The pedestal bases are a couple of curtain hardware things I spotted at the thrift store (form, not function, again). The top is held on with more of that poster putty stuff.

The top of the podium is a doll-house item. Standard doll-houses are 1/12th scale, half the size of 1/6th, but a lot of usable items can be found at doll-house suppliers. This was a desk-top lectern though, so I had to build the base myself, using wood scraps, and decorative molding strip (hardware store). Craft paint tied it all together.

The map and stand are from a Power Team set again, as is the green crate.

The briefcase actually was sold as a novelty gift item. It has a manicure set inside! But the latches, handle, and all the hardware work fine, and it's in pretty good scale. I've also seen these sold as business card holders. Business and desk-top novelty items and premiums often yield interesting items. In addition to the trash cans and briefcases, I've also picked up some cool office chairs, beach chairs, desktop computers, and other goodies sold as novelty or promotional goods.

The red table is another wooden crate. The yellow thing on top is part of some toddler playset. I found it at a thrift store, liked the shape, and made a few modifications to the "screen" on the side, replacing animal stickers with green cardstock (so I can easily Photoshop in computer displays or whatever).

The phone is our magnet again from the first cartoon. I've got a lot of novelty magnets that are useful props: computers, desk phones, pay phones, blenders, coffee-makers, dustbusters, clothes irons, toasters, lunchboxes, crates of fruit, pots and pans, toaster ovens, microwave ovens, aquariums, lunchboxes, gumball machines, wine bottles, all sorts of stuff. It pays to spin through the kitchen store every once in a while.

Okay, one more, in part to see how the same props get used again and again in different ways. This is Cap'n Rehab's submarine.

The porthole in the background is some kind of fiberboard ring I found in the floral section of a craft store. I have no idea what it's used for. I spay painted it gray, put in some scrapbook paper for the "reef scene" outside, and stuck it to the wall with more putty.

The ship's wheel was a wall hanging I bought at a tourist-trap gift store (I live in a beach town). The metal base for it (which you can't see) was made from a brass candle holder and some copper-pipe fittings from the hardware store.

In the foreground, there's the Muppet's in Space console again. Behind Number 9, you can see one of those rocket-launcher "nukes" again. The red barrel is a repainted Power Team item. The lamp thingies on top is actually an old, novelty salt-and-pepper set. I think I got it for $2 at a junk shop.

The arched doorway is made from our friend the Can-A-Round again. The door in the middle is cardboard and some textured scrapbooking paper I got at a craft store.

The high-tech crates came with figures in the GI Joe "Sigma Six" line.

The rubber duck around Cap'n Rehab's neck was part of a set of novelty earrings I spotted while following my wife into an accessory store at the mall. (Really guys, if your wife or girlfriend is at all crafty, it pays to follow her into bead, craft, and fabric stores now and then. You can go in by yourself, but the strange women who work in these places seem to have a talent for asking embarrassing questions.)

The little Nautilus desk model in the foreground was an accessory for a smaller scale Captain Nemo action figure I bought on deep clearance a while back. (I had no interest in the figure, but he came with a ton of cool accessories. I've also seen cool, usable for 1/6th accessories in other small-scale figures. Wrestling figures, the entire Muppets line being examples. (I got a cool mop and janitor's rolling bucket, a footlocker, some books, and food items with Muppets figures.) But for things like desk models, look for smaller die-cast toys. Nothing spruces up a military office like a model fighter plane, missile, or tank on the desk, and they're all over the die-cast section of the toy store. I've also found similar things in gumball machines and museum gift-shops.

I could keep doing this, but this post has gotten pretty long already. General hints:

Develop a "one-sixth eye." Develop the habit of looking at things in scale. Potential props are everywhere. For instance, I noticed one day while taking the protective cap off a "sports bottle" style bottle of drinking water I got at the theater, that it looked like a miniature Tupperware style bowl. I collected a few and added them to my box of kitchen and food items.

For specific ready-made 1/6th items, check fashion doll toy lines, but also look for novelty items elsewhere, sold as novelty clocks, souvenirs, key-chains, lighters, pencil sharpeners, magnets, desk accessories, business give-aways, jewelry, charms, etc. In addition to toy and hobby stores, you should also be browsing craft stores, bead stores (lots of interesting charms, bits of metal hardware, clasps, etc.), kitchen stores (especially for magnets and other novelty items), gift stores, souvenir stores (in my experience, the junkier the better), museum gift shops, zoo gift shops, and office supply stores.

Finally, you'll notice that a lot of my stuff comes from thrift stores. Thrift stores, garage sales, junk-stores, swap meets, rummage sales, are full of useful prop items. Just use the 1/6th eye. A wooden jewelry box is a desk. A pencil cup is a waste basket. A novelty metal cocktail skewer or letter-opener is a sword.

This stuff is literally everywhere, and often the coolest items are cheap or free. It's all a matter of having the eye, and the creativity, to find them.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Thinking inside the Box

After doing over 125 "Minions at Work" photo cartoons, I'm getting a little bored. Not with the Minions but with the sets I photograph them on.

My "stage" for the Minions is nothing but a small workbench on which I throw together sets using a variety of backdrops and walls (most built of foamcore board) and a variety of other "wild" set pieces, such as columns, beams, arches, and doorways. I can really do a wide variety of sets by swapping my basic pieces around, but for the most part, they have one thing in common. They're flat.

Because of the single-panel format for "Minions at Work," it's generally important to see all the characters in a scene clearly: who they are, what they're doing, what their body language is, and what they're holding. That's hard to do when you get more than two characters in a scene, especially if you're also struggling to get an interesting angle on the set (something else my current setup makes difficult).

Somebody is always turned the wrong way, or you can't see their hands when you need to, or you can't see what they're holding, or where they're looking, or something else that's important to the scene or the joke.

But it's also difficult to make multi-level sets to my requirement. I need modular flexibility. I need things that are sturdy and versatile. I need things that are self-supporting and that don't eat up too much of my limited (especially front-to-back) bench space. And most of all, I need cheap.

Here's a solution I've come up with (click on any of the images for larger versions):

Yeah, boxes. These are recycled "shoebox" sized Express Mail boxes. I've just glued the flaps shut and covered them with self-adhesive shelf-paper, also known as contact paper.

Contact paper is wonderful stuff, with all sorts of uses. It's cheap, comes in useful sizes, sticks well to most surfaces without additional glue or tape, and can be used to disguise or repurpose all sorts of common objects for use in our 1/6th world.

The big problem is the limited patterns available and their applicability to 1/6th sets. A lot of the patterns are florals or other decorative patterns that aren't much use to me, and there are wood-grain patterns that are way out of scale for 1/6th use.

On the other hand, there are sold colors, geometric patterns (like black and white or other checks, good for floor coverings, and stripes, which have some uses), and metallic. Here's an on-line-site to show you some of the patterns and colors you may also find in your local stores.

I've used the metallic papers before, but for this project, I went with a couple of stone patterns, one a gray granite and another a gray marble.

Why two patterns? Well, while either pattern can be used for both walls and floors, it's my feeling that the coarse pattern of the granite is better for floors, and the smoother pattern of the marble is better for walls.

Also, cover a box with one pattern, and it still looks rather like a box. But if the sides are one pattern, and the top another, then it takes on a bit more weight and reality.

But remember, I said flexible, and that's where I got sneaky. The trick her is that, in a photo, normally you can only see at most three of the six sides of a box. If you see an exposed side with one pattern, you'll tend to assume that the reverse face of the box is the same, but it doesn't have to be.

So for my boxes, I covered the ends, one wide side, and one narrow side with marble, and one wide side and one narrow side with granite. By flipping and rotating the boxes to expose various combination of surfaces, two little boxes can be used for an awful lot of different things.

Let's start with something simple. Stood on ends, the boxes become modular, free-standing wall panels. These can be used to provide a stub wall in the foreground of a picture, or to suggest a doorway or hall where none actually exists. Turn them one way, and you've got granite walls.

Turn them the other way, and you've got marble.

One thing to remember for photo purposes is, it isn't important what you build, it's what people see, and what they fill in mentally to complete the picture.

So while we can see this is just a couple of boxes on end, if you were to zoom in or crop to eliminate the tops of the boxes, the viewer will just assume it's a wall that extends all the way to some invisible ceiling. Same with the sizes. If the picture doesn't show the end of the wall, the viewer will assume it continues well beyond the picture, even if the wall overhangs the frame by a fraction of an inch.

Of course, I've only got two boxes, so the wall is necessarily pretty small. Making two more would allow for much more sizable walls, and the flexibility to create a doorway in the middle.

But while this is useful, my primary purpose for creating these was to create some verticality to my sets. Let's see how that works...

Here, by flopping the boxes on their side, I create a raised walkway or second level along the back of the set. This isn't a full "story" bump by any means, but it's enough to allow background characters to be seen clearly over foreground ones, and it adds some visual interest.

Note that I've put the granite "walkway" side on top, and the marble on the front. The fact that the floor is also covered with granite pattern ties the set together.

This setup would also work as a large display shelf of some sort, like a museum or trade show-exhibit, or a runway for a fashion show or a strip club. These things are just as flexible as your imagination.

In a perfect world, the gap between the two boxes wouldn't be dead center in the shot, but it's easy to hide behind an object or character, or to Photoshop out. You could also use a scrap of the same pattern contact paper to cover the gap. Or, you could just live with it, and assume it's a natural seam in the stonework.

Okay, here we flip the boxes, and we have a higher, narrower walkway. Still not a full story, but enough to provide some real separation between the levels.

Okay, the next step to tie these things into a scene is to enhance them with props. I happen to have three of these Power Team traffic barriers, so I'll put them on top of the box walkway. Now it looks more like a balcony or catwalk of some sort.

Of course, you may not have something ready made like this. One thing to remember is that cardboard is really easy to work with. You could punch or drill some evenly spaced holes and make removable stanchions out of wooden dowels or tubing. (Remember though, any holes you make in a side may limit its usability as a wall for later use) Connect the stanchions with scale-sized-ropes or small chain (check the jewelry department at craft stores) and you've got hand-rails.

Now, let's get a little more creative in both our arrangements of the boxes, and the use of props.

In this example, by flipping the boxes in two different directions, and careful exposure of a bit of that granite pattern, we've got a wall with a set-back shelf that we can fill with decorative props.

This somehow reminds me of Stargate SG-1 and the interior of a Goa'uld mother-ship. Once again a longer wall would be better, and you could also add to the height by stacking more boxes on top.

(Most of the Egyptian props, by the way, were purchased in the aquarium department of a pet store. The gong is a brass nick-nack I picked up at a thrift store.)

This arrangement suggests the base of a massive column, perhaps along the side of a great temple or hall. Once again, I've arranged the boxes to create a shelf, and added another aquarium department prop to sell it.

A row of two or three of these would be even more effective in suggesting a large and impressive space. As I said before, let their imaginations work for you. Show them three, and they'll imagine a dozen.

This scene would also be greatly improved by a backdrop more in keeping with the foreground (it could just be a sheet of foamcore covered with more marble paper, and some decorations added, like hanging tapestries created from cheap scarves or from scrapbook papers purchased in a craft store.

Finally, here's a slight variation on the above arrangement, used to create an impressive platform from which an Evil Overlord can address their attentive Minions. The custom-built lectern that I've built from wood and molding scraps is a big plus, but you could simply provide a box of roughly the same proportions (perhaps also disguised with shelf paper) for them to stand behind.

This scene would be greatly improved by hanging something on the backdrop, such as a flag, banner, shield, or logo.

Ironically, my first use of these in Minions at Work really doesn't fit any of the above. Mostly they're used to support a pre-existing set piece, my metal catwalk prop. Here's the cartoon. If you're interested in seeing how the catwalk was built (it's an easily reproducable design from parts you can get in most home-centers or hardware stores), you'll find a post on it here.

Of course, while the granite and marble patterns work well for me in a lot of applications, they won't work everywhere, or for everything. If you don't find the pattern you need in contact paper, check the fancy papers sold by the sheet in the scrapbook section of most craft stores. Paper can be glued to the box or applied with double-sided tape. You can even create your own papers by taking photos (culled form the net or shot with your own camera) and printing them on a color printer (heavier paper stock is easier to work with than standard printing paper). Using your own camera, you can capture weathered wood, cracked concrete, stone, rock tile, rusted metal, or whatever else you need, and scale it for use in 1/6th (or other scale) scenes.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

New Bright CXT Truck

I found one of these monsters, trashed out and no remote, at the Goodwill yesterday for $3.99. Despite a little flack from my wife, I couldn't pass on it. As big as it is, it's 1/10th scale or smaller, and the cab (even if the door opened) is way too small for a Joe. Maybe if you wanted a Sigma 6 semi, this would be just about right. I think this came with a dump bed, but it was broken off this one, as were many of the grab bars, and the steps on the driver side.
What really interested me is the chassis and the wheels. It's BIG. The wheels are 6 inches in diameter (with duals on the back). It's 29 inches long (14 feet 6 inches in Joe scale) and 14 inches across (seven feet scale), which gives it a bigger footprint than the New Bright H2, and it's taller. They learned their lesson with the H2. It's very light for its size. The motor is also small too though, which makes me wonder how much power it has, even with a 19.2v battery.
Operationally, it's a bust. It came with a battery, but I don't have a charger for the 19.2v batteries. But more importantly, no remote, and since it has a multi-band switch, I'm guessing it won't work with the New Bright 49mhz remote that I already have (it IS 49 mhz, so there's a slight possibility that it might work on one switch position, but not the others). I hate to invest $20 in another battery and remote (if I can find one) if my remote isn't going to work, and I can't test it without a charged battery.

My thought is to strip the body and use the chassis for some project. But if I want it motorized, I may have to install a completely new RC system (and I'd probably go to standard RC-type batteries too).

Here are some pictures, with a Soldiers of the World Jeep and some Joes for size reference.

The underside. The battery compartment looks almost identical to those with a snap-in 9.6v battery. The batteries do have the same footprint, but the 19.2v battery has slightly different contacts and flanges so you don't accidentally get them mixed up, and the 19.2v battery is twice as thick. Note that while it looks like there's tons of ground clearance, the front end and gearbox are still pretty low to the ground.

Note that the truck looks plenty tall, but when you compare Joe to the tiny doors, you seek the scale doesn't work at all

It's not tons longer than the Jeep, but it's wider.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Star Wars Helmet Tutorial

I'm not hugely into 1/6th Star Wars figures. I have a few, but not many. But I know there are tons of Star Wars fans, collectors, and customizers out there, so I'm passing along a couple methods of producing removable helmets for Empire troops.

The first is pretty straight-forward. The starting point in this case is a Hasbro TIE fighter pilot, though this technique would probably work for other Hasbro troops such as the storm-trooper, sand-trooper, clone-trooper, and maybe even Boba Fett or Darth Vader.

The figure shown is in fact just a thrift-store special I found nude. As you can see, the Hasbro TIE pilot is mounted on one of those awful Action Man/Hall of Fame bodies. I don't much like the proportions on these, or the lack of articulation (especially the lack of ankle rotation and head tilt).

One option on improving one of these figures is simply to remove the head and transplant it to a GI Joe body of your choice. The head-posts are completely compatible. Of course, you still have to contend with transplanting the molded glove-hands and the sewn-on costumes, but it's doable. But you're still stuck with a non-removable helmet, and that bothers me. Besides, maybe you just want a helmet to sit on a shelf or table in a diorama. So lets turn that TIE fighter "head" into a helmet.

First step is to remove the head. I used the "boil and pop" method. Dip the head into a pot of boiling water to soften the rubber, the pry it gently off the neck post. A narrow tool like a small screwdriver is very helpful in this task.

Take great cautions not to scald yourself, as the hot water likes to find its way inside the hollow head and cavities of the bodies and arms, then dribble out on you as you're working on the figure.

Here's the bottom of the removed head. You can see the opening for the figure's neck post. You can also see a ridge around the bottom of the helmet that probably represents where the real helmet ended. I chose to use that as my cut line. I've heard of people using Dremel moto-tools to cut these, but that's huge overkill. The head is soft vinyl and not very thick. I used a brand-new hobby-knife blade, and it cut like butter.

Again, use caution not to slip and cut yourself, or to cut too far into the helmet. Slow and gentle pressure is the way to go.

Here's the bottom of the helmet. The opening is plenty big for almost any kind of 1/6th figure head.

Here's the finished helmet shown on a molded-shirt CC-Joe with a WW2 head. If anything, this helmet is over-sized.

Our next project is much more challenging. Our starting point is a Burger-King kid's meal toy. These were out a year or two ago, and they aren't hard to find on eBay, or for that matter, at thrift stores and garage sales. There are a couple other figures in this line that might also provide useful helmets (I think there was a Clone Trooper and a Boba Fett, for instance).

The toy is a solid molded figure held together with those damned security screws (triangular openings in the head) that are on so many fast-food toys. (If anyone knows a source for an affordable driver to fit these, please tell me about it.) There's a light mechanism inside activated with a button on the backpack.

Since the helmet is molded as part of the whole, the first challenge is to cut it off. This would be MUCH easier if you could take the figure apart first, but lacking the right tool, and not wanting to take the time to try and drill the screws out, I just started cutting.

A Dremel tool probably would be useful here, but I don't use mine much, and I wasn't confident I could avoid cutting too much, especially in the complex little curves around the "jaw" of the helmet. So I opted for one of my favorite tools, a razor saw. I just took a lot of time and patience going round and round the helmet, coming at the joint line from all angles and taking away a bit of plastic at a time. It was tricky, but I got it done.

Here's the bottom after I cut it off. First problem, the neck opening is way too small. Second problem, the head is full of STUFF, including the LED light and battery holder. I used small needle-nosed pliers to break the tabs holding the light in and removed it. I then was able to work a small pair of diagonal-cutting pliers inside from the bottom and cut the post that contained the screw. This weakened it enough I was able to rip the two halves apart. Again, the right tool for the job would have made this so much easier.

Here are the two halves of the helmet. All the interior junk needs to go. I attacked it using two different sizes of diagonal cutters to "nibble" plastic interior parts out, and a pair of needle-nosed pliers to grab, twist, and break off what was left. Again, patience is required. Again, a Dremel tool would be an option, but be careful not to cut or grind through the outside shell.

Here's what I was left with. A Dremel probably would be the best way to enlarge the bottom opening, but I just sort of whittled things out using a sharp hobby knife, taking away the plastic a sliver at a time. Though I removed all the alignment pins, there's a lip around the edge that makes it easy to put back together properly. I glued the halves together with a bead of super-glue.

Here's the finished helmet on a CC Joe. This is a much tighter fit than the TIE helmet, but I had no trouble getting it on the Joe, and even got it on a much larger Power Team head. I think this is rather close to scale, actually. At least it looks right to me.

The nice thing about this is the you can care up plenty of extra Storm Trooper helmets, if you want them for custom projects or to make a squad of troops. Of course, you'll need to come up with armor for them. Since the original 1:1 Storm Trooper armor was made from vacuum-formed plastic sheet, and home vacuum-forming isn't difficult at all, it wouldn't be that hard for somebody to create some molds to mass-produce 1/6th Storm Trooper armor. Combine that with some simple black body suits, and you could crank out 1/6th Storm Troopers by the dozens!

Go on! I dare you! (And send me a set of armor when you're through.)