Looking Back

blownadrilI’ve found some old clips from years gone by, and have been digitizing them to put into a reel. Some of the stuff even stands up! So I’m putting them up on my site, bit by bit. The one featured today is an ad parody from the tonight show, circa 2011, where once again, for no personal reason whatsoever, I poke fun at the difference between convenience and lazy parenting.

Have a look! Just go to my main page and click on videos. http://andymcelfresh.com

Secret Stuff

While I love Kevin’s full disclosure about everything in his life, I can’t say that I can follow suit. First of all, I am working on his newest movie and have been sworn to secrecy on everything but the fact that he had to shave his beard to do the stuff I’m working on.

But I CAN tell you that I am putting a Terducken together for this Thursday, and I WILL be deep frying it. So if you’re in the Los Angeles area, down around Miracle Mile, and you see a smoke plume billowing up nearby, you’ll know it’s my house going up. Pray I don’t light the La Brea Tar Pits on fire!

Crosswords cross swords with cross words

This is some stock image. Who does crosswords on paper anymore?

As we resurface from Johanna’s recent health scare, I am feeling much more positive about things, and have renewed energy to start posting stuff again. One new development is the Edumacation Crossword puzzle, which is, so far, a daily effort on my part to hook folks on one of my favorite pass times.

As I mentioned on the Edumacation podcast this week, I started out writing the puzzles with answers that were themed to the Smodco universe, while trying to make the clues about on par with the New York Times, and about as hard as one of Will Short’s Wednesday puzzles.

I quickly learned that the listeners were all over the map in terms of experience, so I started publishing TWO puzzles every day: the hard one, and the easy one, both of which have the same solution grid.

That way, you can go to the page


and try your hand at the hard puzzle. If you need a little help, follow the links below to the easy puzzle and either view the clues in .pdf format, or download the AcrossLite version. If you’re still stuck, you can reveal the answer either in the main page or in AcrossLite, in whichever version you are trying to solve.

So, for example, in one daily edition, the solution was “THE.” The hard clue was “Darjeeling in Paris,” which fits without the accent. The easy clue was “She’s ___ Boss.” You get the idea.

Anyway, try your hand and have fun. You can leave comments about the puzzles here, if I can get my Askimet spam settings to work.

Finally, A Hard Copy

A Goggle-Eyed goof, sculpted on the computer and printed out in 3D

A Goggle-Eyed goof, sculpted on the computer and printed out in 3D

In addition to my writing duties at the Tonight Show and elsewhere, I am also responsible for many graphical elements for the show. It’s pretty interesting and diverting to go between these different tasks, and the most fun is finding an excuse to model something in 3D. But then those models or characters only end up existing for the brief time that the graphics are up.

But now, I can print them out.

I thought I’d take a shot at a couple of busts (insert joke here). Sitting across from Kevin Smith in his office, I am surrounded by these fantastic sculptures of comic book characters in action, so I decided to go for that very expressive, not-entirely-realistic style. While there are all sorts of software packages that allow you to sculpt virtual models, and even tools within Maya (the 3D animation package I use), I like Autodesk Mudbox. I opened it up and started with a base model. They even color it to look like clay:

Character bust blank in Mudbox

Character bust blank in Mudbox

I won’t get into all of the gory details on sculpting, but suffice it to say there are tools that let you cut, smooth, push in, pull out and foam up the surface. After about a half an hour I came up with this:
Goggle Man without his Goggles

Goggle Man without his Goggles

I had to export the model into Maya to add some geometry for the teeth, and of course I left the goggles separate from the model, so I just accentuated the area around the eyes and the upper cheekbones, to give the impression that he was actively looking through them. Then I imported the model into Maya and added the goggles, putting in some neck bones so I could pose the head, looking off to the right and up. That way, when the model is sitting on a desk, you can aim it so it’s looking at you.
Now with goggles, and posed in Maya.

Now with goggles, and posed in Maya.

From here, it was easy to export the model as an .stl file (short for Stereo Lithography, a standard 3D printing file format), and bring it into the printing software. I opted to print it as a hollow shell, about 2mm thick, to save on printing filament, and used support material as an option (support material is like a very thin scaffolding, so that when part of the model is cantilevered out, the machine doesn’t have to print into thin air, like under the nose). Once the print is done, you just pull it away and clean up any leftover nubs with an X-acto knife.

The polishing process is interesting, but hard to photograph. You take a coffee can, put in a few teaspoons of acetone (like in nail polish remover), then put it onto the heating bed of the 3D printer. While that heats up, you chill down the model. Then, when the acetone has evaporated (it has a low evaporation temperature) you suspend the model in this “vapor bath.” The cool model causes the vaporous acetone to condense on its surface, and the presence in the vapor bath keeps it from evaporating right away. This makes the lines of the 3D print melt – ever so slightly – into each other, making the surface smooth and polished.

You can also sculpt using photographs in Mudbox, basically pinning them up behind the model as reference. I used a fashion model I found online who looked a bit cartoony, with huge eyes and lips and a very long neck, to make the following computer model:

Female model, sculpted after a photograph.

Female model, sculpted after a photograph.

In the shot below, you can see that I was running out of acetone, so the polishing effect on the surface did not develop fully, and you can still see the horizontal lines of resolution from the printer.
I really need to start modeling hair.

I really need to start modeling hair.

Next up I’m going to pull the airbrush out of mothballs and see if I can paint the damned thing. Looking around on the web, I see that some guys use acrylic paint, and actually paint their models before polishing. The action of melting the surface keeps the paint from scratching as easily.
Of course, there are color 3D printers out there, but they cost a lot more than the 500 bucks mine did.

Make Your Own Sous Vide Controller

The sous vide machine, cooking up a lamb roast

The sous vide machine, cooking up a lamb roast

I mentioned my 3D printed sous vide temperature controller in a recent “Edumacation” podcast with Kevin Smith, and some people have asked me to go into a little more detail. So here it is, everything you need (besides the parts and the 3D printer) to make your very own.
Essentially, I followed someone else’s instructions on making a water temperature controller, and after making a few (very minor) modifications, designed an enclosure on the computer that would be less flimsy, smaller, and would reduce some of the heat buildup associated with the relay, that is constantly clicking on and off and that throws a ton of heat.
First of all, you should go to Seattle Food Geek’s website and read their excellent article on a DIY sous vide controller:


They put a price tag of about 75 bucks on it, which is a little more than if you print your own box. I bought all of the components I could on Amazon, and, not finding the same switch and water pump, just picked some others and modified the design. I also wanted to use a pump that moved a lot more water than the original, since I wanted to be able to use this in larger cooking containers, including a big beer cooler.

The machine in profile, ready to cook. Note the smaller pump.

The machine in profile, ready to cook. Note the smaller pump.

The 3D model is available for download and printing on the Thingiverse website: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:118893. You may notice that there is not a hole for either the power cord or the thermocouple (the electronic thermometer). That’s because you may want to have the power cord coming out of a different spot than do, since I do my sous vide bath on the stove and want the cord to come out the front to keep it away from the gas jets. As far as the thermistor, they come in a few varieties and I figure it’s just as easy to drill a hole with the proper dimensions than it is to clean out the support material from the 3D print.
The different switch

The different switch

When looking at the 3D print design, I wanted the thing to break open in the middle, so that all the wiring could be done without having to make the connections too long, thus needing less volume to hold them. This worked out well, as the whole thing can fit on an 8x8x8 extrusion printer like mine (a Solidoodle), and once I separated the clamp, the whole thing was printable without any overhangs, reducing the need for support material on the printer.
The relay, with the hot metal plate vented outside the controller

The relay, with the hot metal plate vented outside the controller

The best part of the design puts the hot metal plate on the relay on the outside of the box. This keeps it from heating up the PID controller (the actual control panel in the front), which can kill it. It also allows you to put a heat sink on the relay, further increasing its life. Finally, if the relay dies, you can pop it out of the enclosure and replace it easily, at a cost of about 12 bucks.
Drop me a comment if you feel like there are any big questions, but, between the article in Seattle Food Geek and the stuff on the Thingiverse site, you should be able to do this project on your own. Continue reading

Getting Back to It

a point-source speaker, hanging up in the backyard


A lot of folks have been asking me to get back to writing the blog. Lately, I’ve been wrapped up in looking for work — the Tonight Show (with Jay Leno, anyway) goes off the air in 6 months, and I have to do something to keep me in 3d printer filaments, plus send the kids to school. So, in other words, I have been busy. Plus I just started doing a new Podcast, Edumacation, with Kevin Smith, and that only adds to the list of chores.

However, I have been doing some interesting projects along the way. The nice thing about having a Laser Cutter and a 3D printer is that, after a bit of designing on the computer, the machines do the work for you. The point-source speaker, shown above, was a design that I found freely available on Thingiverse.com, and all I had to do was edit it to fit the 2 inch speakers I had. After that, the 3D printer did most of the work, taking about 3 days to print out all the parts. Once that was done, I was able to assemble it in about an hour.

While I have written some scripts, this is not the place to discuss them. There is the whole problem of secrecy, at least until (!) I am able to sell one of them, but also I find it incredibly annoying when a writer talks about their work. I don’t know what it is. I mean, I guess it’s interesting to hear that John Cheever liked to write all of his stories out longhand, but on second thought, it actually isn’t.

So stay tuned, dear reader, for some new posts right here. I will put up a procedural for putting together the sous vide machine I printed on the 3d printer, as well as a look at how I’m doing the Tonight Show graphics these days. Some folks have been asking for a video tutorial on doing some of that day-to-day work, but I confess I don’t find it that interesting at this point, so I’d rather just sketch it out in a blog post and leave it at that.

On the list for upcoming projects: a FPV quadcopter, printed on the 3d printer, naturally (FPV stands for First Person Video, a system that allows you to view the world from the craft you’re remotely flying); a look at using Camera Raw on your DSLR (or point and shoot) alongside Adobe Lightroom, for interesting photo effects; a traffic camera mount for the vespa (I got clobbered on the thing last year during carmageddon, and wish I had footage); a high-powered light ring for my dlsr camera lens, for portrait photography; and an electric bicycle conversion. I will probably never get to any of these.

So, dear reader, keep watching the skies. I look forward to suggestions and comments for the Podcast. Try to keep them within the world of science and tweet them to @EdumacationAndy. Thanks!

(Very) Small Project

The inside of two 9 volt batteries. This ought get you a full body cavity search the next time you go through airport security.

I’ve been busy this hiatus finishing up a script, so I haven’t had time to do too many projects (although I have had a few challenging chores, like replacing one of the lights in the pool and putting a new tire on the Vespa).

However, since our friends the Blacks came back from Europe to find their house flooded, I’ve been trying to put together a water sensor for the basement that does a couple of useful things: shuts the water off, and sends me an email telling me what’s going on. I’m nearly done (the sensor, Arduino boards and code mostly in place), and have yet to settle on what kind of shutoff valve to buy and where in the plumbing to put it.

The laser cutter plans. Note the part in red: that just etches battery icons onto the board, to tell you which way they go.

Part of the project uses a 12 volt power supply, which I needed for something else. Besides, that version plugs into the wall, and I needed the project to be portable to take it down to the basement and stick it under the water heater. The processing board is so small, I wanted a little 12 volt power supply that would fit under it, so I took a few minutes and put one together on the laser cutter.

As you may or may not know, a 9 volt battery actually has 6 little 1.5 volt batteries inside of it, soldered together in a series to build up the voltage. I figured I could take apart two 9 volts, and make a little battery case that fitted 8 of them in series: 1.5 times 8 is 12 volts, just what I need.

I haven’t had so many Tabs since the Mac Davis Show was on.

I pried open a couple of batteries and hammered one of the cases flat. I cut that up into little tabs to be used as connectors. I designed the contact walls to allow those tabs to wrap underneath, to give the connectors a spring-loaded effect. And I soldered the positive and negative leads on the odd side, with a hole in the side of the case to allow them to connect to the breadboard.

The thing, done. Please feel free to use any passwords you may see scrawled on my workbench.

The case has a sliding lid to keep everything inside, and I made one version out of 1/16th inch plexiglas to show how it all fit together.

Under the breadboard, lighting up 3 ultra bright LEDs: part of yet another project for yet another day.

Hey, it ain’t rocket science, but it’s convenient and I didn’t see anything out there that I could buy to take its place. Except maybe a 12 volt battery. Which is giant.

Obscure L.A.

A foggy day in Los Angeles Town. Click to enlarge

I’ve been told that my blog entries are too long to be at all popular, so I thought I’d put up this quick story.

It was foggy in Los Angeles on Friday morning, so I took the scenic route via Mulholland Drive to get to Burbank. The view from the scenic overlook was stunning, so I stopped to take a picture. I had to take off my helmet and gloves and get the camera out, so it took a few minutes to get ready.

While this was going on, a family of tourists rolled up in a minivan, brimming with road trash. They got out with cameras, looked downtown, and after a moment the kids whined, “Aw, you can’t see it.” They got back in their cars and drove off, not having taken one photo.

Who could blame them? We were both there to take pictures of something we don’t normally get to see.

The observatory rises above

Targeted Graphics

The finished gallery. Click to enlarge. Animated version below

Most of the packaging elements I do for the Tonight Show are done either in the camera, or on the computer. For example, I did a series of tilt-shift filmed bumpers, a process whereby you use a special lens that gives you an incredibly narrow field of focus on longer distance shots, giving the illusion that what you are looking at is a tiny, scale model of the real world.

The corner at the Biltmore

I also have done a number of beauty shots around the city (particularly of LACMA), and we run a whole series I shot at the amusement park on the pier in Santa Monica.

And, of course, the titles I do are, for the most part, computer generated. I usually build the words in Maya (a 3D package), throw in some reflections of the stage or a fake lighting rig, animate it, then put the resulting animation over a background in After Effects, the compositing software we use. There are all sorts of tricks that I won’t get into, and at last count I had made more than 500 such titles.

While I wouldn’t have the ego to think that my work has been copied, I have noticed that there are now a number of similar packaging motifs on cable channels like Smithsonian and The Learning Channel. So I wanted to do something that would be interesting and fun to look at, and that would echo the themes we use on the show already: amusement park, tiny, interesting to look at. So I decided to create a series of real, miniature classic carnival arcade games, design and build them, and shoot them either in stop-motion or make them move on their own, and simply light and tape them.

All the parts laid out in Adobe Illustrator

I just finished the first one, a shooting gallery that has moving tracks of targets and fun bright colors. I went with this because I figured the tracks would be the easiest to automate, and since you face the gallery head-on, the whole thing could be designed in two dimensions in Adobe Illustrator, allowing me to get all the targets, interlocking gears and background elements sized correctly.

The big question was moving the tracks of targets. After poking around the workshop for different ideas, the idea was literally staring me in the face: we have so many bicycles hanging up in the garage, and the bike chain design, with a little modification, would work perfectly.

Detail of the assembled chain

Since our show goes out in a 16×9 aspect ratio, it made sense to make the dimensions of the gallery 16 inches wide and 9 inches tall. The physical targets would be incorporated right into the chain, which would make them stay within their track and rotate perfectly at the edges. There would be four different motions: a track moving left, a track moving right, rotating targets behind and two back targets that would rock back and forth.

Now for picking the targets. It wouldn’t be a shooting gallery with ducks, so I designed them first. I made some round, bullseye-style targets next. For the rotating targets I made some soup cans, and in the back would be an oscillating sun and moon. I had toyed with the idea of using the Tonight Show logo instead of the cans, and putting a caricature of Jay’s face as the rockers, you know, because the show and Jay are such easy targets in the press, but when I did a layout that idea seemed trite to me, so I went for a more traditional approach.

detail of the sun, the moon, and the cans

I started by cutting out a sample bicycle chain on the laser cutter. The holes in the chain were so accurate I didn’t need to use any glue, I just tapped them together with a little wooden mallet. And I found that there is nothing more therapeutic, after a long day of joke writing, production and commuting in Los Angeles traffic, then putting together a wooden bicycle chain. I highly recommend it.

a finished gear with  ball bearings

The chain worked great, but I would have to change my original cog design to something with a shallower bite, to allow the chain to wrap around the cog without drifting off. I also tried to have the cogs rotating on wooden pegs, but if there was any tug on the chain the friction was too much, and it made the whole assembly too hard to move. So Dash gave me some old skateboard bearings, and I put those in the hubs instead. They moved very smoothly and allowed for much greater pull on the chains.

dry fit of the walls. The braces at the bottom are temporary

As the finished gallery is too wide for the laser cutter’s maximum 14 inches, I had to make some of the wall elements in 2 parts. I separated the parts with a serpentine line that, when joined, was much stronger than a butt-joined wall (there is a “Rick Santorum is so conservative, he never uses butt joints” joke to be made here, but I just can’t).

I would have to do much of the painting of the parts prior to assembly, since everything is pretty crammed together in the design and there are plenty of tight spots. Johanna was instrumental in picking a lot of the colors, and luckily, our friend Tommy Hogan was in town on a visit, and he also lent his fine color expertise to the project.

I built all of the mechanics first, assembling them with the interior walls. The front picket wall and the back wall went on next. Rather than trust my calculations on the computer to be correct, I instead measured the angled side walls, which have precisely cut slots in them to allow the targets to rotate around the bottom and cycle back up on the other side.

the side walls go on. Note the wire brace clamps and the fancy masking tape

With the whole thing put together, I realized how complicated it would be to motorize the thing to shoot it. I was happy with the way it looked and I wanted to shoot it right away, so I took out the linkages and extra gears, and shot it in stop-motion. I slipped a piece of green paper behind each of the layers and shot all of the targets separately, so I could control the speed of each level when I composited it all together later in After Effects. Stop motion is very time consuming, but luckily my Canon SLR has a remote control, so I could move each piece and shoot the frame without having to travel across the room each time (I used a 100mm portrait lens, which has a near-perfect flat field of focus and gives very straight lines, and also makes the layers seem closer together than a regular 50mm lens).

After about three hours in my office, I had all of the elements shot. Another hour of compositing and coloring in After Effects, and the animation was done. Here’s a look at the finished animation:

10 seconds of pure viewing satisfaction!

I have already gotten a bunch of requests for other carnival games, like water pistols in the clown’s mouth, the stacked bottles and baseballs and so forth. I think I might make a left turn with this and also create some bumpers featuring the carnival sideshow, with acts like the strong man and the wild man of Borneo.

All this for 5 seconds of viewing pleasure, just after the commercial break. Comedy is easy, animated wooden carnival games are hard!

even the trash is interesting with a laser cutter