Finally, A Hard Copy

August 8th, 2013

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

August 1st, 2013

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: 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. Read the rest of this entry »

Getting Back to It

July 28th, 2013

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, 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

March 9th, 2012

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.

February 26th, 2012

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

February 26th, 2012

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

Cutting Remarks

February 17th, 2012

I’m trying to finish my shooting gallery, but I’m having trouble getting my ducks… um… never mind.

A while back, I posted a blog about my CNC router, and while I used it for a number of projects, the thing kicks up so much sawdust that it’s just not practical to do a lot with it. In fact, the best project I did was to build a sawdust catcher, and although it works pretty well, you can’t watch the router in action, which is half the fun.

One of the websites that popularized the CNC router is, and twice a year they have a contest, where you submit your own tutorial on how to make something, and the winner receives a Zing laser cutter. This got me interested in laser cutters as a next step in my workshop: you can design stuff on the computer and it cuts out the parts just like a CNC router, but it doesn’t create any sawdust, it’s very quiet and you can make parts with incredible precision.

Cutting out gears and tie rods for the shooting gallery. The red laser is just there for aim

But Zing cutters are expensive (over five grand), so forget it. Until a number of article started popping up describing how to build your own. Just like building a router, right? Well, not exactly. In order to achieve the kind of tolerances you need, it has to be made from metal parts, and sourcing some of them can be a problem. Source them I did, however, and found I could put together a 40 watt cutter/engraver for around $1500. While that is still a lot, I can use the cutter to create practical graphical elements to use in the bumpers and packaging on the Tonight Show, and write the whole project off as a business expense.

When you make your own picture frames, you don’t  have to throw away the pictures of people who are more attractive than you that come with it

After a litte more research I realized that building one would take up crazy amounts of time. But in sourcing the parts, I found a company, FS Laser, that sells laser cutters for less than half the price of the Zing. They have their own software that drives the cutters and lets you engrave, too. That was good enough for me. I got the smallest unit, installed it in the garage and started cutting.

The Plexiglas logo. N.B., the wires outside the conference room window aren’t the only high tension around here

The first thing I did was to work with the Tonight Show logo. I wanted to get something on air to justify this thing as a business expense. Turns out, you can cut out Plexiglas very easily, and the laser polishes the edges of the parts as it cuts. I made a see-through logo and shot some bumpers with it. Very cool and easy, and it only took about a half an hour to create the Plexi element.

Here’s a little box with a top like a rolltop desk. 46 parts. The photo does not convey how awful the green color I painted it looks

I started designing things on the computer, sending them to the cutter, and putting them together. I bought some sheets of nice, 1/8th inch plywood from Anderson Plywood in Culver City and cut them down to sheets that would fit into the cutter. The laser leaves the edges of the wood dark, with a thin layer of sticky resin in some cases. Tuning the laser so that it cuts through with the proper power setting was tricky, but now that I have the hang of it, it’s pretty easy to think of an idea, design the parts and put it together in short order.


The best thing about it is that I have a machine doing all the hard work for me. The unit I bought is popular with serious model airplane enthusiasts, but I don’t have that interest. I’m not casting aspersions on the airplane guys, because, other than the Tonight Show stuff, the projects I’ve done are pretty pointless: A roll-top box; a cricket cage (to be detailed in a later post), engraved “Hunger Games” pins for Daisy and her friends.

Who doesn’t need a cricket cage? Pretty much everybody, I think

The kids have used the machine to cut out letters to paste onto posterboard for school projects. It’s nice having a signmaking shop in the garage when you have a Social Studies presentation due the next day.


Right now I’m building a model of an old-fashioned carnival shooting gallery. Last summer I shot a bunch of bumpers at the amusement park, and this will be a way to keep the theme going, but in a cool, filmic way. Everything in the model is made on the cutter, from the bicycle chain to the cogs, the targets and the ducks. The mechanics are all together and it actually runs, but when I shoot it I’ll probably do it with stop motion to make it look more interesting.

I also use it to make repairs and custom parts to put things together. I made a replacement joint for a broken bicycle stand, and a fixture to turn a Chinese lantern into a shade for a ceiling light.

This perfect repair to a bicycle stand was designed with an iPhone camera and a set of calipers

Who knows, maybe I’ll finally get a drink holder in my old diesel Mercedes? But that’s a discussion for another day.

TiVo for Food

February 12th, 2012

My sous vide rig. Note the extra plug after modification: Zap!

We have been cooking sous vide for a few years now, so I thought I’d write a post about it and describe some of the things we like about it.

First off, we do a lot of our grocery shopping at Costco. Yes, I still take the Vespa, and yes, you end up with a lot of extra stuff that you either have to freeze, or put in a vacuum sealed bag if you want to keep it around. Costco sells the Foodsaver vacuum sealer, so of course we got one.

Turns out, we’re halfway there with the sous vide.

For those of you who have never read the Times’ food section, or heard of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa, sous vide is a method of slow cooking food in a vacuum sealed bag in a (relatively) low temperature water bath. The term is French, and it roughly means “under vacuum,” and basically, buy sealing it up this way, you get the food to be in full contact with the water, without actually having it in the water.

We started out with a recipe for pulled pork, because the cooking temperature was high enough to do in the oven on very low – about 165 degrees. It was a pretty crude method, whereby you put the bag of seasoned pork on a pizza stone (with your digital thermometer probe sandwiched in between), and crack the door of the oven to keep the temperature below the oven’s temperature below the minimum of around 200 degrees.

As with most red meat recipes, the cooking time was long – in this case, 24 hours (it is not uncommon for restaurants to keep meat in the bath for 72 hours or more). But it was worth it, as the pork fell apart beautifully. We made a sweet sauce from the juice and had Hawaiian barbecue sandwiches on potato rolls.

We are health nuts.

Beef rib chuck after 48 hours in the water. I have spared you all the photos of raw meat, because I don’t have a setting on my iPhone that makes them look at all appetizing

I started looking into sous vide cookers, which are pretty expensive ($1200 for a professional controller, immersion heater and circulator), so I decided to go the less-expensive route. Weirdly enough, most of the equipment came from aquarium suppliers. One was a interval switch for a pump, another was a separate pump. The third was a tank heater, but as they take a very long time to heat up any amount of water, I opted for what are called “coffee heaters,” basically a burly wire coil with an AC cord attached. I plugged two of these into the interval switch, and regulated the interval so it would hit the right temperature.

The same beef, pan seared, deglaze and the juice reduced with a little red wine

This didn’t work very well, with the added bonus of, if you were doing it all in a metal pot, you would get 110 volts of household current running through your body if you put both hands on it. I realized that electrocuting my food wasn’t the answer.

Poking around on the sous vide forums, I found a company that makes lab temperature controllers, and they were packaging one of their units as a “sous vide special.” At 110 bucks, it was kind of expensive to still be experimenting, but they had instructions on their site for using the unit with a rice cooker or a Crock Pot.

I bought it, but found out that my Crock Pot wouldn’t work with it, since it had its own (crude) temperature controller built in. So I soldered in a new, direct lead to the heating elements and put a regular 110 cord on it. This plugs into the controller, and there are Crock Pot settings you can dial into it to keep the temperature within about a tenth of a degree at all times.

Wired, plugged in and ready, I cooked four pounds of beef rib chuck at 125 degrees for 72 hours, and it worked like a charm. As I was slicing it up for dinner, my friend Matt sent me an email informing me that the Sous Vide Supreme, and all-in-one countertop machine that made life easy for just 400 bucks, had just gone on sale. Oh well.

It was all for the best, since the Sous Vide Supreme has a very small water bath and you can’t cook a lot in there. The controller I use can be plugged into anything that uses an electrical element to heat stuff up. I bought an electric turkey fryer that holds ten quarts of water (or oil, if you’re frying), and you can prepare 40 chicken thighs in there, no problem. In fact, last Thanksgiving, we used the turkey fryer to sous vide the turkey first (dark meat for 24 hours, white meat for 2 hours), then dumped it out, heated up the oil and finished the turkey in the fryer, redneck-style. It was quite good, with the legs and thighs coming out almost like a confit.

Dash’s birthday dinner: butter the bag, herbs go in, wrap the skin around the chicken, insert into bag and seal

Now our crock pot and controller are like having a TiVo for food. On Sunday morning every two weeks, I’ll go to Costco and get some meats for 14 days. Since chicken doesn’t have the long cook times of red meat, I’ll trim, season and cook 2 meals worth of hot wings, or maybe do some thighs on the bone, ice them down when their done and put them in the fridge, still in the bag, until we’re ready to finish them. So on a week night, you just switch on the water bath, re-therm the chicken in the bag for twenty minutes, take it out and roast it on the grill or get a crispy skin in the pan in a little olive oil. The whole thing takes about 40 minutes and it is cooked perfectly.

Then we put in some beef, or our new favorite, rack of pork, into the bath for a few days. Pork is particularly good, because you are cooking it at the absolute lowest temperature for a long time, and never risk drying it out. The connective tissues break down and with the bone make a nice gelatin that is infused into the meat. Plus, after roasting it on the grill, you take a blowtorch to the bones before slicing them into chops (you can also roast them as chops) to carmelize more of the fat and dispel some of the (perfectly safe) pinkness. They are yummy.

Cheaper cuts of meat come out more flavorful and very tender in sous vide, but if you want to cook more expensive cuts, it still makes sense because you’re not taking any chances with it. You can precisely control the doneness of the meat, then sear the crap out of it to give it that delicious caramelization.

Cook that smashed chicken under a brick! You want that skin cripsy!

Finally, for Dashiell’s birthday last Tuesday, we wanted to try to replicate the recipe for Smashed Chicken at Campanile. Our server had told us how it is prepared (including the sous vide timing), so we bought a couple of whole chickens and went to town. The breasts came out perfect, with a very smooth texture and flavor that penetrated the meat, while the crispy skin was incredible. We cooked the thighs with the bones in the bath for a full day, then shredded them and used them on chicken nachos.

The finished Smashed Chicken. I have everything I need, except for a food stylist who can my my delicious food look good

Photos with Heat

January 24th, 2012

Shot yesterday at the corner of 3rd and Martel

I remember back in art school, my photography teacher told us that Ansel Adams mixed his own emulsion, which allowed him to expose photos in the visible and near-infrared spectrum. This is the sort of thing I remember.

Ansel Adams knew how to take pictures but not how to shave

Flash forward 308 years to today, where the sensor on your digital camera does the same thing. This would be weird for taking snapshots of the kids’ birthday party, so the manufacturers cover the sensors with a filter that blocks the infrared. But if you WANT to shoot photos in infrared, you can take that filter off. Nerdy!

While I have a DSLR, I stills shoot most of my stuff with a Canon G-9. It’s a great point-and-shoot that allows you to shoot in camera raw format, gives you lots of controls, and also is ideal for using the Canon Hack Development Kit, a bit of software you can put on your camera to do fun stuff like time-lapse photography, or automatically take photos of lightning. Canon has updated over the years to the G-12, so I was able to find another G-9 on eBay for around 60 bucks, ready to be modified into an infrared camera.

I decided not to screw it up myself, and found a number of places on the web that will do the operation for you. I sent mine to a guy in New Hampshire, who charged me another 60 bucks to take the filter off.

I took a picture of two cameras with another camera!

Take a look at the difference between the two cameras (infrared on the left). The infrared camera sees reflected heat as white, so plant life (which has to reflect a lot of heat) comes out as white. A shot of my front yard in Southern California in July looks like a snow-covered winter wonderland.

It’s a boiling 84 degrees, folks!

Another cool thing is clouds. They really reflect the heat back down to us, while the blue sky lets it all go. This gives you great detail and contrast in cloud photos.

The clouds over my house 20 minutes ago

When we were at Mt. St. Helen’s, there was a forest fire raging north of there, so there was a lot of smoke haze between us (at the visitors’ center) and the volcano. Most of that interference is in the visible spectrum, it turns out, because when I shot the mountain with the infrared camera, the details were clear and there was very little haze. Which is weird, since clouds reflect so much heat, but whatever, I’ll take it.

Mt. St. Helen – but buy her a drink first

This is a 3x closeup to show the increased clarity

Pictures of people always turn out weird for some reason. Pupils and irises turn out black, even if the subject has blue eyes. Some blemishes are reduced, and clothing colors always get screwy. Also, if there’s something gross on someone’s clothes that they thought they had cleaned off, this camera pulls a CSI and shows the residue like a black light in a hotel room in Laughlin. (Image not included for obvious reasons)

A textured rock formation in Big Bend National Park

Tinted windows and sunglasses, for the most part, come out clear. Take a picture of someone looking stylish in big-lensed sunglasses, and they come out looking like Rod Steiger in “The Chosen.” You can put an infrared light on the camera, which is invisible to the naked eye, and take pictures into cars with blacked-out windows. It’s a wonder TMZ isn’t doing this, but I guess it’s an invasion of privacy so… it’s a wonder TMZ isn’t doing this.

I get all my glasses from Florida retirees

Here are some photos I took this Christmas on our trip to Big Bend National Park. We hiked down to a spot called “Windows,” a ravine that used to end in a waterfall, and still has the 200-foot drop just beyond. After the drought and fires, a lot of the rock faces were covered with soot, which was matte black in visible light but had a shiny, coal-like sheen in infrared.

A blackened cliffside in Big Bend

You can see that, in the case of these two photos, the color version is pretty but the infrared version shows the relief of the cliff face in much greater detail.

Finally, here’s a shot of an art installation outside Valentine, Texas, miles from nowhere. This was taken at midday, and the infrared camera gives the scene an almost antique look, with the gnarled wooden fence posts and scrubland looking pretty beaten by the brutal Texas climate. Also, if you look closely, the front door window (made of plastic) has a nice bullet hole in it, probably from a 30.06.

The art in Valentine is of a high caliber, as are the guns with which they shoot it

Guess there’s nothing else to do outside Valentine, Texas besides shootin’ up the phony Prada store. Yee haw!

Cat With A Leaf Blower

January 23rd, 2012

I thought I’d write a quick blog about a drop-in I put together last week, to try to get back into the swing. We have a running joke that Jay’s cat, Bedalos, is smarter than any other pet in the world. This usually plays out by showing a popular internet clip featuring a pet doing something cute, like riding a Roomba. After the clip, Jay brags that Bedalos is much smarter, and we show a clip of a cat (actually an actor cat played by Zorro) doing something impossible.

This time, we showed a clip of a dog jumping into a pile of leaves and retrieving a ball. It takes the dog a while, and it’s a mess. Bedalos, on the other hand, runs off-screen and comes back with a leaf blower.

In order to achieve this, I first had to build a cat that looks like Zorro. I took some production stills of the cat, and using a 3D software package called Mudbox, sculpted and painted a computer-generated cat from a low-res, stock mesh.

Sculpting the cat

That done, I brought the model into Maya, and rigged the cat so I could animate it. A rig is a set of virtual bones that are connected to the 3D mesh. As the bones move, the cat model deforms like a real cat, or at least tries to approximate that movement. The rig also features a system of control bones and curves that allow you to move the bones around in a simplified way, much like you would a clay model or other figure used in stop-motion animation.

The cat is rigged for animation

Next, I used the color of the cat to give it fur. I added the ability to control the exposure and lights to the camera, which would simplify making the cat look like it belonged outside in the sun with Jay.

An early pass at the fur

Next, I found a photo of a backpack leaf blower on, and used it as a basis to build a virtual one. Since I wasn’t doing any close-ups and the leaf blower is made of plastic, I didn’t have to do any complicated texturing or materials to sell the audience on the idea that this was a real leaf blower. Plus, a cat-sized leaf blower is going to look like a toy, so there’s that.

The toy leaf blower

Now it was time to shoot the bit. I gave away the storyboards I drew while I was planning the shots with our cameraman, so I don’t have them to show you here. Suffice it to say they consisted of a series of cuts that would allow us to switch from the real cat to the CG version.

We went out to the grassy knoll on the NBC lot. If you look at the segment, then look back at some old episodes of Laugh-In, you’ll see it’s the same place, only the trees are newly-planted on that show.

Jay lets the cat wranglers do their work

We needed real leaves (which you have to buy, it turns out), and someone to blow them away. Our special effects team brought along an enormous rig that a child could use as a jetpack. There were two actor cats, which makes sense when you figure even the most cooperative is still a cat. The wranglers used treats to get the cats to focus on their marks, and little buzzers that they could plant next to the treat and activate when we called “action.”

Still, the cat was unable to carry the ball in its mouth, so that became another effect I would have to do.

Things went pretty well. We shot with Jay for about 20 minutes, then did a few pickup shots with the cat in another 15 minutes. We shot close-ups of the ball <i>in situ<i> for the added effects shots, and that was it.

The cat and leaf blower models connected up

Back on the computer, I placed the leaf blower on the cat, and constrained it to the cat rig so it could be moved with the animation controls and would look more natural. I imported the footage for the leaf blower shot into Maya and positioned the camera so the ground plane in the shot matched the one in the software. I had build the cat to scale, so it was the right size already. Now all I had to do was animated the cat walking in, and blowing the leaves away in a fashion that matched the way the special effects guys had done it in the shot.

(It had taken about 35 seconds for the leaves to blow off the ball, so I sped up the shot by about 3 times, and even used that sped-up audio because it matched the toy-sized cat leaf blower)

I rendered the cat separately from the background, and did a simple, shadows-only pass to give me better control over the lighting when I composited the shot together.

The rest you can see in the final clip, below. The prep time for this bit was about a day, and the shoot and final was another 4-5 hours (the ball-in-the-cat’s mouth took about 15 minutes, right at the end). The writing on this gag was a team effort, so credit is due to John Melendez and Rob Young.

It got big laughs. Also, this CG cat is going to come in handy, since we will use it in next week’s “Cop N Kitty” segment for a shot where the cat dives off a building and kills a criminal.

Now the cat looks off to new horizons of leaf blowing.