Movie Prop Electronics Hack Chat takes us behind the scenes
It’s no surprise that the hacking and creative community has traditionally had something of a love affair with movie props, especially sci-fi ones. Over the years, we’ve seen people pour countless hours into incredible recreations of their favorite fictional gear – and by the time this article is published, our 2022 sci-fi contest will be entering the home stretch. So it’s a safe bet that if you make a living creating the electronics behind all that Hollywood movie magic, you’ll find ours to be a particularly welcoming community.
We were lucky enough to see this in action this week when Ben Eadie stopped by to host the Hack Chat. It’s no exaggeration to say that he lived what most of us would consider a dream, have worked on iconic franchise films such as star trek and Predator. But perhaps his most enviable credit is that of propmaster for 2021. Ghostbusters: Afterlife, where he had the chance to work on proton packs and ghost traps; arguably some of the most well-known props in movie history.
Not bad for a guy who only recently entered the game. Ben spent 20 years working as an aeronautical engineer until a friend from his local makerspace mentioned they were working on a movie and might need a hand. He suddenly finds himself backstage at Star Trek: Beyond in 2015, helping to design and manufacture one of the largest rotating sets ever made. He thinks he must have done something right, because Hollywood has been calling him ever since.
This anecdote about his first time working on a feature film helped answer what many wanted to know at the start of the chat, which is how one manages to get into the props and special effects industry. Ben once again confirmed a well-known truth in this community: what you are capable of is far more important than where you went to school and what you studied. There isn’t much formal education that can train you to make the impossible possible, and Ben says most of his day-to-day knowledge comes from a lifetime of playing with electronics. In fact, he credits much of his professional success to hanging out in creative spaces, reading Hackaday, and watching YouTube. If that’s the recipe, then we should all be in pretty good shape.
For the past few years, Ben has tried to pay this forward by document some of the tricks of the trade on his own YouTube channel. In a particularly interesting marketing piece from Sony, some of Ben’s videos were even featured on the official website. ghost hunters YouTube channel as part of a “Maker Monday” series. In fact, we first got in touch with Ben when he left a comment on our coverage of his “PKE Meter” prop build. That’s the kind of publicity we can get, and we want more companies to embrace the hacker and maker culture with that kind of interactive content. Ben says the best way to make initiatives like this more popular is to consume them – if Sony sees people watching and sharing this kind of content, I hope others follow suit.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Hack Chat unless some obscure compartmentalized technical knowledge was distributed. In this case, several of the questions focused on the unique challenges of using custom electronics on a film set. For example, Ben says he still uses addressable LEDs controlled by the APA102 chip because it offers an external clock pin that he can drive with a different frequency to prevent screen flicker. The radio spectrum also tends to be quite noisy on set, so if possible you want to make sure your gear has a wired connection. Otherwise, you will need to familiarize yourself with the other RF signals used on set so as not to interfere with production.
But while some of the challenges it faces may seem quite foreign to us, the technology itself is in some cases more familiar than you might think. It turns out there’s a lot of Sparkfun and Adafruit gear behind the scenes, with Ben specifically mentioning the Feather nRF52 as one of his go-to microcontrollers. Sometimes graybeards on set complain about his “consumer-grade” technology, but when his gear is up and running in half the time, he’s usually the last laugh.
Near the end of the chat, Ben says the most important thing he’s learned over the years is to always have backups. His motto is “One is None”, and if he can help it, he usually builds four: that gives him two to learn and one pair to use for whatever project. Even if our own projects don’t quite rise to the level of a key summer blockbuster prop, there’s certainly no harm in being prepared.
We want to thank Ben Eadie for taking the time to talk with the community and sharing some of his fascinating stories and tips with us. At the risk of sounding a little sugary, stories like hers are what keep us going here at Hackaday. If we can provide even a small portion of what it takes to help people like Ben achieve their goals, that’s reason enough for us to keep the lights on.
The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers to connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these introductory articles along with the transcripts published on Hackaday.io make sure you don’t miss anything.