I promised some photos of my video harness

Here’s the video screen attached to my harness while the camera’s filming another one of our characters.

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Sorry, I don’t have more photos. I’ll try to get some taken next time we film.

(original post: Learning Puppetry tech…)

Learning Puppetry tech…

caroll-spinneyOne of the problems I have when I’m puppeteering Rudy Monster is that I’m stuck underneath his huge furry body and it’s really difficult to see the monitors that Kay and Jen are using to watch their own performances. So I started thinking about how to give myself a small, portable monitor that I could use while I was under Rudy.

I’d read about Caroll Spinney’s “electronic bra” that he wears inside of Big Bird, but that has a fairly large CRT video monitor on it, and I was sure that modern technology could provide me with something much, much better.

VideoGlasses

The video glasses that wouldn’t work…

At first, I tried using a pair of Video Glasses.  I figured that I could just wear these on my face and I would be able to puppeteer with the best of them. Unfortunately, I hadn’t counted on two things, the first logistical, and the second technical. First, with these glasses on, I couldn’t see anything but what the camera was showing me. No script, no other puppeteers, no nothing. I was trapped inside the glasses until I took them off.

Second, and much more importantly, they only worked for ten minutes at a time, and then they conked out. If I let them rest for a half hour or so, they’d work again, but I couldn’t afford to only get 10-20 minutes of use out of every hour; I needed to be able to use these for long puppeteering sessions. So I scrapped the glasses and went back to puppeteering blind.

But, of course, that didn’t work very well, either. I constantly had to get coaching from my coworkers about Rudy’s eye focus, and I had to feel my way through everything. Not the way I like to puppeteer.

Finally, I decided to build my own rig to approximate what Caroll Spinney has.  Looking at the pictures of Caroll’s getup, I started figuring out how I could get the appropriate parts. Of course, trying to get a CRT video monitor these days is nigh-impossible, but I found links to LCD flat-screen monitors that have the same 16:9 aspect ratio (widescreen) that our camera has. These screens were being sold for retrofitting cars that didn’t have backup cameras with aftermarket cameras.

And then I saw a related link for a wireless transmitter that allowed you to transmit video from your camera at the back of your car to your monitor on your dashboard, without wires. This was what I needed.

So I got the following equipment:

First I tested the monitor and the battery. Both had all the connectors they needed, so I was able to take the Y-splitter lead that came with the battery and plug one end into the monitor’s power cable and the other into the power supply that came with the battery. I plugged in the video RCA out from our camera and… voilá! I was watching what the camera was recording on the tiny monitor. At the very least, my getup would work if it was hardwired.

Next, I wanted to get the wireless transmission working. The pieces of the wireless transmitter were meant to be hardwired into a car, so they had bare wires as power leads. I was prepared for this (remember, I bought the package of connectors), but then I had a sudden thought: this was DC power, and unlike AC power, with DC power, polarity matters. With my misadventures in LED wiring still fresh in my mind, I popped off to Google to make sure I had my polarity correct. Finding the Wiring Color Codes reference in the free electrical engineering textbook “Lessons in Electric Circuits“, I read the following (the last sentence was bolded by me):

US DC power: The US National Electrical Code (for both AC and DC) mandates that the grounded neutral conductor of a power system be white or grey. The protective ground must be bare, green or green-yellow striped. Hot (active) wires may be any other colors except these. However, common practice (per local electrical inspectors) is for the first hot (live or active) wire to be black and the second hot to be red. The recommendations in Table below are by Wiles. [JWi] He makes no recommendation for ungrounded power system colors. Usage of the ungrounded system is discouraged for safety. However, red (+) and black (-) follows the coloring of the grounded systems in the table.

Ok, so these red wires were positive, and the black wires were negative. And… oh, lovely! This wiring diagram for the product even states that! This is what I get for not reading the documentation before diving in…

Documentation? How quaint…

So I hooked up a female DC power connector to the transmitter’s power, making sure the red wire was going into the positive terminal (then screwing it down with a #0 phillips head) and the black wire was going into the negative terminal (screw, screw, screw). Then I plugged the male power plug from the extra power supply I got and saw the little indicator light on the transmitter light up.

So far, so good.

I did the same with a male CD power connector on the receiver’s power, and then plugged it into the the Y-splitter lead that came with the battery.

BatteryCord

I picked the male power connector because the battery pack had a female power port, and the monitor had a female power plug.  This meant that the cable above would let me plug in a male plug and not have to wire up anything special.

And when I turned on the battery, the indicator light on the receiver lit up.  So, holding my breath, I plugged in our camera to the transmitter… and… success!

I was so excited, I put on the harness and took the screen upstairs to my wife.

“What’s that?” she asked, indicating the picture on the diminutive screen.

“That’s the sewing machine. Downstairs.”

I’ll post a picture of this rig in action after we film with it this coming Sunday, but I couldn’t wait to post about assembling this setup.  It felt good.

Tiny fingers…

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Tiny fingers require very fine stitching.

It’s a royal pain in the ass. 1.5 fingers down, 8.5 to go. *grumble*

I’m not a hardware guy…

Ok, so as some of you already know, PacKay Productions is building puppets for the Glove Theater’s production of Shrek: The Musical (and my lovely wife will be performing the part of Dragon).  Part of Kay’s design for Dragon included eyes that light up, and Kay figured that she could accomplish this by putting a battery-operated LED closet light in each eye:

LED-LIGHT

The problem, of course is that to turn those things on, you have to physically press the front on each of them.  That’s going to be awkward if you want to light up the eyes while you’re performing with the puppet.  “Hey,” I told Kay, “I can move the switch outside the case… heck, I can probably put it at the end of a long wire, so you can have the switches for both eyes next to each other.  And I could move the batteries to the end of a long wire, too, so you don’t have to have all that weight up in the eyes.”  Kay was skeptical, however, because she didn’t want me ruining the one pair of these lights that she had.  So I found another pair for $5 on sale at a hardware store and I took them apart.

The build seemed simple enough: there was a switch soldered to a circuit board that had the LEDs soldered on, and there were two leads from the circuit board to the battery housing, one of which had a resistor.  I could de-solder the switch and put it at the end of long wire, and I could do the same for the battery.  Easy-peasy.

So I set to work.  I grabbed about three feet from my spool of cat5 cable and split it open to reveal the four pairs of twisted wires.  I de-soldered the connection to the battery and wired it back in with one of the wire pairs from the cable.  I now was able to put the battery three feet away from the LEDs.  I then de-soldered the switch from the circuit board and soldered in one end of another pair of wires.  I then tried touching the bare ends of that wire together to close the circuit and make sure everything was working.

Nothing happened.

“Uh-oh,” I thought. “I’m not going to be able to do this by the seat of my pants.”

See, I’m a geek, but I don’t really grok electricity the way most geeks do.  There are equations for things, and I mostly ignore them and just do things by the seat of my pants because, for the most part, I can get things to work that way.  I don’t bother sitting down and crunching numbers because… well, that’s work.  And I hate work.  That’s why I mostly write computer code–coding isn’t work, it’s fun.

So, I started asking around for help. As luck would have it, one of my former coworkers Don came by the office this past week for a visit, and I chatted him up about it.  He did some quick addition on my whiteboard, and he gave me one crucial piece of advice: buy a multimeter.

So, on Friday, I grabbed a $35 multimeter from RadioShack. On Saturday, I took apart the other LED light and started testing voltages.  I tested at the two terminals on the battery pack. The multimeter read 4.77V. I tested where the two leads connected to the circuit board with the LEDs and switch. 4.75V.  Ok, good, I’ve got numbers to compare with.  I then tested the circuit I had soldered together at the battery pack. 4.75V.  Ok, that’s good. Then I tested at the circuit board? -4.75V. … … wait. NEGATIVE 4.75V?

A little voice in my head said, “They don’t call them Light Emitting Diodes for nothing, Pack.”

So I de-soldered where I’d connected the wires to the circuit board and re-connected them with the proper polarity.  VOILA!  It worked!

Emboldened by my success (and spurred by the fact that my ham-handed soldering had damaged one of the switches so it was no longer a push-on, push-off switch but appeared to now only function as a momentary (push on, release off) switch), I trotted off to RadioShack and grabbed two larger switches and a little plastic project case to house them in.

Another hour in my in-laws basement, and I was done!

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The switches are close enough together you can turn both lights on at the same time, but you can also choose to light up either light individually.  Now all we have to do is mount these in Dragon’s eyes and figure out where the best place to place the switches.

A teaser…

Back in mid-April, Kay, Jen and I headed into the city for a photo-shoot with one of Jen’s friends who was a photographer.  It was the most fun we’d had with the puppets yet.  We’re waiting to link to the full set of photos until Jen’s character makes her video debut, but I figured I could upload one of the shots of me and Rudy to tease folks…

Packy and Rudy!

Workin’ on the company website…

I’m working on the PacKay Productions website today, and it occurred to me that since I’m using git on my desktop to track changes to our WordPress theme, I could also use it to sync changes to my server.  Thinking about it, I knew the webserver would be a remote repository, and I could publish my changes by typing “git push web”, but I figured there had to be things I was overlooking, so I hit Google to see what other people had come up with.

That’s when I found “Using Git to manage a web site.” It not only pointed out what I was overlooking–that if I made the website itself a git repository, I’d also be syncing all the .git files into the webroot and possibly exposing them to the public–it also had a solution: using the post-receive hook to deploy changes from a git repository sitting outside the webroot into a directory inside the webroot.

It’s a quick little read.  I like it.

The Red Monster sings!

After a few months of planning and almost two months of off-and-on shooting (during which my voice was shot because I had a sinus infection), we finally finished the music video we’ve been working on. Here it is!

February’s almost gone!

Once again, I’ve gone months between updates.  But I have been busy.  Folks who follow my social media feeds know that I was strongly considering a career change in January, but ultimately I decided not to jump ship from my current employer for a cool new startup; instead, I decided to stay on with my employer and take on some new responsibilities.  It will be challenging, because not everything they’ll have me doing will be things I consider to be part of my core competencies, but I’m looking at it as an opportunity to force myself to grow and learn new skills.  If it doesn’t work out, I can always find a new startup to go to.

On the puppet front, Kay and I have been busy.  Kay gave me a design for our website and told me she wanted it up by Valentines Day, so I put in some late nights learning how much CSS has changed since the last time I played with it and I was able to build a WordPress theme to generate the design just in time.

We’ve also been filming with the puppets a lot.  For Christmas, we whipped up a special introducing my monster, Rudy…

And just this past Friday, we posted a second video featuring Rudy and Kay’s cat, Ket, that pays homage to those old parenting films of the 1950s:

If you want to be kept up to date on everything we’re doing with the puppets, just join our mailing list!

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An end for some things and a beginning for others…

Well, many things have finished up here at Packy’s Place, and new things are starting.  I’ll go over the endings first.

The box office of Nutley Little Theatre right after Superstorm Sandy.  The person who took this picture says the base of the tree didn’t so much look like it had been blown over and more like Chuck Norris had roundhoused the trunk.

A Bad Year for Tomatoes closed, after losing our opening weekend to Superstorm Sandy.  In addition to the falling tree damage, we had blazing transformers burning up the utility pole in front, no power, and, in completely unrelated to Sandy bad luck, no heat.  We found out that when PSE&G had been out to do some work on the gas line in September, they had neglected to turn the gas back on.  Normally, this would have been an “Oops!  Sorry! We’ll send someone out right away to turn the ‘By law, this knob can only be turned by certified technicians’ knob!” but with power out over much of the state, turning on the gas for a business that only operates in the evenings wasn’t a high-priority for them.  However, we got power back after the first weekend, and we got the gas back for heat the day of our delayed opening night.  We did dress rehearsal with space heaters.  The performances themselves went well.  The sound design wasn’t particularly challenging: lots of doorbell sounds (which I foisted off on the cast by installing a real doorbell on the set for them to ring), a phone ring, some scene change music, and some pre-recorded dialogue that was supposed to be coming from a tape recorder on stage.  I hung some speakers over the spots where the tape recorder was being played and called it a day.

The sadder news is that Lily finally passed away.  She was getting weaker and weaker as October passed, and we knew she was going soon.  By the closing day of Tomatoes, we knew it was that weekend.  By the time Kay and I had to leave for the final performance, we didn’t know if she’d make it until we got home.  She didn’t.

We wanted to be with her when she died, but there was no way to bag out on the show.  As it was, we’d made her as comfortable as we could have, and we’re positive that she knew she was loved.  The next day, we took Lily upstate to my parents’ house to lay her to rest next to my cats Tiger (1981-2000), Kitty Galore (1990-2007) and Twinkletoes (1990-2008).  In the spring, we’re going to plant some flowers there.

RIP, Lily  (1997? – 2012)

So much for the endings.

Kay is busy planning out our Christmas episode for PacKay Productions, and she’s planning on introducing a whole lot of NEW in this next video.  First, this will be the first outing for our new HD video camera and tripod.  It will also be the first appearance of someone I’ve been working on for quite a long time.

Because we need him for the next video, Kay has taken over finishing off my rug monster. I’ve been home sick the past few days (something in my GI tract kept me close to a bathroom and a smidge feverish yesterday, today I’m keeping to bed to kill it for good), but Kay’s been pulling me down to the basement every few hours to show me things and have me make decisions about how certain elements work.

I swear–my wife is a genius.  And so, because of her genius, I’m able to introduce you to my new friend… Rudy Monster.

  

There’s still some work to be done on him, but he’s mostly there.  Since these photos were taken, Kay’s already affixed his eyebrow, and I’m debating whether I want to give him palm pads like I’d originally designed or leave his hands furry all over.  But this is close enough that I can show him and say “This is it.  This is the monster I’ve wanted to show you.”

And he’s a rabid Bruce Springsteen fan from Little Furry, NJ.  *sigh*  I don’t quite know how I wound up with a monster who’s really into The Boss (while I can take Springsteen or leave him), but, hey… sometimes new friends can throw you some surprises.

Has it been two months already?

Well, a lot has been happening since I was last able to post to my blog.  First and formost, my wondrous wife Kay and I have moved.  We’d been getting tired of apartment living and having to share the building with other people.  So, after a frenetic search, we found an absolutely adorable single-family house in Hackensack. Once we found the house and signed the lease, then we started the month-and-a-half long process of frantically packing things into boxes and moving them from the old apartment to the new house.  Making the process of moving even more annoying was the constant harassment by our old landlord about when we would be out of the apartment.  “When will you have all of your property out of the apartment?” he would ask me.  My reply was always the same: “My wife and I will have everything out and the apartment cleaned up by the end of the month when our lease ends.”  This didn’t make him happy, but I didn’t care–I’d paid my rent through the end of the month, and I had enough stress to deal with trying to get everything done without having to worry about getting out of my old apartment earlier than I needed to.

Lily, at the vet’s after the worst of her ordeal was over.

One of the great stressors I had to deal with was my oldest cat, Lily, stopped eating after the move and became very weak.  She’d been losing a lot of weight recently, too, so we took her into the vet.  There, we discovered that she was in kidney failure, and, after some discussion, my wife and I decided to check Lily into a veterinary emergency clinic so she could receive 24-hour IV fluid injections for a few days.  She took to the treatment well, and after about two-and-a-half days of treatment we were able to check her out of the clinic and continue giving her daily subcutaneous fluid infusions. After another 10 days, we took her back to the vet, and her blood tests came back with excellent results.  She was still a sick kitty with malfunctioning kidneys, but the numbers that had been the worst were drastically improved, and her Phosphorous level was 0.1 MG/DL above the “normal” range.  She’s had her subcutaneous fluid infusions cut back to twice a week, and she’ll be checking in with the vet in September.

So, with all that going on, I didn’t have any time to work on my puppet.  However, on July 1st, once we were officially out of the old apartment, I started work again.  I spent much of my free time over the past week hand-stitching the hands for my monster.  We couldn’t machine-sew the hands because there wasn’t really enough room for a decent seam allowance, so Kay taught me a slightly modified whip stitch, and I was able to sew a finger or two a day.  Today, I finished both hands and Kay popped the proper thread into the sewing machine and we stitched up the rest of the seams:

All the sewing is done! Now all that’s left is…

… to turn him right-side out!

All in all, I’m quite satisfied the way the sewing portion of the project has turned out.  Next, we’re going to be tackling his mouth and his eyes.