SFX Fall 2018 – Project Overview

A Good Effect Starts with a Good Story

Our projects will also need to end with a good story. Though most of our effort in our Practical Special Effects course will be given to designing and fabricating an amazing practical effect, the real goal of the course is to create a demo reel to demonstrate that effect on screen as well as tell the story of how your team got there.

Just like film, we are not making effects for just the fun of it (though it will be very fun), we are making effects for others to see (e.g. future employers).

Effect Constraint and Requirements — Must be support a coherent narrative sequence

  • Effect must be based on existing 2D narrative imagery and a minimum of 4 storyboards. Storyboards may be from an unproduced film, graphic novel, comic book or similar. Storyboards may also be screen captures from 2D animated sequence. 3D animation may not be used (such as Pixar films). Imagery from games may be used with instructor approval.
  • Effect must not be a copy or reproduction of any existing effect.
  • Effect must move or transform (this is not a prop)
  • Though all effects will be filmed, effects must be designed for specific use case including:
    • film and TV
    • museum display
    • themed attraction
    • theater
  • On camera effect size may not exceed 36” x 36” x 36. However, supportive set pieces, props, and backdrops may be used in final shot.
  • Demo reel may include CGI or VFX only in collaboration with Deepak Chetty’s’ RTF 344N Advanced Visual Effects and Motion Graphic course. However, VFX are not required.
  • Effect may not be explosive, flammable or hazardous in any way.

Demo Reel Description Timeline – not to exceed 5 minutes

2 to 5 seconds — Title, description and teaser image

5 to 15 seconds — Storyboard reel with sound

5 to 15 seconds — Storyboard reel with inserted effect (must be same length as storyboards without reel)

5 to 15 seconds — Storyboard reel with inserted effect and VFX (if VFX are used).

2 to 4 minutes — Description of process with titles and voiceover. If on camera interviews are used, subtitles must be used. If voice over is used, the demo reel must remain coherent and cogent in absence of sound.

2 to 10 seconds — End credits, special thanks, and copyright attribution (if necessary)

Examples of suitable storyboards

page from delicious dungeon manga

Treasure insects! From Delicious Dungeon by Ryoko Kui.

storyboard from comic showing android face

Great project for those who want to learn animatronics and life casting. From Terminal Protocol. Jordan Alsaqa, Writer. Rem Broo, Artist.

page from sherlock frakenstein

Eugene Tremblay (aka MECTOPLASM)! This would be a very ambitious project. How might a green screen be used to put live actors in this shot? From Sherlock Frankenstein. Script: Jeff Lemire. Art, colors, and lettering: David Rubin

medical illustration of horse and tb bacteria

How might this reference material be use to create a museum exhibit? From Strange Wit — Written by Katy Rex. Pencils & Inks by Tyler Jenkins.

Tagged with: , , ,

Lean, Mean, Machine


Original Design Notes on Weight

Through this entire process, we have had to keep one crucial thing in mind; how much weight can a person can carry for 15-20 minutes at a time. This was one of our original guiding thoughts and has particularly stuck with me through this whole process. These raptors needed to be able to do more than just function, they needed to be wearable. So, through discovering how materials worked and prototyping, we always thought “How can we make this lighter?”.

By the end of the class, I believe we achieved this goal. As of this post, the first raptor was weighing in at about 26 pounds; That is including the electrics and the head. This was better than some of us guessed with many guessing around 35 pounds, while I myself missed it by a mile with a guess of 50 pounds. I think of the loads that some of us students lug around campus on our backs, backpacks filled with books and computers, and I know that many of them are heavier than our entire raptor puppet. We to started with a rather heavy backpack and worked our way to the lighter finished product we now have.

Prototype 2

Some of the things we were able to do structure wise was replace heavier materials with lighter ones. In the picture above, you can see how an earlier prototype used thicker, heavier plywood to create the tail circles and electronics panel.  We had also used rattan to create the wrapped style lines. The plywood would be replaced by 1/4″ luan for the electrics and 1/2″ plywood for the tail supports while the rattan would be replaced by foam in the finished product.

Finished Structure

Other things became unnecessary with time. The cross supports we had used to push out the ribcage became obsolete when the designer found she liked the look of a slimmer shape. The hip support bar, which had been made of steel, was not needed once we added the PVC spine down the center as a “structural spine” to go under the “design spine”. Finally, the harness itself was too long for the performer’s bodies and had to be trimmed down 8″ to fit. All these things, combined with the artistry team’s use of foam and thin latex for the finished outer layers gave us, what is in my opinion, the lightest version of a raptor. So looking back on our challenges from so long ago at the beginning of this class, I would say challenge accepted, tackled, and completed! Congratulations team!

Tagged with: , , , ,

Eye of the Beholder

For this Raptor project, I focused a lot on the eyes of our raptors. When making creatures, the eyes are what define the personality of the creature. The eyes set to whole mood and tone of how the audience will perceive your creature. An added challenge for the raptors was also needing to have lights shine through the eyes. This was accomplished using clear plastic ornaments and acrylic paint. When working with acrylic paint, it is important to remember that three passes of acrylic blocks all light.

One thing I discovered is that when painting so thinly with acrylic and also having light shine through, every single brush stroke is immediately visible. Even if it is not visible as you look at it, the back lighting reveals everything. The eyes also required backwards painting, meaning that I had to start with the pupils then move to eye details and then finish with the base color. This requires a lot of forethought and does not allow for small touch ups or finishing touches after the initial painting.

This style of painting requires a large amount of prototyping and sampling. You need to figure out what details in the eye you want visible and how strong they will be, what colors work best on top of each other, and what brush strokes look best with the light. This is the longest part of the process. There are an infinite number of possible arrangements of details and intricacies.

For the raptors, my process for the final product boiled down to five steps. First, I rolled out a few strips of electrical tape onto come sort of plastic scrap surface, then I used an exacto blade to cut the shape of the pupils. Originally I tried to make a template, but it proved to be difficult to make nicely curved cuts with a template in place. So I decided to free hand my cuts and then select the best looking and most consistent cuts. Second, I did a fine layer of metallic gold spray paint. This step was the trickiest because I was worried about laying on too much spray paint. I discovered that the metallic paint had an odd effect of looking solid at first glance, but then allowing a large amount of visibility when held up.

The third step was carefully painting on all of the line work that appears in most eyes. This step technically has two parts. The first part is paint on each individual line radiating out from the pupil. The second part is adding striations coming down from the sides. This was achieved by taking a small fan brush, dripping it in water, and then brushing off the water until the fan brush divides into small sections that can be used to draw thin lines. Step four was the most enjoyable step because the best method I found for applying this layer of outer detail was by using my finger to smudge on a gradient color to the outer rim of the eye. I chose this method because this was the best way I found to hide my brush strokes and create a natural and organic feeling in the eye.

The final step is to add on the final base layer by stroking out from the center of the pupil. This allows your brush strokes to add a pleasant texture to the eyes while also keeping paint from getting underneath the pupil. All that is left to finish the eyes if for lights to be attached to the back and plugged in!

The Skin on my Chinny-Chin-Chin

Yikes! Our raptor reveal party with breakfast tacos is one week away! But I feel great about our progress. A few weeks ago raptors were chasing me in my nightmares but now I feel great to stand in our classroom with three real, tangible, lovely lady raptors ??? I spoke to a few classmates to see what remains on their to do lists:

Our electrician Allegra was very confident this evening. She and Justin are waiting on an order of batteries and EL tape. They need to wire two heads and one leg. Then, they’ll run a few tests to assure that everything works! After our class ends they’ll need to give the raptors check ups to make sure the girls are nice and healthy.

I also spoke with Jacob who was helping the hands team with their springs so the fingers have fuller  articulation.

The structure team has done a beautiful job dressing the raptors in ethafoam. They also provided raptor #3’s torso with more rattan so the skin has several planes to rest on and not sag. Next, they will attach the feet and the head of raptor #3

Chun on the skin team has patterned two beautiful heads and will continue to refine the proportions of his latest model.

What I’m most excited about is our designer Cait’s epiphany. Our skin team has a total of 3 molds. There’s a texture with large scales, one with smaller scales, and the underside of the chin. A few evenings ago Cait sent me a few texts with the chin skin in other parts of the raptor. Check it out!

(here’s the original placement)


Wow such versatility with one skin extreme! Cait’s a genius! Using our three textures she has draped a lovely design and we’re currently adhering the shapes together and painting the flesh!

I don’t know why I was so terrified! I’m in a class with very talented hard working students and I am amazed at what we have accomplished.

-Joey Harrington, Skin team, 1st year UT Costume Tech.


The Power of “Yet”

Up until this week, the theme of our class has been prototype, prototype, prototype and with each of our prototypes came a whole new series of questions, problem solving, and total confusion. We have had both major successes and slight setbacks, but overall with each new version of our raptors we have learned something new by always keeping in mind a certain word.

“I haven’t been on a dinosaur making team…YET. I don’t understand how to make a dinosaur robot… YET. I have no idea how to make skin from scratch…YET” The word “yet” gave us license to freely experiment and also fail gloriously because we had no idea what we were doing at the beginning of the semester, but that was ok.

This is the week that all of our ‘yet’ statements finally became things of the past! Our class is going into hyperdrive mode because the time has come for our prototypes to transform into the real deal.

This Monday, December 4, with be the first time we see all three raptors fully in action because we have a giant fitting scheduled with all of our performers present. With this fast approaching deadline, each of our teams took a good hard look ad our to-do lists and 1) probably had tiny heart attacks and 2) really focused in on what exactly had to be done, step-by-step, in order to complete these raptors.

Here’s a little insight as to how we went about this process…                          

Some of our major to-do list items included:

-crafting and cutting out three pairs of hands and feet

-last minute ‘skeletal’ construction on raptor #3

-3D printing teeth and claws

-Finalizing the layout of LED wire elements and figure out last minute connections

-adding skin the raptors

-constructing heads and figuring out eye/teeth placements

-and the list goes on………

Even with our extensive list I am happy to report that a lot of our ‘to-do’ post-its have made their way over to the ‘done’ section. Of course, our biggest obstacle is time and there are certain aspects of our dinosaurs that cannot progress until other elements are complete first so we still have a lot of work to do before our final raptor unleashing (Monday December 11 at 9:15am) but in the meantime here are some lovely process shots of some of the things our team worked on this week:


We aren’t at the finish line, YET, but these raptors are so close we can taste them!

Tagged with: ,

A Real Leg Up

Hi readers! Last time I posted to the blog I was in the trenches of raptor leg building. I’m happy to say that we have finally locked down a solid leg structure. Since each dancer controlling each raptor is a slightly different size, not to mention the ridiculous range of motion one gets from hip joints two feet away from actual human hips, the legs are completely adjustable across 3 dimensions. The insides look like this:

view of raptor legs

Raptor leg prototype showing interior aluminum bones and joints.

A breakdown of the components reveals rattan loops, threaded metal rods, two types of joints, and various nuts and bolts. The ball/socket joint connects to the hip while hinge joints with adjustable angle measures manage the knee and ankle.

showing the parts of the raptor leg

Leg pieces. Threaded rod “bones,” rod end joints, and rattan muscle structure, and 3D printed clamps for the threaded rod.

Most of these pieces are generic, but the clamps are not and deserve a spotlight (below). Since it was taking us so long to cut custom clamps to hold the rods in place, J.E. had the idea to turn to 3D printing instead. It’s worked great!

detail of 3D printed parts

Detail of 3D printed threaded rod clamps.

Once the skeleton is in place, ABS rod is weaved around the 2D shape to bring it into the 3rd dimension. This idea was in part inspired by visiting artist Mikela Cowan, who showed us the reed waving technique used to make Chinese dancing lions.

interior of Chinese lion head

Chinese lion heads woven like baskets with thin strips of bamboo.

Once weaved and covered with Caitlin’s wire surface treatment, the raptor is ready to walk on its own! We still have some adjusting to do with the leg and foot (thanks Karen!), but the raptor has certainly gotten a leg up these last few weeks.

full view of raptor and legs

Final leg assembly before paint,

Now just 4 legs more to go!

Tagged with: , , ,

Come Together

18 people. 13 weeks. 3 raptors. So. Much. Foam. 

We’re in the final two weeks of our class, and for us that means one thing- we’re in major crunch time. Now’s when we have to really come together as a team and make things work in an efficient, fast, and, above all, awesome way.

Raptors 2 and 3, in progress.

Read more ›

Tagged with: , , , , ,

Heads Up!

Our cyberpunk raptors are slowly but surely beginning to show signs of life, but we can’t start shouting “IT’S ALIVE!!!” until we include the cherry on top of this robotic sundae: The Head! For me personally, this is the pièce de résistance. It’s the thing that makes me suspend my disbelief fully and wonder, as an audience member, “Did that thing just look at me?” So I thought that for my blog post this week I would share a couple of different prototypes from our journey through head-making.

Its very hard for me to pick which of the three will be my favorite. Much like myself before I’ve had my morning coffee, our raptors will each have different personalities, as well as their own distinctive look, but they will all share a few common characteristics regarding the head:

  • All Three heads will have an ABS plastic rod framework  as a base which will get more and more fleshed out as they progress.
  • They will all have lighting elements (think glowing eyes) and cool internal LEDs to make them look like they are breathing life from the inside out.
  • None of the dinosaurs will ‘Roar’ so they will all have unarticulated jaw hinges



Our first raptor is the most bare (in the sense that it has no actual skin on it). Its like the audience can see the beginnings of the skeleton of the robotic raptor and all its interior workings. Raptor number two will also have a flesh-less face but the wiring and hardware elements will be much more prominent.



These two are different variations our team looked at for making a fleshy robot hybrid head. The one on the top is EVA foam carved out to look like a metal understructure with latex skin applied on only the top half. Like a sort of a robot in a state of undress. The photo on the bottom shows an ABS rod base that is covered in carved foam panels strategically placed around it to shape the head. This one makes me think that the ABS rod face is wearing a foam mask.



Here’s a behind the scenes look at one of my skin team partners draping a ‘skin suit’ pattern just to give you a sort of reference for how big these heads are. I think it looks like the raptor is getting ready for its wedding day, don’t you agree?






Tagged with: , , , ,

Hands skin

For hands skin, skin team tried to use stretch fabric to be the foundation, and added latex skin with foam on to the stretch fabric.

 We copy the shape of hand, and add thickness to where the hand needs.

Cut the paper pattern down, and cut 2 pieces in stretch fabric which have to be symmetry.

It means that once you chosen one side of pattern to cut, then when you cut the second piece, you have to turn the pattern to other side to cut.


For the aim of the skin gloves could be wearable, we also add zipper on to stretch fabric.






According this hand is blocky, particular the part of finger turn to the other finger, so I cut 2 strips of stretch fabric, this part we called gusset, to create the turning shape and give the fingers thickness.

Cut the latex skin of palm, put it on to the stretch fabric, and sew both two sides of palm, connect the latex skin and stretch fabric together.

And sew the zipper edge again, secure all materials attach together where is around the zipper.

And cut the latex skin at the top and middle of the zipper.



Prepare different oval size of latex skin to create the texture and knuckles. Use Barge to glue together.




After class meeting, we all think the latex skin is to heavy, so that caused the hand lost the flowing movement. Right now, we would not cover whole hand to decrease the weight from covering materials.


The Road Ahead

As deadlines creep closer and the school year gets rougher, progress in the Raptor lab is chugging along at a reasonable pace. The guest artist Zoë Morsette came in to present My Life in Art, as well as to assist with foot molding. As a member of the electronics team, she mostly assisted other sub-teams but voiced her approval of our progress.

In the electronics world, lots of new toys came in this week. Our new super inverter arrived, capable of driving up to 50m of the desired EL wire. Unfortunately, the start up process requires one too many button presses, and steps are being made to circumvent this button. A special order super inverter is already on its way, one that hopefully will not have this issue.

Special Order Inverter

In addition to the new inverter, the lab has also received the new Lithium ion battery for power. This monstrosity is rated for 6000 milliAmp hours, and is able to power our system for twice as long as the previous battery.

6000 mAh LiOn Battery

All six raptor eyes have been printed, soldered, and tested. Wiring these eyes may prove to be a challenge, but that is a bridge to be crossed in the near future.

Raptor Eyes

Lastly, the integration of all the systems was completed this week. The Arduino stack that controls the EL wire and wireless communication was combined with the addressable LEDs and passed the initial tests.

Full Integration

All in all, the electronics team is steaming along, with progress running smoothly. While keeping my head buried in various power equations and 3D models of Arduino cases, I occasionally picked up some conversation and observations in other subteams.

The body team managed to build and configure all three raptor backpacks for the three performer sizes. The foot team has used our guest artist’s advice and upgraded their boot. The hands team has started to ramp up manufacturing, and the head team has modified the look of the head, but primarily has redirected their focus onto the tendons of the raptor.

Things are heating up in the Raptor Lab, and the manufacturing rush will continue to escalate. However, I am confident that we will meet our deadline with enough hard work and dedication.