Building a space ship
January 5, 2010 7:26 AM   Subscribe

Set designers, cinematographers, hobbyists, LARP people, carpenters, welders, and geeks: I need tips and tricks for building a one-person "space shuttle" out of cheap materials. It's for an independent HD video sci-fi short, and I would like to build it myself. Budget is $600–$1500 for materials and in-store material cutting/processing.

Aesthetically, I'd like to appropriate the jimmy-rigged wires/cabling from the Nebuchadnezzar's interior design (but less "shower/dryer hose-y" and more "telephone switchboard-y"), the "home-y" sense from Firefly/Serenity's (beer fridge, beat-up captain's chair, CB radio.) I think this drawing of Tank Girl's "boyfriend" Booga gets the overall attitude I'm looking for. I don't know why.

Lighting would be comparable to Peter Boyle's Sunshine (the Icarus' cockpit/bridge), Kubrick's 2001 (but only the pod during the EVA repair sequence) and less comparable to Star Wars/Star Trek ships/cockpits (no Millennium Falcon running lights, no even lighting/glassy consoles a la the Enterprise/Starfleet Shuttles.)

I guess the best analogy would be shooting in a hatchback car if all the interior lights were running, the GPS was on, the glovebox was replaced with a cockpit/monitor system and the North American driver's side and rear passenger area/trunk were gutted.

I need material ideas, specifically regarding light and video requirements:
1. Paint. I've heard that good set designers will paint at 20% darker than usual to facilitate lighting. But I'm dealing with something that's supposed to be "metallic" so it might need gloss. WWYD?
2. The ship has a cockpit viewing window, required for green screen shots. Would it be best to shoot video through plexiglass, glass, saran wrap? I do have access to a polarizing filter.
3. The idea is to light the movie with "practicals" only...meaning most of the light will be from computer monitors, status lights or running lights. What are some strategies for lighting such claustrophobic spaces? LED? Incandescent? And what's a good method for making plastic buttons that are backlit (bonus if they turn on and off when toggled, and extra-bonus if they're meaty-resistant-make-a-chunk-when-you-push-'em like Apollo spacecraft or trash compactors.)
4. I am considering using materials accessible at a Home Depot, eg. How can I turn these non-metal surfaces (vinyl plastic plywood) into cost-effective, fake-metal surfaces if needed?
5. Again with the lighting: how to dim everything at once to simulate a brown-out or power leakage?
Bonus round: A quick way to simulate zero-gravity on tools on-set would be helpful.

Other tips for a space-y interior would be much appreciated. Thank you!
posted by Khazk to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You've seen The Explorers?
posted by billysumday at 7:52 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

you might poke around someplace like the replica prop forum.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:07 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

For switches, one can get chunky lighted switches at Radio Shack (or cheaper online) like these:

or a bunch here:

Its pretty simple to wire these into a power supply and have them light up when pressed. With some additional wiring you could make them turn on additional lights or indicators.
posted by buttercup at 8:20 AM on January 5, 2010

American Science and Surplus has cheap illuminated switches.

All Electronics also has a good collection of switches (here are rocker switches).

Consider labeling things with dry transfer lettering and then adding filth to the surface and then rubbing the lettering off. If you buy textured plastic for control panels, then you can burnish the filth (and lettering) off with a Dremel tool. Consider also a liberal application of Rust All to your surfaces.

Consider portable DVD players for your consoles. I mean, look at this player. $40 gives you a video display that you could play on the device or it has video in (composite and S) that you could slave from a remote computer or remote player.
posted by plinth at 8:25 AM on January 5, 2010

I’ve never done a project like this, but it seems like the style you’re going for is heavily lived-in, right? If that’s the case, I would recommend saving a portion of your budget for random worn props and set-dressings from thrift stores and military surplus outfits. That way you’re spaceship will feel more genuinely occupied.
posted by Think_Long at 8:28 AM on January 5, 2010

The easiest way to do the brownout bit might be to put a dimmer switch on the circuit running some incandescent lights - you could pick up a rotary-style one from HD or Lowes for a couple of bucks...or liberate one from your dining room wall for free. LEDs run on DC, so keep that in mind if you want to use them. You'll either need a DC power source (think wall-wart) or a bunch of batteries. Do you have any military surplus shops nearby? You might be able to find switch panels and other cool/grungy stuff there.

For non-metal surfaces, I'd go with matte-black Krylon spray paint, or maybe something with just a little bit of gloss.

Do you have access to an old camper or RV? The economies of space usage in a rickety old truck-camper or third wheel trailer always reminded me of spacecraft (or submarines).
posted by jquinby at 8:31 AM on January 5, 2010

...also, this sounds like more fun than a barrel of monkeys.
posted by jquinby at 8:32 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

In terms of props and set dressing, you can get a lot of mileage out of the dollar store, a hot glue gun, and a few cans of spray paint.
Think_Long's thrift store suggestion is also a good way to go for the lived-in look.
As for making plywood look metallic, well, it's not going to pass a really close examination, but it should be fine for your purposes.
Here's how I'd do it. There are a lot of steps, but the more time you put into it, the better it will look.
You will need the plywood, joint compound, grey paint, silver paint, black paint, brushes, and some rags and sponges.
1. Make the object out of plywood. Sand it thoroughly, paying especial attention to the joints.
2. Put a thin layer of joint compound over the whole object. You can mix some wood glue or, even better, flex glue with your joint compound to make it tougher. Let this dry then sand lightly. This will get rid of the wood grain.
3. I'm assuming you're going for a silver/steel look here. Metallic silver paint is expensive and not all that opaque. You would have to paint a ton of layers to get it to look right with just silver paint. So paint it flat gray first. If you want to to look like steel, I'd go with a medium-to-dark gray. About like the background on MetaTalk, actually.
4. Paint on a couple of coats of silver.
5. Grime it up. Water down some black or dark brown paint (try both on different layers!) and apply it with the sponge. Not all over. It should mostly go around the switches and in recesses. A very light application all over will pick up some texture. Before this paint is dry, wipe some off. Work on a small area at a time. You'll get the hang of this as you do it. Some areas likely to be dirty: the wall right around/under light switches, doors around the knob, door frames near the knob and about chest height (the place you would put your hand for balance if you were sticking your head into the room for a second), the floor (do not neglect to paint your floor!) in corners and outside the usual path of travel through the room. You can always go back in and put more grime on, but it can be difficult to undo. Many light applications will work out better than one heavy one.
Good luck!
posted by Adridne at 8:55 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

And what's a good method for making plastic buttons that are backlit (bonus if they turn on and off when toggled, and extra-bonus if they're meaty-resistant-make-a-chunk-when-you-push-'em like Apollo spacecraft or trash compactors.)

Those would be "illuminated switches", probably panel mount.

Poke around on octopart for comparative pricing for new.

Except at $3 or so each, blergh. I can see why you'd want to make your own. Although I'd look for someone selling a box of 50 on ebay or from the manufacturer on alibaba or similar.

What's your aesthetic on the buttons? Can you go "junky" or are you looking for a uniformed, engineered aesthetic. How many do you need?

I'd go with vacuum formed sheet, or better, cast white silicone or white resin in a mold made with your available tooling. Say panels of 8x2 buttons. Then you use the array of white silicone buttons as an array of panel mount switches. And backlight with whatever's on hand. If the geometry is convenient, you can use a spare small CRT or LCD monitor to do programmable and colored backlight for free. Maybe.

I'd have a CNC or laser cutter job shop cut out the panels if you're making huge numbers of multiple panels with squarish buttons. This could include laser engraving button function titles, like 'activate laser'. Using a (paper) laserprinter transparency sheet or transparent labelmaker tape is a more accessible way for labeling, probably.

If you had money to burn, you could buy these from sparkfun.

Regarding making a button with mechanics, sound, and electronic switching, would you rather build or buy? Also, you can use electronic switching of a cheap switch to turn on a light and trigger a recorded sound, or add sound in post.

This are all random ideas. Depending on your geek crafting-fu and tooling, this is either an interesting weekend project or a death march. Casting mold making is a great way to make multiples, though. You can even use keyboard key caps as button mold model objects, just by hotgluing down a rectangular array of them.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:13 AM on January 5, 2010

I think the camper/rv idea is great, even better if you could get hold of an old VW campervan, or maybe a great early 80's vintage custom van (bed in the back, tinted windows, lots of switches and lights)
posted by pupdog at 9:27 AM on January 5, 2010

I love the suggestions for the campervan/micro RV, but it's a little too price prohibitive and I have no place to store it. External shots of the vessel will also be required, although that's nothing a few "modifications" couldn't fix. Also, the studios I have access to are both indoor and have regular sized people-doors.

In terms of panels/switches/widgets, you guys have put me on the right track. I would prefer purchasing pre-manufactured switches/buttons and then roughing them up as necessary. I don't have the time nor tools nor knowledge to make my own plastics etc.

Love the ideas for labeling. And thank you very much for the "making plywood look metal."

Looks like I'm off to make a list...
posted by Khazk at 10:27 AM on January 5, 2010

Welding isn't terribly difficult, as long as you're not making something that has to hold a lot of weight. I picked up a small set-up at Home Depot for around $100, got some rebar, looked at a few online videos, and made some trellises.

Sure, there was a learning curve, but it didn't take me long to get to where I needed--took about a day to make each of the structures I linked to, and most of the time was learning.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:46 AM on January 5, 2010

No problem.
Oh, I forgot to add- if you add wood glue to the joint compund, don't use the gel/"no drip" kind. Instead of mixing in nicely it will turn it into a bubble-gum-like mess.
Sounds like you'll have a blast.
posted by Adridne at 12:51 PM on January 5, 2010

Money goes fast when you do this kind of thing. Shop a lot of junk stores/ flea markets / building surplus. I've had good luck at airplane junk yards. Also hit the big metal recycling yards. They can get some truly BIZARRE! things that can be adapted to sc-fi look. Another place I've gotten unusual shapes for material cost is drop from a local CNC/ Water jet cutter. They will do a production run on a sheet of metal or plastic and you end up with repetitive holes. Very cool for alien bulkheads!

For super cheap panels drill 3/4 holes on a grid in MDF or masonite and paint. Cut plexi in 1" squares, plexi suppliers will do this for you. Sand back side of plexi to diffuse light. Hot melt or silicone onto board, print labels on clear label stock. Illuminate from behind. Tape off ones you don't want lit.

SuperStrut is a great building tool and can be incorperated into your ship. I'd use MDF instead of plywood for your walls as you start out with a smoother finish.

Good Luck!
Something I've been grappling with.
How do you design an Alien wheel? Is a Wheel a wheel anywhere in the universe?
posted by Pecantree at 7:20 PM on January 7, 2010

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