Category Archives: Sabers

A Man of Sound Principles

The titular character of Pixar’s upcoming film, WALL•E — which, incidentally, keeps looking more promising with every new trailer released — is voiced by a fellow named Ben Burtt, whom you’ve probably never heard of. I hadn’t, until about a year ago. But I guarantee that, unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last 30 years, you’ve heard his work:

Yep, that’s right. Ben Burtt is the former USC physics graduate student who came up with the sounds for Star Wars, more or less inventing the role of “sound designer” in the process.

Here he describes the serendipitous genesis of his crowning creation — the warm yet menacing hum of “an elegant weapon, for a more civilized age”: has a rundown of some of his other creations; the frequently workaday nature of their basis only serves to highlight his gift for making the ordinary seem wondrous and alien. (My personal favorite: the twanging report of the blaster rifle began as the sound of an antenna guy wire hit with a rock, something Burtt discovered while hiking with his father.)

Wikipedia has additional information on Burtt, including the fact that when he’s not busy collecting and cataloguing the raw materials of his trade, laying out the acoustic canvas of the popular imagination, and voicing small but plucky robots, he’s perpetuating little sonic in-jokes, in particular the Wilhelm Scream.

“I am a shutterbug, like my father before me.”

One thing that confused me as I first poked around the edges of the DIY saber scene were the periodic references to “Graflex” and, less frequently, “Heiland”, such as on UltraSabers’ conversion page, which reads, in part: “We do not convert older Graflex/Heiland Flashgun sabers. We do know people who can help and can point you in the right direction.”

I’d never heard of either company. Who were they? Low-profile prop producers from the days before the ascendancy of Master Replicas? Not so much. It turns out that they’re makers of photographic equipment, and that the original props for Luke and Vader’s sabers were fabricated from the handles of professional flashguns. I don’t know why this surprised me so much: after all, I’d known for years that Han’s blaster was derived from a broom-handle Mauser, just as the Stormtroopers’ rifles were adapted from vintage-World-War-II Sterling submachine guns. “Everything old is new again”, indeed.

Luke’s hilt was made from a Graflex 3-Cell: you can see a beautifully detailed breakdown of the hilt and its construction, including differences between the A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back versions, here. (Note the addition of grommets near the base, and the replacement of the original control box’s LED-calculator-display lens with a chunk of card-edge connector from an HP-44 bus.)

It’s also worth noting that the distinctive S-curve shape at the top of the saber hilt, the portion referred to as the “emitter shroud”, has itself become known as a “Graflex curve” among saber enthusiasts. Given that it was, as far as I can tell, part of the original flashgun design, this seems entirely appropriate. (I’ll have more to say on the subject of the Graflex curve in a later post.)

Vader’s saber, meanwhile, seems to have been the subject of some historical controversy, or at least confusion. For a long time it was believed to be a Heiland Synchronar, but as is explained here, it turns out to have been a “Microflash” produced by Heiland’s British arm, Micro Precision Products, or MPP. (At least, the A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back versions were. By the time of Return of the Jedi, the original MPP prop had been either lost or stolen, and the prop department simply gave a Graflex the signature black-highlight treatment.)

Knowing all of this does not, fortunately, fill me with the urge to go out and track down ancient surplus camera parts for the very utmost in verisimilitude. Yet.

Weekend Report

Late, of course. I swear I don’t know how regular bloggers manage to keep up the volume.

Anyway, the weekend was mostly a ball, modulo getting hammered by something that could be a bug, but is likely as not just a bad case of seasonal allergies.

On Saturday, I attended the Maker Faire, where a tremendous amount of cool stuff was on display. TechShop had almost an entire hall — one of the smaller ones, but still — to itself, with a bunch of machines in operation. The laser engravers were almost hypnotic to watch, as their flying heads burned crisp, variable-depth designs into sheets of wood band by precise band.

The plasma-arc cutter, meanwhile, bordered on intimidating: I watched it cut copies of TechShop’s gear-wheel logo out of eighth-inch steel as easily as an X-Acto knife slices dolls out of paper. When I remarked how fast it was, the woman exhibiting it informed me with just a trace of glee that its top speed was considerably higher still.

I strongly suspect that I’ll become a TechShop member in the not-too-distant future.

I’d been eyeing the Make Controller Kit with an even mix of curiosity and desire for a while, but deterred by the long backlog from actually taking the plunge and ordering one. However, the sight of several dozen, stacked in unassuming cardboard boxes at the Maker Store, just waiting to be purchased, proved to be more than a match for my limited reserves of self-restraint.

It should come in handy as I ramp up on mucking around with DIY sabersmithy — I have some ideas involving sensors and color-modulated RGB LEDs that won’t get very far at all without some kind of microcontroller to tie the pieces together.

I also picked up a copy of Make Volume 10, which lays out plans for a so-called “brain machine” — also known as a “Sound and Light Machine”, or SLM — based on Limor (“Lady Ada“) Fried’s MiniPOV v3 kit. I’ve always been intrigued by SLMs, but put off by the high price tag. For less than $20, it’s hard to see going wrong.

Unfortunately, by about mid-afternoon I was congested enough to have trouble hearing through my right ear. After a failed attempt to sign up for the afternoon Ybox workshop, which was totally overbooked, I called it a day and headed home. I had a great time, though, and definitely plan to be back next year.

I rounded out the day doing some work on the sabers, mainly on the Luxeon conversion of my Darth Maul, which will be documented in greater detail later.

Things after that are a bit of a blur. I slept poorly, tossing and turning with my thoughts arace, probably owing to the stimulant effect of the decongestants I took too close to bedtime, and consequently spent most of the morning feeling groggy before collapsing back into an afternoon-spanning nap.

Still, all and all, a pretty good weekend.

…But Your Uncle Wouldn’t Allow It

It started innocently enough.

I had just picked up Master Replicas’ newest lightsaber, Yoda’s personal model, and it put me in mind of the fact that I’d been meaning to take a closer look at the copper highlight kit for my Return of the Jedi Luke Skywalker model. But I’d lost the link, and so had to do some digging.

Eventually, I found what I was looking for.

In getting there, though, I blundered across a couple of sites that I hadn’t known about, and discovered that there’s an active community of do-it-yourself sabersmiths who aren’t waiting around like good little consumers to be delivered, over the counter, the next generation of technology.

They’re combining so-called power LEDs, like Philips’ Luxeon series, with ingenious optics to produce bright, luminous “blades” that are virtually impervious to impact damage.

They’re building systems of modular hilts to let you assemble your own personal model, and thinking up inventive ways to adorn them, including bargraph-based charge indicators.

Maybe most impressive of all, they’re building their own microcontroller-based sound and light modules, with capabilities that put the Master Replicas stuff to shame — blade flicker, solid-state motion-detection, high-resolution and -quality sounds, and even a certain degree of programmability and customizability.

Well. It seems I’ve found my expensive obsession for the summer.

“Are you always this sentimental?”

“I had a good day.”

— Mal Reynolds

Yesterday was good. Really, really good. Kick-ass hand-made coffee for breakfast. A brief walk. An extra hit of coffee. A long, soul-stirring ride along the Los Gatos Creek trail. (Marred only by the discovery that the last segment of the trail, to Lexington Reservoir, is closed and will be until June 9th, but that’s life.)

Afternoon fun at Art and Lisa‘s. Met a handsome, charming horse. Got to groom said horse, who was was gentle and well-behaved as could be.

Launched rockets. Caught rockets. Discovered that the saberstaff leaves neat trails when you twirl it in front of a camera with the right settings, under the appropriate conditions. (Must attempt to duplicate said settings and conditions.)

(More pictures, along with detailed reports of the nonsense in question, have been collected by Lisa.)

Today could be a total wash — not that I expect it to be — and I’d still call it a good weekend.