I’ve been a huge fan of both Mythbusters and the YouTube channel, VSauce, pretty much since they started, so when I saw the announcement for the Brain Candy Live Tour, I bought VIP tickets within an hour. The tickets come with a chance to ask questions and get photos with Adam Savage and Michael Stevens, the respective hosts. I started to think about what I’d like to ask them and realized that more than anything I wish there was a way to thank them for the years of entertainment, education, and inspiration.
Making stuff is part of how I’ve always let people know that I appreciate them. From canning my and my roomate’s laughter, to making a talking “Drinking Out of Cups” action figure, I always find myself making personalized gifts for all my friends; so why not my role models?
For Adam, I made a shirt that says Savage AF, because who doesn’t wish they were as cool as Adam? See more about that in my post on Custom T-Shirts.
Michael’s gift is a little bit more complicated. I originally designed a shirt featuring Michael crouching in front of a camera, because it’s obvious he must do this about a dozen times to make a VSauce video.
The design isn’t clear enough though, and I’m having enough trouble with the other shirt. So at 2am, when most of my best ideas come to me, I realize exactly what to make.
VSauce-in-the-box! Like a Jack-in-the-box but with Michael, popping up, as he does, to tell us something fascinating. It’s not going to be easy, but I know I can manage it. To do this project right, I know I’ll need to order a lot of supplies, so I’m on Amazon right away. I know I’m on the right track as soon as the supplies come in.
I’ve always tried to find cheap ways of doing projects, so that my budget goes further and I can ultimately do more projects. In this case though, no expense was spared and I can’t tell you how nice it was to have everything I needed.
First off, Monster Clay. The first step is to sculpt a positive of Michael’s head that will eventually replace Jack.
Monster Clay is hands down my new favorite sculpting medium. I grew up playing with polymer clay, but it’s a much softer and more plastic-like medium. Polymer also gets softer as it heats up in your hands, so working on something like a head is very difficult because putting pressure in one area deforms the area where you are bracing it. I always wondered what professional model artists were using when I saw them working with Monster Clay (or similar wax-based clays). Once I saw Frank Ippolito using it on Tested.com, I knew I needed to get my hands on it.
It has the perfect amount of wax in it, such that it stays rigid enough at the core and doesn’t easily deform, yet is easy to manipulate and heat to smooth out on the surface. Having an absolute blast getting to know a whole new type of material, I start sculpting.
Progress is slow because I’m not familiar with how to work the main form versus details with this clay, but as I start to get the hang of it, Michael begins to emerge. I work a little at a time because portraiture cane be frustrating and it helps to attack it with a fresh eye.
I want to make the facial features exaggerated, like a caricature you would see on a bobblehead. The problem is that I don’t have much practice with that in drawing, let alone sculpting, so I keep adding clay to exaggerate features one at a time, always ending up proportional. Eventually it looks a little like Michael, but is too big.
I get so frustrated that I eventually just start over. A few days later I have something a little smaller that looks less like a caricature but more like Michael. I guess I’ll stick to what I know.
I’ll be using Smooth On OOMOO 30 to mold the head, then casting a hollow plastic version with Smooth Cast 300.
Before I make the mold I need to make Michael’s Glasses. I’m able to get them really close because, luckily, before the Brain Candy Tour began, Adam helped Michael fit his glasses with a mic, so it provided a lot of great close up reference to copy his very characteristic specs.
I use a tracing compass as a makeshift caliper to measure my sculpt and edit some photos/screenshots down to the same size on my monitor. This lets me trace the outline of the glasses onto a 3X5 card to help sculpt them accurately
Like I said before, I’ve tried in the past to minimize the cost projects by using alternative materials. Sometimes this can produce just as good of a result as professional materials, but in the case of casting and molding, its best to get what you need. I tried to paint on latex and and support the mold with caulking silicone to make the body of Venny, the site mascot. I even used the same silicone to cast the body. While I ended up with an okay result, the casting was sloppy, the detail was poor and the the cure times were way longer than they needed to be.
This project is an excuse to get to know some new materials, including Smooth On products, which I’m also in love with. I’m surprised how cost effective even the smaller batches are, and the quality is obviously miles above what I was used to. Smooth On makes hundreds of different products across a massive range of characteristics. They break down all the technical specs, so there isn’t any guesswork in the mold/cast process.
I follow this tutorial from Smooth on, along with a few others, to make a 2-part mold with the joint running under the chin and behind the ears. I make the seam by filling the area in with oil-based modeling clay.The beard and hair will help hide any seam left in the casting. After pouring the top of the mold with Smooth On OOMOO 30, I press the glasses into the setting silicone to save myself the step of molding them separately. Casting them is also a good small test of the epoxy pot life.
Once that sets, I flip the mold, pull out the gray clay, add a sprueonto the neck and
After pouring a 50/50 mix of the Smooth Cast 300 into my new mold and swirling it about for a few minutes I end up with an excellent hollow casting. I couldn’t be more happy with the result. It’s light, durable and paint-friendly.
Speaking of paint, I know that getting the fleshtones right with spray paint in cans will be nearly impossible, so I grab some Testor model paints. I want to be able to get subtle hue variation, like extra red on the cheeks, ears and nose, to help make it more realistic. This kind of gradient is why airbrushes exist, but I haven’t ever used one, let alone saved up the money to buy one. While perusing every inch of my local craft store I stumble across a product that I’ve known for a while absolutely has to exist, but that I’ve never found before now, even in with some serious googleing. As it turns out, for about $25 you can get a Model Car Spray Painting Kit.
It’s essentially a can of Dust-Off with a special lid that holds a bottle of model paint in front of the nozzle, such that it functions like an actual airbrush. I still want to get a real compressor and professional brush some day, but this does a surprisingly good job of getting an even coat and allowing for enough detailing that it isn’t just a flat skin tone. I use a paintbrush for the hair, beard, eyes and lips, then put few coats of mat finish on it.
Still missing the glasses though, so I give them a paint job, some plastic lenses from the spray gun kit’s packaging, then glue them on with 2 part Loctite epoxy.
Disassembling the Jack-in-the-box, I learn that the cloth is actually what limits how high the figure pops up, so I need to make sure to leave enough excess on Mini-Michael’s shirt to adjust it. I also learn that the head is attached with this piece of polyethylene foam (think pool noodle), which will be easy to shove into the hollow head I’ve made, to hold it in the correct position.
So what else was in that box? Attached to a separate plate (for ease of installation I assume) is what’s called a music box movement. This is the mechanism that makes the tinkley Pop Goes the Weasel tune as you crank. In this case its timed to also trigger the latch at the time of the “pop” note.
There are a lot of good videos that break down how they work, but I think by far the best is by this amazingly retro Australian science channel.
This is going to be very important because I want the music that plays to be the V-sauce background music, which, in case you didn’t know, is mostly by Jake Chudnow. At this point I haven’t quite figured out exactly how this is going to work yet. I have worked with these exact kind of movements before, so I know how difficult it might be to try and change the tune by myself. Much like the music box disk in the Curiosity Show video I linked in the last paragraph, the barrel that plays the musical comb was once a flat piece of steel that had the notes punched through the back to make bumps on the other side. It was then curled around with the raised notes on the outside. I know the bumps have to be fairly stiff to be able to play the comb so I’m not very confident that I can make a custom barrel to play the tune I want.
Thus, I begin upon the fool’s errand of trying to make one with methods at my disposal. The first thing I need is the pin layout that plays a recognizable tune. I immediately go to a friend who has studied music most of her life and has a pretty incredible ear. She picked out the notes of this song, featured in many VSauce videos, and arranged them in musicbox.grit.it, a music box simulator. She did a good job of mimicking the theme and plugging it into the site.
I don’t have the right kind of metal or tools, so the best I can do is substitute and hope it works. First, if I want to make my own barrel, I need to know how much room I have to arrange the notes. Rather than untwist the loop of steel, I just roll it over a piece of paper and measure that. This also gives me a sense of how dense the notes are, and consequently, how accurate I will have to be in arranging mine.
I try to transfer the notes my friend picked out onto a piece of aluminum, punch them through with a needle and wrap it around a cardboard tube that fits where the old barrel went. The proof of concept goes okay, but it becomes clear very fast that I’m in over my head.
I considered ordering one from an Etsy store like Simplycoolgifts, that makes custom music boxes. But, because independent makers of custom anything still operate on economies of scale, it would cost a lot to make it worth anyone’s time to program the pin layout and make the barrel for me.
At last, I resort to a familiar bit of tech: the programmable voice chips off of Invitebyvoice.com. I’ve used these in lots of projects, including my R2D2 bike helmet.
You can change the sounds played on this model just by pressing the record button and playing the desired song into the module via a 3.5mm headphone jack.
That makes it all too easy to record a selected clip of the music onto one module, and a clip of Michael talking on another.
That’s right, there will be 2 sound modules, because Mini-Michael needs to say something when he pops up. How am I going to do that? I will have two switches. One will trigger the music when you begin to crank, while the second, which is triggered as the latch releases, turns off the music on module one and plays module 2.
At first I tried to trigger the modules with wires running into the barrel and making contact with the metal, attaching the other wires to aluminum leads where the comb was.
This started to get way to hokey and I need it to work, so I use real switches. The first switch was going to be between the latch and the box wall, triggered by its backward movement. It turned out that this was enough to keep the latch from releasing. That won’t do.
I buy better, smaller switches and set them up to be triggered by zip ties over the original barrel.
With the music working, it’s back to Mini-Michael. He needs a shirt. I pattern an interior and exterior shirt after the original Jack.
I sew it together and position it on the tube, such that Mini-Michael only comes up as far as needed.
Now for the box itself. I want images from all of Michael’s work on the sides, so I print and laminate them at a local shop. The backs of these, and the box, need to be sanded so that everything will stick when glued on.
I also want the corners to look nice so I cut some .75 inch aluminum angle to fit. I tried just to do it with a hacksaw but eventually resorted to buying a saw guide.
I want the bottom to be removable in case Michael ever needs to replace the batteries. I drill holes in the bottom plate and the bottom bracket and glue them together with JB Weld Waterweld epoxy putty.
The screws will go into nuts glued on the inside. To ensure a good connection with the corners inside, I set the nuts into some sturdy cardboard tubes, glue washers over the face, and Waterweld it all in to the corners where they will line up with the screws.
The other corners were Waterwelded onto the outside and back filled with latex caulk.
I want the images to be flush inside the aluminum, so I fill in with more caulk.
The images are glued in with yet more latex and it’s almost done!
The last step is to cover the sharp corners with some surprisingly aesthetic baby bumper cushions.
And that’s it! I’m incredibly satisfied with the end product and I hope Michael loves it as much as I do when I give it to him at Brain Candy. And as always, thanks for reading!
As it turns out, Michael liked the jack in the box so much that he featured it as an intro to an episode of VSauce!