In October 2017 it was announced that Adam Savage, original co-host of Mythbusters, would be collaborating with Michael Stevens, the host of the Youtube channel, VSauce, on a touring show called Brain Candy Live, which they describe as a “… celebration of curiosity that’s an interactive, hands-on, minds-on theatrical experience like no other.”
I’ve been a huge fan of both Mythbusters and VSauce, since they started, so when I saw that they would be touring through my city, I bought VIP tickets immediately. The tickets came with a chance to ask questions and get photos be part of a Q&A with Michael and Adam. I started to think about what I’d like to ask them and realized that more than anything I wanted 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 was 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 wasn’t clear enough though, so I came up with a better idea: VSauce-in-the-box! Like a Jack-in-the-box but with Michael, popping up, as he does, to tell us something fascinating. In no time I had a plan and started ordering supplies.
I’ve always tried to upcycle and find affordable materials to fit my needs, so that my budget goes further and I can ultimately do more projects. In this case though, no expense was spared and it really made all the difference.
The first step was to sculpt a positive of Michael’s head with a wax based modeling clay, called Monster Clay, that will eventually be cast in resin to replace Jack’s head.
Monster Clay instantly became my new favorite sculpting medium. I grew up playing with polymer clay, which is much softer and has a sort of plastic base. Polymer gets softer as it heats up easily in your hands, and stays soft throughoutt. This makes working on something like a head very difficult because putting pressure in one area deforms the area you are bracing it against. 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, so that it stays rigid enough at the core and doesn’t easily deform, yet it’s easy to manipulate and heat to smooth out on the surface. I played around with it for a while to get a feel for it, then got to work sculpting.
Progress was slow because I wasn’t familiar with how to work the main form versus details with this clay, but as I got the hang of it, Michael began to emerge. I took a lot of breaks because portraiture can be frustrating, and it helps to attack it with a fresh eye.
I wanted to make the facial features exaggerated, like a caricature or a bobblehead. The problem was that I don’t have much practice with that in drawing, let alone sculpting, so I kept adding clay to exaggerate features one at a time, always ending up proportional. Eventually it looked a little like Michael, but was too big.
I started from scratch and after a few days of poking around at it, I had something a little smaller that looked less like a caricature but more like Michael. I guess sometimes its easier to stick to what you know.
I’ll be used Smooth On OOMOO 30 to mold the head, then cast a hollow plastic version with Smooth Cast 300.
Before I made the mold I needed to make Michael’s Glasses. 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 used a tracing compass as a makeshift caliper to measure my sculpt, and edited some photos/screenshots down to the same size on my monitor. This let 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, it’s 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 BrainVenom 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 was an excuse to get to know some new materials, including Smooth On products, which I’m very impressed with. The cost is very reasonable and the quality is obviously miles above window sealing silicone out of a tube. 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 followed 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 made 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 pressed the glasses into the setting silicone to save myself the step of molding them separately. Casting them was also a good way to test of the pot life of the Smooth Cast 300 resin because it used a very small amount and was an open mold, allowing me to watch it set from clear to white.
Once that set, I flipped the mold, pulled out the gray clay, added a sprueonto the neck.
After pouring a 50/50 mix of the Smooth Cast 300 into my new mold and swirling it about for a few minutes I ended up with an excellent hollow casting. I couldn’t have been more happy with the result. It was light, durable and paint-friendly.
Speaking of paint, I knew that getting the subtle hue variation of fleshtones right with spray paint in cans would be nearly impossible. Airbrushes are designed for that kind of delicate gradient, but I haven’t ever used one and didn’t have the money left to invest in one, so I grabbed the next best thing: some Testor model paints and something I like to call a canned brush. After a lot of googling for a temporary airbrush substitute, I found out you can get a Model Car Spray Painting Kit for about $25
It’s essentially a can of Dust-Off with a special lid that holds a bottle of model paint in front of the nozzle, so that it siphons up paint and sprays it exactly like an actual airbrush. I still want to get a real compressor and professional brush some day, but this did a surprisingly good job of getting an even coat and allowing for enough detailing that it isn’t just a flat skin tone. I used 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 gave them a paint job, some plastic lenses from the spray gun kit’s packaging, then glued them on with 2 part Loctite epoxy.
Disassembling the Jack-in-the-box, I learned that the cloth was actually what limited how high the figure pops up, so I needed to make sure to leave enough excess on Mini-Michael’s shirt to adjust it. I also learned that the head was attached with this piece of polyethylene foam (think pool noodle), which could easily be soved into the hollow head I’d made, holding it in the correct position.
So what else was in that box? Attached to a separate plate (for ease of installation I assume) was 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 it’s timed to also trigger the latch at 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 music movement was going to be very important because I wanted the music that plays to be the V-sauce background music, which, in case you didn’t know, was mostly by Jake Chudnow. At this point I hadn’t quite figured out exactly how this was going to work. I had worked with these exact kind of movements before, so I knew how difficult it could be to try and change the tune by myself. Much like the music box disk in the Curiosity Show video I linked in the above 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 knew the bumps had to be fairly stiff to be able to play the comb so I wasn’t sure I could make a custom barrel to play the tune I wanted.
I began upon the fool’s errand of trying to make one with methods at my disposal. The first thing I needed was the pin layout that would play a recognizable tune. I asked a friend who has studied music most of her life to lend her well trained 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 (and a D.O.N.G). She did a pretty good job of mimicking the theme on the site.
Next, I needed to know how much room I had to arrange the notes. Rather than untwist the loop of steel that the movement’s barrel is made of, I just rolled it over a piece of paper for one circumfrance and measured that. This also gave me a sense of how dense the notes were, and consequently, how accurate I would have to be while arranging the new ones.
I tried to draw 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 actually worked to an extent, but it quickly became clear that I was in over my head.
I considered ordering one from an Etsy store like Simplycoolgifts, that make custom music boxes. However, 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.
Eventually, I changed strategies and settled for 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 made it all too easy to record a selected clip of the music onto one module, and a clip of Michael talking on another.
There are 2 sound modules, because Mini-Michael needs to say something when he pops up as well, so one switch triggers the music when you begin to crank, while the second is triggered as the latch releases, and turning off the music and cuing the voice clip on the second module.
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 unreliable and I needed it to work every time, so I used real switches. The first switch was going to be between the latch and the box wall, triggered by the backward movement of the latch’s bottom. 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, I got back to Mini-Michael. He needed a shirt. I patterned an interior and exterior shirt after the original Jack.
I sewed it together and positioned it on the tube, such that Mini-Michael only comes up as far as needed.
For the box itself, I wanted images from all of Michael’s work on the sides, so I printed and laminated 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 wanted the bottom to be removable in case Michael ever needed to replace the batteries. I drilled holes in the bottom plate and the bottom bracket and glued them together with JB Weld Waterweld epoxy putty.
The screws went 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 Waterwelded it all in to the corners where they line up with the screws.
The other corners were Waterwelded onto the outside and back filled with latex caulk.
I wanted 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!