As you know, I'm one of those lucky guys that gets to work in and around the entertainment industry. Not
only do I get to work with some of the best artists and
special effects engineers in the world, I get to learn from
them — which really helps me this time of year! Oftentimes,
Hollywood schedules are compressed on-the-fly — and they
typically starts at ridiculous. This is why artists in the
industry are constantly honing their skills and work very
hard to develop a useful "bag of tricks." This is why I chose
One of my friends and clients in the business is Steve
Wang. He's a heavy-hitter in the make-up and effects world
(he writes and directs, too), and is one of the kindest, most
generous people I know. Steve loves artists, and shares what
he knows with those who are sincere about improving their
skills. Steve can turn a blob of clay into anything. Give him
some material and some paint, and he can make it look like
anything. That's his gift (that he's ardently developed over
the past 30+ years). What Steve doesn't know or do is
electronics or embedded programming — so he calls on me
to help him with special projects.
Like most genius artists, Steve is very fluid in his
thinking. We have worked on projects for his clients where
he's giving me suggestions nearly as quickly as I can type
code. Thankfully, I have a large collection of objects and
routines built up that I can call on. The power of the
Propeller, my code base, and a lot of practice allow me to
be responsive to Steve's requests.
In the end, he is being responsive to his clients, and
that's what really matters. In January, I was in his shop when
a client came in to see a finished project. Tears were welling
in her eyes because she was so moved by its splendor. This
is why I like working with Steve and his team. Their hard
work and devotion to the craft affects people at incredibly
deep levels. To me, that's what entertainment is about.
We don't always have the time to do custom
programming, but we still want a fantastic display for
Halloween, right? What do we do? For projects that involve
simple motion and lighting control, I developed a set of
programs that work in conjunction with animation software.
The first part (streamer) accepts servo and lighting data as a
serial stream, and will convert that data to the appropriate
outputs. The second program (player) can play the show
data from an SD card after it has been exported by the
animation program. The player also allows us to connect to
an external audio device for synchronized sound. It's pretty
easy, and it works — so well, in fact, that it's in use at two
major theme parks in southern California, and one of them
has adopted a variation of these programs for servo
animatronic displays that are sent all around the world.
Using the streamer and player programs allows us to
focus more on the art of the display, because doing that
part well will always be challenging. For most of my
streamer/player projects, I use the EFX-TEK HC- 8+ controller
combined with the AP- 16+ audio player (this is what the
amusement parks use, as well).
I'm part of EFX-TEK, so I have them at my disposal. I
understand that you may not, so I'm going to present these
projects as platform-agnostic as possible. As long as you
have some sort of Propeller board, you’ll be able to use the
code and circuit options presented here with the streamer
and player programs.
Stream Me Up, Scotty
The purpose of the streamer program is to control our
prop hardware by interpreting data from an off-the-shelf
animation program. My choice is Vixen. It's free, it's easy,
and the creator (K.C. Oaks) is another one of those nice
guys that really cares about the people who use his stuff.
Every time I have asked him for a custom plug-in or add-on
for Vixen, he has happily created it for me. We'll be using a
couple of those here.
You may be asking, "Isn't Vixen a lighting controller?"
Yes, it is. That said, the output from Vixen is a serial stream
of numbers that we can interpret in any way we choose.
The ease and flexibility of Vixen — along with its responsive
If you're a Halloween enthusiast like I am,
this time of year gets pretty busy. Every
year is an attempt to out-do the successes
of previous years, and it rarely gets easier.
Long gone are the days when a simple
paper mache decoration was enough to
impress the neighbors. Special effects in
films and television have made us all very
sophisticated and wanting more when it
comes to entertainment — even the home-grown variety. Thankfully, those of us who
are also microcontroller enthusiasts have a
bit of an edge. No, our skills don't help with
the sculpting, molding, casting, and
painting of props — but after that part is
done, we get to work magic with circuits
; BY JON MCPHALEN THE SPIN ZONE
18 October 2014