How to build a quadcopter

I “completed” my build last weekend and managed to take pictures somewhat inconsistently along the way which I will show you here.  I successfully tested the video equipment, configured the ESC and flight controller software, and performed a couple test flights in my backyard.  However, the tinkering is not over yet… more on that later.  For now, on to the build!  (If you want a TL;DR version, scroll to the bottom for a time lapse video that covers almost 18 hours of assembly.)

Step 1: insert recessed nuts into carbon fiber. NOT easy until I learned the trick…

I began by assembling the bottom of the frame.  These nuts are supposed to be friction mounted inside holes in the bottom of the frame, which turned out to be difficult at first… they were impossible to just press into the frame with my bare hands, and using tools like pliers or a vice is a no-no since the carbon fiber could be damaged.  I got them started with my bare hands, then tried to attach one of the arms and the other bottom plate.  That turned out to be a waste of an hour and I had to take it apart and basically start over in order to get these recessed all the way first.  I ended up just running a screw up through from the other side and used it to pull the nuts down into the frame.  By doing so I also learned that it is in fact possible to strip a steel hex head screw.  Hopefully this wasn’t an indicator of things to come!

Arms attached to bottom plates!

I finally got the base assembled with the four central screws ready to mount the core electronic pieces.  From here I switched over to the electrical work which is the most complicated part.  I have never shorted out the electrical system in any of my previous projects, but I was still diligent in checking all my connections with a multimeter.

Adding a 5V buzzer to the flight controller

This flight controller (FC) has output pads for a buzzer, and I just happened to have a couple of them lying around, so I wired this one up.  The FC will use this to beep in certain situations like when the copter is armed or disarmed.  I’ll also use a radio channel to be able to manually turn on the beeper–that will be useful in a situation in which I might crash in something like a field of tall grass and need help finding the copter.

Connecting leads for the radio receiver

Next was connecting the radio receiver.  Red and black are 5V and ground, white is for the SBUS connection that carries the radio commands, and the yellow is an optional connection that will allow the FC to transmit telemetry back to the receiver, which will forward it to my radio controller.  The green wire is used for a combined PWM signal that could be used in place of SBUS.  I just cut the wire off since I won’t use it.

ESCs mounted – attaching signal wires

Here is where things start to get complicated.  I attached the ESCs to the arms with some double sided foam mounting tape.  The next step was to solder their signal wires to the appropriate pads on the FC.  This is where I really had to start taking the frame design into account.  The canopy allows a pretty narrow opening for wires to enter the core, so I had to cut the wires down to the right lengths while still allowing some slack to allow partial disassembly for later service.

The signal wires are all on adjacent pads and I was a little worried about the possibility of a short, especially since for this build I just soldered the wires directly to the top of the holes instead of running them through first.  To compensate for that risk I used a new product that I haven’t used before called liquid electrical tape, which is exactly what it sounds like.  I just brushed a layer onto the at-risk area and a few minutes later it looked like it had all been shrink wrapped.  Pretty handy stuff!  Provided you abide by the FLAMMABLE VAPORS, FATAL IF SWALLOWED warnings.  (Fast forward to that night when I was trying to wash off the liquid tape and solder flux that had accumulated on my hands–I couldn’t find any rubbing alcohol, so I used vodka.  It makes a decent solvent!)

Mounting the motors

I’m trying another new technique with this build, which is to “soft mount” the motors.  If you are trying to get a multi-rotor helicopter like this to fly well, vibration is your worst enemy.  The source of the vibration is of course the motors.  Spinning at tens of thousands of RPM, the slightest difference in mass of one side of the motor (or propeller) vs the other produces the vibrations.  Think of your washing machine’s spin cycle and what happens if one area of the drum has a majority of the clothes stuck to it.  Same thing here on a much smaller and faster scale.

To soft mount I used the same foam mounting tape to stick the motors to the frame, then screwed them in as usual to compress the foam a bit and lock the motors to the frame.  A lot of people also soft mount the flight controller by buffering it on the mounting screws with rubber o-rings.  I attempted to do that as well but unfortunately the steel screws were just far enough out of alignment to make it impossible to get them through the FC’s mounting holes.  So I’m using the old standard plastic standoff screws that are flexible enough to make things work.

Motor wiring finished!

Meanwhile, Dave would rather have me giving her all the attention instead of whatever it is on my work bench:

Dave keeping me company

Time to add the power distribution board!  I started by doing all the little fiddly wires first:

Red and black coming over the top are supplying 5V and ground to the flight controller.  The red and black going into the black sheath on the left supply 12V and ground to the video transmitter.  The red, black, and hardly visible white going into of the grey sheath on the right are 5V, ground, and signal for the camera.  Later, after having too much wire and not enough room for the camera, I replaced that bundle with a trio of much more flexible silicon wires.

Power pathing nearly complete

Here, all the ESC power leads have been connected, and an additional grey-sheathed bundle of wires that plugs into the video transmitter to supply A/V signals.  The yellow object facing downward is an XT-60 connector that the batteries will plug into.

Here’s another view of things with the addition of a large capacitor soldered in parallel with the battery leads.  I think it does something along the lines of smoothing out the current and reducing electrical noise…?  The instructions said to add it, so there it is.

Canopy assembled

Time to build the hat.  This canopy will provide some protection for the electronics I’ve already mounted, plus the radio receiver, camera, and video transmitter.

Canopy on!

And here it is assembled enough to take it out and give it some hover tests to make sure it flies ok!  The camera and video transmitter are not on board yet.  Sticking up are the dual radio receiver antennae.  I used an old trick of sticking out two zip ties and then shrink wrapping the antennae to the zip ties.  It holds them in at approximately the right angle and provides some protection as well.

Side-on view with a battery

And here it is with a 4 cell, 1500mah battery.  I’m happy to report that if hovered nicely!

Unfortunately it was much more difficult than I thought to get the video equipment properly mounted.  I moved the radio receiver to the other end of the canopy and made some other slight modifications like adding a “pig tail” to the battery connector.  Here it is in final “alien cyborg insect” form:

Final-ish version of the new quadcopter!

So that’s it!  There will be more tinkering along the way as there always is.  I want to add LEDs to the frame and use silicon wire for the pig tail.  But that sort of stuff can be saved for later.  For now, I must fly!

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What makes a drone?

Ever wonder what makes a drone tick? Here’s a run down of what I’m putting into my racing quadcopter. You will find all of these parts in some form or another on any multi-rotor, whether it be store bought or hand made. If you want top end performance you more or less still have to build your own (which is fine by me!), but within the last few months a few companies have started putting together ready-to-fly packages with really good gear. It’s not price competitive yet, though it sure is more time efficient than going the DIY route… luckily for me building the machine is half the fun! Let’s get right to it then. First, the camera:

Runcam Eagle with tweezers for perspective

Most action-packed racing drone videos you see online are filmed by onboard high definition cameras made by GoPro, Mobius, Garmin (yes, there are Virb videos out there!), or others. However, it’s actually rare for the pilot to be flying by the video feed from those cameras. What most people use are cameras that have come out of the CCTV industry. By now there are companies making them especially for FPV flight, but the reason they have always been preferred is due to their simplicity, form factor, and low latency. They have one job – output a reliable, standard definition video stream. They fit inside our small copter frames and so are easily protected. Our wireless video links are analog and don’t carry HD video, so even if you connect a GoPro’s video feed to the copter’s video transmitter, it still comes out as SD video on the ground.

Aomway TX001 video transmitter – 40 channels, switchable power levels

This is what transmits the video from the quadcopter to the ground. It can transmit on one of 40 different channels in the 5.8GHz spectrum and can output 25mW, 200mW, or 600mW of power. There is a sort of gentleman’s agreement to use 200mW power when flying in a group in order to prevent as much interference with other channels as possible, but it is nice to have some other options available to better suit whatever environment I might be flying in.  But what good is a transmitter without an antenna?

ImmersionRC SpiroNet antennas

These antennas are omni-directional and so should give the same reception in any direction. That’s not strictly true–they do have weak spots directly above and below them–but for my intents and purposes they are what they say they are. They send out a circularly polarized signal to help prevent multipath interference and are generally the most popular type of antenna used for FPV.

This equipment obviously needs power, and since there’s a fair bit more scrolling to go on this post, our power needs are probably complicated.  That’s what this is for:


Here we have a combination of power distribution and on-screen HUD. The battery will plug into this board and it will distribute the current at different voltages to all the other pieces of the system. It also takes the video feed from the camera, overlays data on top of it, and then outputs it to the video transmitter. Since it is carrying all of the copter’s power, it can measure amperage draw and the battery’s voltage and display that on the video feed. So I’ll be able to see the battery’s status in-flight and know exactly when I need to come in for a landing.

X-Racer F303 flight controller

This is the flight controller–the brain of the quadcopter. It takes sensor and radio input and calculates exactly how fast each motor should be spinning to make the copter’s movement match the radio commands. The only onboard sensors this board has are a gyroscope and accelerometer. Compare that to top of the line consumer drones from companies like DJI that also include a GPS chip, barometer, magnetometer, and sonar, and you see that this one is pretty bare-bones. But that’s all that’s necessary for a freestyle racing quad! I won’t be able to do autonomous flight, but I will at least have auto-level (which I’ll only use when flying line-of-sight) courtesy of the accelerometer, and precise attitude control courtesy of the top-of-the-line gyroscope.

Now let’s look at the power train. We need to know what will get those props spinning! First, the speed controllers:

Electronic Speed Controllers (ESCs)

Each motor is controlled by a separate speed controller. The black and white twisted wires are a ground lead and a signal wire. Those connect to the flight controller and are used to receive the commands of how much power must be sent to the motor. The thicker black and red wires are the power leads that connect to the power distribution board. The bare pads on the other end will connect to the motors, and so the ESC essentially pipes power from the battery to the motors according to what the flight controller is commanding it to do. The BLHeli_S label on these lets us know that these ESCs are capable of running the latest cutting edge BLHeli firmware with critical high performance features such as the ability to apply active braking to the motors.

These ESCs also came with these weird little hard shell cases that I’ve never seen before. They are interesting, but I probably won’t end up using them. Still, I guess it’s a neat idea for some whose builds might be able to take advantage of them.


And here are the motors. You can pick apart the numbers to learn some additional details about them: 2205 is code for the size of the stator core: 22mm diameter, 5mm tall. 2300KV means that for every volt of electric potential that is supplied to the motor, it is able to spin another 2300RPM. I’ll be running 4 cell (in series) lithium polymer batteries which fully charged sit at 16.8 volts… that means in theory these motors will be able to spin at 38,640RPM! Daaaaaamn!

5x4x3 props

Here are the first props I’m going to try out. Let’s pick apart that 5x4x3 number: the prop disc area has a 5” diameter, a 4” pitch (angle of the blades; for every revolution the prop will move forward 4 inches), and there are 3 blades. I’m pretty sure this is the most popular type of prop currently used on mini quads.

Why three blades instead of two, or even four? Well, adding additional blades provides more trust which equals more power, but the downside is that additional blades also add additional turbulence that the blade behind it then has to pass through, and that ends up decreasing the propeller’s efficiency. This means in theory the most efficient propeller has a single blade, and indeed those types of props are used on ultra light aircraft like gliders. However, we’re racing here. We need POWER! So at the expense of battery life, my new copter will be quicker around the track. Three is kind of the popular middle ground for power vs efficiency in a copter of this size.

Alright, so how do I control this thing?

FrSky XSR receiver

For this copter I have switched radio technology. I’m now using the digital FrSky system which has a reputation of having a very good range for 2.4GHz, and also is able to have 2-way communication with the copter. My radio will receive telemetry from the copter such as sensor output and battery voltage. I plan on setting up an alarm on the radio to alert me when the battery gets down to about 14V or less as an extra layer of protection against over-discharging it. Another AWESOME feature of this receiver, perhaps at one time the top selling point to me, is that it connects to the flight controller through a serial bus. That means the commands for every radio channel (I think I’ll be using 8 or 9) are sent down one wire, instead of having to have a separate PWM connection for every channel. That was the case with my previous two copters and leaves you with a thick bundle of wires that must connect to the flight controller. That sort of thing is just no longer the way to go.

Last but not least, something has to hold this whole thing together:

Coyote Stretch-X from AllCarbonRC

Here’s the fully carbon fiber frame with the power distribution board on top for perspective. Just a few years ago it was still common for people to build frames out of wood, but now carbon is just about everywhere. I’d be shocked to see a racing quad that wasn’t carbon, though you can still find frames for sale made out of delrin or other high strength plastics. Lots of DIYers are also 3D printing their frames, and in fact, the Maker community has fully embraced the DIY drone world in that respect. You can find 3D printed parts that are perfectly customized for, say, mounting a GoPro on some particular kind of frame. People trade 3D prints on forums and even at our local races. It’s awesome!

So there you have it. That is what makes up today’s racing drones, and all drones to a certain extent. Now I just need to put this all together…

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The Journey to FPV

All the parts for my racer have arrived!  The plan is to do the build this weekend.  I’ll be taking a lot of pictures to document everything that goes into making a racing-quality quadcopter!  In the meantime I will take a diversion to explain how I got into this whole thing…

In 2013 one of my favorite news aggregation sites published a story drawing attention to a video of a crazy Swedish man named David Windestal.  In it, David attached a remote-controlled airplane to a weather balloon, let it ascend into the stratosphere, then piloted the plane back down using a live video feed… all the while everything that could go wrong did go wrong:

I couldn’t believe that something like that was possible; that the technology was here that allowed the everyman to go and engineer a stunning project that told such a compelling story.  It evoked a spirit of mad science in me that I couldn’t contain.  I was instantly obsessed and continued watching all of David’s videos.

Among the tongue-in-cheek remote-controlled ducks and tank battles were videos that put me on the path toward building multi-rotor helicopters.  He was flying FPV!  Queue weeks of discovering forums and websites dedicated to the hobby and I was tunneling as fast as I could down the rabbit hole.  As fast as a college student with no real job could, anyway.

My first tricopter! Name: Big Geek. Designed by David Windestal.

This beast is made from square wooden dowel rod arms, a hub and motor mount kit from FliteTest, and various electronics pieced together from online stores.  Yes, it was actually common to use wooden frames just a few years ago.  It was also cheap.  Not pictured are the pretty black plastic landing gear that were originally built onto the motor mounts.  They were retired long ago after being repeatedly shattered and hot glued back together after many, many, many crashes.  The arms were broken several times; they’re probably more wood glue than wood at this point.

I flew Big Geek with 11″ props and 3 cell, 3000mAh batteries.  It typically flew between 15-17 minutes per battery.  It has a servo set up to trigger a bomb drop from which I dropped one of those winged, whistling Nerf footballs.  It also has LED light strips that not only look cool, but also help with keeping the orientation of the copter straight.  I flew Big Geek for about a year before wanting to build a smaller copter of higher quality.

My 2nd higher quality build. Name: Little Geek

I’ve been flying this copter for a couple years.  It’s another David Windestal design–the Tricopter V3.  The frame kit is from David’s store and features hollow carbon fiber arms (through which the motor wiring is routed), and a delrin plastic body, camera tray, motor mounts and landing gear.  The flight controller is an Arduino-based board that supports sensors like a barometer, magnetometer, and GPS.

I learned to fly FPV on this copter.  The video transmitter and its antenna are sticking up there on the tail.  I used a GoPro camera to provide the video feed as well as record footage while flying.  It has 9″ props and I upgraded to using 4 cell batteries, never to turn back.  The higher voltage of 4 cells in series provides a lot more power and response which is quite fun.

David’s signature. I submit that I am a true fan.

My goal from the very beginning was to fly FPV but I never made it happen until building Little Geek.  The change in perspective from flying line-of-sight to flying first person was a whole new experience as you’d expect.  It was still nerve-wracking to fly, but it also came naturally.  I’ve played plenty of flight simulators in my day.

So since then I’ve been flying FPV on Little Geek whenever I have the opportunity, which until now has usually been when visiting my mother-in-law’s house in rural southeast Missouri.  However, this multirotor hobby is currently blooming from a cottage industry into a major force in the RC world.  Things have been progressing very rapidly.  Very high quality components are getting cheaper all the time.  Carbon fiber is everywhere, and the 8 bit processors of yesteryear are no more.  And so the manner in which people fly has evolved as well.  I am now driven to leap forward, to the forefront again, into the world of racing among a new community of pilots.

Now, if I can just make it through the rest of the work week…

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Ascending to Drone Racing

I take it for granted that I know what is going on with drones nowadays.  I think there are still plenty of people who might give me a deer-in-headlights look if I tell them “drone racing” is a real thing.  Well, that’s right people, it is a thing!  And it’s awesome!

Here, let me prep you with some razzle dazzle video from the Drone Racing League so you know what we’re getting into:

If that’s your first time seeing this sort of thing, welcome to the future.  What you are looking at are quadcopters with cameras and video transmitters attached that send their video signal back to the pilot to view on any video device, usually goggles with integrated screens, which give them a First Person View while flying the aircraft.

This has been building over the course of the last few years.  What began as a cottage industry piggy backing on the availability of cheap sensors and LCD screens provided by the smart phone revolution has now grown into somewhat of a sport that is on the cusp of breaking into the main stream.  You have organizations like the Drone Racing League that have big money behind them and put on big fancy shows on ESPN2, which are a lot of fun to watch and represent a futuristic vision for the sport.  Then you have others like MultiGP who are a more grass roots style of organization that help set up local chapters to run races all around the country.  And to really put things into perspective, check out this report on the million dollar race put on by World Drone Grand Prix:

There is a MultiGP chapter here in Kansas City.  I tracked them down with a tip from a guy at my local hobby shop.  Apparently you can just search Facebook for <City Name>FPV and you have a good chance of finding a group near you.  Thus I found and joined (somewhat unofficially at the moment) KCFPV.  I went and spectated the race they put on this past November.  It was a blast!  But there are a few more steps I need to take before flying in my first race.

First, I need a regulation-size quadcopter.  I have built two tricopters in the past, but they were larger and intended for more efficient slow flights.  The only size requirement for the KC MultiGP races are typically:

  • Maximum propeller length:  six inches
  • Maximum # of battery cells (in series):  four

Note that these are sizes of pieces of the power train.  They don’t regulate what frame design you use (as far as I know), but the trend the last few years has been to fit as much power onto as small a frame as you can.  Of course people are always experimenting with different frame designs and motor / propeller combinations which makes each race unique.  Not only are you testing pilot skill, but also their design, building, and repairing capability.  Of course it turns out flying these things is actually quite challenging, so pilot skill determines the outcome of 99% of races.

The way they give a numeric size to quadcopters is to draw a circle that intersects the shaft of every motor on the aircraft, then give the diameter of that circle in millimeters.  If you pull up to a local race today you will most likely see people flying quads anywhere from 170mm-250mm, mostly with tri-blade 5″ props (why oh why do we use metric everywhere except prop length?).  That’s what I’m preparing to build now.  At the moment I have accumulated the majority of the components… they are just waiting there, calling to me…

I still need a frame, radio receiver, propellers and batteries.  Don’t worry – you’ll get to see the thing get built up from scratch if you stick around.

The second thing or collection of things I need to do is to register with the authorities.  In exchange for $5 the FAA will give me a serial number to stick on the copter.  In exchange for $38-$75 the Academy of Model Aeronautics will give me rights to fly in sponsored areas nationwide and various other benefits depending on my membership level.  Finally I’ll need to register as a MultiGP pilot in order to participate in races and have my results tracked.  As a stretch goal I might look into getting a HAM radio license because I think it is technically required in order to operate on the frequencies and power levels required by FPV quadcopters.  But I’m considering that optional until I do a little more research.

The third thing I need to do is practice.  A lot.  As far as my FPV flying experience goes, this will be like stepping up from a go-kart to an F1 racer.  I don’t want to destroy my new copter too quickly, so I need to get a few months of flying at those speeds under my belt before attempting to do it through gates on a race course.

As I continue to post updates I aim to provide good exposure to what is a fascinating and friendly community-driven hobby turned sport.  It has provided me with great learning opportunities and certainly tickles the engineer part of my brain.  I hope it does for you too, or at least provides something interesting to look at!

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SEMO Hackathon 1

This weekend from Friday evening through Sunday noon our CS department held an in-house Hackathon in which groups of students worked on their own original software projects.  Inspired by other hackathons and our participation in A.I. programming competitions in Rolla, we set out to do something fun on our own terms from the comfort of our local computer lab.

Several groups attended and everyone had really cool ideas and projects to work on.  As we all settled into the lab Friday night, the first order of business was to customize our work area.  Every other computer had its monitor disconnected to feed each of the ones we were using – dual monitors were the order of the day.  I also got lucky and nabbed the only set of speakers in the lab and so would have free reign over Pandora and Google Play the whole time.  And of course you can’t have a bunch of guys partying in a computer lab without ordering a bunch of pizza.

The pool of active projects consisted of a weather application, a Golden Gun mod for Minecraft, an event-based social media-connected website, a D&D character creator, a learning A.I., a Battleship-style A.I. battle game, probably others that I can’t remember at the moment, and our own project.  Ours was a digital steganography tool that we named PixelSaurus.  Most of the projects got to a point of near-completion by the end of Hackathon, and hopefully will be completed by their authors in the coming days and weeks.

Fear Pixelsaurus!


PixelSaurus was an awesome program to develop and exposed us to the world of image formatting and low level bit manipulation.  My teammates Alec and Sam have dabbled in cryptography before, and when the idea for a steganography application surfaced I was very excited.  I was familiar with the concept but had never seen an actual implementation.  The methods are fairly well-known, so with a little research we knew the direction in which we needed to go to make it happen.  We were confident as we set out to create a program that could encode messages and other binary information inside digital images, as well as decode the images to retrieve the hidden messages/data.

embedding a .ogg sound file in a .bmp image

embedding a .ogg sound file in a .bmp image

There are three data points that PixelSaurus works with:

  1. the Carrier – an image chosen to hold our secret data
  2. the Payload – the plain text message or file to be hidden within the Carrier
  3. the “ensteganized” image – carrier + payload that, to the human eye, appears exactly like the original image
pulling the hidden sound file out of the carrier image

pulling the hidden sound file out of the carrier image

Here’s an example of an image operated on by PixelSaurus.  On the left is the original unmodified image; on the right, the ensteganized image with a .ogg sound file embedded inside it:

before/after encoding - identical to the human eye, even when zoomed in at the pixel level

before/after encoding – identical to the human eye, even when zoomed in at the pixel level

When we decode the ensteganized image, PixelSaurus outputs the sound file that plays just as perfectly as it did before it was encoded.  Cool, huh?

There are many methods with which one can hide data inside images.  We chose the most simple and straightforward one called Least Significant Bit Insertion, or LSB Insertion.  The idea is that in each byte of carrier image data, we can change one bit to a bit from our payload.  Knowing which bits in the carrier that belong to our payload then allows us to piece the payload back together during the decoding process.

Each pixel in a bitmap image uses 4 bytes of data – one for each of four channels – alpha (opacity), red, green, and blue.  Each of those channels are stored in an 8-bit byte, yielding 2^8 (256) possible values.  So each channel’s byte is basically a number from 0 to 255 that represents the intensity or shade of that color in the pixel.  The “least significant” bit in these bytes is the bit that adds only 1 to that value.  So when we change those bits during payload insertion, we are changing that color’s intensity at an imperceptible level, since we are only modifying the byte’s value by 1.

Makes sense, right?  Good.  🙂  As always, the implementation was trickier to accomplish than we thought.  At first it appeared like we would have a working algorithm by midnight Friday night until we finally got to test it and found out that it did seem to insert the payload, but also corrupted the carrier image during the process.  Not good; the goal is to still have a legitimate image file that can be opened and viewed in normal image programs, hiding our payload data in plain sight.  It turned out we were blasting right through the bitmap files’ header data as well as the pixel data, when we needed to only be modifying the pixel data.  By changing the bitmap headers’ bytes we were, for most intents and purposes, destroying the carrier image.

Fortunately the .NET framework we used makes it very easy to get straight to the pixel data so we got it working sometime before dinner on Saturday.  Having reached a good stopping point, we went out for a big group dinner.  When we got back our task turned to putting together a decent user interface as well as finalizing a metadata scheme of 56 bits that stored the payload size and file extension that we inserted into the carrier before the payload itself.

All told this was a really fun project and definitely the coolest program I’ve ever worked on.  It can be downloaded from Dropbox here if you’re interested in playing with it.  Hide secret messages and files inside images and send them to your friends to decode!  There are a few caveats:

  • The carrier should be in .bmp file format.  .png files worked in testing, but code-wise PixelSaurus expects bitmaps, so I don’t really know what will happen if you try others.
  • The payload should be 1/8 the size of the carrier since we are inserting 1 bit of payload into every 8 bits of carrier.  If we continue work on PixelSaurus, one of the next things to implement is to use additional carrier bits to allow the payload to be 1/4 or maybe even 1/2 the size of the carrier.  Beyond that, so much carrier pixel data would be changed that the image quality would noticeably degrade.
  • We tested carrier file sizes up to around 65 megabytes and found that although they took a bit of time to process, PixelSaurus could handle it.  We only had a couple images larger than that to test with, and they usually crashed the program.

SEMO CS’s first Hackathon was deemed a rousing success.  Most people had something cool to show by the end, and even if they didn’t, we all had a blast making the lab our own for a weekend of programming, shit-talking, and general tom-foolery.

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Gone Girl postlude

Today at 10am was my interview for the NPH stand-in gig.  There was one guy there named Jeff who looked more or less just like him.  Long story short: they picked him.

I’m feeling down about it.  Not that I didn’t get my fair share of the Hollywood experience–I got more than most people ever get–but after being there and having that 2nd opportunity dangled in front of me, it was a hard letdown.  Today I sort of felt the way I did at All District Choir my senior year of high school.  Having made All State Choir the previous year, the pressure was huge to make it again the 2nd year.  The entire day I waited anxiously to find out if I was still one of the best singers in the state.  That night I did get picked for the 2nd time.  Today I didn’t.  The feeling isn’t exactly the same, because today’s events didn’t depend on anything I could affect like my singing skill; it depended on my genetics.  But it still stung.

This has been one of those experiences that I’m going to have to process for a while.  When Tom called me he said they could still use me as both background and a P.A. again, so I might get a call or two over the next few weeks to go back and work with them.  But nothing will be like getting to stand on set playing tag team with the actors.

I don’t know what it is that makes the movie crew so magnetic.  When you’re there you have this overwhelming desire to leave a good impression on everyone and to befriend as many people as possible.  It has something to do with their proximity to fame and fortune, and is fueled by how incredibly positive and nice everyone actually is that works there.  These people work in the most glamorous industry in the world every day.  Getting to peek in and participate from the outside was almost like a dream.  It was like being at summer camp, and now I’ve come home and have to get on with the ho-hum tedium of my normal life again.

But this life isn’t that bad.  Not at all, actually.  It was a wonderful diversion that I took last week.  But I could see in the faces of many of the crew that what they are doing had become a job just like any other.  Their experience on the set is just something that “pays the bills.”  I think it’s actually much better that I have disconnected while the experience was still so special.  It guarantees that these memories will always be fond, and that the stress I endured was worth every second.

I know a lot of friends and family have enjoyed reading this short series of blog entries; I’m glad I could provide a window into the world of a David Fincher production.  If I get called to do some P.A. or background work I will post any good stories that come out of that, but I have the feeling the best is behind me.  Thanks everyone for reading!

Hey, you know Fincher won an Emmy last night for directing House of Cards?  If you haven’t seen it, look it up and give it a try.  It’s excellent–my favorite show on television (well, Netflix… that counts?) right now besides Breaking Bad.  And he only directed 2 episodes, yet won the Emmy.  What a badass.

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Gone Girl day 5: The Bat flies at midnight

quick review of our cast of characters:

  • Rosamund, actress playing Amy Dunne (stand-in: Jody)
  • Lola, actress playing Greta (stand-in: Sidney)
  • Boyd, actor playing Jeff (stand-in: me)
  • David Fincher, director
  • Courtenay, 1st assistant director
  • Mollie and Paul, 2nd assistant directors
  • Ryan and Yarden, production assistants
  • Tom, wardrobe manager

Yesterday (Saturday) I was scheduled for my last day working as a stand-in on the set of Gone Girl.  Call time was 5:12pm.  I knew from looking at the schedule a couple days before that they were shooting a night scene at the Arena Golf mini golf course and driving range.  I figured I’d just ride my bike over there and see what was up.

Well by now you know it wouldn’t be a normal day for me at Gone Girl if I wasn’t screwing something up.  I got past security and rode into the parking lot and started locking my bike to a telephone pole.

“Sir, I’m sorry, you can’t park your bike there,” Mollie said from across the lot.  I turned around and she saw it was me.  “Oh, hi hon, can you move your bike over by the batting cages?”

I obliged.  Then I walked over and asked her if that was where I was supposed to check in.  “No, base camp is down the road a couple blocks by the Arena building.”  Oh god.

I hopped in one of the vans that was making the rounds.  I was on time when I arrived at the set, but now it was 5:14.  Of course the van circuit takes the most direct path from base camp to the set, but a huge scenic route from the set to base camp… at 5:17 Ryan called me.

“Hey man, you almost here?”

“Yea… I’m in a van on the way to base camp.  I rode my bike to the set…”

“Ok, well always come and check in at base camp first, then we’ll get you to the set.”  You know, I really should have known this by now.

When I arrived at the big line of trailers parked where the fair was just a week ago, I went inside and got my voucher from Ryan.  He led me out the door toward the wardrobe trailer to get my colors.  Another crew member saw the t-shirt I was wearing and said, “whoa, nice shirt man!”


Ryan looked at me.  “What’s on your shirt?”

I turned toward him and straightened it out.  “Oh, Breaking Bad,” he said.  “That’s cool.  I worked on that.”

“WHAT??”  But there was no time to explain.  I’d have to get it out of him later.  Tom came out of the wardrobe trailer and led me to another trailer with a bunch of changing rooms in it.  I donned my colors and hopped in a van to go back to the set.  I got there at 5:25, 5 minutes before rehearsal time.  Phew.

Crew was still unloading and setting up lights, electrical, and camera equipment.  David started working with the actors.  In the scene, Jeff, Greta, and Amy play mini golf while discussing their hardships with love.  Amy accidentally drops her money belt, piquing Greta’s criminal interest.  They ran through it 4 or 5 times while we stand-ins took a few notes.

Courtenay called second team up and we went to do our thing.  David discussed the angles with the camera men Peter and Jeff while lining up shots on us.  We didn’t deliver lines today but did go through the actions the actors did.  We then waited for the sun to set so the lighting crew could set up their lamps, screens, and reflectors to light the scene.

During all this, Jody was beginning to feel sick.  She was weak in the knees and a little shaky, but still high in spirit.  After that first round of standing in, they sent her home to recover and put in a call for an emergency replacement.  The girl that arrived was named Nicolette.  She got the usual crash course and trial by fire that we had all been through.

After that it was business as usual.  David ran take after take, walking up to confer with the actors every couple of cuts.  At one point he made the joke, “don’t worry, after 25 takes you’ll be bored as shit and we’ll have something usable.”  At least he has a sense of humor about his methods.

It was around this time that something unexpected happened.  Earlier this week, only the three above mentioned actors were on the call sheet.  This time, there were two additional ones – Lisa Banes, playing Marybeth, and Ben Affleck, playing Nick Dunne.  They didn’t have scenes, but were scheduled for hair and makeup consultations.  I figured they would be stealthed in to base camp to work with the staff there; I was wrong.

During one of the takes around 8:00, Sidney turned around and her eyes widened.  “Oh my god…” she said, and motioned toward the van that just pulled up behind us.  I turned around to see the Batman himself walk by.  I tell you, seeing Ben Affleck in the flesh in Cape Girardeau of all places is quite surreal.

He walked up to the clubhouse and around the fence that surrounds the mini golf course.  Everyone saw him and sort of paused as he walked up to David.  “Hey, straight in from New York, huh?” David asked.  They conversed for a moment and then it was back to work.

Ben hung out for about an hour and then disappeared, assumedly back to base camp for his hair and makeup consultation.  He reappeared a while later and hung out behind David, watching the monitors.  One of the ladies asked, “David, how do you like Ben’s hair?”

David turned around and acted shocked, then said, “just kidding.  It looks great!”

Throughout working on this job I’ve had friends and family tell me to take pictures and tell David this or ask Ben that.  I do wish I could do those things, but there is a strong etiquette that I’ve picked up from the crew that is basically, “do not approach unless you are from within The Circle.”  The Circle being the small group of people who’s job it is to actually deal with the protected people like David and Ben and Rosamund.  Even Boyd and Lola are nearly on that level, though I have had the opportunity to get to know those two a little bit.  There is also a strict no-camera policy on the set.  They are cool with phone use, but I can only imagine that the consequences for taking a picture are dire indeed.

And I get it.  These people do this for a living, and they have their lives interrupted in public enough as it is… the last thing they need is for people to do it on the job too.  I have developed a new respect for what they do.  The ones who have made it big don’t just get to go out and be famous and it’s all fun and games all the time; they work their asses off for their shows.  They put in 12+ hour days six days a week for months on end to make their art of film, and it is exhausting.  It must be difficult after all that to not have any privacy anywhere they go – having people look over their shoulder to see what they are buying at the supermarket or photographers ambushing them when they walk outside.  And there are some celebrities that handle their fame with grace and some that don’t, but if it were me, I think I would appreciate any opportunity to lead as much of a “normal” life as possible.

So I haven’t yet asked David if I can have Gwyneth Paltrow’s severed head, and may not get the opportunity to either.  And that’s ok.  Of course it’s very easy for me to say that since I’ve been so lucky to be chosen as a stand-in and get to experience the film making process first hand.  I can tell you that everyone I have spoken to in the production is extremely friendly–way more than I expected.  They are all great people.  They just live and breathe inside a pressure cooker, and so there is this etiquette that forms around them when you are working with them.

Back to stories.  Ben hung around until 11:00 or so, then left, walking right by me as I was sending a text.  I barely noticed until he was right there, but it’s just as well.  He seemed like a cool guy.  And he does not look like he’s 41.

After the usual 30 takes from the 2nd camera setup, David called lunch.  Haha, lunch.  At 11:30 at night.  I guess Ryan wasn’t joking earlier when he said if I had come to base earlier I could have joined them for breakfast.  We all piled into the vans and rode back.  We were greeted with a spectacular dinner provided by For Stars Catering.  Roast steak, some kind of chicken, grilled sea bass, asparagus, fried potatoes, salad, italian bread, and creamy tomato soup.  And for desert, chocolate chip cookies that were actually baked by a person (as opposed to store-bought that we got at Giant City last week), and that kind of fancy pudding that has an egg on top, or on the bottom, or something.  What’s it called?  I don’t know.  I went with the cookie.  It was good, but I regret not expanding my food horizons with the pudding since that is my default m.o.

Ryan sat down with us and I asked him for some Breaking Bad stories.  He gave me the look I thought he might give, the one that said, “I don’t know, I do this every day and there is nothing special about it any more.”

“Come on man,” I said, “you don’t have any cool stories from working on BREAKING BAD??”

“Well, I can tell you that the most fun we had was the train heist scene.  We filmed that for four days up in Santa Fe.  It was beautiful there.”

That was it?  Wow, you are super jaded, Ryan.  Although, from my day and a half of being a P.A., it doesn’t seem like they get too close to the action too often, so it makes sense.

He continued: “you know they filmed season six–well, the ‘2nd half of season five’… whatever–in the winter?”

“Whoa!”  I thought about it, and I remember the most recent episodes looking devil hot as usual.  “That was all in the winter?”

“Yea, and it was cold as shit.  You know the scene where Cranston is burying the barrels of money in the desert?  Yea, he was down there on the frozen ground doing that and he’s supposed to look like he’s sweating; they had to mist him down in between takes.”  Wow.  That is awesome.

I finished dinner and decided to head back to the set a few minutes early since I was jonesing for coffee and found out where they were hiding it from one of the extras (I was unsuccessful in my search earlier in the night).  Sidney came with me, and lo and behold they had the food carts out in the parking lot when we got there.  Sweet.  I filled up my cup and turned around to go wait inside in the warmth.  (Something I forgot to mention – the temperature was dropping continuously all night and I was officially freezing my balls off.  And the poor extras were wearing shorts, short sleeves, and tank tops for hours in the background… poor saps.)  As I turned I saw someone was right behind me headed to the coffee cart, and as we entered the “let’s get out of each other’s way” dance, I saw that it was none other than Fincher himself.  Fuck me!

“Sorry!”  I said as I let him by.  I backed toward the club house and watched to see if Sidney would realize who it was.  Then he asked her what she thought of standing in and if she was bored.

“No!  I’m just trying to take it all in and enjoy every minute of it!”  Dammit Sidney, I’ve been waiting for that conversation all week!  Oh well.  If not me, I’m glad it was you.  I turned back around and headed inside.  She followed me in with a big grin on her face.  Lucky!

Second team started off on set at 12:22am, the official back-to-work time.  David was going back and forth with Peter the camera man.  They discussed different strategies and camera placements to get good closeups of the actors while we stood there to provide perspective.  When everything was decided and the orders were given, the camera crew went about setting them up.  Peter drew a small orange bottle from his jacket and asked, “who’s with me?”

Everyone looked around at each other waiting for any takers.  Courtenay said, “I would, but it does weird things to me.  And I’ll never get to sleep.”

“It does weird things to me too.”  He pointed to David.  “But I’ll be ok as long as he doesn’t call a wrap in the next two hours.”

“Suck it down, Peter,” David said.  We all laughed.

Lisa Banes showed up a little after 2am.  At first I thought she was Rosamund’s mom.  The two look a lot alike.  She didn’t arrive with the same silent fanfare Ben did – probably a travesty – but she seemed to be in good spirits.  She had been through hair and makeup already and was there to have David check her out.  He liked what he saw.  She left right after.

By now I had fetched the jacket I brought from my backpack.  Even with three layers I had to stand up and dance around to keep warm.  But I was experiencing the moment to the fullest.  On previous days I had been behind too many people or too far from the action to really feel the vibe.  I had seen the technical side of film, and enjoyed learning how the crew works like a machine to make it happen, but this was something different.  I was finally close enough to hear and see David work directly with the actors to forge the characters from them.

Most of the work with Lola and Boyd was done by that point and he was concentrating on getting what he wanted out of Rosamund.  They ran the same half dozen lines over, and over, and over.

AMY:  I was going to kill myself.  Can you believe that?

JEFF:  Don’t give him the pleasure.

AMY:  I was going to drown myself in the Gulf of Mexico, let myself be dinner for great whites-

GRETA:  Gulf is bull sharks, Miss Nawlins.

AMY:  Why should I die?  I’m not the asshole.

JEFF:  Put that on a t-shirt.

I was watching Rosamund the entire time.  David was finding something in her I hadn’t seen yet.  Until now I hadn’t heard her deliver enough lines to really know what I thought of her.  There was the water tower scene last week, but that was more of a playful scene.  Here she was tapping into something different… she was tapping into Amy Dunne.

I haven’t read Gone Girl.  And to be honest, odds are I probably won’t.  But there was a moment during this streak of takes where Rosamund really got to me.  This sounds cheesy, I know.  But here I was, on my last day of shooting a Hollywood movie that after tonight would go on without me as if I were never there, and I was taking in every sensation I could.  Rosamund found a place where, when she delivered the line about drowning herself, I felt like I was there.  I was there with Amy, empathizing with her.  It was a shocking, almost out-of-body experience… she was no longer an actress from England done up in makeup to look like she’s wearing a disguise… she was a person who was in the midst of desperate circumstances, and was reliving them with me.

I teared up as she reached that pinnacle with David.  I realized Rosamund is a spectacular actress and I should be ashamed for never knowing of her before.  She is going to be incredible in this movie, especially with David hammering away at her like he does.  He is like a blacksmith.  With time, care, and precision, he is slowly forging the characters from the actors, his ingots.  I wasn’t expecting to be so affected by an actress’s performance, especially considering the repetition involved in Fincher’s sets.  But Rosamund found something incredible, let it out, and it was caught on tape.

Since I’ve now passed into Longest Blog Entry territory, let’s lighten it up a little bit.  There was another funny moment… sometime during the night.  During 10 hours of filming you lose track; everything sort of runs together.  After the asshole line, Rosamund putts the ball and makes a hole in one.  Of course no one can do such a thing on demand, so she just hit the ball, waited for Courtenay to grab it from off camera, then acted out her celebration after stepping to a certain mark.  Well, one time she actually did make the hole in one and continued right with her act.  After David cut, she let out a “woooo-hooooo!”

David approached the set and reminded her that she needed to go back to her mark and then do the celebration.  She apologized, and he laughed, saying, “I’m all for people being in the moment.  Just not on set.”

By 3:30am, after I had had my moment living in Amy’s world, the hours were wearing on everyone.  I was reminded of what a different world I come from where things like this are incredibly special.  I looked around and half the crew were either sitting with their heads in their hands or were on their phones.  Understandable if this is your day job.  But I was enjoying myself despite the foggy cold of night.

It was clear, though, that we were getting close.  The camera angles they were changing to were becoming more specific, more honed in.  They were calling for second team, but Jeff was no longer in the shot.  They used Sidney and Nicolette (who I got to know just a little bit and seemed like a very nice girl) to focus the cameras on Amy as she picks her ball up from the hole.  First team came in and they did the usual many many takes of the scene.  Then they finally wrapped Lola and Boyd.

I didn’t end up saying goodbye to Boyd; by that time things were moving quickly and we were all ready to get out of there.  I don’t know if it was a good or a bad thing.  I mean, I guess I regret not expressing the pleasure it was to work with him.  It was something I’ll never forget.  He is a great guy and I wish him well.  He treated me with respect and I tried my best to do my part to make his job easier.  Throughout all my time watching him I noticed all the little things he does to bring life to his character.  Hopefully his career blossoms and he nails bigger and bigger roles.  He has a great personality and really is a good actor.

As for Lola, well you know my feelings about her.  (Erika, don’t get mad at me.)  She takes your breath away when she is near you but she is also completely down to earth and treated me and the other stand-ins like real people.  We were her co-workers.  I did say goodbye to her and will always remember that crazy beautiful smile she has.  You’ll see it… I’m sure David will pick some stunning ones to show on film.

Sidney and I waited around to get wrapped… at that point there was nothing more to do.  We were seen by Mollie and Courtenay standing there after Lola and Boyd left, but they didn’t give us the signal.  Man… so tired.  At that point it was something like 5:15am.  They were moving the cameras to one final position:  a closeup of Rosamund dropping the money belt.  It was one camera positioned at her feet.  She jumped and a prop guy would drop the belt.  David had them do it again and again and again without even cutting.

At around 5:30am he finally called it a wrap, and I got the hell out of there.  I rode my bike back to base camp, checked out with Ryan, changed, and returned my colors to Tom.  As I walked back to where my bike was parked, I ran into Paul, who stopped me.

A brief backstory:  Saturday morning I received a call from Tom at the casting company.  He dropped a bomb on me.  He said they were thinking of using me as a stand-in for… Neil Patrick Harris.  That’s right, the story has now come full circle.  I was once again in the running for standing in for NPH!  I told him HELL YES.

“Have you been having fun working as a stand-in so far?”

“Oh man, how do I answer that question?  It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done!”

“Wow man, that’s great!  What’s your story?” he asked.

“Well… I’m a senior Computer Science student headed for a career as a software developer, but then this came along, and I’m just trying to make the most of it, you know?”

“Oh, we’re not fucking up your school, are we?”

Heh, probably not.  “No man, I’m cool with most of my professors, and I turned in all my work for this week early, so it’s all good.”

“Great.  Well I need to talk to Paul but I’ll be giving you a call back with more information.”  Haha!

So after working all night and seeing Paul around the set, wondering if Tom from casting had talked to him yet, here we were face to face.  “So Zach, are you coming back to work with us Monday?”

Ahahahahaaa!!!  “I don’t know.  Am I coming back??”

“Well I know we’d love to have you back.  Did Tom say anything about your hair?”

“Yea, he said I’d need a shave and a haircut.  It’s no problem.  They’re just accessories.”

“Ok,” Paul said.  “Well depending on who you ask, Neil is about six feet tall, and he only works four days.  It would be Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and one day in October which we still need to work out.  I’d like to keep you here since we know you already, but you still need to go to the line-up on Monday.”

“You got it.  I’m there.”

“Good.  Tom will call you with a time.  And if you don’t get picked, maybe we can get you back as a P.A. for a few days and get you some more work.”  Aww, thanks Paul!

I have talked to the guy exactly as many times as I have detailed on this blog.  But he is, like everyone else I run into around the set, awesome as hell.  Super cool, super nice… oh hell, you know this could all just be confirmation bias.

As I rode home I could see the first inklings of the sunrise on the eastern horizon.  When I got home I covered the bedroom windows with blankets and, despite my elevated heart rate from the ride, fell right to sleep.  Right now I don’t know if I’ll still be working for Gone Girl or if my moment in the sunshine is over, but I know I’m going to that interview tomorrow with a freshly shaven baby face (the haircut is only necessary if I’m hired again).  Hopefully I’ll have more to tell here soon.

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Gone Girl day off: Playing catch-up

Yesterday (Friday) I returned to my normal schedule.  Planetary Exploration class at 10am, lab assistant hours at 11, then work at MedAssets until 5.  Quite a different day than working with the movie production crew from 6am to 7pm.  Even though 20th Century Fox will pay me for all those hours, it was really like being on vacation for a week.  It was hard to take my mind off of everything that happened and concentrate on school and work.

But it turned out that being back in the real world wasn’t so bad after all.  The lab turned out to be canceled, and at MedAssets, the guys invited me to join them for a few games of 2v2 ping-pong in the break room, then we all walked over to Simply Swirled.  Don’t think I don’t see how spoiled I am at the moment.  I’m fully aware.  Novelty has followed me closely these last few days.

Speaking of novelty, I witnessed a motorcycle accident yesterday too.  Driving down Sprigg St. in the rain, braking down a hill while approaching a stop light, I heard some commotion behind me.  I looked in the rear view mirror and a dude and his motorcycle were sliding down the hill.  He wasn’t wearing a helmet… not such a good idea guy, especially if you’re going to be hitting pavement like that.  I don’t know what caused him to go down; if he was hit by the car behind him, or if his front wheel went out from under him, or what… but he seemed ok.  He got right up and pulled his machine out of the path of the cars behind him.  Someone pulled over to check on him as the light turned green and we all continued on our way.

There are many stories from this week that I’ve forgotten to tell, and a few that I could elaborate further on.  Here are some that have been on my mind this morning:

During the first day of shooting the pool scene (day 3), someone who counted said we did 33 takes from the angle that shows Lola climbing down the ladder into the pool.  The scene ends after she swims about 20 feet.  Every time she got out of the pool, four ladies from hair & makeup swarmed her with towels to dry her off.  They had to dry her bikini too, so they were all up in her business.  And sometimes while they were doing that Fincher would come up and talk with Lola about different things he wanted to see.  It was amazing to watch.  Of course everyone was completely professional – this is just how it’s done.  It’s the only way to do it.

Lola enters the scene wearing a pair of cutoff jean shorts over her bikini bottom, and despite all the effort from the hair and makeup ladies, residual dampness in her suit would seep into the shorts over the course of a few takes.  So there was a 5th lady running a circuit between the set and one of the cabins.  They had two identical cutoff shorts.  When one was too wet, the lady would run with them to the cabin to dry them off with a hair dryer.  She would run back out a few minutes later and exchange them with the newly wet pair, then run back to the cabin and dry those.  This went on for the entire time spent shooting that scene, which was several hours.

Remember that pair of kids from the first day that sat around all day and never got called out?  The ones who were crushed?  I learned a little about the grandma figure that spent all her time with them.  Her name is Cricket and she is actually a teacher hired by 20th Century Fox to both entertain and tutor kids that have to miss school to be in the production.  That’s pretty cool that they do that.  It is a bigger deal than you would think to get kids out of school for a movie (well, everything is a bigger deal than you would think, so it makes sense).  That first morning Dave the Production Manager spent hours on the phone with their school district trying to find the person who could sign off on some sort of permission for the kids to miss school.  They can’t simply skip it like I did.

But back to the kids.  They were called back to come in as extras on Wednesday.  That’s great!  Maybe this time they’d get to do something on the set.  I saw them hanging around the outdoor extras holding area for most of the morning, and I heard that they did put the little girl in the pool scene with a beach ball.  But when I came in after Boyd was wrapped that day, I saw them signing out and the dad was consoling his son.  He apparently got passed over a second time.  It was brutal.  The kid seemed to handle it better this time though, inquiring about the fact that they still got to keep their pay…

Tuesday, the day after I got 4 hours of sleep, Ryan was teasing me about being so tired.  “What was so important that it had you stay up so late last night?”


“Homework?  What homework?”

“Data Communications.”

“What’s that?”

Hmm, how to explain in one short sentence… “…it has to do with the protocols and data structures used to send data over the internet.”

“That’s cool.  What are you studying?”

“Computer Science.”

“Computer Science.  What’s that, like Java?”

HAHAHA!!  “Yea,” I laughed, “like Java.”

We started talking movies, and I talked about how I found it funny watching the ways Hollywood misrepresented or misunderstood technology.  “I know it’s fiction, and they’re just depicting a story, but damn.  It might be worse on T.V. though.  There are some notoriously bad scenes from shows like N.C.I.S.  Oh, remember Independence Day?  The big plan to upload a computer virus to the alien mothership?  It would never work like that.”

“Hey, how do you know what the alien computers are like?”  Haha, ok.  An acceptable answer from someone who hasn’t studied computer architecture.  It has more to do with the effectively zero probability that code compiled on the earthlings’ computers would work on the computers of interstellar aliens.  Who knows if they even use a binary system, or Von Neumann architecture, or even solid-state electronics?  What if their computers are biological, or quantum?  Even if they used solid-state silicon-based electronics, it’s unlikely that Intel has made it to their planet to help build in the compatibility necessary for their chips to run x86 code.

Anyway… “that was an awesome movie though,” I said.  “It came out when I was in 6th grade and was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.”

“Yea, those over-the-top blockbuster movies were great,”  Ryan said.  “The problem is that we let them get away with it, and now they won’t quit making them.”  Touché.

That’s all I’ve got for now.  Hopefully I’ll remember some other ones I can tell.  I got called a while ago with my final call time to work as Boyd’s stand-in.  I report in at 5:12pm tonight and am scheduled to work until around midnight.  For now I need to finish getting caught up with school and grade this pile of 75 CS155 labs.

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Gone Girl day 4: Winding down

Last night I attempted to watch Fight Club in my hotel room.  I rented it on Amazon Prime for $3 and got through about 20 minutes of it before Erika skyped me.  That lasted almost an hour, and then it was time to watch her cousin Emily on the MTV Challenge.  So I never finished it, but I did have a good time paying most of my attention to the background and imagining what it was like on the set when they shot it; how Fincher probably micromanaged everything and meticulously crafted the scenes after 40 takes that took all day.  I also noticed a 311 poster over Tyler’s shoulder when he and Marla are in the thrift store selling the clothes she stole from the laundromat.  That was cool.

I had left that day with a call time of 7:30 for the next morning.  Well, I got a call from Ryan around 8:45pm saying that my call time had been shifted to 6:00am.  That meant 6:00 pickup in front of the hotel.  Ok, no big deal.  I got up at 5:10, skipped the shower so I’d have second-day hair that would more closely match Boyd’s, and headed downstairs at 5:40.  I also checked out of the hotel.  Rumor had it that we would be staying an extra day to finish filming at the park Friday, but as of that moment my room was not covered for another night.

The 6am van crew consisted of me, Sidney, Jody, and the medic.  Yarden greeted us as we loaded up, then sent us on our way at 6:03.  We arrived at the park just as the sun was coming up.

I had a bounce in my step today.  I was getting used to the whole process.  I stood in line at check-in, got my daily voucher / W-4 forms from Ryan, and stashed my backpack.  I asked him if I needed to hang out or go ahead and go down to Tom’s cabin.  He said I had time to eat, but I should go ahead and go down there asap.

I grabbed a quick plate of food – 1 biscuit with gravy, a spoon of hash browns, and 2 strips of bacon.  I sat down across from a girl who I chatted with while I wolfed it down.  She was an extra that had been there yesterday but hadn’t gotten called out.  Bummer.  Her friend that was there with her yesterday was called and put on the set during the pool scene.  She said she is a theater major at SEMO and was having doubts about the film side of acting after hearing about the 33 takes her friend did.  I told her I thought both sides of the discipline had good things about them.  No time to elaborate though… it was going on 6:40.

I went down to the cabin and met Tom at the door.  Same wardrobe as yesterday.  That meant we probably weren’t doing the scene where Jeff/Greta break into Amy’s cabin… at least not at first.  No, we were back at the pool.

The lighting, electrical, and camera crews were hard at work setting up their gear.  Since the sun was low in the sky they had to recreate the midday look from yesterday’s filming.  They put a pair of mega lights up on a crane shining down and one behind Boyd’s position.  They did some tree trimming and fitted that light with some branches in front of and around it.  Then they placed all sorts of light shields and reflectors to bounce it all around in just the right way.  The lighting discipline is a work of art in itself.

David showed up and Courteney called me up to Boyd’s position on the wall.  I stood there for about an hour while he set up the camera angles he wanted (this time for a close-up of Boyd) and the lighting guys finished doing their thing.  Boyd showed up around 7:40 and we chatted for a bit.  He said he lives in New York and wastes money on an apartment in L.A.  I asked how he was cast in this movie and he said he made an audition tape and sent it in.  To whom I don’t know.  It was time to roll.  “Thanks bud,” he said as he tagged me out.

I went and grabbed a cup of coffee and a banana from the concessions cart while they started filming.  I heard the sound guy say, “186 81” into his mic.  This was scene 186… and we were starting the day on take 81.

Another reason Fincher’s takes climb so high is that he likes to put both cameras on one actor and do a bunch, then change the cameras and put them on another actor and do a bunch.  Like I’ve said a few times already, he is meticulous with his shot composition and plays with his angles all the way.  Luckily he got what he wanted from Boyd (and Lola walking in from off-camera to get into the pool) in a dozen or so takes.  We moved on to a new scene around 10:00.

While they were moving all the equipment over to the cabin where the next scene would be filmed, I heard Jason tell Boyd that they were “putting [him] on ice.”  I guessed that meant they weren’t filming the break-in scene today?  Maybe I would be coming back Friday after all.  I wasn’t needed on the set any more though.  But I didn’t want to leave!

After they cut the last scene no one told me to head back to the lodge like they usually did so I decided to be sneaky.  I went and sat on a bench far out of the way of any crew and watched them set up.  Yarden came up a few minutes later… I thought I was busted but he just wanted me to run an errand for Sidney.  She was on set but still in her swimsuit with a bathrobe over it.  She needed her clothes but couldn’t leave her position.  So I ran back to the lodge and grabbed them for her.  I brought them down and passed them to her and she ran in the cabin, changed, came back out, and asked me to hold on to her robe.  I talked to her for a minute until once again, my arch nemesis appeared–Prop Guy, guardian of the actors’ chairs.

“Hey man, what are you doing here?”

“Uh… nothing, I guess.  I just ran to get her clothes for her.”

“Alright, well you need to clear out cause you’re on the set.”

“Ok.”  I walked around the back side of the cabin so’s not to walk through the camera area.  When I came around the other side, the guy came up to meet me again.

“Do you know why I asked you to move?”

“Cause I wasn’t supposed to be there.”

“Yea, and it’s just in case Fincher all the sudden was ready to roll and wouldn’t have to yell ‘CLEAR THE FUCKIN SET!'”  The guy said it in such a way that I knew he didn’t mean it harshly.  He was doing us all a favor.

“Thanks man; I need all the clues I can get around here.”

With that I retreated back to my bench and sat watching the filming for a while.  I eventually moved up behind the sound guy where Boyd was hanging out and watched Rosamund and Lola run the same lines dozens of times.

There were two extras they were running in the background; two old men with fishing poles and a tackle box that walked across the frame as Rosamund exited.  At one point I saw Jody, who was standing in front of me, turn around and point in their direction.  I looked over and there was a third guy who had come out of nowhere and wandered into the shot.  No one could get his attention to get him to stay off camera and he walked right across with the two extras.

We stayed there until about 1:00.  Jody entertained herself by doing some yoga and light gymnastics on the lawn.  I entertained myself by watching the master at work carving his movie out of the actors.  Then we broke for lunch.

During lunch we heard Jason tell Lola and Boyd that they were wrapped for the day and could head to Cape, which meant a similar fate was in store for us.  Sidney pointed out that the break-in scene in the sides was marked STAGE, so they will be filming that in L.A.  Ryan wrapped us at 1:59, right before we started earning overtime pay.  The van took us back to the hotel, and with that, it was all over.

Mostly over.  There is one more scene they are shooting in Cape on Saturday that I will stand in for.  I’m off tomorrow to rejoin reality.  I will probably do another post anyway and fill in some stories I forgot over these last few days.  Then of course I will write about what goes on Saturday.

  • stood in on the pool scene again
  • got kicked off the set by Prop Guy (we’re cool though… I think…)
  • watched more movie-making
  • wrapped early and came home
  • Saturday is my last day to work on set in Cape
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Gone Girl day 3: No juries, just fire

Today was a good day.  I woke up with a full night’s sleep and went down to the van ready to rock.

When I got to base camp Ryan motioned me over right away.  “Go to cabin 25 to see Tom about your colors.”  On my way down to the cabin I crossed paths with Yarden.

“Hey Zach, here are you sides,” he said as he handed me the day’s schedule and script pages.  “Head to cabin 27.”  27?  Ok.

I walked in to 27 to see Sidney stepping into another room to change.  One of the ladies from wardrobe was there, but no Tom.  I asked if she knew where he was.  In hindsight I should have just ran back to 25.  She asked into her radio, “Tom, what’s your 20?  I have Boyd’s stand-in here looking for you.”

He answered back, “go to 2 please.”  She switched her radio to channel 2, one of the “talk” channels where it’s acceptable to have extended back and forth discussion.  “Apparently no one is listening this morning.  I told him to go to 25.  Send him there please.”  Fuck.  YARDEN!

I ran over to cabin 25.  The door was locked, but there was a hangar rack out front with my colors from the day before on it, plus an awesome hat to go with it.  I grabbed the hangar and decided to just change right there.  I got as far as changing my shirt when Tom walked up.

“Hey Tom, sorry… I saw Yarden on the way down here and he told me to go to 27.”

“No worries man.  You can go inside to change your shorts if you want.”  He unlocked the door and I went in and changed.  Sidney took my picture for me when I came out.



There you see me in front of the pool house where we filmed for about eight hours today.  One pool scene… Fincher does it again!  I think I’m beginning to see what he’s doing.  The actors and shots he composes are a resource, and he mines as much of it as he can to give him a stockpile from which he can assemble the highest quality final product possible.  Of course it is causing more and more scheduling issues… more on that later.

So finally I was there to see the actors rehearse and actually stand-in full blast.  Boyd showed up wearing the exact same outfit and I watched him walk down that wall and deliver a couple lines, then walk away.  I also met Jason, another 2nd A.D. brought in to help out.  He previously worked on Captain America… pretty cool.

After watching Boyd rehearse a couple times it was time for second team to move in.  First I stepped onto his mark where he delivers his lines.  David set up the cameras with Jody and Sidney in the foreground by the pool, and me in the background behind the wall.  He told me to move to the right a foot or so, and then a P. A. came out and marked the position with a sand bag.  When the shot was set up, we did one run through of the scene.  Here I had a dilemma.  This was the first time I was delivering lines from the script and I had two conflicting ideas:  Monday when I asked Ryan what was expected of me, he made it clear that I was not there to act, just to go through the motions.  JEFF has two lines in the script, yet Boyd ad-libbed a 3rd as he walked away.  To me ad-libbing is acting, so I decided at the last moment to simply stick with the script and recite the two lines, then exit stage left.  But when I got off camera Jason said, “Hey, Boyd had an exit line.”

Hell.  “He was ad-libbing that… I didn’t know if I was supposed to do that or not…”  WEAK!  No chance to redeem myself either.  It was time to roll.  And thus we commenced 5 hours of running that one scene from the same camera angles.  Jason asked me if I could help him lock an area down though, which meant some P.A. work.  Ok, cool.  Yarden gave me a radio and I headed off to lock down a parking lot that only had a few Paramount trucks in it.  Of course one of the drivers got out of his truck and slammed the door shut right in the middle of a shot, sending one of the other P.A.s running out to us and making sure I got onto them.  Other than that it was uneventful.  45 minutes or so later I heard them call for second team to be on standby over the radio, so I went running back to the set to watch the rest of the shoot.

Jeff smokes as he walks by, so Boyd went through at least 50 prop cigarettes during the morning and early afternoon.  I almost felt worse for Rosamund though, who took a bite of a Kit-Kat every take.  I heard that she ate the first few, then started spitting it out after every cut.

Most of the time I watched Lola do her entrance, extras exit, and Boyd do his lines from behind the wall while just standing around being mostly useless.  Sometimes I sat on the ground.  All day there were three chairs set up underneath a pop-up canopy.  There were two movie-studio style chairs and a gravity chair.  Every now and then between takes Boyd sat in a studio chair but other than that they went unused.  At one point I thought, “screw it, no one is sitting in these chairs.  I’m lounging.”  So I laid back in the gravity chair while reading ahead in the sides.

It was then when a guy from the prop department walked up and asked, “hey, have you been doing this long?”

“No, it’s my first time.”

“Well that’s Rosamund’s personal chair.  So you should get up.”

“Shit, ok.  Sorry.  Good to know…”  Feeling like a fool, I looked around.  There wasn’t anyone else there except a couple people from makeup, one of whom follows Rosamund around with a makeup utility belt at all times.  “Sorry!” I said to them.

They kind of laughed, and Kate, Rosamund’s utility belt lady, said “don’t worry, we don’t mind.  And I don’t think Rosamund would either.  The Props department is in charge of these.  If I were to grab this chair and just move it a couple feet they would come yell at me too.  Everything is very compartmentalized.”  Cool.

We went to lunch on time today at 2:00.  30 minutes later we were back out to do the same scene, but this time with the cameras set up on the other side of the actors.  Boyd was not on camera in those shots but performed his lines from behind camera anyway.  I took the opportunity to sit on set finally within full view of the whole crew + actors and watch the entire process.  I enjoyed it thoroughly for three hours.  Even though it was more of the same scene it was still awesome to watch.

While they were setting up there was a prop beach ball on set that a prop guy had just stuck to the concrete with some kind of putty or something.  David said, “Can we move the beach ball to the right please?”  The guy ran out and unstuck it.  “Ok, put it where your feet are.  No, back up and put it where your feet just were.  Now rotate it.  Keep rotating.  I don’t want to see blue or red, just yellow.  Now turn it clockwise.  That’s it.  If it’s gonna roll, stick it down somehow.”  Then the prop guy went to work trying to remove the sticky putty and… it was just taking way too long.

I was sitting there like, “come on dude, whip out a roll of tape or something!  Damn!”

So then he said, “I need to run and get more [sticky substance], I’m sorry sir.”  And the dude ran off set.

Unfortunately David was ready to roll, and right when the guy came running back with a roll of some kind of putty tape, David said, “ok the beach ball isn’t going to work.  Take it off camera.”

After a million takes they finished filming and started moving to a dusk scene involving Rosamund only.  They said good night to Boyd and Lola, and wrapped us.  So ended a pretty good day being as close as I’ve been so far to David Fincher’s movie building process.

Oh yea, about the schedule.  I mentioned it changes every day… well on the van ride back the driver told us that they’re extending the schedule to include shooting here Friday as well.  I may be working an extra day… but of course no one in production has said anything to me.  Guess I’ll find out tomorrow!


  • temping as a P. A.
  • recited some lines in front of Fincher
  • watched dozens of takes on set
  • scolded for accidentally sitting in Rosamund’s personal chair
  • might be here an extra day
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