engineer

tim   .

                                                      


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.   hunkin

                                                         


cartoonist

 

TRUST WILDLIFE?

Southwold is in an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and there are lots of nature reserves nearby. Many visitors to the pier also go to the many bird hides in the nearby reserves. So I’ve thought The Under The Pier Show should have its own bird hide for a long time. I started my first attempt in 2011, a satire on the global warming hysteria at the time. But I got bogged down both with my idea of using mirrors to create a perspective with great depth, but also losing interest in the subject matter. After three months it was a great relief to change direction and make a machine about the Somali Pirates (Pirate Practice) which turned out to be very popular. I kept the prototype bird hide cabin, because I liked the cozy space, hoping to find another idea to use it.


The prototype cabin from 2011, on the right with mirror for false perspective

This eventually came one evening in the pub chatting to my sister Tessa. She kindly said “I’ll give you my best idea. I think seagulls pity us because we can’t fly”. I immediately saw the potential as the theme for the hide so I invited her to collaborate on the story. She was generally hands off, but whenever I got stuck (which happened several times) she solved my problem very elegantly.

We both like seagulls. Their effortless grace flying and also their anarchic attitude to human activity. When on a ferry, they keep up seemingly never needing to flap their wings. And the way they patiently eye up a plate of fish and chips, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. They can often be very funny. And unlike rats and other species that have thrived in the modern world, seagulls don’t need to be secretive because at the slightest hint of trouble they can fly off.

Another attractive aspect of the seagull theme to me is the bizarre attitude we have to nature and ‘the environment’, regarding it as something outside ourselves to enjoy and be managed. Our attempts to ‘manage’ are often entertaining. My wife is part of an otter group, recording their activity in the local nature reserve. But this year otters were blamed for eating the marsh harrier chicks. How to decide what animals are good and what are bad...obviously a path to madness, but I’ve never been a fan of micromanagement.


Sweep having just saved me from a dangerous toilet roll

Also we forget that we are mammals ourselves and equally part of nature. Both Tessa and I live with cats who we adore. The intense bond and subtlety of communication constantly reminds me that I am a mammal myself. My cat Sweep comes to find me many times during the day and disrupts whatever I’m up to. But I appreciate being reminded that my work isn’t as crucial as I’d been thinking. So it comes quite naturally to me to look at the human race from an animal perspective. The research for every machine is always one of my favourite things about the process. This time spending time watching seagulls and sharing chips with them was particularly enjoyable. 

I started work by making the seagull presenters. I prefer to begin with manageable part while thinking about all the rest. I love the way seagulls’ necks shoot up when they spot something interesting so that seemed the most important movement. Not easy but its the sort of challenge I enjoy and I think it was worth the effort even though people may not notice it.


A seagull presenter

Pleased with my seagulls I then rapidly built the model scenery. I had the vague idea that the seagulls would start out in the country and end up in the city, partly inspired by a 1927 silent film called ‘Sunrise’ which left a strong impression. I love watching films so recently I’ve been experimenting with machines that tell stories instead of being games.


Sunrise 1927

‘Air B-n-B’ was my first attempt at a story. It’s now very popular and so has encouraged me to keep trying, but at the time the process of making it was quite frustrating. I really enjoyed collaborating with Paul Spooner, but once we had drawn out the storyboard and made the frames for each scene, it was impossible to change anything much. It reminded me of Walt Disney’s approach to animation, recording the sound track first and getting the animators to fit their work to it. No scope for happy accidents and unintentional jokes inspired by the process of drawing the animation frames. (the same as the difference between text based theatre and physical theatre).


The frames for the scenes in Air B-n-B

So this time I decided to invent and build individual scenes and leave the writing, to connect them all together, until the end. To me the words are infinitely more flexible than the visual jokes of the mechanisms.

The biggest technical problem was making each scene as thin as possible to keep the overall width of the machine down. The scenery flats were easy, but the pneumatic rams to lift them were wider and the scenes with electric motors and linkages were wider still. 


Scene videos

I started by buying a variety of thin geared model motors from Ebay to put on test. Some ran continuously under load for over a month so I started using them, but they looked so plasticy I didn’t really trust them. Later I found a better made motor with all metal gears and swapped over all the plastic ones. Generally I find the cheap components from China are well made, but often with a really frustrating design flaw. The weak link on my little metal geared motors was the push fit of the first spur gear to the motor shaft – the gear just slips off (mendable though fiddly with high strength Loctite). The weak link of the other geared motor I used was the springs holding the brushes on the commutator. Bent at slightly the wrong angle the brushes could dig into the gaps between the commutator segments preventing the motor from running backwards. Really annoying but also not impossible to fix.

After a few months there was so many scenes it started to get really hard to access the ones in the middle. I seriously thought of abandoning them all and doing it all on the video screen at the back as stop motion animation. But in the end I kept going because I prefer making fiddly mechanisms to fiddly stop motion animation. Deciding I had to make everything easier to access, I added draw slides so each scene could be pulled up for maintenance. I also mounted the frame on wheels so its now a cart which can be pulled out from the machine to get at the scenes from all angles. Towards the end of the build when the scenes all had to come in and out to be painted and wired up it was satisfyingly that everything was finally easy to get at!


The cart and all the scenes squashed together



Side view

Making the 33 seagulls for the finale was fun. They were carved and sanded from blocks of PU foam. The beaks are a higher density foam to retain the detail. Making one didn’t take long, but all 33 kept Bill and me busy for several days. 


Seagulls cut and sanded from roof insulation foam, with high density foam for the beaks

Once installed I found the noise of the trapdoor motor really annoying. The cabin structure acts as a sounding board. I quite often have this problem but this time it was particularly difficult to solve. The only solution would have been to replace the motor with a pneumatic ram - a major job at this late stage - so I decided to write the sound track round it instead.

I didn’t start the sound track until a few weeks before it went on the pier. I’d thought I’d do a rough version myself and then get Steve, an actor I enjoy working with, to record the final version. I’d done this with Air B-n-B but during the final edit I preferred my own bed bug voices (recorded one evening after a couple of beers) to Steve’s more polished version. Once installed to my amazement several people independently commented how much they liked the bed bug voices. This gave me the confidence to have a go at being the seagulls myself. I got into role, again after a beer or two, by improvising as a seagull – I found it came quite naturally to me. The final seagull recordings have the pitch raised and are distorted a bit – I like playing with Audition, the Adobe sound program.

The evening before the machine left my workshop for the pier I invited some friends over. It was only then, while they sat inside, that listening to my seagulls I realised the seagulls are actually saying just about what I think of our crazy world myself. I haven't included a video of the finished experience in this post because its so much better to experience the real thing without having first seen a video of it.

 

 

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