Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Secret Life of Composer John Williams

From Fortress of Solitude: West Coast!
Taking a little trip in the time machine, back to around 2008, when I was bored off of my butt working for a retail establishment that's now dead and gone, when I would spend a hefty chunck of time sitting at my desk, with a company memo flipped over with pencil in hand. Idle hands, you know what happens.

As I've said before, I've always been a fan of John Williams. His soundtrack for Star Wars was the first of over 600 or 700 soundtracks that I now own-- maybe he wasn't the first film composer, but he's the one who started it all for me.

During one of these bored to death sentences, I pondered what life might not actually be for him, but what I certainly thought it should be: spending all day walking around in a bathrobe, hair dishevelled, with a hot Spanish house maid and numerous nubile ladies coming and going at a merciless pace. I imagined a rivalry between himself and fellow film composer Jerry Goldsmith, as well as a deep but private resentment for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, whose films provided him with both the success he craved and the commercialization that he felt destroyed any attempt at a career as a serious composer. Whew.

Here is the very first cartoon I did about him, playing the part of my evil version of the normally nice and gratious John Williams.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Model Madness: The Vulcan Shuttle Surak!

Vulcan "Surak" Shuttle Model Kit

So, we can all be mature Star Trek fans now, even if as people we are not. Let's be honest: Star Trek: The Motion Picture was flawed, it was a bit of a bummer. The special effects were awesome, but the staging of the scenes was too old-fashioned, the acting was too "TV," and of course the story was something Trekkies had already seen in the episode "The Changeling." Actually, the story didn't even exist-- it didn't really appear until the next film!

But as said before, you can't fault the effects. Heck, they're what holds the movie together! The model of the Enterprise was the real star of the show, turning in the best performance. The rest of the model work was awesome as well, and the Surak, the shuttle that Spock uses to dock with the Enterprise in deep space, was no exception. Naturally, when I was walking down the street and this kit caught my eye in the local hobby store, I KNEW that I'd have to throw down some bones to get it.

ASSEMBLY--
This model consisted of about 9 pieces, so it went together in one sitting. Poof!

It goes without saying, though, that all Star Trek kits suffer from "nacelle drift," the annoying phenomenon of misbehaving, sagging, crooked nacelles. No matter what, they're never really perfect.

PAINT--
Ah, this is where it gets interesting. The kit came in a muave color (no kidding), and this was promoted in the instructions as being the accurate hue for the shuttle. I popped in the actual movie and studied still frame captures, and of course be it from the chemical optical compositing process at the time, or from the lighting (or lack of it) in the model's shots, the kit did NOT look pinkish. I've seen pics of the screen model, and they do have a pink tint to them, but... on screen, it did not look pink.

Therefore, I knew what I'd have to do: simply paint it to look like what I believed the color of the ship to be. As I worked around with paints, trying to hit it right, I thought about getting a hue that would reflect the ship's origin. Vulcan is supposed to be a dry, dusty, desert-like planet. I decided to make the ship communicate that, to look "hot" and dry, and once the decals were applied, I knew I'd done well.

DECALS (or, How I Stared into the Mouth of Madness)--
One of the selling points of this kit over its previous 1979 release was the decals. Brother, did they not disappoint. There were a plethora of decals, letting the builder either make the kit the Surak, as in the film, or even other Vulcan shuttles and even a Federation version!

This model, not even a foot long, came with enough decals to coat the ENTIRE surface of the kit, sans the warp grids. There were over ONE HUNDRED decals for this small kit, and it ended up taking me over TWO WEEKS to complete the decal application. Friends, there was even a point when I had to apply a clear gloss coat over the decals... so I could proceed with the next, overlaying decals! It really was almost too much. To top it all off, most of the decals did not fit their destinations, and had to be meticulously trimmed to fit! AAGGH!

But like child-birthing pains, once this baby was born and was part of the "pantheon" of models in the Fortress, those decal agonies were a thing of the past. Spock would have approved of this banishment of the emotion of exasperation.

Click on the image at the beginning of this post to take a tour of my completed Surak model!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Model Madness: AMT/ERTL U.S.S. Enterprise B!

Well, I never really cared too much for the movie Star Trek Generations.  Didn't it seem anti-climactic, the way that Kirk died? To be honest, the Next Gen movies didn't work for me as a whole.  But hey, there have been many a lousy movie with a great soundtrack, and likewise many an "okay" movie that has had its fair share of cool merchandise.

This film was one of those.  The Enterprise B, seen at the beginning of the film (if memory serves me), and initially the location for Kirk's "death," owes much to the Excelsior from the third Original Crew movie (actually, it IS the Excelsior with a little ridge horizontally bisecting the engineering hull).  It has that "let's take an actual boat, and squish a spaceship atop it, then paint it all white and kick it out of drydock" look.  Come to think of it, "squish" is just the right word, especially when this ship is view from the side.  It's as if the ship were made out of silly putty, and they went wild with horizontal manipulation.

Though the kit was sadly smaller than I'd hoped (18 inches), and was missing some details, it proved to be a mega-challenge to paint, for numerous reasons.  First of all, there's the forementioned size issue; small is always harder to paint.  But more than that, there was the issue of conflicting paint schemes presented in various resources.  For instance, if you consult the "Hanes Manual" for the Enterprise series of ships, you'll see that not only is the color represented as a more dead blue, but also the blue shapes atop the dish are TOTALLY different than what is seen in photos of the actual screen model from the Christie's auction in 2006.

Then again, by the time that auction was underway, the screen model had been renamed the U.S.S. Lakota, and who knows what else was changed! I believe you get the idea.

Assemblage was super easy, and the way the pylon-nacelle structure was set up, there was no way for there to be any "nacelle drift," as is common for ALL Star Trek models.

The paint process was the most time-consuming element.  I worked on and off with it for weeks.  The first step was to paint it with grey primer, then paint it an icey grey/blue color.  Next, I cut up some blue painter's tape into TINY rectangular shapes, and then applied them all over the ship in a random pattern. Next, I sprayed the kit white, let it dry, and then carefully picked off the formerly blue tape rectangles to reveal the blue/grey underneath.  The end result was a panelling effect which, if I could do it again, would have been better with the tape pieces being even smaller, to communicate scale.

Quite a bit of crepe tape was used on this kit, to outline the curved shapes and pinstriping for painting. The decals, while not completely hopeless, nevertheless when it came to the thin red pinstripes, was indeed a lost cause.  I had to cut narrow red strips of the tape in order to create the red trim seen on the pylon structure.

I salvaged a "U.S.S. Enterprise" tiny decal from the alternates from my Surak shuttle kit to place right below the shuttle bay's opening.  I think it fit perfectly!

I will say this: thanks to the angular design of the engineering hull and the multiple impulse engines, hanging this ship securely and at the angle I wanted it to be was a piece of cake!

I have found that always at the end of a project, you take a look at it and see something that didn't work out as well as you'd like.  That's why I always say to myself, "That's what next time is for."  Each time out, it's a new lesson learnedl And besides, it gives me an excuse to keep building these things!

Click on the image below to be taken to a series of pics of the latest completion from Jeff's "Fortress of Solitude: West Coast!!"
NCC-1701-B AMT/ERTL Kit build by Jeff Arnold
...Or just enjoy a quick slideshow!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Model Madness: AMT/ERTL Klingon Battlecruiser!

Okay, before we get started, you'll all need to access your 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition release of the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It's okay, I'll wait a moment.

Okay, now select track #3, "Klingon Battle." Press play. Adjust volume (although since you're probably reading this in your mind, you can crank it up big time. After all, we're talking about Klingons here) It might also be acceptable to select track #7 from the recent Retrograde records release of the Original Soundtrack to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. If you've got neither, well, now you know what to add to your Santa list.

This kit, which was the re-issue of the D-7 from The Motion Picture, came out in 1991, to coincide with the release of the final original crew film, The Undiscovered Country. I picked it up off of Ebay for a total of $15, and it was still sealed, so nothing was missing (unlike another recent Ebay misadventure that I'll tell you about later). Measuring out at a little over 15 inches long, its size was the main motivator for my buying it; I'd built the tiny 10-inch Polar Lights version, and had wanted one with better detail and size to hang up near my Enterprises. This kit did not disappoint.

As you peruse the pics, I think you'll see what I mean. The added, raised details on the wings and the "bulb" were more indicative of their appearance in the films, and provided me with the opportunity to have a lot of fun during the painting process.

Assembly
Just like the Polar Lights kit, this version was very easy to assemble. I could've lost the instructions and been fine. The only challenge was that the top curved piece that covers the top of the rear hull was not curved enough, and it did not want to meet with the corners of the underside! I ended up having to mega-glue it and then clamp it down for about THREE DAYS in order to get it to obey!

Paint
The fun part! After patching and sanding some rough spots where the nacelles meet the hull, as well as taking care of the seam on the "bulb," I sprayed grey Krylon primer, then added a coat of charcoal grey (which looked wicked, but too dark), then unevenly and loosely applied some more grey primer. I then began to paint the raised panelling a pewter grey, which added a greenish hue. Then, with a very tiny brush and a teeny tiny bit of bluish white, I painted the windows and various lights, using frame captures from The Motion Picture sequence for reference.

Decals
Ugh. Even though this kit only had 5 decals, they were evil. All of the raised surface details on the nacelles were not conducive to smooth decal application. I ended up having to put Future polish on those areas before applying the decals, which probably weren't going to stick well in the first place, considering that they were 20 years old!

I thought I was almost done when I looked at the rear underside of the ship and noticed, faintly, the raised outline of the Klingon Empire logo. Of couse, there was no decal; that would've made sense. So, I busted out the paint and brush, and hand-painted the logo. When it was done, looking all bright and fresh, I knew I'd have to beat it up. I normally don't like to do that with Star Trek models, but since it's a Klingon ship (which, according to Leonard Nimoy, can land) and has probably broken through many planets' atmospheres, I burned it a little. And besides, a Klingon ship should never look "bright and fresh." Then, I added some Krylon Flat Clear, which now seems to work better than the old Testor's Dull Cote, and I was done!

This kit will be suspended by my office's entrance, right next to my Enterprise D, and across the doorway from my tiny D-7. I'll just pretend that they're a little Klingon wolfpack, and the Polar Lights version is off in the distance. Yeah, forced perspective. The only perspective Klingons know.


First Post.... (sort of)

First of all, no, I have not been in jail.

Around the end of July, I decided to shut down my blog "The Fortress of Solitude: West Coast" for a myriad of reasons. Mainly, it was becoming a real burden for me; I started to feel like I was a local TV channel boss, constantly trying to come up with "new material" that would interest my "target audience." As you can imagine, it can get pretty laborious, coming up with something fun all of the time (this must be what it's like to be an "entertainer"). If something bad was going on, well, I couldn't do that on the blog.

Also, work was really starting to get to me. I've been doing a lot of training on my job, and I'd come home with a brain that was mush, and I just wanted to sit down in a chair and have everyone just shut their #*#@&@& mouths while I stared across the room. In short, I haven't been in any kind of mood for blogging, about anything.

I've been thinking over these last months how I might have a blog again, and what I'd do differently so that it will be fun and not a chore. I also looked back at what I had originally wanted my blog to be, before I hijacked it and made it go wrong. I'd created the original blog back when I was taking graphic design classes, trying in vain to get my B.A. in Art-Graphic Design (instead, I acquired a B.S. in ridiculous tuition hikes, a hopeless job market, and the reality that I had to find work real quick before my wife lost her job-- so you know what the B.S. stands for).

Of course, blogs should be a reflection of the blogger, and my old blog was just that, covering my interests as well as my hobbies. I'd been a member of the John Williams Fan Network, having been a life-long fan of his work (of course), and for goofs had been doodling cartoons of Williams while killing time in my old office. These tiny thumbnail drawings would end up in their forum, and I started to think, "Hey, I should make a home for these so newbies can check them out instead of rifing through tons of posts." And so the John Williams cartoons began their appearances in the blog.

Along with cartoons (not just those of Williams or the occasional Jerry Goldsmith), there was my sci-fi model building. Visitors to the old blog were to be plagued with laborious, gratuitous images of my most recent completions, presentations that were right there in league with the most lengthy of Star Trek: The Motion Picture's effects sequences.

There was a lot of other clutter in there, as I got lazy and let the blog become something else. It became less about my little creations. I looked back at 2008, and then looked at how it was, and knew that the time had come. It was time to simplify it, even down to the web address. "Musterpieces" (because it's just what I can muster) is a lot easier to time than "deathandlifeinthevalley," wouldn't you say? So that's a start.

I'm going to keep this new one simple, even down to it's graphics, with minimal fuss. It's gonna be a minimalist blog, a blue-collar blog. A blog that Bruce Springsteen might approve of. A one-car garage, single bathroom, no swimming pool blog. It'll just be what I'm up to, when I'm not beat down from my exhausting job. I accept now the reality that I'm not a television program director, and that there's about one million other spots on the web that can do that a million times better than I can.

But there's one thing they can't do better than me: they can't be me.

So, welcome back, former "Fortress of Solitude: West Coast"/deathandlifeinthevalley visitors! This is the new place!