Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Tron Costumes Part 4: Identity Discs

Part 1: Concept
Part 2: Garment Construction
Part 3: Electronics

So all of the credit for the amazing discs goes to our Dad, who made them completely from scratch and did an incredible job.

Initially, we had looked into buying discs, but the only things we could find online were flimsy foam things that didn't light up and were only painted on one side anyway.  Our Dad is a very talented wood turner and it struck me that the discs were something he might be able to help us with.

What followed was a LOT of emails that went back and forth as we all discussed how these things should be designed and how to make them functional.  Really, Dad is the one who should narrate this process, which I would be happy to add to this post, Dad, if you want to write anything.  But for the time being I have lots of pictures that Dad sent us during the process!

It looks like he's making the groove for the LED lights to go here
See?  There they are

It seems like to took forever for the LED lights to come

He colored epoxy with blue paint pearls and poured it
into the groove and wrapped it all with duct (duck?) tape

Here are the interior grooves with epoxy poured in.

Making the inside bevel

And the outside bevel
Look at those beautiful angles
Adding the beautiful detailing

The back of the discs are removable, and you can see inside he has 8 AA batteries lined up providing power to the LED lights.  You can see the switch below.

Here are some different views and lightings as Dad was playing around with his amazing creations.  You can see that even outdoors you can still see that they're lit up.

Here's the back of the disc after being painted black
One concern was how long would these last being lit up?  Dad did some trials to see how long they could stay on and still offer a glow.  I think he gave up around 32 hours when they were still going strong (is that right, Dad?).  Anyway, ridiculously long.  Adam and I haven't even changed the batteries yet and we wore these around all day and night.

At this point in the disc process we started trying to figure out a good way to get these on our backs.  Many more emails went back and forth, and we decided that we wanted an actual piece to mount these on.  Dad came up with a really beautiful design, and the part that I really like is how ingeniously simple they go together.  Dad used rare earth magnets - four on the back of the disc, and four in the "back rack."  Rare earth magnets work really well until you slide them away from each other, then they come apart really easily.  We didn't want gravity to do the sliding for us, so the back rack holds the disc in place and prevents gravity from making the disc slide down.  Then we just twist the disc a little on the rack and -poof- off it comes.  Fabulous.

Dad created this pocket in the back of the back rack where I put the 8 AA batteries that lit up our whole costumes.  I had the entire costumes - jackets and pants/skirt wired into this battery pack.  I kind of like that the identity disc sort of powers us.  

Here's how the disc and back rack fit together
Dad glued velcro onto the back of the back racks, and then I glued and stitched (mostly around the edges) the matching velcro onto the back of our costumes.

Here's how they looked on the costumes:

Sorry the disc is sideways, Dad.
And here's us at the convention:

These discs got a LOT of attention at the convention, everyone wanted to look at them and hold them, and most people assumed we had bought them.  You should have seen the looks I got from people when I told them our Dad had made them from epoxy and wood.  They are pretty amazing, and the whole time I was working on the costumes I was motivated to try to make the costumes live up to how great the discs were!  I think they turned out pretty awesome.

Thanks, Dad!!  You're the best.

P.S. I might do one more post where I talk about some of the smaller details and about the cool stuff the costumes can do, and about how the day went when we actually wore the costumes.

Tron Costumes Part 3: Electronics, or how Adam and I learn a marketable skill that we never want to use ever again

Here's part 1.
And part 2.

*This part gets really detailed because I'm putting everything I learned out there for anyone who comes along in the future wanting to do this.  I saw some Tron costume guides online that I sure wish had been more detailed.  If you're not here to learn how to do this, just read on and be in awe of how much work we had to do! ;)

So let me do a little 'splaining about this EL tape we were using.  It didn't come in custom pieces.  They only sold it to us in three-foot strips, so if I only needed a piece that was six inches long, I had to cut it off of a long strip and then create a custom connection on the ends.  Below is a picture of the back of an EL strip.  You can see there is a large gray section - that gray stuff is the material that lights up.  On the right you can see there is a tiiiiny strip of gray that runs down the entire right side, and they are separated by a white line.  It might be easier to see lower down.  In order for the strip to light up, both the large and the small gray strips need to have power running to them, and they need to stay separated!

I read online that we could connect two cut pieces of EL tape by taping copper tape along the gray areas.  This turned out to be a really weak connection.  If you waved the strip back and forth the connection would short out - and it's probably because the EL tape we were using had such a tiny strip of gray to work with.  Copper tape probably works great with split EL tape which has two equal sized gray strips to work with, but we were using parallel EL tape which has that tiny gray strip on one side.  (The piece that is pictured above actually works great, but it's the only strip we were ever successful with using the copper tape, and we experimented a lot.)

So we needed an alternative to copper tape.  I went to our EL supplier's website and it turns out they have these "connectors" you can use.  There's a fuzzy video of a guy working at a table showing you how to do this, but because you can't really see what he's doing you sort of just have to go off of what he's saying.  Also I'm pretty sure he's using split EL tape so it's probably easier.  Anyway, I'll show you below how we did our connections and if there's anyone out there who knows a better way of doing it please feel free to comment.

Okay, so these are crimp connectors:

And this is a female "EZ" connector on the right (the boxy black thing) and the two open wires on the left:

Adam would cut away some of the black stuff so he had more wire to work with

You have to solder the crimp connectors to the wires of the EZ connector.  It ends up looking something like this:

See how there's silver gunk on the left side now?  That's the crimp connector attached.

Soldering was Adam's job.

There's a little groove on the back of a crimp connector.  You lay the wire down in the groove, and then melt solder over them both to connect them.  It sounds much easier than it is, Adam can tell you.  He probably soldered around 200 of these little connections.

Once things were soldered, then it was my job to clamp the connections.  The sharp pointy parts of the crimp connector have to go through the EL tape, specifically making contact with the gray stuff that lights up (so that electricity can pass from one through to the other).

The instructions on the left are supposed to be done first.  Then top to bottom.
This is all harder than it looks.  The crimp connectors are actually slightly wider than the thin gray strip on the right (I know it looks green in this picture.  I'm calling it gray), so when I tried to clamp the connector through, sometimes I'd miss the strip completely.  It became an art nailing that tiny sliver right on the money.

This is where the biggest problems came for us on the day we wore our costumes.  You'll noticed in the photos, small sections of our costume weren't lit up.  It's because of these little guys right here.  Sometimes the crimp connectors just disconnected from the gray stuff, even underneath all of the hot glue.

We went back to our hotel in the afternoon after wearing our costumes around for most of the morning.  When I took off our jackets, I noticed that some of the wires had just been bent so many times from us walking around that they snapped.  If you look in the picture above, I should have actually taken the hot glue up higher, right onto the black covering of the wires.  Where the black covering stopped and the bare wires begin is where we had a lot of breaks.  We broke out the ol' soldering iron right there in the hotel room and fixed a lot of this stuff, and we were back on our way that night with almost everything restored.  But it was pretty stressful.

Anyway, most of the time I'd do a female wire in one end and a male wire going out the other end, and my lines ended up looking like this (except usually much longer):

I cut slits in the jackets and pushed the wires through, so all of the wiring (and connectors and hot glue and stuff) are on the inside of the costume, the uninterrupted EL tape is the only thing on the outside of the costumes.  This technique gave me a little trouble later on, I'll talk more about it later.

So once we got all of this figured out, I realized that I needed to map out the wiring on the entire costumes, so I would know how many connectors we would need to solder and supplies to order and all those details.  Here's what that looked like:

I know most of it probably doesn't make sense, but all of the Ms are where I figured I would need a Male connector, the Fs are all female connectors, and Xs are where the lines end.

I also realized that I needed to know how long each strip of EL tape needed to be, so I measured all of the masking tape on our costumes and marked it down, and then tried to map all of those measurements out on 3-foot strips so I would know how many strips to order from the website (we inevitably needed to order more, but it was good to have an idea of what we needed to begin with):

You can see that I needed to label each individual strip of EL tape, I started with A and went all the way through the alphabet, finally ending with HH I think.  Then when we got the tape I had to cut all of those pieces and label them, which you can see below:

Then I had the lengthy job of clamping in all of those connectors we had soldered and hot gluing and taping and testing.  Sometimes they didn't work, most of the time they did.  We got better at it, too.

Once that I was done I started gluing the pieces to the costumes.  (The EL tape comes with an adhesive backing, but it's not quite enough when you're putting this on a costume that is going to flex a lot.)  We used E6000, which is an industrial-grade glue and needs a couple of days to cure completely.  The glue is supposed to be placed on a surface that has been roughed up, so most of the time I took a microplane or grater to the areas that I was going to glue first.  Then after I glued down the strips I put masking tape over it at intervals while it cured just to make sure that there wasn't any sliding out of the right position.

I ran into one problem at joints where I had a narrow angle, like on the chest of Adam's jacket in the picture below:

Because I had wiring coming out of both ends of the EL tape, I had to overlap the two pieces and run one strip over the other and then into a slight slit to the side of the EL tape underneath.  If that doesn't make sense, I don't blame you because I could barely grasp what I was doing even with the pieces in my hands.  Anyway, I didn't like it because it didn't provide a good crisp line where the joint is.  So I pulled it off and came up with the following solution:

Rather than have one wire in at the top of the tape and one wire out at the bottom of the tape, I moved the wiring much closer together so that I had a long strip of EL tape with no wiring!  I was amazed that it still lit up the entire EL strip but it did.  So I used these pieces on the jackets where I had the slight angle - I just ran these pieces out to where the joint was and cut them off at the right angle and glued them down.  It looked much sharper and I was happy with it.

So then came gluing.  Lots of gluing.  I only glued one area at a time and then waited the full two days for it to cure so that I wouldn't mess up the glue while working on a new section.  It took me a few weeks to get everything glued.

But we were still missing something!  Something very important.


Part 4: Identity Discs.