Monday, September 15, 2014

Building Character (s) and a Batwagon (Part 1)

First off, a warning:  this will be a long post. If you want to skip ahead to the photos, that's fine.

Since May, I've been gearing up for the release of Bats in the Band, which was published in early August.  Prepping our car for the launch involved a tremendous amount of fabrication—carpentry, plumbing, sewing, sculpture and fiberglass work.

In the past, my wife Laurel and I have decorated one of our cars while promoting a book, finding that it generated a lot of interest at bookstores.  Here are some of our past designs:
Bats at the Beach:  our first BATSmobile, a Jeep Cherokee.  Its nice, boxy shape was great for graphics.
Bats at the Library:  A Toyota Prius, small and efficient, and the rooftop bat made up for the car's un-imposing size.

Bats at the Ballgame:  our Nissan Cube, also great for graphics.
MORE:  a bird's nest on top of the Nissan Cube.

For Bats in the Band, we needed something musical.  We wanted kids at book events to be able to experiment with making sound, with no rules.  There would be tuned drums, triangles and other instruments that kids might already be familiar with in music classes, but ones which perhaps they didn't have at home.  There's not a lot of time in music class for chaotic, free play, the "what if I do this?" moments that help us find our own ideas,  our own groove.  

But we also wanted the car itself involved.  We needed some bats on the roof.  But we needed some way of playing the car.  Stretched wires you could pluck?  The worrier inside me envisioned lacerated fingers.  Drums attached to the car's exterior?  I didn't want bolt-holes in the finish.

Then the answer:  Blue Man Group.  We've seen them twice—fun art jokes. . . and that PVC pipe organ!  What if I built one of those?

The worrier kicked in again.  
1)  It can't hang too far off the side of the car—we'll clip a passer-by, or leave gouges in the sides of a whole line of parked cars.

2) It has to be secure.  Nothing can fly off the car at 60 miles per hour.

OK, so it has to come apart, somehow.  The long pipes, of different lengths, will go in a box on the car roof.  The vertical pipes, including the opening you hit, will detach and stow in the car when we drive.  Simple, right?


Because I was building from scratch, everything was about feasibility.  I'd never played, or even seen, a PVC pipe organ up close.  Which end of the pipe does the sound come out of?  If the horizontal pipes are in a box, will people even hear the sound?  Turns out the sound comes from the end you strike, so that's OK.  How do turns in the pipe affect the sound?  Will it still sound OK?

If the pipes come apart in the middle for stowing, does there have to be an airtight connection for the notes to sound?

Over the course of two months, and lots of experimentation (can I fabricate my own hinges with skateboard bearings and epoxy? can I build the whole thing so it just unfolds from a box on the rooftop?), the Batwagon developed.

The bat characters were another issue altogether.  My first thought was to have an entire animatronic bat band on the roof, perhaps powered by a windshield wiper motor (anyone want to buy one? I have an extra).  Problem:  they won't stand up to sustained almost-hurricane winds on a car roof when I drive.  They have to come off.  Problem:  I haven't built an animatronic figure since high school (maybe that's another blog entry), so how will I do a whole band—in time?

The bats became simpler as time pressure grew.  Not a whole band, just the conductor from the book, and a guitarist.  No motors.  Maybe just gimbaled and weighted midriffs, so wind will make them rock back and forth.  OK, just solid bodies after all. . . but the wind will move their wings.

I started work on the conductor bat, and decided to buy a toddler's tuxedo and build the conductor to fit, rather than trying to sew a tux to fit a bat I'd built.  That proved to be a great idea that saved me countless hours of tailoring.

I started with a form made of a swim-training float and a pair of dowels.  
I covered the form with bubble wrap to fill out the shape, then with white duct tape, to create a smooth surface.

Trying out the tux shirt and jacket.  The form seemed to fit well.
I didn't want the mess or health concerns of working with fiberglass cloth (dust), so I used drywall mesh tape as the base for the fiberglass resin, which worked OK, but later I learned that strips of old sheet, covered in resin, worked much better.  After three or four coats of resin, the form was rigid enough to support the head and wings.

The body form with drywall tape.
Next, I created two bat heads.  I started with a rough wooden form, then added clay to it and sculpted the ratty-looking character head.  A halved ping-pong ball, squeezed slightly, made a better smooth eyeball than I could have sculpted.

The wooden form.
Clay and a halved ping pong ball, paper ears.

Metal shims go in to help release the plaster mold.

I covered the clay form with Vaseline as a release, then layered on strips of burlap and plaster of Paris.
Layers of plaster and burlap create the mold.
The hardened mold, broken open
The mold halves came apart easily, and I filled each with resin and strips cut from old bed sheets.  When the resin hardened, the halves came out of the molds and were re-joined with more resin and strips
Two fiberglass resin shells held together.  This thing doesn't look like a bat!  It looks more like a cicada.  I sprayed the eyes with black Krylon paint so they'd shine.


The conductor's head is joined to the body form, and the ears, which will be coated in fiberglass resin, are attached.  Guitarist bat's head is on the table.
Close-up of same.  Looks more like a rat than a bat!

At work on the ears.

Time for fur!  Craft fur, left over from some old project, gets Super-Glued onto the front of the ears, folded around back, and trimmed.

Now I stretched and glued a single piece of craft fur over the face, cutting darts and trimming the fur as I went along.  This was really stressful because I didn't know whether I'd cut a large enough piece of fake fur to begin with, or whether I'd mis-cut and ruin the whole thing.  
Craft fur being applied.
Working on the guitarist's face.  Note late night darkness outside garage windows.

Time for the toddler tuxedo!
The tailoring challenge was re-working the sleeves so that they opened along their length, not at their ends.
Kinda looks like someone's shredded the tux.   At moments, I didn't see how it was going to come together.

Sewing the wings—opaque cloth for the "bones," and transparent cloth for the  wing membrane.
The conductor, almost ready for his close-up.  When both bats' fur was in place, I neatened it up with a pair of electric clippers.
The guitarist needed something to play, and I'd found a plastic Disney Pixar "Cars" guitar at a flea market.  I disassembled what I could, masked off various parts, and gave it several coats of Krylon plastic paint.  Some hand-painted trim details helped it to look like a real guitar.

Back in the garage, I'm finalizing the shoulder attachment mechanism for the conductor bat.
Here are the boys in the dining room at 1:30 AM, just a few days before the book launch concert.  Finished!

So here's the finished bat wagon, with the PVC pipe organ and the two musician bats on top.  Next post: making the PVC pipe organ.