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Making Air Bed-n-Bug

There must be something in the human brain that makes us enjoy stories so much that we are able to blot out everything else. Watching a good film, you quickly forget about the edges of the screen. Movies with subtitles are even more engrossing - I forget I’m reading the words and can’t take my eye off the screen for a second. My wife is a puppeteer. I love watching her shows, particularly because I so quickly forget her presence and get completely involved in her characters and stories. 

A while ago I was keen on making simulator rides because they felt so all absorbing. I still enjoy watching people use Microbreak - completely unaware of the crowd watching them. The Bathyscape, a simulator with more of a story, remains one of the most popular machines in The Under The Pier Show. So when I thought up a new way to tell a story, a cross between comic strip, movie and flea circus, I was excited.     

It came from an unlikely starting point. I was working at the Exploratorium in San Fransisco, where they run a 'Tinkering Studio' to engage visitors with workshops to make things lasting 30 minutes to an hour. I suggested dioramas inside shoeboxes, lit by LEDs. I spent a week making a few examples and then thought of linking them together. I bought a recordable sound module for a greetings card and put all the shoeboxes inside a big box. Another project I had been working on was making programming more tangible, so I’d built them some electromechanical cam timers. I used one of these to turn the LEDs in the different scenes on at the right moment while the audio played. The finished result was Alien Salvation.   


Alien salvation video

It excited me, both because it only took 10 days to make, and also because of this novel form of storytelling.  I came home wondering if in some form it could be an arcade machine. I have considered making dioramas or peep shows before, but a plain box with an eyehole would be unlikely to tempt anyone to part with their cash. A month or so later I thought of leaving all the scenes visible, lighting them up in sequence. The machine could look like a giant page from a comic.  

So I started looking for a story. Of course films almost always start with the story, and then look for a visual style to tell it. I wasn’t sure if it would work the other way round, particularly because I’m not a writer, but decided it would still be interesting to try. The Bedbug drama unfolded at Novelty Automation. The people in the flat above got infected and I got bitten. I developed a minor allergic reaction so every bite swelled up alarmingly. Also a nearby hotel got infected so I discovered the fascinating tricks of how they get rid of them. At the same time many of my friends rent out rooms on Airbnb. With all these ingredients, bedbugs became the theme. 

I invited Paul Spooner to collaborate and we spent a happy couple of days working out a storyboard. I had hoped that we would be able to make one scene at a time, working out the layout as we made them. However I gradually realised that this would be impractical so I started by building rough versions of the scenes to fix all the dimensions of the final versions. 



prototypes video

With a set of boxes for all the scenes I then sent Paul some to fill.  


I started confidently, thinking I could do a box or two in a week. But I’m not used to working on this small scale and this seemed to involve lots of things I’d never tried before. I’m also not used to painting things like this – I had to learn to spray acrylic paint. It was all was interesting, but it took over three months. 


The software quite simple - one trigger input from the coin acceptor starts a chain of events. The main problem was organising the wiring, there are just so many different lights and motors and effects all working on different voltages. Also each scene has to be removable to work on if it goes wrong. Fortunately the motors draw a small enough current so can be outputted directly from the PLC without any relays. Each scene has a connector board with voltage regulators, so the power from the PLC is always 12 volts. Multicore cables go from each scene back to the PLC.

The projectors need shutters over the lens to block the startup screens. At first all the projectors ran for the entire show, but I realised by switching each one on just when was needed could quadruple their lives. Yet more wires and complexity - but the 'system' worked very well, I rarely got in a muddle. 

Early on I had the idea that the finale should be that the people wearing the headphones would get bitten on their heads, with some sort of mechanism hidden in the headphones. I left making this until everything else was finished but then it all went wrong. For a start the top of the head is surprisingly insensitive to touch (ask a friend to touch your head and guess the number of fingers touching, its not easy). The closest I got to a ‘bite’ sensation was a bit of fishing wire poked into the scalp. But the noise of the mechanism was amplified so much by mechanical transmission through headphones. This dominated over any physical ‘bite’ effect. I finally tried air jets to avoid any mechanism in the headphones, but the head is used to this – it just feels like a cold wind. Nothing would link instinctively to the tiny heads being bitten in the final scene

failed bite mechanisms

Fortunately Paul then arrived and with a sympathetic ear to unburden myself, I finally admitted defeat and abandoned the whole idea. We then had fun adding detail to the interior scenes – before he arrived I’d thought of leaving the scenes empty, looking more like the exterior scenes. Adding the detail made the interiors look more dolls house, but I now don’t know why that bothered me. I now prefer it that scenes aren’t all exactly the same style. 

After installing it in The Under The Pier Show on test, I lost heart. There were two basic flaws. First because the physical headphone ‘bites’ hadn’t worked out, the ending was very flat. Second my original idea that the bedbugs journey could relate to the journeys of immigrants just didn't work. Deflated, I left it on test for a few months while I got on with other stuff. The gap made it easier to rethink everything. 

Not that much I could do about the story. It made me realise why movies have so many stages of rewrites before the ‘shoot’. But small changes did make a difference. The spiders, who had been the immigration officials in the original, turned into Air BnB enthusiasts. This also made the story simpler and easier to understand. The ending, which felt so flat was improved by a menacing twist – the narrator suggesting you may make some new friends while you sleep while the action returns to the first scene of the big bug feeding. 

I had also been stuck with the sound track. I’d asked a friend to do the effects and music but he was changing jobs and didn't have time to do much. It was equally my fault for not being sure about what I wanted. Anyway one evening I just went online and found everything I had been imagining. Adding them improved the whole thing a lot – all movies need music!   

Finally I kept thinking how much better the machine had looked at night with all the lights off.  I'd almost added a motorised curtain mechanism to ‘envelope’ the users but this was complicated and curtains are bulky, even when pulled back. Returning afresh I decided to make a descending blind instead (a much simpler, more reliable mechanism). This was the biggest improvement of all. I finally started to see people coming away laughing and telling their friends the plot. 

Looking back, it was good to try something completely different from my usual arcade games and I’m still excited by its potential as a story telling medium. The downside is that its so inflexible - even less than a movie – the shots and their order have to be fixed so early on. If I ever try another, I will put more effort into the script before starting to ‘shoot’.   




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