Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hold Onto Your Butts - Red Bull Soapbox Race 2011

In 2009, myself and fellow team members of Ironheade went to compete in the Red Bull Soapbox Race in Los Angeles.  Much to our surprise and delight, we took first place in the competition, and set a new speed record for the race.  Since nothing of interest works its way onto this blog, you can scroll a short way down, dear reader, and see visual evidence of our past handiwork.  Race finished and title won, we dragged ourselves back to San Francisco for a well deserved hibernation, thinking of future competitions.

And in 2010, there was silence.

Had my stage air-guitaring rocked too hard?  Was there just no way to top the competition that we and our incredible fellow racers had provided?  Whatever the reason was, there was to be no Red Bull Soapbox Race at all in 2010.  Time passed, and the members of Team Ironheade all went our separate ways.  Then a few months ago, we got the call.

Race on for 2011 in Los Angeles.  This year, we had a title to defend.  We couldn't say no.

So what were we to build this time around?  For the first race we had kicked around a number of different ideas for what our theme would be.  One we kept coming back to through all of our debates was Jurassic Park.  Particularly, this part:

As a kid this chase scene (and really, the entire film) blew my little child-mind.  Jurassic Park can single handedly claim ownership of my animation career, as it stole me away from what some may call a more noble pursuit in biology.  So making the awesome Jeep from this part of the movie would be sweet, right?  The Jeep was great, but after our previous performance at the race in 2009, we needed to do something much bigger.

We needed a T-Rex.

Since the immensely talented people at The Creature Technology Company gave us a very polite yet  definitive no on providing us with use of one of their awesome animatronic dinosaurs, it fell to us to build one of our own.

I had just recently moved to Seattle for my dream job, so Sean and I began coordinating long distance.  I loudly volunteered myself to puppeteer the T-Rex, and Sean would reprise his role as driver for the cart, with Andrew as the passenger.  Sean began building the Jeep down at the shiny new TechShop in SF, and I would work out the design of our T-Rex until I got down to San Francisco a week before the race to build it.
So here's how it went.
We needed to submit drawings of the cart to sell the idea to Red Bull before we were accepted into the race.  These are some of my sketches.
 Orthographic drawings of the Rex body.
T-Rex based on my proportions since I would be in the proverbial driver seat - it wound up being roughly 6 feet tall, over 11 feet long, and incredibly heavy.

Detail and measurements of the Rex's head, and some initial notes on how it would fit together.

A week before the race, I flew down to SF and we got down to business.  The cart is mostly finished thanks to Sean's hard work (and the great corralling skills of Ms. Amanda Luu), and Sean has built the most badass looking Jurassic Park gate ever made out of insulation foam. Seriously.


Everything else was effectively good to go, but the Rex?  We hadn't even started.  It was a week until the race, and we didn't get started building the T-Rex in earnest until three days after my arrival.
(All photos below taken by Neil Helm unless otherwise noted).
Andrew showed up and as is his nature saved the day, working with me to figure out how everything would move, be attached to itself, and fit around my little body without snapping my back in two. Amanda Luu filled every possibly production gap we had - whether it was sawing foam, holding down chicken wire, or baking us cookies, her hands were never idle. We would have crumbled without her help.

Neil Helm and his lovely wife Anne documented the final frantic hours of our progress with his beautiful photography, and provided us with moral support, food, and awesome PING-PONG EYEBALLS.

My main responsibilty now was to make an immense mess of Sean's garage hacking away at the foam that the Rex lived in.  I kicked up a lot of dust.

(photo by Christine Phelan)
The T-Rex head was built in two pieces.  The top of the head (which also included part of the neck) and the lower jaw.  I hand-carved the head, arms, and feet from pink insulation foam.

Some scrawny arms, with our excellent, flappy-jawed T-Rex model.  He currently lives on my desk at work.

(photo by Christine Phelan)
The Rex feet were built so that mine could slip in and out of the back and walk around with articulated legs following my walk.  These foam feet would be fused with gorilla glue to ankles that were also hand cut, and then knee and thigh sections that were rigged up by Andrew and Amanda.

(photo by Sean Feeley)
Sean absolutely knocked the Jeep out of the park, going from frame...

(photo by Sean Feeley)
...and the humble beginnings of a body..

...to a bitchin' off-roading monster in a matter of days.

This year, we did not fuck around with our brakes.  I think Sean and I bled these a million times.

Race day was pretty incredible.  We did not sleep the night before (just like last time), and with our final team member Matt Ornstein joining our ranks, we managed to make everything come together at the very end for some incredible set pieces and really fun props.  It was so rewarding to work on something that people enjoyed so much, and to get it all done in such a short period of time.  It was also personally satisfying to make little kids cry as a T-Rex.

(photo and  mini-article by SFGate)
Team Hold Onto Your Butts from left to right:  Matt Ornstein, Andrew Cook, Sean Feeley, Christine Phelan, and Amanda Luu.

These guys are ready to roll.

Ping-pong ball eyes, wooden dowel teeth, lots of latex paint, and love.

I effectively "wore" the dinosaur, and as I would walk the legs would bend at each joint to follow my feet.  My upper body was inside it's stomach, and my arms in its chest pulling on a cord that would open and close the mouth.  Leaning would pivot its head from side to side.

My times puppeteering the Rex were typically brief.  It was about 90 degrees out the whole day and with 80 million pounds of stuff on my back, I would tire out pretty quickly.

My favorite part was trying to bite people.


Amanda instructs children on the finer points of dinosaur interaction.

Our SCAD alumni pals from all over California came to Los Angeles in full force to support us with smiles, cookies, and lots of heavy lifting.  We couldn't have gotten this mess onto the stage and out the gate without these guys.

Finally, after hours of waiting and over 35 other teams racing before us, it was our turn.  The skit starts, the T-Rex busts out of the forest behind the Jurassic Park gate, and the cart goes flying down the ramp in escape thanks to the burly muscles of Amanda and Matt.  It was GO TIME.

Check out that sweet jump!

They were flying.  Sean and Andrew were tearing up the road and looking fit to break our previous speed record.  The jumps were no sweat.  All we needed to do was punch through the berm and we were as good as gold.  But suddenly...

(Photo by flickr user "laurapiper")

(Photo by flickr user "laurapiper")
You can almost here the slow classical music, and the song of angels as they float through the air.

(Photo by flickr user "laurapiper")

(Photo by flickr user "laurapiper")
Look at the determination on that face!

Spoiler alert:  We totally finished, but we didn't win the race.  Hold Onto Your Butts took 5th place out of almost 40 competing teams (though by all accounts our speed record from 2009 still holds), and it's been said we had one of the best crashes of the day.  Check this out.

I thought Sean and Andrew had DIED.  I was so happy to see them mostly unscathed after hearing the sound of the cart exploding.  Sean's helmet popped off at some point during the crash, the rear (false) tire of the Jeep and practically everything else that wasn't physically welded to the frame was nowhere to be found.  At the end of the race we saw a little girl walking away with the tire (which seems to be a theme for us each year..) that had this awesome logo Sean had cooked up on it.

My favorite part of the car.

I am overcome with relief at seeing my living team-mates.

(Photo by Anne Zettle)
I finally get my turn in the Jeep.  Neil Helm and Alex Manresa are a great power source, but they didn't have much left to push..

While we didn't win this year, we came together from all ends of the west coast to built a bad-ass vehicle, a rocking dinosaur puppet, and the best Jurassic Park gate made out of insulation foam in an insanely short amount of time.  I love being an animator, but every once in a while I need a break from the computer and an opportunity to get my hands dirty building something functional and outside of my comfort zone.  

Awesome time.  Any suggestions for the next project?

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