the further adventures of

Mike Pirnat

a leaf on the wind

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33/365: Series Six

33/365: Series Six

Yesterday, I took Claire on a long-anticipated trip to the Lego Store, way on the other side of town. I'd heard that Series Six minifigs had arrived, and to our mutual delight they were indeed. Each figure comes in an anonymous wrapper that makes its contents a mystery, requiring either knowledge of the increasingly-unreliable "bump codes" printed on the bottom of the packages or the patience to massage each bag until you can discern its contents. I've gotten pretty good at the latter approach--enough so that (achievement unlocked!) I managed to get all 16 of the Series Six figures in a single purchase with no duplicates.

Though to be honest, I'm thinking of collecting a few more of the lady astronauts and swapping in different heads and hairs to build a whole crew of female space adventurers. Because that's a perfectly normal thing to do. (Shut up.)

Creating this shot was fun--getting the right balance of light, exposure, depth of field, framing, distance, elevation, and background was a bit of a challenge, but definitely worth it.

I should also add that I am superbly proud of my daughter for declaring, without hesitation, that the surgeon is a girl. I must be doing something right.

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21a/365: Olivia's Treehouse

21a/365: Olivia's Treehouse

The first of the girl-oriented Lego Friends kits to arrive in our house is Olivia's Treehouse. Liz and Claire put it together yesterday, and Claire insisted that it should be my 365 photo (thus you get a bonus shot--lucky you!). Of course, Claire wanted me to fix the blurry bits, so then I got to try to explain depth of field to a four-year-old.

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My DIY Photo Lightbox


It all started with the Legos.

I love building Lego kits, and have for many, many years. And I've found that for the bigger kits, like the Star Destroyer, it's a lot of fun to shoot photos as I go, so that I can look back at the building process in time-lapse fashion. So when my daughter and I started assembling the Death Star together, it was only natural that I'd take pictures every few steps so that we could have a record of our achievement.

That, of course, led to silly pictures of Stormtroopers busily assembling the dreaded space station under the stern supervision of Duplo Jessie.

And that led to the inspiration to use silly photos of minifigs in a Keynote deck for work. What better way to highlight the dangers of SQL injection attacks than Han Solo and Luke Skywalker infiltrating a group of Stormtroopers and wreaking havoc?


And that was the kick in the pants I needed to build my own little lightbox for macro photography. It's basically the same as the recipe from Strobist, WikiHow, and others--a cardboard box, some tissue paper, and a sheet of white posterboard. I spent about seven dollars in all, and most of that was on the box. Assembly pretty much goes like this:

Try not to cut yourself on the box cutters or X-Acto knife you use for slicing out sections of the box (luckily my experience in life-size cardboard ninja preparation had prepared me for this, but that's another story).

When you're all set up to shoot, it might look something like this:

I can't tell you how exciting that moment is, as an amateur photographer, when you do something that looks like that. You really feel empowered, and there's a wonderful feeling that you know what the hell you're doing. It's great!

Here's how my first test shot (the cyborg-versus-alien scene shown in the photo above) turned out:

Gun Fight
Gun Fight
Originally uploaded by mikepirnat

Lessons Learned

I learned several key lessons that are worth passing on:

  1. Brighter, Whiter Lights

    I grabbed whatever was handy (the reading lights from my bedroom, in this case) to provide lighting. Great idea in terms of directionality and ability to get lights close to the box, but a seriously bad move overall because they were loaded up with low-wattage "soft white" CFL bulbs. You really have to up the exposure to compensate for the lack of brightness, but with a tripod and a remote shutter release, that's no big deal. What really sucks is the sheer, awful yellowness of the "soft white" bulbs, which guarantees that you'll be spending a lot of time doing color correction in post. I had to do quite a lot with temperature, exposure, color balance, lightening of shadows, etc. in order to get acceptable colors. Halogen work lights ought to do it, as long as I keep them far enough back from the box to keep from lighting the tissue paper on fire.

  2. Start Small on Tissue Paper

    Like a good engineer, I decided to evenly allocate all of my tissue paper so that I was able to use the maximum amount out of the eight sheets in the package I bought. (Waste not, want not, right?) Well, it turns out to be a dumb maneuver because it's easier to add more layers of tissue paper than it is to remove them once they're taped into place. I had three layers on mine; I think two would have done the job (or mabye just one?).

  3. Clean Your Lens, Clean Your Sensor

    Given the tripod and remote shutter release, I figured I could narrow down my aperture to F22 and beyond and thereby maximize my depth of field, thereby ensuring that i didn't have characters (or parts of characters) that were inappropriately out of focus. Turns out that when you do this, every piece of dust on your lens or sensor (I suspect the latter may be the worst of my problems at this point) comes into sharp relief, and once again you're spending a ton of time in post. Retouching the dust spots out late isn't too bad... until you're doing it to a full batch of 150 or so images. At that point, you've entered a whole new world of pain.

  4. Tripod and Remote Shutter Release

    This kind of work is impossible (or next to impossible) without a stable platform and a way to shoot without jiggling the camera, because you will be taking shots that may need a half second or a second (or more!) to capture. It would be a shame to set all this up and not have the camera equipment you need.

  5. Low ISO

    I went with ISO 400, which is okay when I'm shooting hand-held indoors, but if you've already got the luxury of the tripod and remote release, you might as well go with longer exposures that yield less noise. I was frustrated by the amount of noise I picked up at 400, though it may be due in some degree to shooting in JPEG (where the all-white background leads to poor-looking compression artifacts).

The most important lesson, of course, is that this is fun and that you can do it too. It's cheap, doesn't require much skill, and leads to highly satisfying results.

I'll post some of my Star Wars minifig shots next time. Promise.

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Lego Rock Band = Awesome

If I could have finished Lego Rock Band in a single evening without permanently melting my wrists, I would have. What I expected to treat as a glorified song pack and simply export to my 360's hard drive ended up being one hell of a fun standalone game, worthy of both the Rock Band and Lego names. There's a lot to love in Lego Rock Band--here are a few highlights:

  • Never fail out of songs. If your audience meter drops into "fail-out" territory you just start losing points from your total, but are given a special recovery mode that gives you a chance to claw your way back into positive territory.
  • The drum pedal is optional. You can turn on a modifier that will let you completely ignore the drum pedal. About time, and definitely a good idea for getting families playing.
  • Super-easy mode. This will probably be a hit for the younger players.
  • Points = Cash. The points you accumulate translate directly into Lego studs, the coin of the realm in all Lego games.
  • Fan loyalty. I didn't lose any fans after turning in a 3-star performance after a long string of 5-star shows; this should make this aspect of the game less frustrating, especially to younger players.
  • Fun venues. The venues are fun and imaginative; my favorites so far are the pirate ship and the haunted mansion, and there are strong implications we'll eventually be playing in space.
  • Cut albums. There are special setlist challenges where you first pick out album art, name the album, and choose songs. Once you've played the set, it's immortalized in your record collection. If you've ever said to yourself "hey, that'd make a great name for a record," your moment has finally arrived.
  • Your characters are used in the cutscenes. This is just plain cool, and a nice payoff for taking the time to customize your minifig band members.
  • Whimsy. The joy and whimsy and sense of humor of the other Lego games produced by Travelers Tales pervade Lego Rock Band, from big sight gags to amusing little details.
  • Famous Lego musicians. David Bowie and Freddie Mercury are freaking awesome as minifigs. Seriously.
  • Songs that are party/spouse-friendly. My wife often bows out of playing Rock Band with me because she doesn't think she knows many of the songs. Last night I kept catching her singing along to things from the couch, so that's a good sign. Okay, so there's still a bunch of songs I'd never heard before, but I'm going to blame that on the fact that I haven't really been listening to the radio since 1995ish.
  • DLC. You've got access to a certain "family-friendly" subset of your existing downloads, and there's a "family-friendly" version of the music store. The identification of what's "family-friendly" seems to fall a bit on the conservative side, but I suspect this will be tuned as time goes on.
  • Customize your "rock den" (aka menu screens). You'll unlock various items throughout the game that you can use to decorate your "rock den"--hang posters on the walls, set a tuba next to your guitar case, customize your lights and jukebox... It's a nice bit of extra detail that feels very Lego.

I have only a couple of minor quibbles:

  • Difficulty ratings have changed again. Finally, proof that "Behind Blue Eyes" is not a measly 2-dot difficulty on guitar. Still, it would be nice if the RB family of games could report the difficulty level consistently.
  • Some pretty hard songs at the beginning of the game. I naïvely jumped right into playing the first song of the game on Expert... Turns out it's rated at 4 dots of difficulty on guitar! Ouch!
  • Repetition of some songs. In a couple places, you'll be presented with a special rock challenge... where you start by playing the song you literally just finished playing. It's not common, but when it happens it's really irritating, especially if you weren't that into the song to begin with.

Anyway. I'm overall very pleased with it and can't wait to play through the rest of the game. After all, I have to find out what Freddie Mercury's doing on that flying saucer!

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The Feline Singularity (and Other News)

Originally uploaded by mikepirnat.

Our cats have so completely taken over my desk chair that they are collapsing into one another into a sort of feline snuggle singularity, an adorable two-headed mass of sleeping fur so dense that only cuteness can escape. This makes it somewhat difficult to do much of anything in the proximity of my computer.


In other news, I am now hooked on Rome (thanks to the local library), am enjoying Lego Star Wars 2 (thanks to a CompUSA store closing discount), and I am now included on the official Planet Python feed (yippee!!).

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June Link-o-Rama

A day of bush-pruning and art-show-wandering has left me in the mood to close some browser tabs and have a happy little link-o-rama for June. Joy!

First off, how about 101 versions of "Stairway to Heaven"? And if your ears aren't bleeding too much from that, let's chase that down with the best 50 video game ending songs.

While we're on the subject of "top-N" lists, check out the top 10 strangest Lego creations; Han Solo frozen in carbonite looks pretty badass to me. (Now where could I put that?)

Thanks to some clever video editing, we can finally settle the debate about how it'd go down if the Enterprise tangled with the evil Galactic Empire. And even though Gnarls Barkley isn't really my cup of tea, I have to say that Chewbacca on drums totally kicks ass.

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Using the LEGO Force

Originally uploaded by mikepirnat.

Finally got off my butt (and promptly back onto it) and built my LEGO AT-AT. That kind of says it all, I think.

There are a couple of other photos over at my Flickr account that give a better overall representation of the thing, but I kind of preferred this "artsy" perspective on it.

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