Problem

When Terry Gipson (www.gipsondesigngroup.com) began to design MTV2's Dew Circuit Breakout, a competition for best new band in the US that aired on December 2, the producer wanted him to use 1970s-style Kustom amplifiers in the set. “It is a very iconic symbol of when live rock 'n' roll was really taking off,” says Gipson.

Gipson began by applying period tufting over a few modern amps, then came up with an idea the folks at MTV2 loved: He would extend the amp idea to a full scenic treatment. Exposed vertical LEDs would chase to the beat of the music in four scenic columns that surrounded walls covered with tufting.

Then Gipson looked at costs. He would need more than 200 running feet at various widths of tufting, which is no longer manufactured and hard to find for a reasonable price. “The tuck-and-roll upholstery method used to make them is cost-prohibitive,” Gipson says. “To have done this using a traditional upholstery method or to carve it the old-fashioned way would have taken four people about two weeks,” taking him $10,000 over budget. G-Lec tubes for the LED effect would run another $3,000 over.

Gipson found solutions in two kinds of technology — the first, cutting-edge; the second, obsolete.

Solution

Gipson's research led him to Cigar Box Studios (www.cigarboxstudios.com) in Newburgh, NY, where Gary Rausenberger constructs scenery. After doing a prototype of an upholstered speaker, Rausenberger contacted Czinkota Studios (www.czinkotastudios.com), which had invested more than $100K in a CNC router, with a 4'×8' table bed that allowed a 12"-deep cut. George Czinkota had engineered and written automated software that turned this 2D router into a 3D computerized sculpting machine.

When Gipson provided 2D CAD drawings, with various tufted areas drawn in elevation, Czinkota was able to convert them to 3D files that programmed the router. Rausenberger and Czinkota discussed Gipson's front and side view drawings. “I went over with Gary where all of the pieces had to go,” says Czinkota, who fed information into the router system to generate the shapes, resulting in a model of the tufting. Most of the pieces were 8' long; the largest was 14'×11'×7'.

Finding the right material came next. “We did a test using expanded polystyrene (EPS). Some people call it ‘bead foam,’” Gipson says. “It dissolves when it comes in contact with polymers containing styrene or other synthetic solvents. It is recyclable, to a degree, and can be sculpted, provided a fine, intricate surface is not required.”

Rausenberger says that, once the program is written, Czinkota can put a 4'×8' sheet of the foam on this table and produce 56 running feet out of this one sheet, creating Styrofoam pieces that are durable enough to withstand the most difficult load-in. Czinkota replicated a small prototype and produced several hundred running feet out of two-pound density Styrofoam. The router ran three days. The folks in the shop did other things while the robotic sculpting machine cranked out a large number of repetitive shapes. “Once the pieces are painted, you can't even see the difference,” says Gipson.

The machine doesn't only make production easier, it makes it more accurate. “It would be very hard to carve by hand and keep pieces uniform,” says Czinkota. “The machine just spits them out. It's exact. It's fast. If it makes a mistake, it's because I told it to do the wrong thing.”

Czinkota compares this machine to a Windows application with icons, but he says the software is not document-based. There are other versions of software that allow users to route out 2D shapes. Although any CNC router can be adapted for 3D, these aren't for sale. “I don't know of any other shop on the East Coast that has 3D capabilities now,” says Czinkota.

As for the LEDs, Brett Gardner at RGB Lights in Chicago (www.rgblights.com) had an alternative — something so old that only a few people have it. “The iColor Fresco was one of the first LED tube products to come out,” Gipson says of the Color Kinetics product. “They stopped making these about three years ago.” Cigar Box Studios installed the iColor Frescos in the scenery as they finished the fabrication, and RGB Lights sent a technician to supervise the install and help lighting designer Brad Nelson control the LED effects during the show. The art director on the project was Matt Glaze.

Most vendors had discarded the iColor Frescos because they have large connectors and are clunky. Gipson wanted a mechanical look for LEDs that would be visible behind perforated metal, so they were perfect. “It just goes to show that you should never overlook the older, obsolete options that may be available.”