Replica Movie Prop Obsessions: Part 1

PAD 2007 - 155: If You Recognise This You're As Big A Geek As Me

I was digging around through boxes in the basement this weekend when I came across a couple of boxes of partially finished movie prop replicas I had once slaved over and it took me back. It's a story of obsession, betrayal, politics and the main stage for this story was a forum called the Replica Prop Forum. What period does this story take place in? Star Wars action figures had just been re-released with their new buffed, body-builder physiques; VHS was still king and George hadn't yet broken every fanboy's heart by diluting the franchise into something targeted at pre-teens and appealing to their video-game aesthetic.

But I'm getting way ahead of myself. This obsession started out as a way for a recent emigre to California to pass some time. It starts out with me obsessively combing through every Toys R Us within driving distance looking for 'rare' action figures freshly put out the shelves. It quickly progressed to a tiny apartment looking like a KayBee outlet and a feeling that toys were not enough. I wanted harder, more grown-up stuff. I wanted exact copies of the props I saw in my favorite movies.

In those days the community was small and centered around an Internet forum called The Replica Prop Forum, or to those in the know, the RPF. Back then a as yet undiscovered Adam Savage hung out there with the rest of us obsessives although I didn't pay him much attention as his obsession was making a perfect replica of the Maltese Falcon. My obsession was much more mainstream; I wanted to own the SciFi Excalibur, Luke's lightsaber hilt from the original movie (ANH). Unlike Adam Savage, I wasn't alone, and it wasn't hard to find out that many of the original Star Wars screen used props were modeled around hardware ready accessible in the 70's. Unfortunately, that hardware was a lot more scarce in the 90's and there where a lot more people looking for it.

The lightsaber I wanted was based on the flash handle of an old, large format press camera. It's a tube that held the flash bulb at one end, the 3 battery cells went at the other and it joined to the camera via a clamp at the middle. I now knew the name of the thing I was looking for (a Graflex 3-cell flash) but so did everyone else. Ebay was in its infancy but it was full of fanboys like me looking for our 3-cell flashguns. It was equally full of merchants trying to trick you into buying the wrong flash tube with illegible photos, hinted at authenticity and fained ignorance.

After some time, I grew tired of being outbid at the last minute for a genuine Graflex flash (in eBay parlance, ‘sniping' was a new phenomenon that had to be executed manually not via some web-service or bot) but I learned via my new RPF friends that I could build an acceptable analogue out of hardware store parts. I was still relatively new to the US and rented my apartment so I had never been in Home Depot before. I was like a kid in a candy store and I, and many others, spent many hours trawling the isles of our local hardware store looking for common, cheap components we could substitute for the actual components of a genuine Graflex flash. I knew every piece of the Graflex flash even though I had never even held one on my hand. I poured over prop-geek porn: the Visual Dictionaries, The Power of the Myth, The Art of Star Wars, and a hugely expensive and massive, illustrated Japanese tomb ‘The Star Wars Chronicles'. I learned to use my first CAD software (2D DeltaCAD - long before Google bought Sketchup) just so I could make working diagrams that I shared on the first website I ever built on Geocities (I learned HTML just to be able to create this site). I've actually tried to kill this embarrassing website many times but, even though Geocities died off ears ago, my old website won't go away. It is one of the skeletons in my closet.

Via the RPF we hardware saber builders shared out discoveries. A Dremel was the badge of office and when I finally completed my own Luke ANH lightsaber I was immensely proud of it. From a distance it didn't look too bad. It was the right size and if you squinted when you held it in your hand I could almost believe that it was the movie prop. The few friends I deemed geeky enough to show it to were fooled but I knew the guys on the RPF would recognise it as a cheap fake in no time. So, for a few weeks, it tided me over but soon enough I was back on eBay searching for the hard stuff again.

DIY PVC Table/Skater Dolly


A table dolly is a small, low profile camera support designed to be used on a table top and often used to add movement to product shots. Its axles are usually adjustable to allow it to travel in straight lines or curves and circles. It can be used for a lot more than product shots though. On a suitable, smooth floor it can be used for low-angle tracking and trucking shots. If you have a folding table (borrow one from craft services if you don’t) or a board on a couple of saw horses you can also easily simulate a slider or a traditional full sized tripod and dolly movement.

There are lots of commercial table dollies available at all sorts of price points. A lot of people have also made DIY versions ranging from the complex copies of the commercial offerings to a bean bag balanced on a skateboard. This version is very influenced by the Frugal Filmmaker’s project ( I’m a big fan of his video tutorials and attitude) with a few key differences. The main one is that his design is intended for smaller camcorders but I wanted to be able to use it with a larger DSLR with a decent lens too. Too this end I needed the dolly to be more stable, so I made it have a larger wheel base. I also wanted it to take a more substantial head so I made it accept any standard head with a 1/4” screw mount. Being lazy, I didn’t want to have to cut any PVC pipe either so I came up with a simple drill, glue and screw design using easily sourced, hardware store, parts.


  • 1 Rollerblade (go to the thrift store if you don’t have one lying around from the 90’s; they’ll have plenty to choose from for a few dollars. It doesn’t need to be very high quality. It just needs to have 4 wheels and bearings in decent shape.)
  • 5x 1/4” diameter, 1.5”long machine screws and appropriate washers and nuts for axles and to mount head. If you salvage the axles from the skate wheels you only need 1 screw to mount the tripod head.
  • 3/4” PVC pipe components
    • 4x connectors
    • 4x 3” risers (threaded both ends)
    • 4x Screw on end caps
    • 2x plain T-joint
    • 1x T-joint threaded incoming pipe
    • 1x screw in plug
    • 2x 90 degree elbows
  • Glue
    • PVC Cement
    • Epoxy (the 7 min version specifically for plastic works best)
  • Optional: Goof-off or some kind of solvent to remove the sticker residue.


  • Drill
  • 1/4” bit
  • Allen Keys (to disassemble the skate)
  • spanner/wrench

1. Preparation:

  • Remove the wheels from the skate. If the axles on the skate are useable, salvage them as well.
  • Remove stickers from the PVC components. This is the hardest part of the project but with the stickers covering all these components they won’t go together properly.
Running gear:

  • Drill a hole in the center of each of the screw on end caps.
  • Screw the wheels on to the end caps. Use a washer or two between the cap and the wheel and the nut and the wheel. You can either use new hardware or the original axles from the skate. I used the original skate axles (hex keys required) and nylon washers I had lying around between the end caps and the wheels. The wheels need to be tight enough to be held securely but not so tight that they don’t run freely.
  • Glue the axle in place in the end cap using the epoxy for further rigidity. Set aside to cure.
  • Glue a riser into each side of a plain T-joint using PVC Cement and a connector into the top of it - repeat for the other set of running gear.
  • Screw the wheel assemblies on to the end of each riser.


    • Glue a connector into each smooth end of your thread T-joint.
    • Glue a 90 degree elbow onto each of the connectors. It is critical that this assembly is true if all 4 wheels are to sit level at once.

    Tripod head mount:

    • Drill a hole in the center of screw in PVC plug.
    • With a washer on the bolt, screw it through the hole you made. Using a set bolt on the screw and the washer make the screw protrude about a 1/4” through the plug and is solidly in place.


      • Screw the tripod mount into the threaded t-joint on the body.
      • Mount any small to medium sized tripod head on to this. A small ball head is the most compact for traveling but a pan or small fluid head is easier to use.
      • Slip the running gear onto the body. Friction will be enough to hold them in place but they should be loose enough to set a turning radius.
      • Mount the camera onto the tripod head and you’re ready to roll.

      Just like any other camera movement, using the table-top dolly takes a little practice to get smooth. Use it to circle, or describe an arc, around or past an object. You can also dolly past or along a subject. You can also truck into or out from a subject. If a small subject is too low relative to your camera’s lens a small, improvised stage can be used (an upturned glass is useful). Set the radius of your turn before moving the camera and don’t try to adjust it in the middle of a movement.


      Adventure in RC Helicopters: Honey Bee V2 FP Arrives!

      Yes, I am that geeky

      Very excited as my new Honey Bee V2 helicopter arrived via UPS this morning - of course I was in the shower.

      I opened the box and checked everything was there and undamaged - excitement rises! But then I encounter my first problem: I plug the Li-Po battery into the E-sky charger and both LEDs just keep flashing. According to the information on the charger this means “battery goes wrong” (another example of Google Translation at work?) which I assume means that there’s something wrong with the battery. I get in touch with via their chat feature on their site and 'George' says he’s sending me a new charger - I don’t understand why when the badly translated lights indicate that it’s probably a fault with the battery but what do I know?

      Oh well, at least I can try flying the virtual RC copter with the included software. I try to install it on my Win7 laptop and it fails to launch with the Application Error “Exception EComPort in module fms.exe at 008B728. Registry error (win error code: 2).”

      A little digging around reveals that the software is actually freeware and it needs a ‘virtual com port’ to work. The solution the site describes doesn’t seem to work. I find another program called VSPE - that says I need to pay $25 for the 64bit port of the ‘free’ program but it does seem to work without me hitting my credit card again. Then FMS hits another problem “D3DRM.dll is not downloaded”. Back to the forum. I finally find the missing dll and place it in the FMS directory. Finally I get the program to work. I download and install a model of the Honey Bee V2 and calibrate my transmitter for use with the program (for the record, it must be switched on to work. Finally I ready to fly but I’m out of time.

      A frustrating first experience - at least the helicopter looks good sitting on my desk.

      Adventure in RC Helicopters: New Heli Ordered

      After much deliberation I ordered a Esky Honey Bee V2 FP from The other strong contender was the Falcon 40 from Exceed but, after reading around, the consensus seems to be that the Honey Bee is a little more robust. As, doubt, I'll crash my new toy while I'm learning this was the deciding factor for me. I also ordered some spares for the Honey Bee, the training legs and some other pieces to repair my very battered S107. Even with tax and shipping the total was less than $150. I think that’s pretty good bang for the buck.

      Adventure in RC Helicopters: Introduction

      My little brother very generously sent me a little S107 co-axial helicopter for my birthday. I really hadn’t being paying attention to the current state of technology in these little toys but as soon as I was up and flying around the house I was sold. The co-axial was so easy to fly but I wanted something more challenging; something bigger that could fly outdoors. A little research revealed that the next step up was probably a 4-channel, fixed pitch helicopter. Whereas the co-axial practically flies itself as long as you’re careful with the throttle, a single bladed helicopter flies more like the real deal and is much more tricky to learn. As I read the various tutorials around the web it became obvious that I shouldn’t expect to be lifting off the ground for at least a week or more and that I should expect to crash and have to repair my helicopter even if I was cautious and patient.