Introduction: UFO Invasion at Area 51- 2.0

About: My name is Jerry Jodloski and I'm the Event Director for How-To Halloween, an annual event in Lansing Michigan that celebrates everything d-i-y Halloween.
If you are looking for something out of this world, you've come to the right place. These are the step-by-step instructions for building your own version of a full scale UFO Invasion at Area 51. It is a complete ground up redesign, rebuild and reboot of a Halloween display I had constructed a few years ago.

As always, the goal is to create a project that is highly realistic in a reasonable amount of time within a limited budget. My hope is that the results are reminiscent of a mini Universal Studios theme park attraction. I also want it to be durable, reusable, portable, able to set up by one person, and to take up a small amount of storage space. Since I have limited carpentry skills and only own basic tools, it shows that anyone can tackle this kind of build with a few weeks of spare time. Let me know if you have any questions.

Step 1: Features

The new and improved display includes a huge 13' wide by 9' tall lander with lighted cockpit dome, working engine exhaust, sound activated lasers and an emerging alien invasion force. There is a second 9' wide flying saucer which is 2/3 the scale of the mother craft (which hopefully makes it appear higher in the sky). It hovers, then lowers almost 7 feet before rising up again in sync with sounds effects. There are also two 30' lengths of landing lights blinking in a chase pattern bordering the runway. Finally, the scene is dressed with a custom Area 51 projected sign, yellow emergency beacon and green uplighting.

It's a giant leap forward compared to my static original display and it was really gratifying to do the overhaul to finally realize it's full potential.

Step 2: Research

I've found many homemade spaceships on the web constructed out of everything from tin foil to satellite dishes. But the high watermark in UFO prop building seems to come from a company called Distortions Unlimited. They are featured in a tv show on the Travel Channel called Making Monsters which chronicles their development of an exhibit for the Roswell UFO Museum in New Mexico.

Of course, the price tag for one of their beauties (as shown in the video below) is a whopping $32,000. So it's nice knowing that I was able to come up with something similar and really cool for under a grand.

Step 3: Hull

The body of the ships are made out of patio umbrellas. I think the one's with eight panels have the best look. The umbrellas that I used were manufactured by Pottery Barn (as seen in the picture from the catalog). I got an awesome deal when I found all four of them (two for each UFO) from one seller on eBay for about $120. He was located an hour away so I didn't have to pay for shipping.

In starting the construction, remove and discard the small top fabric vent. Open the umbrella to it's maximum and use a steel pin to keep it in position. Cut off the main mast with a jigsaw, then paint the outside material with silver spray paint. It took about 20 cans of Rust-olem Aluminum 7515. Be sure to use a back-and-forth motion while painting to simulate a metal look.

The key component to couple/join the two halves together was old piece of shop vac tube cut to size, which turned out to be the perfect diameter, thickness and strength. To assemble, I simply guided the top half into the collar and gravity held it in place.

The nice thing about making the props out of umbrellas is that they are inherently waterproof. I've left the finished ships outside for more than a week exposed to heavy downpours with no problems.

Step 4: Cockpit

In my original display, I used a children's dome umbrella which I painted as the cockpit. Although inexpensive and functional, I was disappointed with the final results. So for the new incarnation, I decided to bite the bullet and order custom acrylic domes (which turned out to be the priciest item used in construction). After a google search, I found a company called EZ Tops World Wide Inc which manufactures plastic domes and replacement skylights. I placed the order by phone and they were a pleasure to work with.

For the main ship, we decided on a white acrylic dome 1/8" thick x 30" dia x 15" high plus 1/8 flange for $91. The cockpit for the second ship was a 3/16" thick (which I liked much better that the 1/8" thickness on the larger dome) x 20" dia x 10" high plus a 1/2" hole drilled in top center for $47. So after a total of $138, the real kicker was that it cost an additional $157 to ship, for a grand total of just under $300. They arrived in a heavy duty package (which doubles as a case for transport and storage) and were wrapped in protective tape to guard against scratching. Overall, they were worth every penny.

The interior of the domes were lit with the aptly named UFO Tent Light which cost $10 each. Since it was battery operated, it worked great on the smaller flying saucer, but I will probably use a larger single plug in bulb fixture next time for the mothership's cockpit because the dome was so large and it created a brighter hot spot on the top.

Step 5: Nav Lights

I needed something to camouflage the gap between the cockpit dome and the hull, so I constructed new navigation lights. They were made up of some plastic landscape lawn edging and battery operated LED Christmas lights.

I cut away everything but the tubular part of the edging, test fitted it around the dome, drilled holes for the bulbs and taped them into place. This upgraded addition really polished off the ships.

Step 6: Landing Struts

The three legs on the main ship were made from garbage can lids and an old wooden bannister. I removed the handle from the lids and cut the bannister into thirds. After screwing them together at the base and spray painting to match, I added a shelving brace (scrap metal) for stability.

An L-bracket was test fitted onto the umbrella frame. Then I draped the cover over the frame and bolted the brackets on (through small holes) to serve as an attachment point to secure the landing struts into place. Some plastic tubes from a broken kiddie soccer net (like thin pvc pipes) were used to give the tops of the legs a more substantial look, but it was just cosmetic. All of the structural support was provided by the bannister legs with no problems.

Step 7: Decent Engines

The aluminum framework of the umbrellas makes for an ideal structure to hang the inner workings of the engines. The first photo shows a black flexible tube (an old vacuum hose) which runs to the fog machine positioned on the floor behind the ship. There is also a strobe light shining straight down and a green spot light to illuminate the open hatch. In this new display, I added a small fan to push the fog exhaust out of the engines with some extra force behind it.

The engine housing is made up of 16 empty spray painted two liter bottles. Each pair is slightly wedged (and are held in place by pressing against each other) along the rim of the bottom eight openings. It's one of my favorite parts of the ship because it's a great looking feature and it didn't cost anything.

Regarding the fog machine, a higher end model with a timer is preferable because it will generate the engine blasts automatically. Be sure to leave a few inches between the nozzle of the fogger and the opening of the tube running up through the ship. A slight air gap is needed to produce the fog.

Step 8: Aliens

The little green men featured in the display are 6 inch action figures called The Roswell Aliens. They were manufactured by Street Players Holding Corp, originally released in 1996 and are no longer in production. You can sometimes find them on eBay or for $10-$15 each (including shipping). It took me six months to track down the first three. Then I was lucky enough to win an eBay auction for a set of 18 figures for $55. I really like the fact that they are small, because it is the correct scale for the ship.

First, I cut out and painted a wooden base black. After arranging the aliens in a random grouping, I marked their location, drilled holes through their feet and screwed them onto the base. I did the same thing with the three aliens on the ramp (which is an aluminum gutter).

I strategically cut a hole into the umbrella cover and bordered it with painted duct tape to create a open hatch. The top of the gutter was screwed into the frame of the umbrella and a green spot light was aimed down the ramp. The backlit effect looks really cool.

Step 9: Laser Weapons

One of the stand out elements of the main craft is the laser. The piece of equipment that produces the shooting beams is called a Jet Laser (made by a company called Extreme Lasers). It is a simple sound activated (or DMX controllable) laser with four individual laser heads. Each laser head emits a 4.95mW red beam, similar to a standard laser pointer. They cost $250 new, but I purchased mine used on eBay many years ago for $100. Keep in mind, there are a lot of other options to create this effect for even less money.

I screwed a black aluminum pole to the umbrella framework, cut a portal out of the fabric cover and mounted the laser along with a small computer speaker (running the laser sound effects from the main speakers) next to the laser's audio input. It really provides that professional ingredient to the entire display.

Step 10: Cloaking Device

When the two halves of the mothership come together, use duct tape and spray paint to conceal the gap. The finished prop is seen in the final picture with my kids helping to show the massive size of the centerpiece.

Step 11: Strange Lights in the Sky

The smaller second ship is constructed in a similar fashion as the first. Since it is flying and the gear is retracted, I used thick pie plates as landing pads and tied them up through the umbrella's cover.

The next thing needed is some quality rope which is lightweight but strong enough to suspend the saucer. I recommend 3/16" black polyester rope (a 500 foot spool on eBay costs about $50). Before joining the two umbrellas together, tie off some of the rope to the bottom half and feed it through the mast to the top half. The ship is hung from the bottom, and the upper portion just sits on top with a center coupling.

The smaller umbrellas that I purchased happened to come with grommet holes at the edges of their covers. Instead of duct taping the gap like the first UFO, I "stitched" them together with rope. The completed flying saucer is shown in the last photo with a painted children's umbrella covering the bottom hole.

Step 12: Flying Mechanism

After a couple epic failures with windshield wiper motors and flywheels, I settled on a garage door opener to put the "flying" in my flying saucer. I was daunted by the assembly process at first, but it went together pretty easy. I mounted it on a wood frame with some scrap metal brackets. The pulley wheels came from an old piece of exercise equipment (after finding out the small metal pulleys sold at Home Depot caused too much friction).

My original plan was to have the motor run continuously up and down with the use of some magnetic switches. However, I discovered (to my dismay) that all garage door openers have a thermal sensor inside which easily overheats and switches off after a few cycles. My solution was to use a lighting controller which I had previously purchased online from Monster Guts. The ST-2401 Stereo Lightning Controller (made by iZombie Productions) is a unit which provides power to two separate devices based on two independent audio input signals.  It is mainly used to simulate thunder and lightning effects.

I edited a simple Garage Band audio file on my Mac (see screen shot) and assigned one tone (on the left channel) to turn the garage door power source on and off while the other tone (panned to the right) signaled a relay to start the motor running (in essence, it hit the switch). Once the garage door trolley got to the "lowest" position, a screen blocked the infrared safety sensors (which came with the unit) and caused the mechanism to go back "up". Since the controller turns the garage door unit's power off and back on, it resets and becomes ready for another cycle.

This turned out to be a happy accident because the delay in the cycles makes it a really neat event when the ship finally starts to move. (instead of constantly yo yo-ing up and down). The delay is about two minutes between cycles (which kept the motor cool). And since it is an audio controller at heart, it was relatively easy to sync it with sound effects of a descending and ascending ship.

Although I was pressed for time, the entire mechanism turned out to be very reliable and worth the extra money. With 20lbs of counterweight, it was a piece of cake for the garage door opener to move the ship. I really like the fact that this configuration doesn't require any programing or soldering. If you are planning your own build, I'd be happy to save you some time and send you the audio files. Just contact me through instructables and I'll email you an mp3 of the audio tones to control the ST-2401 along with the custom sound effects of the lowering/raising spacecraft to run in sync on your iPod.

Of course, a completely different option would be to use an Arduino as the controller. And to save more money, you could do a few simple modifications to the garage door opener that you probably already have at home. Just bypass the wall button, disconnect the door from the trolley, prop it up with some blocks to make a small opening and run your line underneath with a few more pulleys. You can even use your car's remote to manually activate it. (Kids, be sure to ask your parents before dismantling your house.)

I'm unaware of any other Halloween props that use a garage door opener as the controlling motor, so send me a link if you've seen it done before.

Step 13: Runway Landing Lights

There is a memorable scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind where the landing lights are turned on in anticipation of the approaching space ships. As a subtle homage to the movie, I wanted to build my own for the display.

The main materials were 24 used battery operated tap lights, 12 strands of LED Christmas lights, 6 furring channels ten feet in length (available at Home Depot for $6.63 each) and a T4 four channel light chaser made by American DJ (less than $60).

First, gut the tap lights and remove the bulb, battery box and tapping mechanism. Glue the white domes into place. Use your handy dandy Dremel tool (an essential tool for this entire project) to cut evenly spaced openings in the furring channels along with larger holes in the tap light bases. Dremel off the ends of the LED Christmas bulbs (so they become frosted/muted) and tape them together in groups of four (for extra brightness) in intervals that will reach with the openings in the channels.

Connect three channels together end-to-end with hinges to create 2 thirty foot runs (which can fold up to ten feet for storage). Screw the tap light bases onto the channels and feed the Christmas lights within the channels so the bulbs come up through the bases. Lay them out according to the chart. (You'll have to string together two sets of lights for the third and fourth runs.) Enclose the bottom of the channels with duct tape, then spray paint a flat black color (while covering the bulbs). Place the domes back on the bases, plug each run into the T4 chase controller, set the desired speed and you're good to go...runway lights with no computer programing knowledge necessary.

(In case you were wondering, yes that is a lawn on my roof, but we'll save that for another instructable another day.)

Step 14: Area 51

The Area 51 lighting effect was accomplished with a Martin PR1 Gobo Projector and a custom glass gobo which I designed using Adobe Illustrator and ordered online through Gobos To Go (a company that I highly recommend). I attached a yellow gel to the front of the projector to add color.

The ambient green uplighting on the side walls of the garage was made by using economy par 38 dj light cans ($25 each). I cut out a piece of wood for the base, painted it black and drilled a hole in the center to countersink the bolt so it would sit flush on the floor. Then I screwed on the light fixture and added a green gel to create inexpensive mood lighting.

Step 15: Just Add Friends, Music and a Few Cocktails...

I think it's safe to say that people's minds were blown by the display during the big Halloween Party. In case you're planning your own event, some song suggestions to go with the theme and keep the dance floor hopping are "Men In Black" by Will Smith, "X Files" by DJ Punky, "Scream" by Michael Jackson (remix featured in the opening video) and "Flying Saucer Rock 'n' Roll" by Brian Setzer to name a few.

After the festivities and when it's time to tear down, the fact that all of the main props are able to fit into the back of my SUV is an added bonus. Overall, it was a huge success and I look forward to trying to top it next year.

Step 16: Join the Club

If this project inspires you to build your own UFO display out of patio umbrellas, please post your photos on this site so it can be included in this instructable.

The first photo is an amazing build by Kimberley Munzo of Florida (instructables member 2010Area51) complete with homemade Roswell Aliens. The second photo shows a cool display by Rob Arrington (also of Florida) who added to the concept with led rope lighting around the edge of the craft along with some some retro landing gear.

Thanks for sharing, and feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

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