Olde Style Radar Station to Track Santa





Introduction: Olde Style Radar Station to Track Santa

About: Commercial photographer with a need for some diy projects with the kiddies!

Every year, my boys and I are tasked by my wife* to come up with a Christmas card to send out to family and friends. And, every year there are the usual challenges to produce something creative and that tops last years efforts.

This year, the original concept was to find a 1930s motorcycle with a side car and figure out how to get it up to the studio. Well, I found one 1934 BMW, in cherry red. But, it was about a foot too wide to fit in the elevator. And the owner was understandably reluctant to separate it for the low budget we had for prop rentals. I even offered to raise my price to 2 six-packs of beverage of his choice. But, we were turned down and had to table that idea. (still looking, if you know anyone).

Plan B was to place the boys some place like 1960s NASA or 1980s War Games (Matthew Broderick, 1983. Look it up.) or, perhaps, Hunt For Red October style of thing.

Which would require the creation of a prop radar screen station and a little photoshop work.

*Disclaimer: Yes, she wants a nice card every year. And, yes, I am the one who decides to turn it into a full pre- and post- production project requiring multiple props, costumes, special effects and a generally quirky sense of humor. But, she loves me anyway.

Step 1: The Plan

Any good, concept based photoshoot starts with a plan. I needed to sketch up the basic idea, both to figure out the shopping list and to share and get approvals from the talent (my boys) and my client (my wife).

You can see that, at this point, the station was going to be Ice Station Blitzen.

Step 2: Shopping List

1 4x4 sheet of luan (1/4 inch plywood)
2 2x3 8' pine
grey paint
black paint
1 lid from 5 gallon paint bucket
various switches, dials, knobs etc.

I found the knobs on eBay a while ago, when I was working on a Steampunk project. I found the old dc volt meters online for another project, too.

I am really kicking myself because I attended the MIT Flea, an amazing tech flea market in Cambridge, MA, about a month before. And, I could have have bought about 4 pounds of various cool and bizarre looking antique switches for what I paid for the 10 or so toggles  from a local electronics store. Ah, well.

I also had a couple of old headsets from various garage sales. 

The costumes were a couple of brand new shirts (still had the tags) from a local thrift store.

Step 3: Assembly

I cut the 4 x 4 sheet of luan in half and then cut the holes for the dials and for the radar screen. Then I spray painted it with several coats of grey.

I built three brackets made from the 2x3s to support the luan by making an L and then adding an angled piece. (sorry, didn't take a picture of those).

Once I set it up in the studio, we checked for placement of the buttons and dials and then drilled holes for the switches and sockets. I could have also wired in LEDs and more switches but I knew I could add some in post production and didn't want to dedicate that much time to actually wiring it up.

The ring around the outside of the radar screen was made by cutting the inside of the 5 gallon bucket top and spray painting it black. For the photoshoot, I put several layers of diffusion material, plus a couple of green gels meant for balancing strobes to florescent lights.

Step 4: The Shoot

I decided to use hotlights for this shoot because I really wanted to be directional and a bit contrasty. Also, my strobes would have been too much for the radar light.

Check out the video in the next step to see a slide show of the lighting set up.

Step 5: Post Production

Photoshop is my friend. I will love it and take care of it and abuse the heck out of it every chance I get. Added radar screen graphic from Nixvex from vecteezy.com. Also dropped in the Santa graphic from some old clip art and tweaked it with colors and glows. While I was in there, I punched up the colors, added some grain, added a little vignette, tweaked the dials to make them look working, added some led buttons and generally mucked around until it felt good!



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    26 Discussions


    2 years ago

    OH COOL SET! i wonder where do you put these sets, plus do you have some easy tips on making HDRI as shown in step 4?

    1 reply

    Hi mchau2, no hdri was used in the production. I added a little contrast to my already contrasty hot lights in post.

    Most important, working with your kids. That's a tradition they'll carry on with theirs! Thanks for sharing.


    3 replies

    Thank you, Larry. That is the most important part! I love the fact that my 12 year old has just graduated to soldering and is now taking on projects that would stymie me. The teacher is slowly becoming the student.

    When my daughter was in elementary school, I'd spend one day each semester helping in class. We did lots of fun things including: a working solar water heater, demo of the sun's light spreading over the tilted globe causing seasonal temperature changes, and cooking as the pioneers did. We made apple cobbler, baking it in a wooden baking dish in the cafeteria's oven. Unfortunately, I set the disk on fire!!!

    When my daughter was 12 years old (same as your son!) she and my wife came to visit me during a one year assignment to Phoenix. I gave her a road map and explained how it worked. Pointing out where we were and where the Grand Canyon was, I asked her to tell me how to get there, including some side trips. We got in the car and she "navigated" making NO mistakes for 250 miles. It was so much fun that when we went back home, we set up a father-daughter "road rally" for her Girl Scout Troop. That was followed by a picnic. Great adventure!


    Lol! That is awesome! Our kids are usually a lot smarter and cleverer than we give them credit.

    You are SO OVER THE TOP!
    I LOVE IT!!!  GREAT Job!  And what WONDERFUL creativity you have!!! 
    Thanks for sharing!!!  =)

    1 reply

    Hi, thank you for this and excellent job of finding projects with your sons. Don't kn ow if it's important or not, but I gave you my vote, there was a button to vote and clicked it. Hopefully a lot of our fellows readers did likewise.

    Happy Holidays to you, your family and all the readers and staff.

    1 reply

    Hey mack_jigger!

    Always important to me is if I have successfully told the story! Thanks for your vote!


    I like how you converted a bucket into a radar screen... that kind of ingenuity is what sets someone like you apart from everyone else. Nicely done!


    1 reply

    LOVE THIS! What a great fun Christmas card and great memories getting to do this together with you. You rock! And I also now want to be on your Christmas card mailing list...and see the past creations!

    1 reply

    Thanks, booturtle!

    As it happens, I have a few of our past Christmas experimental photos up at my blog.

    Can't help but be proud of my boys who participate every year. It started with just some brain storming. Then, some set building.

    Now, it is hard to say who is more enthusiastic for the project, them or me! And, big credit to my wife, who encourages us to come up with these crazy ideas.

    If you're curious for past efforts, you can check them out here: http://mckeephotography.com/tag/christmas/

    A very nice piece of work, your attention to detail does you credit and clearly shows through in the final product. If you like that, you might like this -

    NORAD Tracks Santa

    Very impresive, your creativity definatly show and pride you take in making all details.