And Sundry Related Bits
Every year, the members of the World Science Fiction Society award the Science Fiction Achievement Awards, more commonly known as the “Hugos,” to deserving writers, artists, and other creators of the previous year’s outstanding SF. The actual trophy was standardized some years ago: a beautiful chromed rocket. But the base of the trophy, on which the rocket sits and where the winner’s name is usually found, is different every year. So every year, somebody, somewhere, has to figure out what that base is going to look like.
The 67th WorldCon, held in 2009, was in Montreál, and Montreál’s Awards Committee decided to hold a contest to design the base for the 2009 awards. A contest which I won. Wheeeee! And yikes. Because part of the requirements for the base were to have some kind of plan for actually making them, and my scheme involved me doing most of the work, so winning the contest meant I had a lot of work to do.
Well, there were some tense moments along the way, but in the end, they all made it there in time to be handed out to the various winners, and the comments I collected after the ceremony were, well, very gratifying. I shot a number of pictures before I went to Montreál so they’d have some good pictures to throw up on the big screens when the design was unveiled to the public at the ceremony, but those pictures have a blank aluminum band for the insignia plate, since I didn’t see the actual plaques (and thus, find out who’d won), until the day before the awards when we joined the plaques to the bases.
So I finally got around to taking some new pictures of the exhibition base that I am privileged to keep as an example of my work, with the final plaque in place. There are also some of the pictures that were see at the ceremony and/or posted to some of the official web sites, to help fill out the picture. I’m hoping, sometime later this month, to also get some pictures posted that I took while I was making them, and maybe some shots of the original prototype that landed me the gig in the first place. But for now, I think these images of that oh-so-shiny rocket lifting off from my base are a good start.
As I told the awards ceremony audience: “it’s a rock.” Here’s what I wrote in my initial proposal:
The majority of Hugo Award bases, regrettably, are not, as the Montreál contest guidelines request, an “integral part of the design.” They are certainly an integral part of the structure; if you pick up the rocket, the base stays attached. But for the most part, the base doesn’t have any obvious reason for sitting under a rocket other than to provide a place to stick the award placard. My design was created in part to provide a context for the rocket that not only accomplishes the needed functions of an award base, but also compliments the fact that the trophy itself is a rocket ship. Alas, making it actually fly through space was deemed technically infeasible. My design proposal offers the next best thing: lift-off from an asteroid. [Note to self: Wow, try not to sound quite so pretentious next time.]
Here’s another excerpt from my unveiling speech:
Like an asteroid, my base design is fairly neutral at a distance. This allows the rocket itself to stand out. The special details reveal themselves upon closer examination, like the plaque. The plaque “floats” in front of the asteroid. Although the rocket appears to be parked on the asteroid, this is not actually the case. Rather, it has just started to depart for other worlds. The space ship is hovering above the asteroid’s blast pit, which has started to fill with the rocket’s exhaust flames.
You’ve probably already spotted the tell-tale sign that this spacecraft’s engines were made by a Canadian firm. If not, here’s a closer look at the blast pit with the rocket moved out of the way. The exhaust flames, embedded in polyurethane, are semi-transparent and iridescent, and photographs really can’t capture the full effect, so I encourage you to get a closer look tomorrow.
Since you, Dear Reader, can’t get a closer look tomorrow, I’ve assembled a little QuickTime movie that shows the play of light across the blast rosettes.
Not every base was made from Blue Pearl granite. There were a few that were black and red, a couple of green ones, and some black and white ones. The Blue Pearl was definitely my personal favorite, but unexpectedly, I just couldn’t get enough of it in time. The emerald, like the blue, was dark enough to let the blast rosettes show quite nicely, but the black/white and the black/red had so much contrast that the rosettes tended to get lost against the background. So for the trophies made from those kinds of stone, I painted the blast pit black to help show off the flames.
I’ve seen a couple of web sites report that the base is made from Canadian granite. While that was my original plan, it didn’t work out that way. You can read why further down this page, under “Construction.” Blue Pearl ‘granite’ is actually a Norwegian larvikite, similar to labradorite.
OK, so, well, I was way too busy at the actual event to take any pictures. But I did snap a couple the day before, when we were doing the final assembly in a very secret room hidden away in the convention center. I don’t know about you, but I find the sight of all those Hugos lined up like that downright breathtaking.
An important note for any future base-crafters: taking a good picture of a shiny chrome whatsis is very difficult. Somebody on the Montreál presentation crew was really on the ball, because they asked the awards committee if somebody (which is to say, me) could be sure to get some good pictures for the big screens taken ahead of time. They knew it would be very hard to shoot a decent picture of a Hugo once we were at the convention.
My pre-show ‘glamour’ photo
The photo on the left is the one I supplied them. It is not as good as the one I have at the top of this page, but it was definitely much better than anything I would have been able to get at the convention. The picture below right is a shot of what my bedroom looked like while I was trying to get a good picture of the darn thing.
The key feature of the setup are the large white pieces of paper scattered around. I’ve got green, yellow, and red floodlights on some of them. You see, you can’t get a good picture of chrome unless you can get a good picture of what it’s reflecting, so I had to make sure there was something to reflect. In this case, that was bright white or colored squares to contrast with the dark background (the dark brown walls of the room, that is), and using something besides just straight white everywhere makes the rocket look a lot more interesting. I did the photo shoot in my bedroom because there’s an extensive track lighting grid on the ceiling. You can’t see those lights in the shot, but there were four or five halogen lights positioned above the trophy. One was pointed down from just in front of it to light the flat top of the base and provide one of the gleams at the tip. Another was aimed from above and behind to help pick out the edge of the chrome to make the edge of the rocket more visible. I had this really great black felt with iridescent fibers in it that I used for the backdrop, so another light was arranged to make the fibers twinkle, but not put too much light on the felt so it would stay dark.
The setup for taking the shot All that light coming from above made the lower half of the base where it curves under just go completely black with shadow, so there’s another big piece of paper right in front of it and a nice bright light on that in order to throw a little light up from below. Finally, the white floodlight in the middle of the picture was lighting the white paper just visible on the right hand side of the picture. That sheet is what provides the bright white streak down the left edge of the rocket.
Some tricks that I didn’t have for the first shoot really helped my later picture kick it up a notch. With the earlier shots, I’d been trying to throw the background out of focus, in part because I hadn’t had time to iron it out. I got it ironed for the later shots, so it was easier to use a really high f-stop (around 22 or 28, I believe). I also managed to put the backdrop further away from the rocket. The increased distance helped keep the lights on the rocket from also lighting up the backdrop, keeping it nice and black. The high f-stop made the felt’s twinkles look quite a bit more like stars, and also are what caused the snazzy points to come off the bright gleams of the rocket.
The red, yellow, and green reflections are quite a bit more prominent (perhaps a bit too much, actually), and there’s also a blue-white streak, which in particular really lights up what would have been a dark stripe on the brushed aluminum plaque. That was from a hand-held flashlight that I ran up the rocket while the shutter was open on the camera.
This section grew so big I decided to move it to its own page.
About half of them were simply shipped to Montreál in U.S. Post Flat-Rate boxes. Unfortunately, a combination of an unexpected decline in the availability of the raw blanks, and having the polyurethane alter its behavior for the worse at the last minute, resulted in about fifteen of the bases being completed so late that it wasn’t safe to mail them. They probably would have reached WorldCon before the ceremony, but I would have been so mortified if they hadn’t, I can hardly even speak of it. The alternative was to take them with us and hand-deliver them.
This was not my first choice, except that I couldn’t think of anything else to which it could be a second choice. You see, each base weighs about five pounds, so we had to get about seventy pounds of rocks from Seattle to Montreál. Fortunately, we were not flying to WorldCon. We were going by train. Amtrak isn’t nearly as fussy about luggage as the airlines. A royal pain in the back to shlep those things, but not more expensive.
Actually, we only had to haul them as far as Brooklyn. Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden generously put my husband and I up for a few days before the convention; allowing us time to vacation in New York City before completing the last leg of our train ride up to Montreál. Since they had already planned to drive up, they offered to haul the rocks up for us, so we didn’t have to get them on and off the train again. (This turned out to be a very good thing, since the Adirondack was packed with fen, and an annoyingly disorganzied and chaotic boarding scheme at Penn station resulted in us being some of the last people on the train, despite having been some of the very first passengers to arrive at the station.)
I felt a little guilty about letting them deal with the rocks, but only until I met up with them again at the convention, whereupon they erased every last trace of pity I felt for them by paying me back with one of the most perfect, awful puns I have ever had to hear.
My main concern in all this was to make sure I didn’t embarrass myself. Some of the bases from previous years are cited for their beauty, others are more noted for, well, let’s just say they’re more likely to be kept in a closet than a mantlepiece. I certainly had many nice people say many nice things about mine (“elicited gasps of admiration”, “one of the most beautiful...I’ve ever seen“, “gorgeous” (Don Wells, John Scalzi, John Cleaver, Cheryl Morgan, and Kaja Foglio), “really gorgeous“), but it was still pretty breathtaking when I was honored in a way no previous base designer had been: my name was on the final ballot for the 2010 Hugo Awards in the category of “Best Fan Artist.” And oh, yes, it absolutely is an honor just to be nominated. It’s even more of an honor to place second. And then there’s the fact that I came in second to Brad Foster, who’d won six previous Hugos and been nominated 20 times, and that I was so busy in 2009 with making the bases, that I didn’t have any other artwork out that year. So, coming in second to Brad on the strength of a single piece of work? I can live with that.
Will I ever do that again? In the sense of, will I ever pick up hammer and chisel and blowtorch and make some more asteroids: no, I really doubt I’ll be doing anything similar. Will I ever make bases for the Hugo awards? I really couldn’t say. Each WorldCon is run by a different (mostly) group of people. Normally, the awards committee just finds somebody to create them; having a design contest is atypical, although it’s been more common in recent years. Will I enter the next contest that comes along? Again, I really couldn’t say. If I happen to have a really good idea, and I have the time, I might. On the other hand, maybe I’ll just be satisfied with having done it once. Because, y’know, I think this one came out pretty darn nice.