Vol. 08: Mr. Cranky

Ernie Fosselius' menagerie of mechanical woodcarvings.

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Bonus Ernie Fosselius Interview

By David Battino

When sculptor Ernie Fosselius showed his wonderful Crankabout Mechanical Theater at the O’Reilly campus, I was transfixed by the elaborate Monkey Organ (hear it here). Later, I interviewed Fosselius by e-mail for the profile in this issue's Made on Earth section. Here's a lightly edited version of that interview.

Looking at Mark Frauenfelder's photos of your work, I wondered how you visualize the mechanisms. Do you start with static figures and then add moving parts, or do you notice interesting ways that simple machines interact and build an anthropomorphic concept around that?

Both ways. Usually it's the joke/punchline or surprise I'm trying to arrive at. But certain mechanisms, like the Geneva movement in "Over 40," where an old guy keeps trying to find the right focal distance to read his paper-it moves in intermittent steps-suggest certain movements, actions, and humorous situations. Or starting with trying to figure out the simplest way to simulate liquid pouring for "The Bottomless Cup of Coffee" and working the other direction to find the mechanism. Sometimes it's just the beauty of the machine or elegant nature of the movement, like the old standard "B.S. Grinder" or Do-Nothing Machine (actually an ellipsograph) which is just fascinating and hypnotic to crank for its own sake.

The Politician

In any case, I try to keep the mechanism as simple as possible, mostly so people don't feel mystified or intimidated. I hate when that happens, especially with kids whom I'm trying to help empower to make stuff. I like to be the magician who reveals all his secrets and shows you all the wires, so you want to go home and try it yourself.

I didn't invent any of this, by the way. These mechanical principles have been around since probably Leonardo's time. There are very old books reprinted that show most of these mechanical movements. It's just a question of how you want to abuse them for your own devious or humorous purposes. The possibilities are endless.

Having said all that, I must add that sometimes I like to overcomplicate, mystify, and make redundant some of the mechanisms just for comic effect and to satirize our complicated lives, or like with the rolling ball pieces, just for the pure joy of watching all the moving parts go whiz boing whirr plonk. Look up "Rube Goldberg."

How much refinement do you have to do to the mechanisms to get them working reliably?

It's not like a Geppetto thing, like bringing a wooden statue to life. These figures are never thought of as static at any point and the whole thing kind of comes together the way it wants to. I just tinker, fit, and try, and keep myself open to what this thing wants to do. It's a pretty organic process and I'm usually amazed at the result. I never have a measured drawing or blueprint, only a rough cartoon that I work from. I hate measuring. It's really that process of building and tinkering and refining that's the most interesting, rewarding, and fun part. Finishing it is anticlimactic. When it's done, I always want to move on to the next project right away.

Also, "reliable" is a relative concept. With adults who are gentle and feel the cause-and-effect action of the crank, these things would last forever. But let a 3-year-old child have at it and the destruction is instant and awesome. It's when they climb up and swing from the cranks....

But it's all good because they have never seen anything like it before and just don't know how to play with it. Of course I could go with bulletproof shields and titanium cranks, but I don't mind patching everything up after every showing because I know folks had a good time and maybe some of the "I can do that" possibilities stuck in their minds.

Every piece is constantly improved through that repair process, and I have completely changed some of the pieces. For example, the piece now called "The Politician," which does nothing when you turn the crank, was originally a specific, well-known public figure, but it caused a couple of heated political arguments and fisticuffs to break out, so he got re-carved into a generic political figure with the new name. Now people just laugh as they slowly realize he doesn't do anything.

Some background: I remember making downhill coaster cars, which were like scratch-built "artists' soapbox racers" when I was very young, using whatever junk we could beg borrow or...we tried not to steal, but occasionally you'd see an upturned shopping cart or baby carriage with all four wheels gone and you smiled because you knew what the story was. Somewhere nearby in some Junior Monster Garage, a new coaster was being created-with matching wheels! We were all recyclers then but we called ourselves scroungers. If you scored a real steering wheel you had an instant Cadillac. I mistakenly thought then that every kid in the world was doing this kind of thing.

Also when I was a kid I got my mind warped by all the automata at Sutro's in San Francisco, which became the MusZe Mechanique at the Cliff House. There were immense motorized circus dioramas made entirely of matchsticks, and mechanical figures carved by prisoners, bizarre fortune tellers, weird mechanized scenes, out-of-tune player pianos and automatic banjos, malfunctioning mechanical movie machines with flip cards, a steam motorcycle bolted to the wall, and the original Tucker car. All of that was an obvious influence that stuck with me. I like presenting a hopefully equally strange and fascinating group of objects to young people who may be inspired to play in that particular playground.

Do you use hand-powered tools as well, or is the organic feel of your work more a result of technique?

My technique, if any, would be called old fashioned whittling-at least for the caricature figures. I don't use power tools much. Maybe a drill. I do rough out the basswood blanks on a band saw to simplify carving the figures. I carve with an old-fashioned pocket knife, a modern carving knife, and palm gouges (not the hit-with-a-mallet type) and it's considered whittling because you hold the piece in your hand. It's all really woodcarving no matter what you call it.

If you look closely at the boxes and bases of the automata (don't) you'll see that I'm not much of a woodworker. I don't like rulers. And I hate to sand. I know that makes me sound like a total retro anti-tech Luddite, but it's a waste of time. If you can put the joke over in the simplest way, get the entertainment value across without involving a biscuit joiner or dowelling jig, why bother? (See Hardware Wars) Use that time to make another piece. A slick finish is not going to add anything to the piece if it's already working, and overworking it might kill its soul or character.

What are some of the most memorable comments you've heard when presenting your creations to high-tech audiences like Pixar and O'Reilly?

You mean like "Awesome, Dude"? I can't remember many specific comments, but I always get a sense that high-tech thinkers and tinkerers appreciate the irony in the contrast of what I do and what they do. Even though I see it as practically the same thing. I'm just a Mechanical Geek. Everyone likes the simplicity of the mechanisms and most people get the jokes. A lot of people respond to the fact that the whole thing is human powered and completely off the grid. If the power failed, we would only need a few candles to light the thing up. Someone called it "the entertainment of the future." That's pretty cool.

What are some funny requests you've received?

I'm sure you've noticed that no matter what you've made, everyone always has ideas and suggestions for you that will improve it. "You know what you need to do...." People sometimes tell me that it would be better if I added motors to all the pieces, or to the crank organ. Or to the pedal car. More efficient. Speaking of Hardware Wars, I can't tell you how many times people have told me that they could see the wires. I never know what to tell them. I guess you either get it or you don't.

How does your movie background affect your style?

I feel that I am still making movies. I'm creating little characters, situations, and stories that hopefully make people laugh. But it's direct entertainment and I get instant feedback. So much better than the thousands of person-hours, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and massive amounts of equipment that you used to* need to make a movie. All of which, I feel, distances you from your audience. I get results that are more creatively satisfying with a pocket knife and a stick. And this kind of simple and direct presentation is more rewarding because, unlike films, I get to be there when people experience it.

My latest project is converting the old Mechalodeon (As Seen On TV-Bay Area Back Roads), which is a 1977 Dodge "Beaver" eight-cylinder, gas pig, smoke-spewing motor home, and which is now safely up on blocks in my back yard and not currently polluting, into the Marble Drome, an exhibit dedicated entirely to rolling-ball sculptures. The ones I am making now, which I call Marble Movies, have characters and tell a story just like a short film, in a little more complex way than the simple automata in the Crankabout Mechanical Theater. Coming soon!

For more on Ernie Fosselius, see his Wikipedia page.

Ernie Fosselius

*Fosselius adds: "Thankfully, a person can make films all alone these days if they want to, with digital video and audio and software for desktop editing. You can even make a feature film with a cell phone. The possibilities are endless. And now there are hundreds of places to get your work seen online, which is great. All of us Old School short filmmakers bailed when the old analog/traditional venues (theaters) dried up and only a few visionaries in that bleak time saw the digital revolution coming. That wasn't that long ago, kids!"

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