ROBOTS WILL KILL YOU...

MAJESTIC STUDIO'S CYLON CENTURION

majestic studio cylon centurion

 

With the re-viz Battlestar Galactica series now in its final episodes after four seasons, it's a strange time to do an article on a figure that was released a few years ago and is no longer in the retail food chain. I guess that's the point though: It's a souvenir of an outstanding show that will soon be gone, and when you hear "Battlestar Galactica", you think "Cylon". Although the metal-skinned Cylons played a nearly incidental role in the new series, they were an interesting design and radical update of the original series' men-in-plastic-suits.

Majestic's Cylon Centurion was produced based on the original CGI files from the show. To paraphrase the blurb from the box, this ensured a very accurate likeness, but "...every piece of this figure needed to be engineered from scratch since there's obviously no user guide to Cylon movement." CGI is a great innovation for film, but often doesn't translate very well to the real physical world of figures and dolls. I don't know when it all began, but Terminator 2's "liquid metal robot" is an extreme example of a CGI film icon that can't be properly rendered as an articulated 1:6th scale figure because the technology depicted doesn't exist in the real world. In contrast, the T800 robot of the first film was a physical model-- so duplicating that as a 1:6 production doll was simply a matter of how much "realism" the consumer was willing to pay for. The difficulties with the CGI-to-toy translation extends to more mundane CGI constructions as well-- CGI allows mechanical constructions that appear to work on screen, but wouldn't work if constructed in real life, out of real materials-- I believe that the Aliens Versus Predator films' retractable shuriken is a good example of that.

Even though it's not available through regular retail channels, Majestic's Cylon Centurion can still be found on eBay with a hefty markup, due to its current scarcity-- they didn't make that many of them, and it appears that they abandoned their production plans for the series. Naturally, if you were considering spending those bucks, you might want to Google around for some objective opinions or reviews. I found plenty of pages that had the product announcement, stock sales copy and some detailed photos, but I didn't find anything resembling an honest review. To be fair, it's easy enough to read between the lines and deduce from what isn't being said, but sometimes we just wanna believe what we wanna believe.

To Majestic's credit, they do make a tepid attempt at disclosure: "To keep the original design and likeness intact, there is limited articulation. The moveable areas are the shoulders, elbows, wrist, hips and knees." This is basically soft-pedal bullshit, a legalistic disclaimer, cleverly positioned within a list of features. To be scrupulously honest, they should have separated it from the list of features and put it in a tiny font in an obscure part of the packaging: "The Cylon design sells itself and we didn't want to spend a lot of money producing this, so we gave it as little articulation as we felt we could get by with."

"Red eye movement accomplished using a lenticular process. Allows eye movement without batteries." --probably refers to the user, after smoking some very good shit.

"To keep the original design and likeness intact..." This galls me because it's patently misleading. Judging from a photo, you're inclined to take their word for it. Once I had it in hand, I thought, "huh?" You don't have to be a rocket surgeon to see where simple swivels could have been added, with absolutely no impact on the appearance. This is a robot ferchristssake! You don't need a user guide to figure out Cylon movement. Basically, they just didn't try. It's not necessary (or even desirable) for producers to take articulation to the extremes that Hot Toys took with their Terminator robot, but even a marginal attempt beyond the articulation of a vinyl garage kit would have been a huge improvement. Considering its original price to value ratio, this is an underachiever that makes the pricey Hot Toys Terminator seem like a tremendous bargain.

To be fair, it may be that I'm not properly tuned to changing tastes and times. This is marketed as a "premium collectible figure". Sideshow Collectibles has a "Premium Format" line, basically 1:4 scale, mixed medium statues with minimal articulation; the larger scale offers an opportunity for improved detail. These seem to be popular, so that indicates that there's an audience that doesn't really care about articulation and poseability. For me, I expect a non-garage kit/non-statue 1:6th scale figure (a.k.a. "doll") to be an ambitious balance between articulation and looks. There are times where sacrifices in either direction have to be made, but generally, if there's an obvious place for articulation that doesn't detract from the looks, I expect it to be there. Anything less is a wasted opportunity.

There's little to justify the "premium" claim. The level of detail is true to the surface features of the design, but not especially crisp, and absent where it's clear that the CGI model intended articulation. Mold parting lines run across detail pieces and casting imperfection are present. The paint ops in the hands & guns are airbrushed where you would expect a detail-enhancing wash.

Again, to be fair, this isn't a bad-looking figure. It's just so much less than it could have been, and was priced at far above what its production quality justified.

I like a challenge and don't agonize about butchering a "premium collectible figure", so you can see my efforts to plumb the inner workings of Majestic's Cylon below. My goal was to see how it was constructed and what it was made of, to gauge how it might be made more poseable. The manufacturer's design and choice of materials determine how easy it is to do this, and unfortunately, Majestic didn't make the job easy.

majestic studio cylon centurion It's not obvious what this thing is made of given the weight and the finish, which looks almost like a die-cast model. Since there aren't any screws or press-fit panels which cover screws, the apparent way to get started was to pry... and there appears to be a clue in the back, between the upper and lower trunk. It's a rectangular projection on the upper torso that mates with a channel on the lower, and provides a place to insert a screwdriver to pry, with the least chance of marring a highly visible area. That's an important point if you want to be able to back out, and if you don't want to tackle a major refinishing job. It's unlikely that you'd be able to match the finish if you need to touch up a highly visible area that's been marred.

It turns out that the lower torso is made of a conventional rigid plastic, and the upper is made of a flexible and very dense PVC-like plastic. The two sections are glued together, but with patience and careful prying, the parts will eventually separate. It's surprising how heavy the top section is and I initially suspected that it might be made of metal, or have a pewter inner shell. A little bit of scraping and drilling proved that is was made of a clear, flexible plastic that creates "fluffy" plastic debris when drilled. The plastic is heat-sensitive; while cool, the part is so thick that it doesn't appear to flex, but once heated, it softens and becomes flexible. It returns to its original shape as long as you don't force any deformations while it's cooling.

With the torso separated, it's relatively easy to remove the ball from the front by prying. The ball doesn't give access to anything else (as I thought it might), but it's probably a good idea to remove it to protect it from heat that you might be directing into the inside surface of the upper torso.

alt="majestic studio cylon centurion head"The rectangular projection right below the ball mounting hole is the bottom of the pocket for the neck stem. You can pry the neck from the outside, but it's probably easier and safer to heat from the inside and pull from the top. The bottom of the neck post and pocket have a "D" cross-section, so they were designed not to swivel, even after breaking the glue bond. That's easy to fix, and the post can be secured to the body by a screw (or force fit-- it stays tight enough).

The head can be separated from the neck post, although I found it to be a more difficult prying job: the post snapped, slightly into the head recess. The neck post appears to be made of a rigid white resin that's fairly tough, but will snap before it bends. For my purposes, the breakage wasn't a problem: The broken remnant in the head was drilled through to reveal a hollow space in the head. I drilled the neck post and put in a screw with a fairly big head. The Cylon head (probably PVC) was jammed over the screw and holds onto the screw/neckpost like a ball/socket joint. This gives the head the ability to swivel and tilt. Although you could rebuild the neck post with the full articulation it should have (implied by the cast detail), I was satisfied with the additional articulation I'd added and stopped there. At this point, you can press fit the torso back together (you don't need to glue it, unless you're going to be knocking it over or turning it upside down), and you'd have a slightly more poseable Cylon. Simple neck articulation adds a lot to the expressiveness of a pose.

My next step was exploratory: How is the frackin' arm affixed? You can tug from the outside till the cows come home without much success. My solution was to grind through to where I expected the arm to anchor, partially to see if there were any other construction secrets. At that time, I couldn't accept that the top was a huge chunk of solid, dense plastic. In hindsight, I think that you could try heating it from the outside with a heat gun, but you might damage the finish since the part that needs to be heated is behind the pauldron. Immersion in boiling water might work, but I stubbornly resist doing that. At any rate, blowing hot air inside the cavity through to the arm pin softened the torso plastic enough so that the arm popped right out. With the arm off, heating the torso from the outside softened the hole edges enough so the arm was easy to pop back in, as tight as it originally was. [Note: This is a good place to stop if you don't want to get in too deep. Now is the time to put it all back together and say, "Gee. Wasn't that interesting?"]

This was the part that I really wanted to dicker with-- the arm articulation. As is, it's simply... lame-- a shoulder swivel and elbow hinge. This was probably what Majestic was referring to when they invoked their "original likeness and design" disclaimer. They took the easy way out by designing the upper arm and rounded pauldron to be cast as one piece. On their box, there's a shot from the show that hints that the pauldron is actually a separate piece covering the upper arm where it joins the body... which makes sense. What can't be discerned is how the parts are connected and how they'd move together. With traditional armour, the pauldron is usually connected to the body by flexible, omnidirectional strapping, so that it "floats" when the arm is pivoted outward or forward and backward. It gets out of the way, so as not to restrict or bind the arm. Flexible straps are easy, but don't seem to be the way it should be done with robots. Instead, it seems like the pauldron should be articulated on the upper arm with a pin running from front to back, through the upper arm joint. That way, the pauldron would pivot in parallel with the arm as it was swept outward, and travel with the plane of the arm as it was swept forward and backward. Clearly, that's harder to do than simply attaching the pauldron with straps.

Speculating is the easy part, and Majestic didn't do any favors by casting the upper arm and pauldron as one piece. This makes it difficult to do even the simplest job-- adding a bicep swivel. The ideal place to put the cut line would be above where the arm joins the pauldron, so that the line wouldn't be as visible or cut across the black bicep detail. (A much easier option would be to place it below the bicep, but that wouldn't look as good.) To explore further articulation options like the outward sweep, the pauldron would need to be separated from the upper arm; to do that, you need to know your Dremel fairly well. There are other options, such as making a casting of the pauldron and grinding away at the arm. This would necessitate finish matching though, or more likely, a total refinish job. You need moldmaking and casting supplies for that though (and I don't have any).

To do this as a Dremel job, you just have to make a lot of properly-placed and closely-spaced drill holes (NOT piercing through the pauldron!), then connect them by moving the drill bit laterally. The biggest challenge is keeping finished surfaces safe as you get the proper drill angle. Wrapping the surface with a thick protective coating of tape is a really good idea. This type of job requires a thin bit and a slim chuck because you're grinding at close proximity and nearly parallel to the finished surface; the chuck can just as easily damage the surface as the bit. A drill bit can only make straight holes, so the idea is to make straight perforations following the outside edge that meet the straight perforations following the inside edge-- like cutting out an orange wedge with a straight knife. It's not necessary to preserve most of the "meat" of the upper arm, but it is necessary to avoid cutting through to the outside of the pauldron. At a certain point, you'll be able to snap the pieces apart. The good news is that the upper arm/pauldron casting is made of a kind of rigid (but very tough) resin. This makes for very controllable grinding and produces a very fine dust. Once the parts are separated, you can clean up and shape the exposed surfaces; again, the resin is very tough so some cutting and grinding bits may seem a little less effective than expected. Because the new surfaces are relatively hidden, they don't require a stellar finishing job.

Whew. For now, that's about it... To be honest, this is an incidental project, and when it's done, the Cylon will go back to a dark dusty shelf inhabited by other robots (theme: "Robots will kill you!"). Hopefully I'll get back to this soon and show how I solved all these intractable problems. Unfortunately, separating the pauldron from the arm puts me one step beyond the point of no return, so I really do need to plow ahead.

-02/07/09


Damn, I spoke too soon. I thought installing a bicep swivel would be an easy job, but I didn't count on the mutherfrackin' resin being so hard and uncooperative! Sawing across a small part like this should be a fairly quick and easy job-- you use a hand saw for control and to make a thin, straight cut across the bicep area. This one, not so quick and easy. Saw, saw, saw... for a long, long, long, long time. I'm no weenie, but my gripping hand aches from holding the part in a sawing position. I even used my fearsome and dangerous metal circular saw blade in my foot-controlled Foredom rotary tool and that didn't speed things up significantly (I stopped after I got impatient, revved it up too high and started making smoke). This has convinced me that I will be satisfied doing only one arm: installing the bicep swivel, but not doing the outward sweep. The outward sweep design was dependent on doing both arm, since the plan called for a vintage-style Joe's cross-arm elastic tensioning. The shoulders and upper arms would need to be doctored for a ball & socket joint (which is truly the point of no return), with the cross pin in the arm securing both the elastic's hook and providing a swivel pin for the pauldron. I think this plan could have worked, but the difficulty of working with this super-hard resin is an unexpected twist. It just ain't worth the trouble. At this point, I'm not even sure what I'm going to use for the bicep swivel since I assumed that the material would be suitable for retaining a screw with some resistance. I'm no glutton for punishment and endlessly hand sawing is not my idea of fun. Despite the title of this article, I'm not ready for robots to kill me yet, or even maim me in a stupid sawing accident!

Interesting... (well, not so much for normal people!) I finally sawed through enough to snap the piece apart, and this is what was revealed. It may be hard to see, but I didn't expect so see the anchor pin made of what appears to be nylon, embedded within the resin casting. The brown discoloration is the smoked area from high-speed cutting with the Foredom, so ignore that. The other interesting thing is the square within a circular pattern of the cross section. The square isn't nylon and may simply be an imprint of the nylon part in the casting. However, the circular area is a mystery. It appears to be resin, but the coloration difference suggests that it isn't part of the surrounding casting; perhaps it's an injected filling, meant to secure the nylon pin? That will remain a mystery since I'm not willing to do any more exploratory drilling.

The nylon is a very good thing, but might be a bad thing in some situations. It's good because nylon can grip a screw with enough tension for smooth-working and tight articulation and has a little "give". The bad part is that nylon is slippery and difficult to bond. By cutting open the part that encases it, I've weakened what holds it in place. That shouldn't be a problem here however, since the pin connects to the torso, and the lower arm connects to the pin. The encasing resin part just sits on top and therefore doesn't play a structural role.

A fairly thick, finely-threaded screw was selected. This handles the weight of the arm, while being thin enough so that its screw hole doesn't severely weaken the smaller nylon insert. The finely-threaded screw helps keep the articulation gap small when the parts are swiveled. The rotation range should be fairly modest, and the screw will only be called to turn maybe half a turn, max.

The holes are drilled using a bit that's slightly less than the screw's diameter. This will ensure a tight fit, and hopefully not split anything. That's a concern because the resin is strong, but not resilient-- ergo, brittle. The drill hole is also placed fairly close to the inside edge. The reason for that is that the arm has a rectangular cross-section. If you pivot near the inside edge, there's more clearance between the rotating part and the torso wall. (The maximum clearance would come from putting the pivot at a corner, but that would look weird.)

The preliminary screw fitting and thread-making was very promising. The screw didn't need to be set very deeply into the resin or nylon to feel very solid and structurally sound. That let me set the screw in the resin and cut down the screw with only about 5 mm exposed to screw into the nylon-- good because there isn't a lot of length in that direction. When screwed together, the gap between the parts is insignificant and the pivot moves very smoothly, with no play.

For the time being, his pauldron gets stuck back on with a blob of Kwik Tack, just in case I get desperate for more abuse someday. Unfortunately, I wasn't as careful with all the sawing, cutting and grinding after removing the pauldron, so I inadvertently put in a few more nicks and dings in the finish. Could have been prevented, but I can live with it... I'm just glad that I'll be able to wrap this up and move on to something a little more personally involving. I'm more willing to endure this kind of stuff when I'm working on my own stuff... I'm sorry, but I shouldn't have to fix what the manufacturer neglected to do.

So... what about his legs, eh? Awwww, STFU!

majestic studio cylon centurion
"Hey, where's my ball-thingie? How do you expect me to get lenticular without my ball-thingie?"

-02/08/09