Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Elephant No. 297: Mirror Ball

I came across a display of cheap mirror balls at the dollar store yesterday, which set me to wondering if I could make an elephant-shaped version.

A mirror ball—sometimes known as a disco ball, or even a glitter ball—is a round object covered in small square pieces of mirror. The ball is suspended in the middle of the room and usually rotates slowly. When light is shone on the mirror ball, the multi-faceted surface sends glints of light in all direction.

Mirror ball with spotlight on it.

The first mirror balls were likely used in the late 1890s for events such as balls and other high-society events. By the 1920s, they were being widely used in nightclubs, and even films. By the 1970s, mirror balls had become a staple of clubs, discos and roller rinks.

A mirror ball can be seen at the very top of this picture, ca. 1919, featuring
the Louisiana Five jazz band.

Today, mirror-style balls have entered popular culture. They are often associated with extravagant parties, weddings, ballroom dancing, and Christmas, and are frequently featured in rock concerts. Mirror-ball trophies are presented to the winners of ballroom dancing competitions, and perhaps the largest glitter ball in the world drops in New York's Times Square at midnight on New Year's Eve.

Despite their rather kitsch and low-tech origins, glitter balls have recently found a place in the high-tech world. Local computer networks often use infrared beams to transfer signals. With a single beam, however, if a person walks in front of it, the signal is cut—similar to what happens when the dog plants itself between your television and your remote control.

To combat this problem, something called a "chaos mirror" splits a single infrared beam into an array of reflected beams. This type of mirror consists of a box containing seven highly reflective surfaces: four curved and three flat. An infrared beam enters the box, bounces around, and splits into numerous beams that leave the box at multiple angles. This greatly increases the possibility of the beam reaching an infrared receiver.

For today's elephant, I bought three small mirror balls: one to serve as a base, and two to pull apart. Each mirror ball was about 10 cm (4 inches) in diameter, so not really "jumbo", but they'd do.

I've never tried this before, but I figured I could probably use foamcore and double-sided tape to build up one of these balls into a mirrored elephant. 

I started by cutting two pieces of white foamcore for the ears. I secured these to the sides of the main ball with double-sided foam tape.

Next, I formed a trunk by feeding wire through a few small styrofoam balls. I used these only for the thickest part of the trunk, taping on bits of foamcore at the end, where the trunk tapers. I taped this whole assemblage to the main mirror ball, again using double-sided tape.

My plan now was to cover any white areas with sections of double-stick tape, using the highly sticky surface to attach the mirrors. And if that didn't work, there was always glue.

Next, I peeled off all the mirrors from one of the other balls. They came off really easily, not even taking bits of the styrofoam ball with them. They also came off in long strips. I noticed that, on the back, the original mirror pieces were already linked together in lines with double-sided tape, meaning that they're probably applied to the original ball in a long, spiralling string.

This is what the mirrors from a single ball amounted to.

I began by attaching strips of double-sided foam tape to the ears. This stuff is incredibly sticky, making it great for sticking mirrors, but a total pain to handle. It sticks to everything, including fingers and scissors. Handling the tape was, by far, the most frustrating part of this activity.

I tiled mirrors across the ears on both sides. I should have thought of the mirrors when I cut the ears, because I ended up with some very strange bits hanging off, and a gully between the back and front of the ears. I decided I'd deal with all that in the clean-up phase towards the end.

Once I'd finished both ears, I turned my attention to the trunk. This was even more complicated to fill with mirrors. I had expected I'd be able to spiral mirrors around the trunk from the base to the tip, but it really didn't work that way. It ended up having lots of gaps that were too small for mirrors, but too big to leave as is.

When I'd filled ears and trunk as well as I could with the little mirrors, I started working on cleaning up the gaps and ear edges. I started by running a line of mirrors around the outside of each ear, removing any pieces of mirror that were sticking up on the flat sides. This made the edge look nice, but the gaps left behind on the front and back of the ears were awkward to deal with. I simply stuck individual mirrors over the gaps, not really paying much attention to aesthetics at this point. I filled in the gaps on the trunk the same way. I supposed I could have used a tile nipper to make custom-shaped pieces, but that would have made it an elephant-a-day-and-a-half.

To finish up, I reinforced the places where the ears and trunk joined to the head. I did this by linking together a series of two to five mirrored squares with a thin strip of double-sided tape on the back, then sticking the strip to the head and to the appendage. This wasn't strictly necessary—in other words, the ears and trunk weren't falling off or anything—but I thought it was a good idea to make things a little more secure.

Despite the annoyance factor of dealing with the tape, this was a really easy activity. It's also very inexpensive, costing me less than three dollars for the two mirror balls. I even ended up with a few leftover mirror tiles. If you have a theme party of some sort, this might be a kind of fun thing to try. It will take you a couple of hours, but I thought the results were worth it.

Although there are bits that aren't as tidy as I like, when seen from a distance, this is a lovely little piece. It's sparkly and shiny, and does what it's supposed to—in this case, turning my tiled bathroom wall into a disco.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Pity poor Arjuna the elephant. Trained to take part in the important Dussehra festival in Mysore, India, Arjuna was being groomed to one day take over the role of lead elephant. Then tragedy struck.

One day, as Arjuna and a fellow elephant named Bahadur were being led down to the river for a bath, the elephants were spooked by a vehicle. In the chaos that ensued, Bahadur's mahout fell to the ground. Arjuna accidentally stepped on the unfortunate man's head, crushing him to death.

Despite the fact that it was an accident, Arjuna was now considered unfit to serve as lead elephant. This is not because he was dangerous, but because he had killed a man. Since the Dussehra festival is also a religious occasion, Arjuna was now seen as sullied, and no longer worthy of the position of lead elephant.

Arjuna was demoted to poacher patrol in the nearby Bandipur National Park. He still takes part in the Dussehra procession, but will now never be lead elephant. Oddly, of all the procession elephants, Arjuna is the only one who refuses to accept a ride to Mysore when the festival nears. Although no one is sure why, Arjuna insists each year on walking the full 80 kilometres (50 miles).

With elephant jogging speed topping out at 25 kilometres per hour on a good day—not including breaks for elephant snacks and water—it can be a very long walk.

Elephants arriving in Mysore for the Dussehra festival, 2008.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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