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  • About four years ago, the New Yorker published an article

  • about a cache of dodo bones that was found

  • in a pit on the island of Mauritius.

  • Now, the island of Mauritius is a small island

  • off the east coast of Madagascar

  • in the Indian Ocean, and it is the place

  • where the dodo bird was discovered

  • and extinguished, all within about 150 years.

  • Everyone was very excited about this archaeological find,

  • because it meant that they might finally be able

  • to assemble a single dodo skeleton.

  • See, while museums all over the world

  • have dodo skeletons in their collection, nobody --

  • not even the actual Natural History Museum

  • on the island of Mauritius -- has a skeleton that's made

  • from the bones of a single dodo.

  • Well, this isn't exactly true.

  • The fact is, is that the British Museum

  • had a complete specimen of a dodo in their collection

  • up until the 18th century --

  • it was actually mummified, skin and all --

  • but in a fit of space-saving zeal,

  • they actually cut off the head and they cut off the feet

  • and they burned the rest in a bonfire.

  • If you go look at their website today,

  • they'll actually list these specimens, saying,

  • the rest was lost in a fire.

  • Not quite the whole truth. Anyway.

  • The frontispiece of this article was this photo,

  • and I'm one of the people that thinks that Tina Brown

  • was great for bringing photos to the New Yorker,

  • because this photo completely rocked my world.

  • I became obsessed with the object --

  • not just the beautiful photograph itself,

  • and the color, the shallow depth of field, the detail that's visible,

  • the wire you can see on the beak there

  • that the conservator used to put this skeleton together --

  • there's an entire story here.

  • And I thought to myself,

  • wouldn't it be great

  • if I had my own dodo skeleton?

  • (Laughter)

  • I want to point out here at this point that

  • I've spent my life obsessed

  • by objects and the stories that they tell,

  • and this was the very latest one.

  • So I began looking around for --

  • to see if anyone sold a kit,

  • some kind of model that I could get,

  • and I found lots of reference material, lots of lovely pictures.

  • No dice: no dodo skeleton for me. But the damage had been done.

  • I had saved a few hundred photos of dodo skeletons

  • into my "Creative Projects" folder --

  • it's a repository for my brain, everything that I could possibly be interested in.

  • Any time I have an internet connection,

  • there's a sluice of stuff moving into there,

  • everything from beautiful rings to cockpit photos.

  • The key that the Marquis du Lafayette sent to George Washington

  • to celebrate the storming of the Bastille.

  • Russian nuclear launch key:

  • The one on the top is the picture of the one I found on eBay;

  • the one on the bottom is the one I made for myself,

  • because I couldn't afford the one on eBay.

  • Storm trooper costumes. Maps of Middle Earth --

  • that's one I hand-drew myself. There's the dodo skeleton folder.

  • This folder has 17,000 photos --

  • over 20 gigabytes of information --

  • and it's growing constantly.

  • And one day, a couple of weeks later, it might have been

  • maybe a year later, I was in the art store with my kids,

  • and I was buying some clay tools -- we were going to have a craft day.

  • I bought some Super Sculpeys, some armature wire, some various materials.

  • And I looked down at this Sculpey, and I thought,

  • maybe,

  • yeah, maybe I could make my own dodo skull.

  • I should point out at this time -- I'm not a sculptor;

  • I'm a hard-edged model maker.

  • You give me a drawing, you give me a prop to replicate,

  • you give me a crane, scaffolding, parts from "Star Wars" --

  • especially parts from "Star Wars" --

  • I can do this stuff all day long.

  • It's exactly how I made my living for 15 years.

  • But you give me something like this --

  • my friend Mike Murnane sculpted this;

  • it's a maquette for "Star Wars, Episode Two" --

  • this is not my thing --

  • this is something other people do -- dragons, soft things.

  • However, I felt like I had looked at enough photos of dodo skulls

  • to actually be able to

  • understand the topology and perhaps replicate it --

  • I mean, it couldn't be that difficult.

  • So, I started looking at the best photos I could find.

  • I grabbed all the reference,

  • and I found this lovely piece of reference.

  • This is someone selling this on eBay;

  • it was clearly a woman's hand, hopefully a woman's hand.

  • Assuming it was roughly the size of my wife's hand,

  • I made some measurements of her thumb, and I scaled them out to the size of the skull.

  • I blew it up to the actual size, and I began using that,

  • along with all the other reference that I had, comparing it to it

  • as size reference for figuring out exactly how big the beak should be,

  • exactly how long, etc.

  • And over a few hours, I eventually achieved

  • what was actually a pretty reasonable dodo skull. And I didn't mean to continue, I --

  • it's kind of like, you know, you can only clean a super messy room

  • by picking up one thing at a time; you can't think about the totality.

  • I wasn't thinking about a dodo skeleton;

  • I just noticed that as I finished this skull,

  • the armature wire that I had been used to holding it up

  • was sticking out of the back just where a spine would be.

  • And one of the other things I'd been interested in and obsessed with over the years

  • is spines and skeletons, having collected a couple of hundred.

  • I actually understood the mechanics

  • of vertebrae enough to kind of start to imitate them.

  • And so button by button,

  • vertebrae by vertebrae, I built my way down.

  • And actually, by the end of the day, I had a reasonable skull,

  • a moderately good vertebrae and half of a pelvis.

  • And again, I kept on going, looking for more reference,

  • every bit of reference I could find -- drawings, beautiful photos.

  • This guy -- I love this guy! He put a dodo leg bones on a scanner

  • with a ruler.

  • This is the kind of accuracy that I wanted,

  • and I

  • replicated every last bone and put it in.

  • And after about six weeks,

  • I finished, painted, mounted

  • my own dodo skeleton.

  • You can see that I even made a museum label for it

  • that includes a brief history of the dodo.

  • And TAP Plastics made me -- although I didn't photograph it --

  • a museum vitrine.

  • I don't have the room for this in my house,

  • but I had to finish what I had started.

  • And this actually represented kind of a sea change to me.

  • Again, like I said, my life has been about

  • being fascinated by objects and the stories that they tell,

  • and also making them for myself, obtaining them,

  • appreciating them and diving into them.

  • And in this folder, "Creative Projects,"

  • there are tons of projects that I'm currently working on,

  • projects that I've already worked on, things that I might want to work on some day,

  • and things that I may just want to find and buy and have

  • and look at and touch.

  • But now there was potentially this new category of things

  • that I could sculpt

  • that was different, that I -- you know,

  • I have my own R2D2, but that's --

  • honestly, relative to sculpting, to me, that's easy.

  • And so I went back and looked through my "Creative Projects" folder,

  • and I happened across the Maltese Falcon.

  • Now, this is funny for me:

  • to fall in love with an object from a Hammett novel,

  • because if it's true that the world is divided into two types of people,

  • Chandler people and Hammett people, I am absolutely a Chandler person.

  • But in this case,

  • it's not about the author, it's not about the book or the movie or the story,

  • it's about the object in and of itself.

  • And in this case, this object is --

  • plays on a host of levels.

  • First of all, there's the object in the world.

  • This is the "Kniphausen Hawk."

  • It is a ceremonial pouring vessel

  • made around 1700 for a Swedish Count,

  • and it is very likely the object from which

  • Hammett drew his inspiration for the Maltese Falcon.

  • Then there is the fictional bird, the one that Hammett created for the book.

  • Built out of words, it is the engine

  • that drives the plot of his book and also the movie,

  • in which another object is created:

  • a prop that has to represent the thing that Hammett created out of words,

  • inspired by the Kniphausen Hawk, and this represents the falcon in the movie.

  • And then there is this fourth level, which is

  • a whole new object in the world:

  • the prop made for the movie, the representative of the thing,

  • becomes, in its own right,

  • a whole other thing,

  • a whole new object of desire.

  • And so now it was time to do some research.

  • I actually had done some research

  • a few years before -- it's why the folder was there.

  • I'd bought a replica, a really crappy replica,

  • of the Maltese Falcon on eBay,

  • and had downloaded enough pictures to actually

  • have some reasonable reference.

  • But I discovered,

  • in researching further,

  • really wanting precise reference, that

  • one of the original lead birds

  • had been sold at Christie's in 1994,

  • and so I contacted an antiquarian bookseller

  • who had the original Christie's catalogue,

  • and in it I found this magnificent picture,

  • which included a size reference.

  • I was able to scan the picture, blow it up to exactly full size.

  • I found other reference. Avi [Ara] Chekmayan,

  • a New Jersey editor, actually found this

  • resin Maltese Falcon

  • at a flea market in 1991,

  • although it took him five years

  • to authenticate this bird to

  • the auctioneers' specifications,

  • because there was a lot of controversy about it.

  • It was made out of resin, which wasn't a common material for movie props

  • about the time the movie was made.

  • It's funny to me that it took a while to authenticate it,

  • because I can see it compared to this thing,

  • and I can tell you -- it's real, it's the real thing,

  • it's made from the exact same mold that this one is.

  • In this one, because the auction was actually so controversial,

  • Profiles in History, the auction house that sold this --

  • I think in 1995 for about 100,000 dollars --

  • they actually included -- you can see here on the bottom --

  • not just a front elevation, but also

  • a side, rear

  • and other side elevation.

  • So now, I had all the topology I needed

  • to replicate the Maltese Falcon.

  • What do they do, how do you start something like that? I really don't know.

  • So what I did was, again, like I did with the dodo skull,

  • I blew all my reference up to full size,

  • and then I began cutting out the negatives and using

  • those templates as shape references.

  • So I took Sculpey, and I built a big block of it,

  • and I passed it through until, you know, I got the right profiles.

  • And then slowly, feather by feather, detail by detail,

  • I worked out and achieved --

  • working in front of the television and Super Sculpey --

  • here's me sitting next to my wife --

  • it's the only picture I took of the entire process.

  • As I moved through, I achieved

  • a very reasonable facsimile of the Maltese Falcon.

  • But again, I am not a sculptor,

  • and so I don't know a lot of the tricks, like,

  • I don't know how my friend Mike gets beautiful, shiny surfaces with his Sculpey;

  • I certainly wasn't able to get it.

  • So, I went down to my shop,

  • and I molded it and I cast it in resin,

  • because in the resin, then, I could absolutely get the glass smooth finished.

  • Now there's a lot of ways to fill and get yourself a nice smooth finish.

  • My preference is about 70 coats of this --

  • matte black auto primer.

  • I spray it on for about three or four days, it drips to hell,

  • but it allows me a really, really nice gentle sanding surface

  • and I can get it glass-smooth.

  • Oh, finishing up with triple-zero steel wool.

  • Now, the great thing about getting it to this point was that

  • because in the movie, when they finally bring out the bird at the end,

  • and they place it on the table, they actually spin it.

  • So I was able to actually

  • screen-shot and freeze-frame to make sure.

  • And I'm following all the light kicks on this thing and making sure that as I'm holding the light