A Startup Shop In The Digital Age

This shop is building a future based on the creative and productive potential of machining.

Article From: 7/25/2005 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Brent Bell

Brent Bell holds a "wormhole locating device," which he designed for a sci-fi movie a while back. With his own machine shop, he can now produce such props to his own specs and time schedule.

The story behind every startup is unique. The story of Brent Bell and Bellfx LLC, his startup machine shop, includes movie props and special effects, chance meetings, career-changing experiences, hopes and dreams. This is the stuff of Hollywood—literally.

Mr. Bell is opening his shop with two basic machine tools, a mill and a lathe. These machines were installed only a few months ago in 4,800 square feet of leased space in a small building in Van Nuys, California. Mr. Bell's goal is to have a production facility for manufacturing what he knows best—hand props for Hollywood movie studios. When a screenplay calls for a character to wield a futuristic weapon or grasp an exotic implement from ancient history, Bellfx ("fx" pronounced as in effects) can quickly design and produce this prop, keeping costs in line with the project's budget.

But Hollywood has always been a fickle mistress. The demand for elaborate, well-crafted stage properties ("props" for short) runs in spurts. Big projects can lock up every creative house in Southern California for months, then leave only pickings when filming ends.

Mr. Bell's business strategy had to deal with this fact, and it created another compelling reason to invest in machining capability. His shop can be a contract machining business, a source of reasonably steady revenue when creative work for studios goes slack. As it stands, Mr. Bell has work tentatively lined up with a manufacturer of jointed mounting fixtures for mobile camera units; a builder of custom choppers who needs stainless steel brackets; and an interior designer developing retro lighting units.

Prediction: 
People will continue to find reasons to be excited about manufacturing technology.

Mr. Bell started out as an untrained assistant working for an established prop maker who worked from drawings and prints. A quick learner, Mr. Bell began dabbling with CAD software on the side, teaching himself how to create computer renderings of ideas out of his head. After stints with other prop makers, each one teaching him some new skill or technique, he landed a position with Disney's sheet metal department. There he learned to work with press brakes, shears and fabricating equipment.

Mr. Bell's first exposure to CNC machining came after designing a hand prop for an art director, who had it machined for use on the stage. Mr. Bell had to find out what machinery could turn his idea into a perfect physical manifestation.

At first, he looked for a shop that specialized in electrical discharge machining, only to realize that this process wasn't at all what he sought. While investigating the process, he happened to meet Carl Baker, an experienced machinist who owned a CNC shop. The two became friends and Mr. Bell learned soon about milling on a Haas vertical machining center by visiting Mr. Baker's shop in Simi Valley. Another friend at a CAM software developer introduced Mr. Bell to CNC programming. All this fed his creative instincts.

Mr. Bell was soon having the props that he designed in CAD programmed and produced on CNC machines. Working with local shops, however, proved to be a problem. He needed to shorten leadtimes and he wanted to experiment with design innovations. At that point, he realized that his experience with digital technology gave him the basic skills to run his own machine shop.

A year ago, Mr. Bell had the elements of a business plan together. He explored the acquisition of machine tools from Haas Automation, the maker of the equipment he was most familiar with. Although the pricing of these machines put them within reach of a budget created from a home equity line of credit, he was also banking on the machines' capability. The VF3 vertical machining center is equipped with a trunnion fixture for the fourth and fifth rotary axes. Likewise, the TL25 lathe has a subspindle and live tooling. These machines will enable him to produce any of the props he designs.

Meanwhile, another digital trend is changing how movie studios deal with hand props. In many cases, computer-generated images are replacing the physical objects. Actors are being filmed empty-handed, and the digital images of the special gear are pasted in later. So digital technology has come full circle for Mr. Bell. It's what made it possible for him to develop his own manufacturing company. It's also what makes it necessary for him to look beyond the original concept for his company's existence.

Bellfx is going to be both a prop shop and a job shop, with prototyping and short runs supplementing the studio business. This is no sure thing, and Mr. Bell knows that. It may be one more learning experience in a career that has had more than one twist and turn.

"Being creative means taking risks and being adaptable," he says, "and CNC machines are the most adaptable production equipment ever made." Because machine tools still represent the power to create, they will appeal to the creative powers of people with talent and imagination.

For Mr. Bell, machining has both the promise to fulfill a vocation and the potential to provide a livelihood. This is surely a cause for hope and optimism in looking to the future. 

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