Sep. 21, 2012 at 9:19 PM ET
Sending your child's toy train into the stratosphere is no mean feat, but turning that train into an animated character requires a special blend of mechanical and computer-generated magic. Ron Fugelseth just happened to be the right magician for the job, as evidenced by the video that he and his 4-year-old son Jayden created.
Fugelseth's video traces the flight of his son's silver train, named Stanley, to an altitude of 18 miles or so. From that height, Stanley could see the curvature of the planet with the black sky of space above. The train's face reflects the wonder of the sight — as well as his distress when the helium-filled balloon that got him that high bursts into bits. The animation is what transforms the tale of Jayden's toy train from your garden-variety balloon experiment into ... something wonderful.
"To me, the whole thing about this is the storytelling," Fugelseth, creative director for California-based Oxygen Productions, told me today.
It all started months ago, when Fugelseth saw the video showing the balloon-borne flight of a Lego astronaut. "When I saw that Lego video, I thought, 'I should totally see if I could get Stanley to space,'" he said.
But Stanley is no cheap prop. To Jayden, the train is much more than a toy. "It's been his imaginary friend since he was 2," Fugelseth said. "It's like Linus and his blanket. This never would have popped into my head if it wasn't for that family member, that little white train."
So Fugelseth did his research and assembled the components for a stratospheric flight: a mail-order weather balloon, a palm-size HD video camera, an old cellphone capable of transmitting GPS location readings, a pocket warmer for heat, the necessary batteries, and a foam box for insulation and padding. (Check out the YouTube video description for other details, such as the procedure for letting the FAA know you're sending up a high-altitude balloon.)
Four weeks ago, Fugelseth and his son launched Stanley from Tracy, Calif. Then they waited for the balloon to pop and for the payload to come back down. When Fugelseth lost the cellphone signal, he worried over whether he'd ever be able to recover the precious cargo — but the phone "magically started working again," he said. With a little assistance from Dad, Jayden found Stanley in a cornfield 27 miles from the launch site.
That's when the computer-generated magic kicked in: Fugelseth used video processing software to create the expressions on the toy train's face, just as he did two years earlier for a Jayden-and-Stanley video titled "A Train and His Boy." The trick isn't all that different from what Fugelseth does for his day job, but it's still a challenge. "It's not every day that a client asks for something like manipulating a face on a train," he joked.
Fugelseth finished the 2½-minute video about Stanley's stratospheric voyage on Wednesday night, and since then it's gotten more than 91,000 views and a raft of positive reviews on YouTube. "If any video has ever deserved to go viral, this is it," one viewer wrote. "C-o-o-o-o-o-lest dad in the world. ... Dude, you gave me a warm feeling, looks like there's still hope for the human race after all."
But perhaps the most influential review came from Jayden and his 2-year-old sister. "They just went crazy," Fugelseth said. "They've watched it a million times now. ... One thing that Jayden said was, 'I wish I was a train, so I could go to space.'"
Be patient, Jayden. Maybe someday, you'll fly higher than Stanley ever could.
More near-space adventures
For a more grown-up tale, check out this "Now Is the Time" video presentation, recorded by a trio of space enthusiasts using a weather balloon, a platform made of plastic pipes and two GoPro cameras pointed at an iPhone. The main video is a tribute to spaceflight, but the "behind-the-scenes" video just might be more entertaining: It chronicles the three attempts to get the setup airborne, plus a backstory about the director's efforts to propose to his girlfriend using video from the stratosphere. (She said "yes.") Here are a few more tales of high-altitude high jinks:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.