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Building Tribute Boards: the art of imitation

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“Anne Marie? Do the interns get Glocks?” asks Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) in Wes Anderson’s classic The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. “No” she replies without pausing from looking up from sunbathing… “they all share one.”
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If you’re new to director Wes Anderson and his collection of artsy, charming, and sometimes problematic but otherwise entertaining films, The Life Aquatic is a good place to start. Not because it’s his best work (The Royal Tenenbaums) or even his most approachable (The Fantastic Mr. Fox) … but because it is all of the things I described above and is a perfect example of what a Wes Anderson movie is. The actors, who make up his all-star casts are reduced (if that term can be used this way) into extensions of Anderson’s creative mind and play their parts to perfection. The plot is funny and also tragic, the music in the movie is completely unique and also instantly recognizable (Portuguese covers of David Bowie songs) and the movie blends dialogue and action into a romping, memorable ocean adventure that is a joy to watch. The Life Aquatic is a riveting journey with a collection of outstanding characters, unforgettable lines and sets that you can see yourself living in. Movies, books, video games and albums are all sources of worldbuilding. Creative works so engaging you can see yourself living in them. That’s why cosplay is so popular. Why thousands of people have deathly hallows tattoos and why couples get married in Klingon, Elvish, and other made up languages. Tributes, in these forms and others, are love songs to the creative worlds that engage us and make us wish we were there, not here, if even for a little while. It didn’t take long in the mechanical keyboard world for tribute keyboards to begin popping up. Keycaps in colorways that echoed the iconic look and feel of anime, fantasy, sports and more. From high level collaborations like the MT3 Lord of the Rings and Marvel sets on DROP’s website and butt-ugly collaborations like the HiGround Attack on Titan sets to innovative personal tributes like my friend Adrian’s LA Lakers keeb, decked in royal purple and gold glossy SA keycaps with a basketball artisan. It’s so shiny, like a newly polished court of what used to be called the Staples Center. (I looked it up, and couldn’t write the new name with a straight face…) Personally, my first keycap set was SA Godspeed a tribute to the American space program and my second was GMK Belafonte, a mind-blowingly good homage to The Life Aquatic. Here's a funny image Mito shared in his interest check on Reddit, with a nod to the quote about guns.
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Designed by Mito in 2020 and manufactured by German-based GMK in their signature Cherry profile, Belafonte’s alpha keycaps are baby blue, with cyan and banana-yellow accents. A colorway that if you’re into switches is often called “Sea Salt Lemon”. In fact, my first switches that I paired with Belafonte were KTT Sea Salt Lemons, a truly enjoyable linear switch that really surprised me with just the right amount of factory-applied dry lube. They sound and feel punchy and playful, and I highly recommend them regardless of build intentionality.
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Deep cuts and deep dives In The Life Aquatic, the Belafonte is Steve Zissou’s ship, a rehabbed long-range sub-hunter from World War II transformed into a science vessel. The Belafonte carries Steve and his crew around the globe on oceanic adventures. While the Belafonte as a ship is impressive, (see this tour Steve gives in the opening sequences,) the Belafonte as a set is incredible. Anderson built a terribly ambitious and creative set, bisected horizontally to resemble a giant dollhouse. By doing so, the camera can pan up and down the ship following characters as they ascend and descend ladders, move between rooms, and dive into the deep. The ship itself is a character in the movie, with a story and a past. Above decks, scrawled on the side of its tiny yellow sub is the crossed-out name Jacqueline. “What happened to Jacqueline?” asks Ned, Steve’s potential son played by Owen Wilson. “She didn’t really love me” replies Steve nonchalantly. It’s almost like the boat has a regrettable tattoo, and on GMK Belafonte, “Jacqueline” is scrawled across the enter key. An obscure reference from a momentary line in the movie, is now an iconic symbol that instantly connects the keycap set to its namesake. Deep cuts like that are exactly what building a tribute keyboard is all about. Striking the delicate balance between honoring something and going overboard.
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When it’s done right The reason “Jacqueline” works in GMK Belafonte is the same reason printing “The Life Aquatic” or “Zissou” on the keycap wouldn’t. Rather than saying exactly what it is, Mito used a non-obvious reference, hinting at a subtle memory that captured the spirit of the film, rather than clubbing us over the head with it. That kind of subtlety is what this set does so well and like anything, doing something well often looks effortless but is actually really hard to do. The truth is, almost every accent key in GMK Belafonte is brilliant. In the movie, two dolphins accompany the ship, and Belafonte has dolphin 1.5u and 1u keys, each with a “1” or “2” next to the dolphin. There’s a handgun key, referencing the line I opened this article with. There are life preservers, scuba gear and anchor icons, all subtle, clean designs that work together perfectly. The triple Z logo of Team Zissou is replicated in R5 height for use as an escape key or F13 accent in white on red, blue on yellow and yellow on blue! There’s a charming 1.75u “Black Box” key that while not referenced in the film, fits right in. The only keys I don’t care for are compass-rose styled arrow keys. They just seem a little over the top and a bit too nautical. When it’s not Last year, a friend of mine was working on designing a keycap set themed to appeal to record collectors. He saw a connection between people that own vinyl and keyboards, and I think he’s on to something. I love both of those subjects, and am solidly in his demographic, but I disliked the renders he posted on a Mechanical Keyboards Facebook group we both belong to. I felt they were obvious, clumsy and off-putting. The set was called “Vinyl Records” (a term that any vinyl collector would never say,) and it used iconography that loosely referenced all record usage, ever. (It had a phonograph on one of the enter keys). Rather than using insider knowledge to “nod” at familiar visual references, it trumpeted things no vinyl enthusiast would be proud of. I was in a mood apparently and decided to give a full “review” of the set from “S-tier” to “I have no words”. The most successful keycap in the set in my opinion was a black 1.5u cap with a printed on/off switch in white and a small, red power indicator. It was fun, something that’s really hard to do well in keycaps. The set is primarily white on black, with some white and red keys mixed in. It has a very White Stripes appearance, which makes a ton of sense when you think of all Jack White has done for the vinyl market. Chester was really gracious and said that they’d take the feedback into account and come back with something stronger, and they did. Several months later I received a set of the final “Vinyl” in the mail, and it’s pretty great! They evened out some of the overtly pandering terms or symbols, toned the whole set down a bit, and added a few, really nice elements. Like a white on red tonearm UK enter key. Here's my Bakeneko65 with the final product.
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Using color by itself to theme your board In GMK Belafonte, the colors of the keycaps themselves only hint at the nature of their inspiration, and without the accent keys, I don’t think I’d ever have guessed the theme. Only with accents and artisans do the keycaps suddenly make sense as a movie-themed board, and that brings us to the subject of color use and color-grading. Color grading is the use of software and post production tools to manually edit color in a film to create an overall look and feel. Most movies use some level of color grading to keep the film consistent, but the result is usually geared toward looking realistic. In some Sci-Fi, like the new Dune movies, it’s used really creatively to make the films seem otherworldly. A key example is the trippy infrared Harkonnen homeworld in Dune 2. Or the inky comic style of Frank Miller’s 300. While it’s not fair to boil Wes Anderson’s aesthetic down to the color usage in his films, the effect color grading has on them is unmistakable. It’s entirely possible to present a Wes Anderson fanboy with a handful of colors and have them successfully name the film.
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Because each movie has its own distinct coloration, it plays with the ideas of reality and suspension of disbelief. It also gives us a distinct opportunity to build a tribute keyboard of that movie without having any identifying features or specialty keycaps, but by simply replicating the colors. If I wanted to make a Bladerunner or Tron themed keyboard, I could do it successfully by using the muted dark tones of those movies contrasted with neons. A Star Wars stormtrooper keyboard could be made with glossy white and black keys and a well-chosen artisan. I think that some of the nicest tributes I’ve seen don’t actually tip their hand to declare what they’re emulating, but simply hint at it. It’s classy. That said…
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Artisans really tie it all together I mentioned all of the accent keys I love in GMK Belafonte, and how they’re so good at communicating the themes of the film, but my crowning jewels on my Belafonte keyboard are two artisans that were never in a million years intended to “go” with this set. With a little bit of creativity, these two keys make my Life Aquatic keyboard one of my favorite builds. The first artisan is the M.7 aluminum tab keycap. Sold here on DROP for quite some time, I have it in a robins egg blue. It’s a 1.5u television screen, with a removable magnetic face, that allows the user to swap out any number of paper inserts to create a tv show/movie effect. The artisan itself comes with sheets of fun little paper inserts, but I printed several screenshots from The Life Aquatic and cycle through them. Currently I have an image of Steve pointing, which is iconic, but my favorite is a closeup of Willem DaFoe wearing the red beanie that the crew in the film are never seen without. Secondly, I use an artisan created to be used with the Vinyl set I mention above, a 1u turntable artisan from Keybay.tech in dusty tan, with interchangeable records! It is flat out adorable, and comes with a black, red and yellow record that can be swapped out by removing and replacing a tiny black tonearm.
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The combination of these two artisans is really appealing and ties two key aspects of Wes Anderson’s movies to the themed keyboard; the use of vintage soundtracks and the “this-is-a-movie” feel of his films. The little blue tv with a scene from the film really ties it together. At the end of the day, nothing on this board actually says “The Life Aquatic” but any fan will instantly recognize it as a tribute and enjoy the little details that bring the board to life. I have GMK Belafonte on my milky white Qwertykeys QK75, using Outemu Silent Honey Peach switches that have a delightful golden yellow box stem that really fits the aesthetic. The only thing I’d like to change, is to find or commission a red beanie to replace the gold knob from Qwertykeys. I am sure than a 3D print is possible, and it’d be so fun to have that last element to tie it all together. Maybe someday. Or you could go OVER THE TOP!!! Why not? In March of last year, my first real boss, Joe K (known as “Mohawk Joe” in the 1990’s Chicago dance club scene) commissioned a board from me. Joe loved goth, female-fronted post rock bands, roller derby and bats, and he wanted a Deacon Frost themed keyboard styled after the villain in the 1998 mother-of-all-Marvel movies, Blade. For those of you unfamiliar with the film, go watch it right now. It’s Wesley Snipes at his most Snipey, it’s a bloody, techno-driven vampire fest from start to finish, and if it’s anything, it’s not subtle. So when I set to making him a tribute to this character and this movie I knew to go over the top. I met with Joe to identify a keyboard, and he chose a black Keychron Q1 Pro because of its ultra mac-friendly setup, reputation for solid build, price point, and look/feel. He gave me no notes, and complete creative freedom. I ordered a set of Gateron Phantom reds, not because they sound or feel amazing, they don’t, but they really really fit the aesthetic and when I did a test with him, he liked their performance. The Gateron Phantom reds have a completely red body and stem, and look like drops of blood. They were perfect, and the rgb light diffused through them has an eerie red glow. I topped them with DROP’s Valiant skylight series keycap set because they were red and black and shinethru, one of Joe’s requests. They didn’t cover the Q1 Pro, so I needed to order some OEM black keycaps to finish the bottom row. They worked great and match exactly with the black keycaps in the set. I ordered a vampiric glyph enamel pin with the seal from Deacon Frost’s vampire family off Etsy, because of course someone sells that there, and completed the look by doing a blood-spatter paint job on the topcase. To accomplish this, I spray spraypaint onto a plate, dip a paintbrush in it, and fling the paint at the surface. It came out really cool. Lastly, I replaced the escape key with a red and white "Gaea's Crown" artisan from the Dwarf Factory. It's regal, and bloody gorgeous.
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The real coup de grâce was laser etching the board. I researched the glyphs of the ruling vampire houses from the film, found a great picture of Deacon near the end of the movie when he regrows his own hand through the magic of 1990’s CGI, and one of his best quotes “You may wake up one day and find yourself extinct.” I ran a test of the etching on the inside of the case, writing a note to Joe and signing it with my signature. The laser revealed a bright silver finish under the black, so I progressed with the exterior etching without fear. It looks sick in person. Deacon is easily recognizable, the quote is ridiculous, and the vampire glyphs really set it all off. I presented the board to Joe, who had Blade playing on his computer, and had bought a scary looking mouse in anticipation of the board arriving. He was so excited to open it up and had Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” blasting on his stereo while he opened it. The moral of this story is to say, if the subject is over the top, the tribute can be too. (I’d like to make a Nacho Libre board someday, and it will be many things, but it will not be quiet.) On a personal note. I hung out with Joe in December, and we had a great time trading records, working on art together and listening to music. In February I heard from a friend that Joe was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and by April he was gone. I don’t know how to say goodbye to a friend of twenty plus years, and it feels way too soon to lose him, but I feel like I can share this with the community here because even though he only had one board, he was one of us. Joe was a person that lived an aesthetic and it was a real honor to make a board for him that he loved. I’d like to dedicate this article to him and his memory, and I hope you find the same kind of joy and excitement building keyboards that honor the things you love.
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As always, I want to hear from you. Share your passion projects and the themed boards you’ve made, and until next time, keep finding the stories in everything you do. 
(Edited)
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Fantastic write-up! I hope this serves as inspiration to anyone looking to build up their own themed board/setup. 👌 I will say, I was a little bummed to see a hyperlink behind the text "married in Klingon" and learning that it was not, in fact, your own wedding. 😅
HoffmanMysterIt took years to get her into Trek. Her dad was a big trekkie, but some people need to warm to it.
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