Sunday, May 21, 2017

Darmok and Jalad: Alien Plants

Calm down, calm down -plants are cool too, especially if they're alien. It's not just about the monsters. Actually, there might be some fun tips and trick in here about how to use puppet-making materials to also make props, and props that you can animate at that.

I wanted some weird plants on the world of Tanagra. You're never shown how that planet looks in the Star Trek Next Gen episode on which my film is based. I will be using lots and lots of Photoshopped images of strange fungi, weird fruits and such, but I also wanted some plants that I could position for my own photography, as well as some I wanted to animate. Thus, the three aluminum wires above will form the very simple armatures for a bunch of strange growths.

To build up the basic shape of these plants I'm wrapping the wires with thin polyurethane foam.

After that I built up more detailed shapes using cotton dipped in latex. Pointy sculpting tools were used to press lines and wrinkles into the gooey material. Actually, one excellent thing about the cotton / latex mix is that it will create its own subtle textures as it dries. Small and very organic-looking bumps and wrinkles will appear naturally.

And here's how the finished three growths turned out. They're based on fungoid animals from Earth's primal seas. The plants are attached to a clump of Polymorph plastic, into which a wing nut is attached. I can then bolt this flexible prop down, and animate it to make it sway in the wind, for example.

The next plant is also growing in a clump. A bunch of aluminum wires wrapped with soft string make up the stems.

The string is covered with tinted latex -let's make `em pink. I'm only adding one layer of latex, so the string will still be visible and form a wrinkly texture.

The stems are attached to a block of Polymorph plastic with a wing nut at the base. The tops are small bits of rolled up paper with balls of cotton, all of it covered with latex. Here's the deal with these plants: They will be eaten by an animal, covered in my previous blog post, with a funnel mouth, and the tops will slide off the stems and fly into the critter's mouth. In other words, the tops come off easily for animation, but are also quite secure while stuck on the stems.

Another plant will be kind of palm tree-like, but will be swaying in the wind like an underwater plant billows back and forth. To create the branches / leaves I sculpted this simple shape in medium Monster Clay.

This dental plaster mold was made over the sculpture and with a pointy tool I added these sort of fern-like shapes, just dripping the tinted latex into the mold.

The dried latex leaves are pulled out of the mold and attached to aluminum wires covered with sewing string and tinted latex.

The trunk is yet another bit of aluminum wire, wrapped with polyurethane foam and a latex skin. The four leaves / branches are attached to the top with Polymorph plastic, and a wing nut foot keeps the plant stuck to my animation stage.

The last plant won't really be moving, except that I may animate it being uprooted in the fight between the beast and the heroes of the tale. I sculpted a trunk inspired by the look of a cycad.

Again, I've made a plaster mold from the sculpture into which I could cast a hollow latex skin. I filled this skin with a fast-setting plastic, and attached some flexible garden wires at the bottom along with my customary wing nut. The cone-looking thing at the top is simply cotton dipped in latex, with more tinted latex drops added over it.

That's it for the plants. I hope they'll all look good and weird when duplicated many times in After Effects, and help create a truly alien-looking landscape.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Darmok and Jalad: Alien Animals

After taking a break from working on the puppets for the Darmok & Jalad music video, I'm slowly getting back on track with that project. The island of Tanagra, where the myth / song is set is populated with strange plants and animals. I don't have time to focus too much on those, since the length of the song will dictate the pace of the film. But I have built two critters that will make an appearance.

The puppet for the first animal is super simple. I wanted something both alien and slightly comical, so I hit upon the idea of having a living slinky. For those of you who don't remember these toys, they were large spring-like coils of wire which would walk end to end down a flight of stairs. The slinky animal is basically a sausage with clawed feet at each end, and the very simple armature consists of a folded over aluminum wire with a wing nut at the ends. The wing nuts were attached with polymorph thermoplastic and covered with cotton and tinted latex. The wire was padded with a wraparound of soft polyurethane foam.

I cast tinted latex into a plaster skin texture mold and pulled out one big bit of latex skin. I wrapped this over the foam, using liquid latex as a glue. Drops of more tinted latex were added along the length of the puppet to add more details. Maybe those little bumps are eyes(?) The claws are also latex, cast in plaster molds to produce teeth for latex masks.

Here's the finished slinky animal, painted with tinted latex. It only took one day to build. There will be a whole herd of these things running down the beach on Tanagra island in the finished film. I bet it will be fun animating this guy.

I've built one more creature, dubbed the "funnel cow" since it'll have a funnel-like mouth with which to suck up flowers and fruits like a vacuum cleaner. As you can see the plastic / aluminum wire armature is fairly simple. The creature has two legs and a tail, with a jointed swallowing mechanism under the neck. The legs and the tail have been padded out with thick but soft yarn.

The body padding has been achieved by mixing soft and dense polyurethane foam, attached in muscle shapes over the armature. The insides of the torso have been filled up with cotton balls.

I had no idea what this creature would look like apart from its basic body shape, so I simply doodled out the head in medium grade Monster Clay. This is what I ended up with.

Only the top of the head was cast in latex. The underside will simply be built up using cotton and latex.

The snout will be going back and forth when the creature is eating, so I made a very simple aluminum wire armature for it. It's covered with soft string to fill out the basic shape of the snout opening.

The head has been attached to the armature with thermoplastic, and the underside is filled up with the cotton / latex mix.

Time to dress the puppet with some latex skins. I use liquid latex, dabbed on with a foam sponge, as the bonding agent.

By now I have amassed a ton of plaster skin texture molds, into which I can cast skins for any kind of puppet. For this critter I used a bumpy reptilian texture for most of the body, and an alligator-like layered pattern for the belly.

The puppet has been covered all over with the cast latex skin patches, but you can see variants in color which needs to be painted over. To smooth the transition between the main body texture and the belly I've added drops of latex where the two textures join.

Besides the paint job using tinted latex dry brushed on, with acrylic airbrush colors over that, I've also added horns made from a mix of latex and cotton. The eyes have been painted with the airbrush colors, and then covered with liquid scrap booking plastic. Like the horns, the toe nails are also latex and cotton.

I might add at least one type of flying creature, but I want it to be quite abstract, so it'll probably just be a Photoshopped image 2d animated in After Effects -a bunch of strange shapes whizzing by.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Stoner Dragon

Besides working on my own projects I also try to squeeze in contributions to other people's films. Here's such an example. I was approached on Facebook by an independent filmmaker about buying old stop-motion footage from me for one of his projects. I instead suggested that I build and animate a brand new puppet, one of the characters from his film for that same sum, and he went with that. I should probably keep the lid on this project a bit, since it's currently in production, but I can say it's a fantasy stoner comedy (that's a combination surely made in heaven), and the character I've built and will be animating is a pot-smoking dragon. It's as basic as my puppets go, but I'll walk you through the steps anyway.

As I usually do I started with the head to get the feel for the character. I had a bit of artwork for a proposed poster to base it on. The dragon is basically inspired by meat-eating dinosaurs with small Elliot the Dragon-like wings (the animated Disney original). I sculpted the head in medium grade Monster Clay, leaving the mouth open to add more space around the gums. What I tried to do was create a character who could look fierce, but still had certain traits that, well -made him look a bit stoned.

When I was happy with the look of the head I cast it as a hollow latex skin in a dental plaster mold. This head skin is supported with cotton dipped in latex to give it stability. The corners of the mouth were filled with strips of soft polyurethane foam. The eyes are two plastic beads with holes through them, painted and partially covered with lacquer. They sit in hard silicone sockets stuck to the insides of the head using Polymorph thermo plastic, which covers most of the head interior to create a skull of sorts. I can insert a needle in the pupils of the eyes and animate them rotating. The teeth are made out of cotton and latex.

Aluminum wires and Polymorph plastic make up the armature, here temporarily missing its tail, since it was mostly in the way when I pieced together the armature. The blue sections are covered with soft string and tinted latex. The legs have been given extra bulk by adding bits of dense seat cushion foam.

I've talked many times before about making latex wings for puppets, so I won't go into the process in any greater detail. Basically I create a wing armature with aluminum wires, I cover it in soft string and latex, and then embed the whole thing halfway down into soft hobby plaster. I can then etch details into the plaster that will become a part of the latex skin membranes that are painted in on top of both the wings and the plaster.

After two layers of latex has been applied the finished wings are peeled out of the plaster. I deliberately left some holes in the wings to make them look a bit worn. These holes have no ill effect on the structure and durability of the wings.

After the wings have been attached to the armature I can start padding the puppet using soft polyurethane foam. I added a bit of a gut to the character by putting a bunch of cotton balls in the centre of the puppet and covering them with a thin sheet of foam. This will make the midsection of the puppet soft, and allow the spine to bend properly. I've also added a small bit of aluminum wire and plastic under its chin, so I can animate a piece of the throat swallowing.

After the padding is done I cover the puppet with bits of cast and tinted latex skin. Seams are painted over and additional scales and warts added by placing tinted latex over certain areas with a pointed sculpting tool.

The dragon has been given a base color using latex tinted blue applied with a sponge. I've added horns cast in pink latex, as well as sections in the face made from smaller spiky bits created by rolling cotton dipped in latex.

And here's the finished character, haven been given a finishing layer of drybrushed paint with PAX paint mix, as well as some augmentations using acrylic airbrush colors. The garish, slightly psychedelic look is again based on that poster concept. I'll get back to you eventually when I have more to report on this project.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Darmok and Jalad: The Beast

2016 was the 50th anniversary of the first Star Trek episode broadcast, but I seemed to keep myself too busy to make something fun out of it, contributing to the celebration. However, I had for years planned to make my very own Trek fan production. I am a dedicated Trekkie, or Trekker -whatever you prefer to call it.

One of my favorite Star Trek episodes ever is the Next Generation story "Darmok", about the starship Enterprise encountering and trying to communicate with an alien race speaking only in metaphors. Within this story is the tale of Darmok and Jalad, two strangers who become friends when they have to join forces to defeat a common enemy -the Beast of Tanagra. A few years ago I found a YouTube video of a guy named Oliver Mains, aka Tachyon Beam, performing a very Dylanesque song retelling the myth of Darmok and Jalad, and I thought it was both clever and catchy.

I quickly received permission from Oliver to use his song in a video project, but time passed and I was busy with lots of other projects. However, a couple of months ago I decided to pick up the threads and get on with the film. I contacted Oliver again, who provided me with a better recording of the song, which you can now find on iTunes.

I contributed an illustration for the song, and if I'm not mistaken there might be more collaborations of this kind further down the road.

I decided to make this video all-puppet, with my usual brand of Photoshopped backgrounds. Starting off I focused on the Beast of the story, and went through a bunch of designs. In the end I went with none of them, but incorporated certain elements that stuck through the various ideas I had about the creature.

I started sculpting virtually with no idea of how the end design would end up, except for it being big and scary. So a huge mouth into which I could stick lots of teeth seemed like a good idea, as well as pointy things and spidery eyes. In the end, what I wanted was a representation of brutality and horror that would be worthy of a mythical monster. At the same time I wanted to honor the many excellent creature designs we've seen on the various incarnations of Star Trek through the years. My sculpting material here was Monster Clay medium grade. The eyes are scrapbooking beads, which I've used for lots of my puppets by now.

The mold for this sculpture was made in one piece from dental plaster. I cast a thick skin out of tinted latex into the mold, though not so thick that the skin wasn't perfectly flexible.

I decided to make crustacean-like segmented arms for the monster, and sculpted the segments and a shoulder section in Monster Clay.

The arm segments were cast in latex reinforced with cotton dipped in latex, and threaded onto a bundle of aluminum wires that also made up the three-pronged claw.

I also sculpted and cast a back and tail section continuing the bug / crustacean theme. Again these latex skins are just thick enough to hold their shapes, but perfectly flexible too.

The armature was my usual aluminum wires concoction, held together with Polymorph thermo plastic. You can see some wire extensions which were eventually covered with plastic. They're there to help build up bulk on the puppet while providing stability when I grab onto the puppet while animating.

The body was covered with a build up of layers of thin polyurethane foam. The torso is actually filled with cotton balls, and not foam. This helps keep the puppet as light weight as possible.

I have a bunch of older skin texture molds in dental and gypsum plaster that I can always rely on for interesting and detailed skin casts. I'm using liquid latex to bond them to the foam. The scaly back and tail pieces are also joined in this way.

The teeth are cotton dipped in latex and rolled between my fingers into pointy shapes. The claws on hands and feet and the tail horns are latex cast into plaster molds for big pointy teeth. I re-use those molds over and over again too. When all the patches of scaly latex skin are in place I cover up the seams with more tinted latex and a pointy sculpting tool. I also use this tool for placing drops of latex here and there in order to connect the various textures.

The finished Beast is painted with a mix of ProsAide cosmetic glue and acrylic paint. Finishing touches are made with acrylic airbrush paints. I forgot to say that I also added a tongue that can be animated, and that the feet have extra big threaded bolts for tie-downs during animation. This puppet turned out to be a big bugger, exactly 50 cm from nose to tail, so he needs all the support he can get to stand up while being animated. Though not being very heavy, the puppet is clumsy. But I wanted it to look huge when compared to the Darmok and Jalad puppets I'm also working on, and the Beast will be able to grab them, and look intimidating at this scale.

I'm not a huge enthusiast when it comes to fan films, but I'm approaching the Star Trek-verse in a way that I don't think has been done before. Anyway, I'm enjoying myself, and that's the only excuse I need. More to come on this project very soon!