Monday, February 26, 2018

The Age of Invention: Terror Bird

In my last post I talked about a caveman comedy, featuring two guys that were a part of a special needs people media project I worked on a couple of years ago. I also included a shot from the film featuring an animated character. The puppet in question is one of those terror birds, the huge flightless monster birds that appeared after the extinction of the dinosaurs. I decided early on that this film wouldn't have any dinosaurs in it, but rather primitive mammals and other creatures of that age, which are not featured very often in films.

As per usual I'm using monster clay medium grade to sculpt the head, adding bits and taking away bits using loop tools. I actually can't recommend this material enough. It's the most versatile sculpting material I've ever used, and works well for both small and big sculpts. As you can hopefully see I've sculpted the mouth slightly open, and this is so I can cast the whole head, including the jaw, in one piece, having the edges of the insides of the beak slightly visible, which will create a better-looking mouth than sculpting the beak closed. Having the whole head in one piece allows me to control the overall look of it. 
In the case of this sculpture I've added slightly drooping corners of the mouth, which adds a permanently scowling or frowning look to the puppet. Because it's a grumpy bird! Small plastic beads stand in for the eyes. I'll simply paint on the eyes on this puppet and the glossy surface of the bead will create a smooth area in the cast latex head, which is perfect to paint eyes on.

Jumping ahead a bit, I've built up a plaster mold and the clay has been cleaned out of it. I'm adding drops of tinted latex using a pipe cleaner as a brush to get the liquid into all areas of the mold. I'm adding three layers of latex, and then another layer of latex and cotton to most areas. In fact, the only parts not covered with the cotton/latex mix are the corners of the mouth. And after some pulling and prying the cast latex head skin finally comes out. I'm using a very sharp, pointy-nosed pair of scissors to cut away the excess latex in the mouth and around the head.

As you can see in this photo I've added a horn to the head to make the bird look even more exaggerated and primeval. The horn was also sculpted in clay and cast as a separate latex piece. The armature is my usual bundle of aluminum wires, held together with crochet yarn and Polymorph thermoplastic. The screw at the back shows where a flying rig can be attached to make the bird jump when animated.

 The legs and neck are covered with thin polyurethane foam, though I did remove the foam around the neck when I noticed that it would look too bulky when the "plumage" was added on top of it.

 This bird actually has no real feathers at all, but is instead covered by fur from an old fur hat. I figured I might just get away with that look.

The finished bird puppet is airbrushed over the furry sections, but the same acrylic paint has been hand painted onto the latex parts for a more detailed look. The claws on the feet are cotton dipped in latex, and shaped by being rolled between my thumb and index finger.
Soon to come are the other two caveman-era monsters, but you'll have to wait and see what sort they are :)

The Age of Invention: Filming

In the summer of 2016 I shot the live-action footage for a caveman comedy, which then went through extensive editing because of a faulty microphone and because I almost over-reached when I got to the FX work. But now it's finally looking like near completion, so it's time to start sharing the work on this project with you.

These two happy chaps are our heroes, from left to right, Andreas Pettersson and Joakim Strömgren. They were participants in a media project aimed at people with slight disabilities, for which I worked the better part of three years. Both of them have slight mental disabilities (and Andreas is almost blind in one eye), but they're quite independent and far less glum in their outlook on life than I usually am. Eventually this project ran its course, and nobody stepped in to finance or take over it, so it quietly died. However, by this point Andreas had bought his own camera and editing software, and started making his own short videos. I wanted to stay in touch with Andreas, Joakim and others from our group, so I concocted this film to keep working with them.

The story is basically about the invention of the wheel, and the ensuing problems. As usual I shot the whole thing in front of a green screen, but outdoors. The weather was fine up until the very last shot, after which it started to pour down.

Despite using this pretty primitive set up, I'm quite happy with how the composits in After Effects turned out. All backgrounds are pieced together in Photoshop using stock images. I used a warm filter to unify the final compositions.

The costumes are as plain as they can be. I bought two fur coats at a garage sale and cut them up to look like the traditional cartoon caveman garbs. I bought three cheap wigs online (the third comes into play in one part of the story), and the other props plus some stone age jewellery were culled from previous projects. You might wonder what the heck is going on in the photo above. Well, keep reading..

This arrangement is supposed to represent the intrepid inventors trying out the wheel for the first time. Joakim and Andreas are sitting on a couple of bar stools, draped over with a green screen. Apart from the legs of the stools disappearing down holes dug by the numerous moles that infest my garden, the set up worked quite well.

The actual locomotion of the venture is supposed to represent a circus act of a kind. It's not exactly a perfect effect, but the general idea seems to be communicated. Andreas right leg disappeared behind the green screened stool, so the right leg used in these shots is actually mine, shot separately and added in its own layer in AE.

The wheel is a real low-tech construction: Some bits of cardboard glued together and covered with a mix of latex and cabosil, painted grey. A wooden rod is attached to the backside, and I simply spin the contraption with my fingers in front of my camera, backed by a green screen.

This is what a final shot can look like. As you can see they're chased by a stop-motion bird, but there will also be other prehistoric critters in this film. No dinosaurs, though. I opted for slightly cartoonish post-dino creatures instead, since they're hardly ever represented on film.

In my coming posts I'll detail the making of these puppets, as per usual. Andreas and I are actually starting up a new group project for disabled people, where we'll focus on making short films. We have some valuable support from a Swedish educational organization, and later this year I'll be reporting about our escapades there. I'm sure it won't surprise you that there'll be some stop-mo critters appearing in those videos too.

Monday, January 1, 2018

A Lovecraftian Yule Horror

You are correct; this is a very late seasonal greeting, but better late than never, I guess. This poem was first published as "Yuletide Horror" in Weird Tales December 1926, but has since then been included in various anthologies, mostly under its original title "Festival."

The critter at the end of the video is one of my favorite Lovecraftian monsters. It first appeared in Robert Bloch's excellent short story “Notebook Found In a Deserted House”. Here's how it was illustrated by Matt Fox in the May issue of Weird Tales 1951. As you can see it's depicted as a quite traditional devilish creature, but with lots of limbs and mouths, as described in the tale.

It's actually described as a shoggoth in the story, but when gaming company Chaosium included various Lovecraftian monsters in their products they dubbed this creature a Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath instead, and they gave it it's now iconic look of an amorphous body, with stumpy hooved legs. Pretty much as Bloch envisioned it. 

Now, I've been wanting to build and animate this monster for a few years and I actually made a set of hooves about four years ago. I sculpted them in Cahavant clay and then cast them in SmoothCast 365 plastic from one silicone mold. The three hooves are hollow, and to attach them to an armature I've drilled holes in the top of each hoof.

Starting off with the legs, they are as usual made from a few strands of aluminum wires, sectioned off with short steel nails held in place with yarn wrappings. This creates small joints between the nails that allows the legs to be animated in any direction. So why not simply have the wires without the nails? These legs will be like small octopus arms anyway. The nails actually helps the legs become sturdier, and the joints between them less bouncy and jiggly. In other words, the animation will be easier to perform. The finished leg armature goes into the top of the hoof and I'm using melted polymorph plastic to fix the armature to the inside of the hoof.

It's time to add the actual tie-down function to their undersides of the hooves. I'm filling up each hoof with a fast-setting plastic called Rhino, and before the material cures I'm adding a t-nut with a screwed-in bolt to create the tie down. The t-nut has a longer threaded canal than the wing nuts I usually use, and will therefore take a greater weight and add more stability to a puppet during the animation. Since this puppet will be larger than what I usually build, this was a sound solution. I simply hold the t-nut in place while the plastic sets. I need a screwdriver to get the rod unstuck from the plastic, but when I use it during animation to clamp down the puppet on the animation stage I can add and remove the rod with my fingertips.

The legs have been fixed to a ring made from steel wire, covered with Polymorph plastic. This will later be attached to the rest of the puppet armature.

These aluminum wires will become the crown of tentacles on top of the dark young. I've ground down the rather thick wires in one end so they become very slim and pointed there, and the other end is twisted into a loop for attaching to the leg armature part.

I'm covering all of the tentacle armatures with a wrapping of thick yarn. No nails or other reinforcements are added, as the tentacles won't be carrying any other weight than their own. The yarn is soaked in a couple of layers of tinted latex. And I'm using my heat gun at a low setting to speed up the drying process.

This potato-like blob is a chunk of medium grade monster clay, into which I've stuck the finished tentacles. I could've built up the body of the puppet using cotton and polyurethane padding, covered with patches of latex skin, but I decided to sculpt it instead, which allowed me to add more organic details that seemed to flow into and out of each other. I'm mostly using loop tools to create the wrinkly and warty shapes on the skin. 

Here's the finished sculpture, ready to have a plaster mold created around it. Half-pearls or sequins, if you will, are added as eyes into the sculpture. As I'm sure you know by now I use these scrapbooking items as cheap eyes on many of my puppets. They're very effective as they reflect light aimed at them, and appear to be glowing. To smooth out details I use stiff oil painting brush dipped in Vaseline. 

The first layer of plaster is carefully brushed on. I go over the surface of the sculpture many times to ensure there are no air pockets. You can see that I've added a short wall of clay around the base. This is so the plaster won't run out all over the turntable.

After this first layer I'm building up that clay wall to completely cover the height of the sculpture. This allows me to simply pour in the rest of the plaster and let it rise to fill this clay shell. I could've added several layers of plastic one at a time, but this is much faster.

I'm casting the body of the puppet as a skin made from tinted latex. I'm pouring in a small batch and painting the latex into all areas using a q-tip. I'm adding four layers of latex, allowing each layer to dry properly before adding the next. When the latex has cured I powder it with talcum and pry it loose from the mold.

I cut holes in the latex where the tentacles will be attached and where the eyes will be put in. I'm actually using a bit of very strong chroma key gaffer tape to stick the eyes to the inside of the latex skin. The tape will flex with the skin and still keep the eyes in place.

I have sculpted a bunch of open mouths into the body. To be able to animate those I'll have to add some aluminum wires to the inside of the rims of the mouths. I do that by wrapping some aluminum wires with soft string, helping it stick with a dab of contact cement. When the string wrapping is complete I cover it with latex, and the wire can now be turned into a loop. As you can see I've left the ends uncovered. This is so I can join them together using super glue and baking soda, which when mixed will turn into an incredibly hard and durable material. I add some more string and latex to this uncovered bit, and we have a mouth armature which can be animated folding and opening in any funny direction. Each mouth armature is glued to the inside of the latex skin using liquid latex as a bonding agent.

The latex-covered yarn on the tentacles does add some texture, but I want something the looks softer and a bit more sculpted, so I'm casting some latex into old skin mold with a very wrinkly look. When these patches of latex have dried I peel them off the mold, dab them with liquid latex and wrap them around the tentacles. I'm also adding some drops of latex to create warts and bumps on the skin.

With all tentacles finished it's time to add them to the body. I cover the area where the tentacles go into the body skin with latex and bits of cotton, and use the heat gun to make the latex cure faster. This will fix the tentacles to the body skin. When that's done I add melted Polymorph plastic to the inside. This will fix the tentacles to both the latex skin and to each other. The teeth are small bits of latex simply rolled between my fingers until they harden as tiny pointy bits. These teeth are glued in place using liquid latex which permanently makes them a part of the body skin.

The legs get wrapped with thin polyurethane foam until I get the desired look and thickness. The seam between plastic hoof and foam is covered with cotton soaked in latex. I'm using more contact cement to make sure the cotton stays in place. Like the tentacles, the legs are covered with patches of latex skin cast in a wrinkly skin mold.

To pad out the bottom of the puppet I'm cutting out a couple of bits of camping seat cushion, and gluing them together using contact cement. 
I wanted the underside to be warty and weird-looking, so I turned to my little cookie box of surplus castings I've made over the years. If you keep latex castings dark and pretty airtight they will last for quite a while. So every time I've made castings but not used all of them they go into this little box. These patches of warty skin are stuck in place using latex. Since the seat foam on the underside is slightly porous it'll accept the latex and bond with it.

The puppet gets a thin covering of tinted latex to help unify the various added bits. Then I go over it all with an airbrush and acrylic paint with highlights and added colors.

It would've been great fun to actually adapt "Notebook Found In a Deserted House", but that story is copyrighted, and the estate of Robert Bloch is probably not to be trifled with. Nor is Chaosium, but I think my use of this monster is within the "fair use" appreciation.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Making a Book Cover Illustration

If you're curious about what I'm up to when I'm not making films, then here's a little video about one of my illustration jobs.

Friday, December 1, 2017

"Feather of Owlbear": A D & D Fan Film

This project started way back in 2014, but now it's finally finished. I made a few puppets inspired by the original 1977 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, and they're all covered in previous posts on this blog. Here are links to all of them:

The Owlbear.
The Rust Monster.
The Beholder.
The Umber Hulk.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Halloween Weirdos

Some people have been telling me for years to make a YouTube Halloween video, and this year I finally made one. I spent a week on the project, and used mostly older puppets, but a few unused ones snuck in there too. Here's the video:

But I managed to make two new puppets. Here's the first one.

This is actually a quite old latex cast I found in one of my stashes of stuff-I-should-throw-away-but-never-does. Originally it was supposed to be a Mewlip (featured in my Mewlips video), but I decided to go in another direction with these creatures and discarded this design. However, I had already cast this latex skin and added the two reflective bead eyes. Since the skin was in good shape despite the years (latex will, as you know, start to crumble after some time) I decided to use it for one of my new Halloween puppets. I added sheets of polyurethane foam on the inside of the skin, using liquid latex as a bonding agent, to bulk it up a bit.

I also bulked up the aluminum wire armature with some foam wrappings. Cotton and latex was used to build up muscles on the lanky arms, and a pair of latex wings were attached to the back of the armature. You can see the whole wing-making process HERE.

Here the puppet has been given a skin made from patches of latex skin cast in plaster molds. The nails are made from thick paper dipped in latex.

And here's the finished puppet. I also placed a wing nut in the puppet's posterior, so I can attach a flying rig.

Here's the second original puppet in this video. It's a lanky, pot-bellied zombie with a slightly (or maybe very) cartoony look. Like with the other puppet I had already sculpted the torso and created a mold for it. I can't actually remember what I made the sculpture for, but I thought it would fit right in here, and it did. As you can hopefully see in this photo the cast latex skin has been padded with thin sheets of polyurethane, and the armature has also been padded in the same way. Also, this guy has a wing nut in his butt.
These two puppets are very simply and quickly made, but perfectly functional in every way. What cuts down the construction time in this case is that none of the puppets have articulated faces. No rotating eyes or jointed jaws.

The finished goofy zombie. Both these guys flut past the camera so quickly it'd be a waste to just use them once. No idea what the future holds, but I'm sure you haven't seen the last of them.