Sunday, November 1, 2009

Beware the Blunderblat!

One of my ambitions with posting films on YouTube is that I would get in touch with likeminded people from all over the world and even get to collaborate with them. This means exchanging footage without ever having met, and still making a film together. My first attempt at this was "Concerning Brown Jenkin", which I filmed and RavenOfPoe from Australia narrated. But now it's time to try and take things one step further.

One of my favorite children's authors of today is Englishman Colin West. I'm especially a fan of his nonsense rhymes and I had been wanting to do a little film based on his poem "The Blunderblat" for a long time. I finally contacted him and asked for permission to make the video and post it on YouTube. Colin gracefully agreed and disclosed that he (like most people, it seems) was a YouTuber as well.

I asked one of my YouTube friends Amanda, aka VanillaPomme, if she'd like to do the live-action part of the film if I provided the animation for the monstrous Blunderblat. Amanda thought this was a great idea and I mailed her my storyboards for the project. She's a crazy (in the best sense of the word) 13-year old with big acting abilities and ambitions, and perfect for what I intend to put together. So, the idea is that Amanda will play two parts in the story (something's she's vary apt at doing), film all the footage needed, mostly in front of a green screen, and upload it somewhere where I can get it. I'll animate the Blunderblat puppet in front of my blue screen and edit mine and her footage together. The finished film will be posted by us both (and by Colin, if he'd like to) on YouTube. There will probably be some technical issues with the US NTSC footage and my European PAL footage, but I know that they can be resolved. I'm really looking forward to putting this together.

Now; something about the Blunderblat puppet.

There's really nothing new about this puppet -it's made the way I make almost all of my puppets. But it does have insect wings cast in semi-transparent plastic, which is a first for me. More about those later. Basically all the parts of this puppet started as clay sculptures. The Blunderblat is very insect-like. An illustration by Colin West and the line "I watched it rise into the skies Like some colossal locust" seems to indicate this. So I made it as a sort of cross between a grasshopper and some kind of crustacean.

All the parts for the body were cast in latex from plaster molds. All the joints were made with braided aluminum wire and held together with the thermo plastic Friendly Plastic.

The tail and body latex skins were filled with hard, but light, expanding polyfoam. The excess material was cut and sanded down.

Aluminum wire joints to animate the mouth, eyes and mandibles were added to the latex head skin using Friendly Plastic as bonding "bone" material.

I did sculpt and cast parts in latex for the legs, but eventually they just turned out to be too bulky. So I re-did the legs by simply building them up in Friendly Plastic over the wire armature. It took a bit longer to do it this way, but the legs turned out much better.

Now for the wings. This is how I did them, but there are probably better and simpler ways to achieve the same results. I just couldn't figure them out. I started by drawing one wing on a piece of paper, and then traced the drawing onto clay by simply pressing the pencil hard on the paper. I then turned the drawing over and did another inprint in the clay to make a mirror version of the wing. This is how the tracings looked after a bit of clean-up.

I then did a plaster cast of the clay imprint and a silicone mold of the plaster cast. This finally yielded a mold to cast the plastic wings in.

I did two castings of each wing in SmoothCast 325. This plastic is a slightly milky transparent and quite perfect if you want something that'll look transparent, but really isn't. I couldn't make the wings totally transparent, as I was using a blue screen behind them. The wing castings were then pieced together using more plastic to make two wings.

Here's a wing after piecing two halves together and cleaning them up. I didn't mind the little imperfections along the edges of the wing, as that would be natural for a giant insect monster (I suppose). As you can see I've drilled a little hole at the base of the wing...

This is for attaching a bit of aluminum wire with Friendly Plastic. The plastic goes through the hole and really attaches itself to the wing, making the bond between wire joint and wing much stronger.

The Blunderblat has been pieced together and is ready for its paint job. The eyes are plastic beads and the teeth and neck skin are latex. The mandible claws are Friendly Plastic.

The Blunderblat was painted (as I always do) with PAX paint (a mixture of ProsAide glue and acrylic paints). The base is a dark brown with a mix of grey and gold drybrushed on top of it.

The eyes, teeth, mouth and some highlights were airbrushed with acrylic airbrush paints. They usually stick very well to the PAX mixture.

Along the back a pattern in yellow and bright purple was airbrushed on. It was inspired by markings on certain insects.

The wings also got a dash of paint to give them a bit more depth.

In order to animate the beast flying around with as little trouble as possible I attached a thick aluminum wire rod to the puppet. The rod was covered in soft string and painted blue, and stuck to the side of the puppet that isn't going to face the camera as planned. If I were to change that set-up I'll just flip the image in the editing and that should work out fine. I prefer to use a support rod to hanging the puppet from strings attached to an aerial brace, which can be a bit of a mess. You also have to stop the puppet from swinging every time you've touched it. When the puppet is attached to a rod it stays put. Sometimes you have to remove the rod in post prod editing, but it's worth the trouble.

Well, that's all for now, boys and girls. Hopefully the Blunderblat will make its YouTube debut before Christmas and you'll find out exactly what a Blunderblat does, why Amanda is cloning herself and how our collaboration worked out.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Latex Masks and Plastic Skulls

I just posted a short film clip on YouTube about one of my biggest pastimes; making latex monster masks. I thought I'd post it here as well. One of the masks featured is the Dagon mask I blogged about earlier this year. Also, I included a gallery of some of my LARP work.

Some of my best friends are very much into Live-Action Role-Playing (LARP), meaning they dress up as orcs, elves, warriors, clerics and various ancient and fantasy-inspired characters. They help me out making stuff for my films (clothes, leather- and metal work, etc) and I return the favor by making masks and various slippery slithery things for them. Recently I did a plastic orc skull for my friend Liz, who often makes clothes for my puppets and people appearing in my videos. As usual, I first did the skull as a sculpture in Chavant clay and built up a mold in Dragon Skin silicone over it. The actual skull was cast in the mold with SmoothCast 325 and painted with bone white car spray paints and acrylic airbrush colors.

I wanted a (what is now) retro orc look, inspired by the big-jawed orcs made popular in the late 1980's and during the 1990's by British Games Workshop. This design is frequently referred to as the "Warhammer" orc. The orc designs from Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" films have pretty much taken over, which means that the modern orc is quite human-like and thus easy to recreate for the LARPers. The older orc was green, muscular and a bit cartoonish. I kind of like them better and I'm trying to re-introduce them (along with a friend) into the Swedish LARP arena by subtly changing the look of my masks and props. Someday we'll explode onto the LARP scene with a fully fledged retro orc suit! (this is the stuff you ponder when you don't have a proper life to worry about)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tiger Shark Ready to Swim

I finally pulled my thumbs out of my arse (a Swedish expression) and finished my contribution to Shelley Noble's "Halfland" project -the Tiger Shark. I just have to find out how she'd like the puppet supported during the animation. Right now it's attached to a bendable rod of braided aluminum wire, but that wire must in its turn be attached to some kind of foot or stand. I'll await instructions from Shelley.

The puppet in itself is a big experiment for me. It's made only out of silicone, with some cotton padding. It's also painted with tinted silicone. Only the teeth (latex rubber) and the claws (plastic) are not silicone. The puppet turned out way too toy-like for my taste, but that may suit the overall style of Shelley's project, so if she's happy I'm happy.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Save Prince Plutonium!: Go green!

I was lamenting a couple of posts back about how badly my BLUE screen compositing experience turned out. While filming "Save Prince Plutonium!" this summer I used a GREEN screen instead and the results have been like night and day. I've been able to key my diminutive actors into new backgrounds without any heartache. Just take a look:

I hardly have to do any adjustments in the Keylight keying software to get everything the way I want it. Apart from this I've had tremendous difficulty actually getting the footage into my PC. I shot all of the live-action scenes using a HDV cam borrowed from a boarding school, where I help out teaching art on occasion. Problem was all of the footage was saved on a memory card and I needed the necessary software installed on my PC in order to have the camera "talk" to the computer. The CD with the software had been mislaid by the very slack drama teacher of the school and I've spend the past two months trying to figure out ways of saving my precious footage. This past weekend, with the help of a friend working with cameras and different softwares, I managed to transport the film clips from card to PC. I also found and bought a software that will transfer HD footage into standard DV footage, `cause I really don't need it in HD. In fact, I can't edit HD on my PC at present. But my plan had always been to utilise the higher resolution of HD even when transferred to DV, and this software allowed me to do that. So I'm happy again!

So now there'll be a few months of piecing together of footage, backgrounds, pyrotechnical effects, model work and stop-mo animation. I haven't started on building puppets yet, since I have a bunch of older stuff to finish first. But I'm already happy with how this is turning out. The kids did such a good job acting in the film, I'm really happy to know now that the chroma key effects and all the other stuff will turn out very well, and they'll have a film they'd be proud to show their friends.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Frodo in the world of home movies.

Here's a real curio for you: This short clip comes from a bigger project that was never finished. Somewhere around 1999 I was part of a group of Swedish artists and musicians who worked on a musical video version of "Lord of the Rings"! For real! This was just before Peter Jackson´s mega-version of the books grabbed the world. At the end of the 1960's, Krister Gustavsson and Stefan Håkansson had written folk-rock songs based on the many poems of the books. (You can find Krister's YouTube channel HERE.)
At first we got permission from the publisher Harper Collins and the Tolkien estate to do an amateur version of the story. Then New Line Cinema pulled all the worldwide rights to protect their interests. This could very well be the biggest disappointment of my life. Now I realize that our version was very humble indeed and not much different from other amateur efforts, with hand-held cams and kids for hobbits. Those of you who know the books can see that I've changed the barrow-wight fight a little bit. For those of you who don't know the story, it is as follows: The Hobbits are captured by a ghost called a barrow-wight, but rescued by Tom Bombadil, master of the Old Forest.
This past weekend I found the old tape containing this particular footage, the devil went into me and I took a holiday from my other obligations to piece together a little video featuring this episode from the book "The Fellowship of the Ring". On Saturday evening I started building the barrow-wight hand and late Sunday morning it was ready to be animated. It's probably the fastest I've ever built a puppet. On Sunday evening the animation was finished and edited into the live-action footage. I wish all projects would go as easy as this one.

Here's the aluminum wire / Friendly Plastic hand armature. Nothing fancy, but it could do everything a human hand can do.

The hand armature covered with latex skins and a latex / cotton mix. It's been attached to a support rod made out of braided aluminum wire.

A pretty simple set-up as you can see. But why make things unneccesarily complicated?

The support rod was partially painted blue to be keyed out with the rest of the background.

There are a number of Tolkien fan film projects out there, and quite a bit of them on YouTube. Most of them are parodies but some are dead serious (perhaps a bit too serious for there own good). I've done a couple and am planning to do more. I'm a member of a forum on the web page "", originally devoted to Peter Jackson's films, but now more of a stomping ground for Tolkien purists. There's a section for "fan art", including music and some home-made films. Some of us posting there have recieved quite a beating from those who believe that nothing should be produced without the approval of the Tolkien Estate. Tolkien himself stated that he'd like to approve all the art being produced based on his ideas, and now that he's gone, that job falls to the Estate. But I must say the taste and judgement of the Tolkien Estate is highly debatable.
I use a by-line in my forum posts that read: "I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama." Now, this is a quote from a letter that Tolkien wrote to editor Milton Waldman to convince him to publish "The Silmarillion" and "The Lord of the Rings" simultaniously. I took this quote as a postive affirmation that Tolkien would approve of at least of what some of us are attempting to do. He had, after all, the ambition to create an alternative mythology for Great Britain, that hopefully would be as appreciated and widely read (and studied) as any other real mythology. It was, however, pointed out to me on that forum that before that statement in the letter, Tolkien makes it clear he has all but abandoned this early idea for a larger, shared mythology. Thus, using that quote as a statement is a great misjustice to Tolkien's memory.
The concept of that great shared mythology may not have been a reality when "The Lord of the Rings" was first published, but, by God, it certainly is now. I'd say Tolkien's ideas and imagination have grown out of the hands of any copyright holders. I'd say it falls to the love of us fans to do his work real justice, without any thoughts of any profit besides the shared joy of the finished result. I'll go so far as to say that some fan efforts help make up the perception of LOTR et al, for some of us. The fan efforts help make this a phenomenon, and I'm surprised this fact is not acknowledged. It's not any damn commerce that make a myth, but constant, honest retelling of it.

In the 60's when "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" were absorbed by pop and hippie culture Tolkien was, as I understand it, befuddled by the great interest, the fanzines, the rock songs, the "Frodo Lives" stickers and the people trampling the flowers in the garden of his peaceful Oxford home just to take pictures of him and his wife. But as far as I know he never raised any issues of copyright infringement or claimed any "creative injury". And he very well could've, had he been inclined. The only debacle where he actually took action was against Ace Books, who published "The Lord of the Rings" in the US without telling him, using a loophole in the copyright law. In order to stop those books Tolkien addressed his most powerful ally; his fans, and asked them to boycott the Ace editions, which they did. I think that says a lot about the relationship between this author and his admirers.

A bit of a rant there, I'm afraid, but I feel strongly about all of this.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Save Prince Plutonium!: Props and shooting

Last year I shot the film Goblin Wood with my friend Björn's step-daughter Angelica (you can find several posts about that project here on my blog). We all enjoyed the experience so much we decided to repeat it this year, adding Angie's friend Tove, who had gotten quite worked-up about becoming a YouTube film star herself. The resulting project was Save Prince Plutonium!, about two rival space heroines, Astro Girl and Galaxy Girl, setting out to rescue and win the same boy (never a good thing). As a side-note, the girls are at present having a bit of a real-life fall out over a boy in school, but the issue seems to be resolving in a way quite similar to what eventually happens in our film. Life imitates art, as always!

Also shot last year were two projects filmed in front of a less-than satisfactory blue screen. I've spent close to a year getting usable extractions of the actors from that blue screen background, but this experience hasn't deterred me from having another go at chroma key. This time I decided to use green, which seems to have been a much better choice. This meant we only had to build a couple of consoles and seats for space ship interiors. The rest would be models keyed in behind the girls. My pal Björn helped me build the things we needed.

The cockpit chair for one of the space ships was an old automobile seat. The controls for the consoles were all sorts of old stuff gathered up; buttons and keyboards repainted and pieced together.

While Björn and I were building the set pieces the girls started getting into their roles and playing with the stuff. This was very cool, of course, since it meant they were really looking forward to doing this project.

For Angie's (Astro Girl) space ship we only fixed up the auto chair with a couple of control handles. The handles were painted jet black and retractable buttons for firing laser cannons (of course) were put into the grips.

Tove's (Galaxy Girl) space ship had a big console used for long shots of her steering her ship. Astro Girl, on the other hand, gets into a space battle with robot ships and only needed her chair for her action-filled, very quick shots. The console was built out of fiber board. Nothing fancy at all, but it worked great.

The console was painted with a black base coat. The steering wheel was made out of an old coat-hanger and two wooden dowels.

With gold paint and controls added the console looks snazzy enough for this project. I ran out of gold paint while spraying the front of the console. But that was alright, since we never intended to shoot very low anyways.

The laser guns were just two water guns lazily bought by me and modified slightly.

Angie's mom Lisa took care of the make-up duties. Looks like neither of the girls really enjoyed being made up.

But it was worth the slight anguish! The space suits were two (very expensive) gymnastics suits I bought, with some small details added. Before we started filming the girls got to do some inspired action-heroine posing. Might be good for poster art or the end credits.

As you can see we used a cloth green screen (4m x 2m) for the background. Another piece was added to the floor when that was necessary. It's difficult getting the cloth completely smooth, but a simple iron with the steam turned up will go a long way fixing that.

And off into space we go! There will be additional stuff like blinking lights added to this console.

All the new stuff for Angie's cockpit will be added in the background.

We shot all the scenes in an old room in a boarding school, just a stone's throw from where I live. Angie's turning into quite a mini-Milla Jovovich, with ever-expanding fight scenes. Both girls were very acrobatic, doing back-flips, cart wheels, high kicks and other sorts of gymnastics that looks particularly painful to a 35-year old couch potato. In the film they'll be fighting stop-motion animated robots.

And of course I'll have to mention Prince Plutonium himself. I shot the scenes with Elias playing the prince about a week after we did the scenes with the girls. He dressed up in clothes picked from the costume storage of the boarding school's drama class. I made a suitable "atomic" head band for him. Like the girls, Elias is 10 years old, but already severely bitten by the acting bug.

I borrowed the camera from the school as well. It was the first time I shot in HD, in 16:9 and saving the footage on a digital memory card. I wanted the best possible image quality for all the green screen shots and that's why I didn't use my old standard DVcam. It's good for most things, but I don't trust it for producing good keyable footage. This big, expensive camera was not the easiest to cooporate with. I will buy my own HD camera as soon as I can, but it will be something much simpler that this big chunk of plastic.

After the filming was done we all had a wrap-up dinner. Angie fooled around with a Beltain deer mask I made a while ago and we decided that for 2010 we would do a celtic-inspired fairy tale, where she could wear the mask. The main focus here would be to find stunning spots of real nature and keep the chroma key shots to a minimum. It may seem foolhardy do discuss new projects while old ones are unfinished (or just shot), but you never know how long the enthusiasm will last when it comes to kids. All of a sudden they might decide that they're too old or too adult to play around in front of a camera, so do what you can as long as you can. Stock up with good footage while you can get it. I don't really think that attitude will be a problem with Angie, since she's really easy-going and adventurous. She's a very good actress despite her tender age, so I'd really like to do more films with her.

Finally; a background shot from the planet where the prince is held captive. This unhospitable, monster-infested place was created using photos of twilight skies with shots of coral reefs provided by a friend living in the caribbean.