Saturday, August 24, 2019

Baba Yaga's Hut part 1

For years I've been thinking about making a film based on the legends about the Russian witch Baba Yaga. I always saw wonderful opportunities for stop-motion animation, both for the character herself and her chicken-legged hut. All my films are pretty short, but within the framework of these videos, I wanted to do something with the subject.

Let's start by talking about how the hut puppet was made. Compared to most of my puppets it's pretty big. I wanted that size so I could add details and textures that would look believable, at least within the context of my project.

Baba Yaga's hut is a log cabin, and I guess the right way to do it would be to create it out of real wood. But since I'm not a skilled woodworker I fell back on what I do know. I'm a decent sculptor, so I decided to make the logs out of clay. I used medium grade Monster Clay, and simply rolled long "logs" on a plastic tray.

I measured out a spot along all the logs where I would cut into them to make an indentation to interlock the logs.

I used a sharp loop tool to cut into the clay. This way I could place the logs over each other the way a big log cabin is built (I'm assuming).

So, here are all the clay logs laid out and ready to interconnect.

And here's how they look when stacked into a square shape. As you can see I've kept the rough ends of every log. I wanted them to look uneven.

I used small loop tools and pointy tools to carve details into the clay. A door frame and a window frame were also added to the outside of the cabin shell.

I will create a plaster mold around the sculpture, so I've covered the hole at the top with a piece of cardboard, and I'm building a clay wall around the cabin so the plaster can be contained and controlled.

The first layer of plaster is painted on with a sturdy brush, so air bubbles will be eliminated. I'm using hard dental plaster.

Another layer is applied with a spatula and when that has dried I'm adding burlap dipped in plaster. 
This will create a stronger mold, while allowing me to actually use less of the plaster.

Jumping ahead a bit, I've removed the clay from the dry plaster mold. I'm now adding tinted latex to create the first layer of the hut cast -the outside surface of the hut.

The latex layer is reinforced with cotton dipped in lates, which when dry achieves the feel of leather. After a couple of layers of this mix of materials has set I add a fast-setting plastic called SmoothCast 65D, which lines the inside of the latex skin. Now I have a "body" for the hut which is both durable and light weight.

I need more details for the hut, so I'm making a few more "wood work" pieces in clay.

Here's another latex cast made from a clay sculpture and a plaster mold. It's the tiles for the roof. This latex cast is also backed with cotton and latex, and attached to cardboard with contact cement.

The two sides of the roof are joined with hot melt glue and pressed together. You can also see that a wainscoted upper floor has been added, also attached to a bit of cardboard.

Here's another bit. This one will cover the inside of the outcropping roof section.

Like the other latex skin bits, it's glued in place with contact cement. Exposed bits of cardboard is covered with tinted latex.

Now over to the all-important chicken feet. They are constructed with three mm thick aluminum wires bundled together. A t-nut is attached to the underside of the feet to provide a threaded tie-down. The "bones" in the legs are created by lashing nails to the aluminum wires using soft string.

The legs are padded with polyurethane foam and then covered with bits of latex skin cast in plaster skin molds.

Claws made from cotton dipped in latex is added to the toes using liquid latex as a glue. Latex tinted light grey is then sponged on to create flexible paint covering the legs.

The legs are stuck to a piece of plywood using hot melt glue, and then another bit of plywood pressed down over the hot glue using a glue clamp.

More cotton and latex are added over the plywood square to make it look organic.

The plywood bit with the legs is stuck to the bottom of the hut using more hot glue, a LOT of hot glue, actually.

We'll have some nice decorations for the hut, of course. This is a moose skull, sculpted in Monster Clay rather quickly.

It was cast in latex, with cotton/latex backing, from a dental plaster mold (please pardon the blurry image).

The other bony decorations were made from Super Sculpy, a polymer clay hardened by heating it in a kitchen oven. They were created for a project many years ago but lay unused in a plastic bag in my workshop.

Additional details are a chimney, also cast in latex, and decorative barge boards cut from cardboard. I've added feathers to the legs, grouse feathers I think, by dipping the ends of the feathers in latex and pressing them against the latex skin of the legs. The door is also made from cardboard with aluminum wire hinges. The door handle is a bone made from thermoplastic attached to a screw.

That's it for the magical chicken-legged hut. In the next part, I'll talk about how Baba Yaga herself was made and also how the film, in general, was put together.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Howler by H P Lovecraft

I keep returning to H P Lovecraft's sonnet cycle "Fungi From Yuggoth", but I'll probably never adapt all of the pieces. Late in May I adapted "The Howler" from this collection. It's a moody tale about the bitter fruits of traditional witchcraft.

The shooting of the live action was easy enough. I recruited my pal Andreas Nordkvist, now a staple in my video projects, and shot the forest road scenes in an afternoon just up the road from where I live. The witches cottage was another matter, though. I found a good representation of what I kind of wanted over at Depositphotos (where I have a subscription). After some work in Photoshop the house started to look a bit more decrepit, but I had a bigger issue to solve. It was blowing quite hard the day we shot the live-action scenes, so all the ivy I had Photoshopped in over the cottage had to move. Fortunately, just another stone's throw away from my home lies the local church yard, which is infested with ivy. A couple of days after filming the scenes with Andreas there was another windy day, and I simply shot bits of ivy waving around, and used the masking tool in After Effects to cut out pieces of this footage, adding it on top of the cottage image.

Of course, there's also always a monster in my projects. This time around it's "a certain monstrous aftermath", according to Lovecraft. Let's say it's some kind of familiar called up by the witch, or some kind of experiment that went wrong. At any rate, this creature is still living in the abandoned house and is sometimes heard, and even glimpsed through the windows.

As usual I started with sculpting the head, to get a grip on this character. The creature is basically a four-legged thing with a human head. The clay is my preferred material; medium grade Monster Clay.

As you can see, the armature was simple, but functional. I added some hard metal wires to create a sort of rib cage to fill out the chest area and make that section sturdy.

The chest and belly area was sculpted to get exactly the fleshy look I wanted. A latex skin with sections of varying thickness was cast in a dental plaster mold.

I looked at muscle diagrams from dogs to create the overlapping foam muscles over the armature.

It's not often I make a puppet with a human skin color, but this time I thought it was vital to the character. Patches of tinted latex was cast in rubber texture mold to create a skin that looked porous and pock-marked.

The finished puppet had shiny plastic pearls for eyes, and tufts of hair pulled from an old fur coat. The bear-like claws were cut from cardboard and painted with tinted latex. The teeth were yarn dipped in latex.

Funnily enough, most reactions for this video is actually about the end credits, which seemed to tickle everybody's fancy!

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

H P Lovecraft's Dagon

Welcome again to the wacky world of H P Lovecraft! This time I've tackled a real classic, his early and game-changing tale "Dagon". You could say that this short story defines most of his work that comes after it. It introduces that most parodied Lovecraftian cliche: the narrator who keeps writing down what happens up to and including his own demise, death screams and all.

Let's start with the title. Since monolithic imagery is such an important part of this story I decided to expand this theme to the titles. I sculpted the letters of the name "Dagon" in clay and cast a plaster mold around them. This allowed me to cast extremely light weight versions of the letters in latex, reinforced with cotton, and then paint them with a mix of latex and various tinting mediums. The letters were placed on a green screened turntable and then filmed one by one. The separate letters were then lined up against a black background in After Effects and synchronized to turn all together.

The story takes place at the beginning of WW1, and I decided to try and stick with that period. I think I managed to scrape by just about when trying to maintain the credibility. I recruited my stalwart filming buddy Martin Merkel to play the narrator. It was a no-brainer to engage him in the project since he, besides being ever reliable, also had a decent collection of costumes and props from the WW1 era, coming mostly out of his cosplaying and historical reenactment interests. I filmed all of Martin's scenes outdoors against a green screen. Well, almost all, because I needed some shots of him walking at a distance, and my screens weren't big enough to handle that.

To get those shots we found a slope of short grass, and Martin simply walked in front of it.

This may look primitive, but with the aid of an AE plug-in called Smooth Screen I could transform the grass into a more unified green background. This allowed me to pull Martin out of the green as with any ordinary green screen shot.

But to get rid of most of the background I also had to draw a "garbage matte" around him, and changing the shape via keyframes I could track his walk with a minimum of background showing.

Martin was then sandwiched in between two Photoshopped background images, allowing him to walk into the rather nauseous landscape of the dry ocean floor.

Lastly, the green around him was removed, and the rendered shot was treated with atmospheric filter effects and then rendered out again.

These backgrounds were all created in Photoshop using photos of ebb and tide beaches combined with hundreds of images of stranded sea creatures. Sometimes, like in the top image, I've added a tracking camera move to add some depth, creating a 3D effect with artificial means.

It's done rather simply by marking all the layers of the shot as 3D layers, and then adding a distance between each layer. Depending on how big that distance is, the perspective effect is more or less accentuated when a camera move is animated in the shot. It's kind of crude, but it certainly helps sell the illusion if you do it well enough.

The monolith of this story is a very famous Lovecraftian artifact, which needed all my attention. But at the same time it's impossible to create the definite version of such a thing, so I just went with trying to literally recreate what the text says about the artifact. It has peculiar carvings depicting humanoid monsters that look like a cross between a fish and a frog. One of them is battling a whale. So that's what I went with. The images are depicted as bas reliefs, which meant they had to protrude out from the stone surface; a tricky bit of time consuming sculpting. I wasn't up for that, so I used a technique from my early days of prop-making. Instead I carved out the details, in reverse, so to speak, on a flat clay surface.

When I poured hard dental plaster onto this surface, the dry plaster cast revealed just the kind of bas relief I wanted. Again, crude but effective. This plaster cast was joined with three clay walls to create the actual monolith. Over this I applied four layers of DragonSkinFX silicone to shape a flexible mold.

SmoothCast 325 was poured into the silicone mold and roto casted to create a hollow plastic copy of the monolith sculpture. This casting was painted with washes of bronze, blue and green acrylic paint, and the whole thing was attached to a rudimentary but sturdy wooden stand.

The Dagon monster hugging the monolith was a foot tall puppet, built with my usual materials and techniques. I started off with a head and torso sculpture in medium grade Monster Clay. Like the monolith, this creature has achieved mythic proportions and there's a ton of art out there depicting it. How to make a version that's wholly original and yet familiar enough? The only way was to make it look like I think it should look, which is probably a distillation of loads of images from other artists, as well of real world fish and amphibians.

The armature was very simple; aluminum wires held together with thermoplastic, and reinforced with bits of metal rods to make the hard parts of the "skeleton."

The head and torso was cast in tinted latex from a plaster mold built up around the sculpture. An aluminum wire angler fish rod was added, along with fangs made from yarn dipped in latex.

Very soft polyurethane foam (the yellow bits) was mixed with denser foam (the green bits) to create a muscle padding, which was then covered with scaly patches of latex skin.

I wanted the monster to have fin-like outgrowths that looked worn, befitting an ancient sea giant. After attaching spikes made from cotton and latex to parts of the puppet, soft Monster Clay was pressed up against these spikes and tinted latex was brushed over both spikes and clay. When the latex had set, I had achieved that look of worn skin that I wanted.

The finished puppet was painted with acrylic airbrush paints, including the eyes, which were then covered by Glossy Accents scrap booking plastic to create that deep sea fish look to the eye lenses. The angler outgrowth has a glass pearl at its end. 

That's all folks! My take on Dagon has been generally well received, though there have been a few angry people letting me know what they think of this mangled version of one of their favorite tales. But that's how it goes. The more famous the tale you adapt, the more criticism you'll get.