Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sculpting Tips & Tricks Video

If you want some more info on how I work with clays and sculpting tools when building my puppets, then I hope you'll find some good stuff in this video :)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Doctor Who Taran Wood Beast

I love classic Doctor Who, and I especially love its monsters. There are many celebrated creatures from the golden age of the TV show, but not all of them are met with love.

Take this shaggy fellow, for example. This is the dreaded Taran wood beast, encountered by Mary Tamm's time lady Romana on the planet Tara. It rears its ugly head in the very first episode of the serial "The Androids of Tara" (1978), itself a part of the longer story cycle "The Key to Time".

This might be a face only a mother can love, for most Who fans certainly don't. Even the serial's director Michael Hayes hated the damn thing, and cringes audibly when it appears during his DVD commentary to the episode. I, however, love this goofy-looking monster and I think it has been given an unjustifiably large amount of badmouthing.
This opinion has now resulted in me making my own doll of the critter, just for the fun of it. Sometimes when I work on a puppet project that drags on and is in some ways taxing, I take a break and relax by -making another puppet.

This doll is really no different from my usual stop-motion puppets, except that it isn't built for animation (though it can certainly be used for that). So, there are no tie-down bolts in its feet, and the hands, feet and head are cast in plastic, and therefore completely stiff. I started with making chavant clay sculptures for these parts of the body.

The sculptures were pressed down onto chavant bases, and encircled with clay walls. DragonSkin FX was poured into each confinement, and tinted SmoothCast 325 poured into the finished silicone molds.

As you can probably see this is my standard aluminum wire armature, held together at the vital sections with Friendly Plastic. The head was cast in a bright orange and the hands and feet in a blue-grey hue. The hands and feet were cast solid, but using a Dremel tool I quickly dug out deep furrows where I could stick the aluminum wires. Quick-setting epoxy holds the wires in place.

I used an ordinary hobby brush to apply washes of airbrush colors, adding depth and skin patterns onto the plastic cast. As you can see, the bottom part of the teeth are dark brown. This is because air got trapped in the silicone mold during the casting, and the bottom of the fangs were missing from the casting. Heavy duty sculpting epoxy was used to finish the fangs.

The body of the doll was wrapped in thin polyurethane foam to build up bulk, and yet have it retain great flexibility around the armature.

I used a cheap but nice-looking fake fur to cover up the doll's body. A textile pattern pencil is used to draw an outline around the doll.

The basic wood beast fur cover pattern -very simple as you see. I made two of these, one for the back, and one for the front.

Flexible and durable contact cement joined the body with the fur. Starting with the back, I then added glue to the foam padding of the doll's front side.

Adding the two halves of the fur covering was really easy. I squeezed out some glue along the joins, and simply pressed the fur tightly around them.

The wood beast has a short mane around its head, and a rather 1980's synthpop-looking fringe hanging over his face. A small piece of longer fake fur was added and "styled."

So, here's the finished doll or puppet -I don't really know what the correct term for such a project would be.

He found his home on one of my book shelves, next to a Who monster colleague, and a stack of Doctor Who Target books.

I actually made a DeviantArt fan illustration the other year, showing the moment when Romana is ambushed by the little monster, and shortly before she is rescued by the villainous, but swashbuckling count Grendel. Is there any longer any doubt that I'm a fan of this curious beastie?

But what was the fate of the actual wood beast? Well, it was almost sold at a Who memorabilia auction a few years ago, but unfortunately nobody wanted the now rather ratty-looking suit, so it went back to its original owners.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Nothing Is Forgotten -The Finished Film

In February I posted a little chronicle about the making of a silicone-skinned puppet; the first of its kind that I ever made. It was created for young British YouTubian filmmaker Laurie Cousins, who adapted Ryan Andrew's web comic of that same name. Laurie has now finished his film and published it on YouTube. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

What Is It?: Building "It"

The monster puppet for "What Is It?" is no different from most of my other puppets, but it does have certain things that makes it unusual. It was built pretty quickly, but as it turned out I still had some work to do on it.

The head was actually the only new thing sculpted for this character. I made it in Monster Clay and created a plaster mould that covered all of it except for a small portion of the back of the head.

The armature, created out of aluminum wires, was as thin as I could make it. The creature is supposed to be some kind of humanoid with several spider-like aspects. The torso was re-used from a mould made for my Jersey Devil puppet, but pulled tighter around the armature. The limbs are covered with cotton dipped in tinted latex. The feet are also built up in this same way.

The limbs, including the neck and back, were detailed by sticking small bits of wrinkly latex skins cast in skin texture moulds. Before the liquid latex used as a bonding agent sets up I press down in some of the wrinkles with a pointy tool. That adds extra depth to the features and makes the puppet look even more gaunt.

When I'm happy with the overall look of the build-up, I go over the puppet with a grey layer of PAX paint, laying it on as thinly as possible.

This is what the puppet looked like when I finished it late last year. But the poem I'm adapting into a YouTube video says that parts of the creature are covered in thick bristles, like the hairs you'll see on a spider if you magnify the animal.

These bristles or hairs are bits of yarn are dipped in latex and rolled between my thumb and index finger, until they become pointy, and then they're left to dry. As the puppet was covered with a paint that's a mix of glue and acrylic paint I couldn't use latex as a bonding agent between the hairs and the puppet. Instead I used a flexible quick-setting superglue to attach the hairs, and a pair of tweezers to stick them in place on the arms and the head.

Most of the puppet animations were achieved in front of a green screen, but a few of the shots needed a small bit of set; a dungeon. Several years ago I did a clay sculpture of a stone wall, which was then turned into thick latex skins to build a set for my film "The Mewlips". I still had the plaster mould and simply cast two new skins (I had thrown away the old set, because it took up so much room).

These latex skins, supported with paper towels soaked in latex, were mounted with contact cement on thick cardboard, and then dry brushed with light grey PAX paint. As it turned out, in the animated shots the walls are hardly visible, but you can sometimes glimpse them, and it's a good thing they're there to add atmosphere -much better than a plain black background.

And this is what the finished It puppet looks like when it comes leaping out of the darkness in some of the scenes. The two last ones are in fact shot in front of the stone wall set.

Friday, March 4, 2016

What Is It?: Digital Trickery

My DeviantArt friend Jeff Kwasniewski has written a lot of funny and inventive poems, most of them in the realm of fantasy or horror. I was especially charmed by one of them, "What Is It?", which is an hommage to the ghost stories of English writer and scholar M R James. If you haven't read any of James´ work, get yourself out on the Internet right now and start Googling, or listen to any audio book version, OR get the DVD box set of the BBC "Ghost Stories For Christmas" TV movies, which frequently adapt the stories from this author.
Jeff's prose poem follows the hapless narrator who inadvertently sets loose an eldritch horror, apparently once imprisoned in Eton Collage chapel by James himself. I decided I wanted to make a short film based on this text, and set to work on it last fall, building a puppet and planning the shots. A couple of weeks ago I filmed the live-action footage, which I'm now editing in After Effects and Adobe Premiere Elements. This entry in my blog will be about the work in that editing process, which I hope you'll find inspiring, as I think it shows that you can go a long way with a bit of inventiveness and planning.

My buddy Andreas Nordkvist plays the narrator, though the actual text is read by Jeff himself. On and off through the past years I've had access to a big room in a local boarding school just a stone's throw from my house. That's where I've been putting my lights and my green screen, but that building is now under renovation, and I've had to look for another available space. Luckily for me, my nearest neighbour, a big archive, is now happily letting me use their facilities, which has resulted in me getting better sound and even more space to play around with. However, for this little adventure I only went with a very simply arranged green screen, since it was all I needed.

Most of the story takes place in Eton, UK. On Pond5 I found a few stock footage shots of the college. I settled for one of them, showing a bustling street with the college in the background. The clip cost $50, which stang a bit, but I wanted something more than just a still image from Wikimedia to establish the beginning of the story. As you can see, Andreas is pretty seamlessly inserted into the stock footage. This is thanks to the Primatte Keyer After Effects plugin, combined with Key Correct, both of them included in the Red Giant Keying Suite. I see now that it's priced at $799, but I recall that it was slightly cheaper when I bought it about a year ago. At any rate, this software has proven to be worth every penny.

For example, if the filmmaker turns out to be an idiot, which I can be sometimes, then all is still not lost. Take this mad shot: We wrapped the green screen around Andreas´ car and did not anticipate the problems that would follow with sunlight being filtered through bright green cloth. This shot should be impossible to save, however..

..With the help from Primatte along with some color adjustment tools in After Effects it was possible to get a decent, if not perfect shot after all. So, why not simply get in the car and actually go for a real drive? It's still winter over here and the trees are completely bare. Some more stock footage from Pond5 makes up the moving background, which is actually an English country road.

Regular green screen shots, especially close-ups, are much easier to work with, and it's possible to quickly pull your actor out of the background and stick him/her into any new surroundings.

The background here is a Photoshop collage with images from various sources. When the final shot is rendered out I add a filter from Rampant Color FX, which unites the various elements in the shot and creates a smoother look for your composite image. However, if you don't want to spend any money on grading your films there are numerous free resources online. Just do a Google search for "grading filters for after effects".

In this shot I've also added layers of dust in the air; one behind Andreas in the sunlight, and one in front of him. It's a moving camera shot, which means that we're closing in on Andreas, with the stacks of books and papers seemingly in front of him and closer to the "camera", This trick is achieved by adding layers of still images on top of each other. The chroma key footage of Andreas is placed between those. There are eight layers of images in this shot, and all of them are turned into 3D layers in AE and spaced with various lengths between each other, using the "Camera" function as a guiding tool. I'm just rushing through the procedure here, but if any one's interested I'll do a proper guide for this type of trick shot. I'm simply showing that you have quite a few options on how to make a shot composed of almost just still images really come alive. The zoom created in AE achieves the illusion that you're in a real room, thanks to the 3D layer effect.

Now on to some meatier stuff. Here's an interesting shot. In the story the hero is forced to escape from a chapel cellar, where he has inadvertently released an evil entity; the "It" of the title. He's rushing back up some old stone stairs to escape the creature. The boarding school I live next to has a lot of stone stairs, stone walls and other bits of interesting architecture. I decided to use one of the stairs for this shot, as I couldn't achieve it by only using the green screen alone. I stood about midway up this flight of stairs holding the folded green screen, and had Andreas stumble in panic up the stone slabs.

In Photoshop I created this mask using free texures found online.


In the final shot I've added this mask in AE, also using the masking tool to draw around the parts of Andreas that were obscured by the mask image. This meant that I had to draw frame by frame around him for parts of this shot, but as he moved fast I didn't really have too many frames to worry about. When this shot was rendered out I also added a few color grading filters.

Here's another shot that illustrates quite well that you can go a long way with a little ingenuity. This huge field is another neighbour of mine. Andreas just ran across it towards the camera.

In After effects I then added a Photoshopped mask of an English cottage, along with some foreground silhouettes of wind-swept trees, some free digital rain found and downloaded from YouTube, and finally a grading filter on top of it all to soften the shot. Placing the cottage mask correctly over the live-action footage I could actually have Andreas running out the door.

So, what's all this running about, then? Well, here's a quick glimpse of the "It" following our hapless hero as it surprises him in his cottage. But more about this creature in the next blog post.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Nothing Is Forgotten Web Comic Monster

During the fall of 2015 I was approached by young British filmmaker Laurie Cousins about collaborating on a YouTube film project. He's adapting the web comic "Nothing Is Forgotten" by Ryan Andrews, which is a beautifully told wordless story about loss and loneliness, and weird friendships.

Laurie is himself starring in his adaptation, and has finished all of the live-action shooting. Here's his YouTube channel, by the way.

So now it's up to me to build and animate the creatures in the tale, and they look like this:

Though there are several creatures in the story they all look alike, and I decided to build only the one puppet and animate it several times. To create the swirly bark-like pattern in the creature's skin I knew I had to forgo my usual build-up techniques. Using latex would probably create a skin that wouldn't be soft enough, which meant I would use silicone instead. My first thought was to sculpt the whole character and cast it in a plaster mould, but I don't like the hassle of making the mould, aligning it correctly for the armature, and then cleaning up the casting and patching up the seams. Which meant that I still had to use some kind of build-up technique.

But first things first. The armature was my ordinary aluminum wire construct. I made the puppet bigger than usual, assuming that would be in my favour when creating the detailed skin build-up.

The padding or muscle structure of this puppet was much simpler than anything I had done before. I used my usual soft polyurethane mattress foam, trying to have as few seams as possible. The spindly arms and legs are covered with white yarn to give the build-up something to grab on to.

I happened to have a set of PlatSil Gel 00 silicone on my shelf. This silicone is very soft and sets up in about 15-20 minutes. When adding a bit of thickening agent the PlatSil turns into a butter-like consistency, which makes it very easy to apply to any surface. I tested the material on a bit of polyurethane, and the results were very promising.

I applied the silicone, now tinted with SilcPig pigments, using a palette knife. The application was split up in sections of the puppet body, as one section needed to cure so I could then grab hold of it (or stop worrying about smearing it out) when working on the next section. I mixed up enough to first cover the front of the body, then the back, then the head, and lastly the arms and legs.
The eyes, by the way, are half-sphere buttons with a shiny mother of pearl look, which I think looked neat.

The actual shaping of the silicone skin was done before the material fully cured. I used a pointy dental tool to simply draw the lines into the silicone, letting the various sections blend into each other.

And here's the finished puppet. The skin is thick enough to cover the polyurethane, but the consistency of the PlatSil Gel 00 is so soft that it bends and flexes very well and affords the character great maneuverability. Essential for a confident animation, of course.

Remember that some of the creatures in one of the illustrations were carrying umbrellas; actually a pivotal ingredient of the tale? The umbrella I needed had to be pretty small, so I decided to build one myself. To make this as fast and easy as possibly I simply sculpted an open umbrella in Chavant clay and created a silicone mould around it. The umbrella was then cast in SmoothCast 325 plastic tinted red, and attached to a metal rod.

Here's how dapper the giant monster looks with his umbrella. As the same puppet will play all the monster parts, so will that umbrella be all umbrellas. My plan is to change the colour of it in After Effects, but this may not even be an issue, since the final film will be tinted a black & white sepia tone.