Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Scrap Metal

There's a bit of a preamble to this film, a story about its real origin. On and off I had for a few years produced stop-motion sequences for the movies of American independent low-budget producer James Balsamo. For his movie "Alien Danger 2" he had coaxed Judas Priest singer Rob Halford into briefly appearing, shot in front of a green screen, as a sort of space god, conjuring up a pair of Mecha to join forces with the robot ship of the heroes of the film, which was getting a whopping by the villainous dragon ship. This was back in late 2021 and I started working on the puppets, but was struck down by a nasty flu and couldn't finish the work until early 2022. The resulting animation is pretty much what you see in "Scrap Metal", but as I haven't seen Balsamo's finished movie I don't know if my contributions later mutated into something else.

I had the idea of re-using my animation footage for a project of my own, with a bit of additional work to polish up the sequence. Balsamo gave me his blessing, and, as things would have it, "Scrap Metal" finally saw the light of day in February 2024. I'll go through the puppets one by one, revealing how they were made and their esthetic origins. 

Because of Rob Halford's involvement, Balsamo had the idea of using puppet designs based on two Judas Priest record covers. This is the first, for "Defenders of the Faith", showing a horned mechanical monster with tank-like hindquarters. We asked Halford about basing the puppets on the record sleeve art, and he said if anyone approached us about it, we'd just refer them to him.

The puppet I designed partially took inspiration from the "Defenders of the Faith"-monster, and then I went off in my own direction. I decided to make this monster lion-like, for reasons you'll find out in a bit. I sculpted the head and the jaw in medium-grade Monster Clay. 

I wanted to make as many parts as I could for these robot puppets out of plastic, so I built up a silicone mold around the clay sculpture, so I could then cast resin plastic into the mold. The horns and fangs were sculpted separately and cast the same way.

The main body of the puppet was built up using various plastic bits of scrap I've collected over the years. I have several boxes of stuff like that.

The torso of the lion monster robot was a plastic perfumed soap bottle, but..

..Since I didn't want to use this bottle only for this project I made another silicone mold over the bottle and cast it as a hollow resin reproduction. 

Regrettably, since I was very pressed for time while making these puppets, I didn't take any photos of their armatures. But they're my standard constructs using various types of aluminum wires held together with thermoplastic. In this and the following photos, you can see the puppet almost completely assembled. The paws were also sculpted in clay and reproduced in plastic resin using a silicone mold. I'm not sure, but I believe I was using one of SmoothOn's Smooth Cast resins, with black pigments added. The arms are covered with bits of EVA foam, and the joints are covered up with thick, soft yarn dabbed with tinted latex.

Instead of using the tank design from the record cover, I built a sort-of rocket engine cluster for the monster's hindquarters. This puppet would be flying around, hence the change. The "rockets" are effervescent vitamin tablets tube packages. The ribs on their sides are the handles of disposable plastic spoons. The rocket tubes are connected to the soap bottle torso with a mix of super glue and baking soda, but since that looked a little bit crude I've added yellowish blobs of plumber's epoxy over the joins to smooth them out. You can just about make out a black tube between the rockets. That's a dried-up felt marker pen with a 3 mm threaded nut stuck to the end of it. That's the attachment point for my flying rig.

I did steal one obvious detail from the record cover art, and that was the multi-layered shoulder pads. I added two layers of the to my puppet using acrylic half-domes bought from a hobby shop. You can put decorations, like dried flowers into these halves and click them together. I've used these domes for all sorts of things.

The finished puppet was painted with Art Alchemy rub-on waxes, very similar to Rub n' Buff, which isn't sold in Sweden anymore. These Art Alchemy waxes are applied with sponges and are very durable. The fact is, the more you rub on them, the harder they stick. As you can see I've adapted the color scheme from the record cover. The ribbed top of the forearms are bits of latex cast in a plaster mold. You can see my ball-and-socket flying rig attached to the puppet's marker pen rod to the left in the photos, but you can also see another green support leaning into the torso. That's a simple 4 mm aluminum wire wrapped in chroma key tape. To my surprise, the ball-and-socket flying rig didn't hold up well enough to keep this puppet afloat, so I added the aluminum wire support in these photos. For the actual animation, I built a new flying rig using 4 mm aluminum wire, and that worked much better.

The next monster with a Judas Priest connection is the robotic eagle, obviously inspired by the cover for "Screaming For Vengeance."

Again, the head was sculpted in Monster Clay first..

..And then cast in tinted resin. the single red eye from the clay sculpture is a plastic pearl, which was also incorporated into the puppet's finished head.

This is what EVA foam looks like when you buy it. It's the favorite material for many cosplayers, who build everything from bits of armor and weapons to huge mecha robot suits from it. It is a very easy-to-use material and can be quickly shaped in a number of ways.

For the robot eagle, I used it for the wings. The foam bits were 2 and 3 mm thick and pieced together using contact cement and, sometimes, super glue. Along the outer edge of the wings, 2,5 mm aluminum wires were attached, covered up with more EVA foam. The foam is quite stiff, but you can bend it. Flexibility wasn't an issue here, since the wings were supposed to be made from metal.

The back end of the eagle -its tail feathers, if you will- would be a cluster of exhaust pipes, realized with dried-up marker pens I have saved over the years (see- never throw anything away!)

Here's the eagle pretty much assembled. One of the pipes at its rear has a flying rig attachment point. The scaly sections on the neck and the legs are EVA foam covered with latex skin I've cast from a texture mold I made some years earlier.

On the puppet's back are a few details that look a bit like engine parts. they are resin casts of model kit parts that are super glued onto the puppet's torso, which in itself is an old plastic box.

The finished puppet has been spraypainted with a flat black base color, then dry brushed with the Art Alchemy waxes. 

Now to the transforming spaceship/robot. I was sent this robot design from James Balsamo, which I didn't have to stick to religiously, but keep the overall feel of. The insect-like legs at the back have no function, but hat to be included since Balsamo had stuck them to his spaceship model.

I think these bizarre metal legs came from an old umbrella, and I did include a version I built myself in the robot puppet I built for "Alien Danger 2." However, these spiky, sharp things had to be removed before I started animating the puppet, or they would've driven me crazy. The original spaceship model wasn't available to me, so I had to 2D animated photos of the model, re-arranging bits of it via keyframing in After Effects until my robot puppet could take over. I simply folded up my spikey legs in an animation shot and then had them disappear into the back of the robot. In "Scrap Metal" I didn't include them at all.

I never found out what was used for the bulbous front of the spaceship, so I had to find a substitute. I used this plastic toy container. Again, never throw anything away. Looking at the robot design sketch, this bit becomes the chest of the puppet. 

I have to mention something about a very important part of film modelmaking -kitbashing. When you buy your plastic model kit you get a ton of tiny parts, from airplane fuselage to motorcycle engines. Taken separately, they work very well as diffuse technological detailing when making model robots or spaceships.

I don't know how far back this technique goes, but the Star Wars movies certainly popularized it, with subsequent movies like "Alien" and TV shows like "Battlestar Galactica" showing peak use of kitbashing.

I have done my fair bit of kitbashing, but since I also want to keep and finish the kit, I have opted to make molds from dental silicone from the parts. The clay-like dental silicone is mixed with a curing agent and pressed down around the kit part.  A few minutes later I have a mold into which I can cast thermoplastic or resin duplicated of the kit parts.

But I can also press clumps of clay into the molds and then collect the clay bits into sculptures, which in turn will make sections of a puppet build, either reproduced in resin from silicone molds or in latex from plaster molds.

Here are two such resin casts joined together with two 2 mm aluminum wires covered with yarn dabbed with tinted latex. This will become one of the feet of the giant robot. The whole in the grey part is where I'll place the t-nut tie-down bolt.

Sometimes I cast too many parts simply because I have fully made up in my mind how the finished puppet will look, so the extra parts go into an old cookie jar for future use.

Again, I was terribly lax in taking photos of the construction, remembering to snap a picture before spraying the puppet with black base paint. But here are some details: The head was made from a plastic bottle cap covered with bits of EVA foam. The arms and thighs have more EVA foam attached to them. The legs are two water pistols, with bits on them sawed off and filed down.

The arm gun is another mix of old marker pens. The blue wings on the back, made from semi-transparent plastic on the spaceship model, are here made from EVA foam.

So, why did I give that first monster a lion-like head? Well, the big climax features, as you could see in the film, a classic mecha anime trope; several robots or vehicles join together to transform into a super robot. The most well-known example of this is probably "Lionforce Voltron," by a fave from my childhood was the giant robot Deltanious, who would join with a robot lion.

My initial idea was to build yet another puppet which was a blend between the spaceship robot, the eagle, and the lion monster. But I soon realized there was no time for that if I were to make Balsamo's deadline, so I simply made a mock-up of the concept in Photoshop, and via a bit of After Effects animation and digital lightning effects, the idea was pulled off somewhat successfully.

The big bad in "Alien Danger 2" would pilot a ship very much inspired by the original. 1970s version of Mechagodzilla. Another suggestion was to make our version slightly reminiscent of Viking ship ornaments.

I looked at a lot of Viking ship dragon heads, which you'd find at the bow. I sculpted a head and a jaw in an ornate style.

I also did a bunch of clay press bits from various model kit molds and created a soft silicone mold over the bunch so I could quickly cast a number of them in resin.

This texture was made by taking a silicone imprint of the focus ring on one of my cameras, and then pressing clay into the silicone. I made a bunch of clay strips and layered them on top of each other. this texture will cover the tail of the puppet.

Here's another collection of clay-pressed bits from my model kit silicone molds. They will become the torso of the dragon robot puppet.

I've reproduced the sculpture in latex from a dental plaster mold.

Art Alchemy metallic wax is rubbed over the latex, where it sticks very well.

Here's the puppet given its black base color spray down. It actually looks like it's already metal, but it's no.

The finished puppet has additions of old marker pens, model kit resin casts, and dabs of copper model paint. The eyes are decorated with red plastic pearls. The neck, arms, legs, and tail have bits of EVA foam decorated by "rivets" which are texture casts in latex. If the chest part looks familiar is because I cast it from the same mold used to create the alien astronaut in my film "The Ghooric Zone."

We're finally getting to the hero of the film, the scrap collector. Since he'd be covered up with very shapeless overalls, I made a very simple but functional armature for the puppet. The feet are resin casts made from a silicone mold taken over the boots of a toy diver.

I also molded the helmet and the backpack from the same toy diver. To give the foam padding something better to grab onto than the slick aluminum wires, I wrapped coarse yarn around the arms and legs.

The foam padding comes from a very soft cushion. The body shape is humanoid, but not quite human. The posture is more hunched over and the neck is slightly longer.

All the cast resin parts were painted with black airbrush colors.

A slightly textured latex skin, cast in patches from a texture mold, covers the foam padding. Yarn and latex cover the fingers. More latex parts cast in silicone molds make up the belts holding together the backpack and chest plate. Again, it's a reproduction of a focus ring from one of my cameras.

The scrap collector's big saw is also a mishmash of found stuff and kit parts. the long cord attached to the back of the tool is just a length of macrame yarn dabbed with tinted latex.

All backgrounds are, as usual in my films, digital. I get them over at Depositphotos.com, and I then dabble with them in Photoshop until they look the way I want them to. That vehicle and its cargo are also stuff I found on Depositphotos, cut up and rearranged.

I do like a good explosion in a film. I found these at Videohive.com if I remember correctly. The various energy rays were found on YouTube, where their creator generously shared them with anyone who had a use for them.

The giant feet at the end are also a trick shot in more ways than you might realize. I snapped close-up photos of the puppet's feet, but I couldn't get everything in focus. So I had to take seven photos from the same angle with the focus moved around for various sections. In Photoshop I could then overlay all the photos and get a pretty clear image of the feet. The latex-covered yarn covering the aluminum wires in the toes looked awfully fake, so I had to do up an image of coiled cables and manipulate that in Photoshop to create a sharp-looking representation of the flexible part between the toes and the foot.

As you understand, "Scarp Metal" is a loving tribute to giant robot movies and TV shows. Though I was a big fan of them when I was young, I don't really watch them anymore. Still, they do have a special place in my cold monster kid heart, and I hope that shows in this film.