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.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

H P Lovecraft's Star-Winds

Last month I posted a video based on H P Lovecraft's poem"Star-Winds" from his sonnet cycle "Fungi From Yuggoth". It's one of my favorite pieces, and as with many of my projects, I've been wanting to adapt it for a while.

There's not much to tell about this production, actually. Most of it is 2D animations in After Effects, with various digital stock footage effects spliced in. Lovecraft himself appears in the film as a Photoshopped still. I used a couple of photos that I liked and spruced them up in Photoshop. There aren't that many photos of HPL, and most of them are of a rather poor quality, being taken by his friends using the consumer cameras of the time.

As you saw in the film, there are two stop-motion sequences. The first deals with the inhabitants of the distant planet Yuggoth (Pluto), which were represented by an old puppet built for my film "The Lovecraft Alphabet". It's a Mi-Go carrying a brain cylinder, and it was pressed into service again for this short sequence.

The other sequence is set on Yuggoth's verdant moon Nithon, and features one of its strange inhabitants (you can also see some of my trademark stop-mo tentacles wiggling about.) The Nithonian was based on a drawing made by Lovecraft's buddy Clark Ashton Smith. In fact, I tried to emulate the look of CAS's colorful images in the landscape of Nithon.

I made three sets of sculptures to create the puppet. The first was the head, as I usually do to get a grip on the character.

I also did a bunch of small roundels that would eventually become the patchwork of plates covering the body of the creature. In all castings I applied the first layer of dental plaster using either a soft brush or, as in this case, a fluffy pipe cleaner.

The third set of sculptures was this collection of tiny buds. They were later cast in latex as hollow shells and stuck together to cover the lanky arms of the Nithonian.

The armature was super simple, basically just a thick aluminum wire with the arms attached and a single foot with a t-nut (not shown in the photo.)

From a dental plaster mold I cast a bunch of small latex plates, that were individually attached to the puppet body using liquid latex as a glue.

The finished puppet also had a pair of eyes on stalks and a small trunk, both supported by copper wires encased in soft plastic. It's also been painted with acrylic airbrush paints.

The landscape on Nithon was cobbled together in Photoshop using photos of various colorful corals, with a CGI animated backdrop for the weird-looking sky. The plant the Nithonian picks is a latex prop from my Star Trek-related film "Darmok & Jalad."

This project isn't the more familiar bombastic end-of-the-world scenario that Lovecraft has become known for, instead it's about his lesser-seen lyrical side, which I think he would've liked to be more remembered for.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Strange Aeons

My main Love for the prose and poems of H P Lovecraft comes from his unparallelled talent for generating mood or atmosphere. Whatever I do in my video adaptations of his texts I'm always chasing that mood. Sometimes I stumble over another work of art that has managed to generate those qualities.

A while back I bought the CD "Strange Aeons", which is produced by British musician and artist Steve Lines. Besides his own work the CD also contains contributions by Childe Roland, The Zoogs, Black Monolith and other bands, as well as spoken word pieces by Lovecraftian authors like Brian Lumley, Ramsey Campbell and Robert M. Price. Highly recommended! The opening track is also called "Strange Aeons" and is written and performed by Steve Lines himself. It sums up what Lovecraft's cosmic horror is all about, and I thought it would make a great subject for a YouTube video. I contacted Steve and he gave me permission to use the track.

My plan was to mainly show prehistoric Earth during the reign of the various evil entities that arrived here before the advent of humans. I wanted to put some of the older puppets back into action before they became too brittle to use for animation. I also had some new ideas for a few new puppets.

I thought that Ramsey Campbell's monstrous space slug Glaaki would make a novel stop-motion monster, and started off with sculpting the underside of the creature in medium grade Monster Clay.

The armature for this puppet was super simple, just a bundle of aluminum wires, with a t-nut foot at the rear for tie down purposes. The eyes are plastic balls on aluminum wire eye stalks. The round mouth also has a band of aluminum wires to allow it to open and close like an orifice. The black chunks on the armature are bits of dense foam, added to build up bulk without impeding the animation (like thick foam would've).

The body was padded with balls of cotton encased in a "suit" of thin, soft polyurethane.

I used an old plaster skin mold to cast the knobbly skin of the slug covering the foam body. The whole thing was then dry brushed with tinted latex.

Glakki is covered with metallic spike which it uses to infamously impale human victims. These victims then turn into Glaaki's zombified servants. The spikes were bits of cotton dipped in latex and then rolled between my fingers to create the spiky shapes. Silver latex tinting powder was used with the latex to add the metallic effect.

The finished Glaaki had airbrushed eyeballs covered with air drying scrapbooking plastic to create a gelatinous lens-like effect.

The other thing I wanted to do was to illustrate the line "Wantonly they trod the dark ways, cavorting in the steaming fens, until all the planet had known the touch of the Great Old Ones", by having two of Cthulhu's star-spawn -basically his minions- play wrestle in the primordial swamps. A star-spawn is more or less a smaller replica of Chtulhu. It's the sort of form that can be endlessly varied and still be recognized. I made two sculptures of the front of the heads where the eyes would be located and the tentacle beards would hang down.

I made the armatures out of several bundles of aluminum wires, making them very sturdy. Arms and legs were padded with hard foam and the tails were given shape with soft string wrappings covered in latex. The wings were my usual constructions of string-wrapped aluminum wires, submerged in soft plaster with a latex wing membrane build-up.

The padding of the main bodies was achieved with cotton balls. Since I wanted these creatures to look flabby, with folds of warty skin covering their bodies I didn't spend a lot of time creating foam shapes to indicate muscles. Instead a fairly basic foam wrapping made up the general shape of the bodies.

Lots and lots of patches of tinted latex skin was cast in several old molds and attached using liquid latex as a glue.

The finished star-spawn were dry brushed with tinted latex, and touched up with acrylic airbrush paints. The eyes were the usual reflecting scrapbooking beads I use to make glowing eyes for my puppets.

This guy was also an original puppet made for this project. Despite its likeness to the infamous penisaurus of porn comedy "Flesh Gordon" it's actually another Great Old One called Gobogeg.

Other creatures in the film, like this one, were created using only partly animated elements. The fringed eye is a Photoshop creation..

..While the tentacles are just the one tentacle, animated a few times and clumped together in After Effects.

The apocalyptic end times were realized using different techniques altogether. I wanted the return of the Great Old Ones and their destruction of our world to appear in ultra slow-motion, to show the inevitability of it -or something like it. I can't really describe the effect I was after, but I think I achieved it.
 These shots were all created using photos animated in After Effects using the puppet tool. Smoke, falling ash and various digital effects were superimposed, and the whole finished film was color graded and various filters were applied to create an otherworldly look. The prehistoric scenes in the beginning were also mainly made with Photoshopped images, animated in After Effects.

I think the most powerful effect Lovecraft achieves in his writings is the concept of "deep time", which is about vast stretches of time so far in our planet's past that we can't really comprehend it. This film was an experiment of sorts, trying to chase that concept with moving images.