Wednesday, July 8, 2015

D & D Monsters: Beware the Umber Hulk

While working with our RPG world film, John and I kept adding more and more of that vast menagerie of cool monsters, until we realized that we could go on with the creature encounters without really getting on with the story. Even so, here comes yet another ugly brute!
I decided that having these classic monsters and not creating a Ray Harryhausen-style monster brawl between a couple of them would be a sin indeed. Thus the owl bear now makes a second appearance, and encounters a foe to grapple with, namely one of my favourite D & D monsters: The umber hulk.

Again I looked to the original first "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual" from 1977 for inspiration. There, the umber hulk is a slightly comical monstrosity that looks like a cross between a beetle and an ape. It's got two sets of eyes, huge mandibles and a burly body. What's not to like?? In later monster manuals the creature has been given a big makeover, and though it may look cooler in terms of the number of details, I think it has lost some of its charm and personality. My umber hulk puppet would turn out to be a cross between the cherished original concept, and my own added details.

I sculpted the head in Monster Clay, but soon realized that I was making it way too big if it was going to tussle with the owl bear. So I sculpted a new head, which was slightly smaller in size.

As you can see, the smaller set of eyes were small smooth beads, the bigger insect eyes were a pair of plastic buttons with a knobbly surface. I found these, and lots of other buttons suitable for both puppet eyes and other decorations, at a local sewing machine shop.

The head was cast as a loose latex skin from a plaster mould. Limbs were created by bonding together lengths of aluminum wires using sewing string. Friendly Plastic helped merge all the bits. Fingers were made by wrapping thick cotton string around aluminum wires and coating these with tinted latex. I'm thinking of making a stand-alone tutorial on building up hands and fingers, as a few people seem to have issues with this.

The mandibles were really just the one, sculpted in Monster Clay and cast twice in Smooth-Cast 300Q plastic, using a DragonSkin Pro silicone mould. Just before the quick-setting plastic gelled, I lowered a bit of folded aluminum wire into it to create a joint.

More Friendly Plastic was used to hold the mandibles in place from inside the head skin, as well as adding strength to the head. A piece of aluminum wire was also added to the lower lip, to make the mouth open and close in animation.

The armature in itself is, as usual, a straightforward deal. The aluminum wire and Friendly Plastic construction makes it very light weight.

Besides the head, the feet were also sculpted in clay. It's actually just the one sculpture, cast twice in latex. The inside of these latex skins were padded with polyurethane foam and a cotton/latex mix.

Some people seem to have problems finding thick, soft foam to pad the puppet body and create the muscles. As I've mentioned many times before I simply use old cushions and mattresses found at garage sales and donated by friends. But here's another alternative.
I buy thinner sheets of very soft foam used in kitchens to soak up moisture under drying racks. Usually, I use these for smaller puppets, or when I build up bulk on thinner limbs.

But you can also glue bits of this thin foam together. Four bits make up a pretty thick single piece, and you can thus decide exactly just HOW thick you'd like the bits to be. I use a very soft and flexible contact cement to bond the foam pieces. You can also use foam spray glue (which I can't get hold of in Sweden at the moment) or perhaps also rubber cement, which I haven't used in this application.

Here are two examples of the layered thin foam padding. You can create very precise shapes using this method, though it takes a bit longer than using bigger bits.

Here's the puppet with finished foam muscles padding. As you can see, I've used bigger pieces on some parts of the body.

Using older plaster moulds with various skin textures I've created big and small patches of latex skin to cover the foam body. Adding drops of tinted latex helps create interesting textures and patterns.

The finished puppet has received a uniform layer of dark grey using tinted latex drybrushed thinly over the surface of the body. Deeper crevasses have kept their black hue, adding depth and shadow to the character. More drybrushing, using lighter shades of blue grey and reddish brown, adds more details. Both sets of eyes are now covered with transparent scrapbooking liquid plastic.

This puppet ended up slightly larger than I had preferred, but its still workable, and the umber hulk now provides the owl bear with a great wrestling buddy. Play nice, boys!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

D & D Monsters: A Transatlantic Collaboration

I though I'd give you an update on my Dungeons & Dragons tribute film created with John Hankins. You can read about the puppets created for this project HERE, HERE and HERE.
We are now in the stage of adding pick-up shots to the previously shot video footage, and I've started piecing together the stopmotion animation with the live-action bits. We recently posted a short video clip on Facebook, where John is attacked by an owlbear, while simultaneously searching for an owlbear feather; one of many magical items he need to find on his quest.

We were a bit surprised by the very strong positive reaction the video got, from both stopmo enthusiasts and the RPG crowd, so now we're forging ahead with powers renewed. It was a great tonic to get those reactions, and I'll post work in progress more often now. When you're piecing together your film you're mostly working in a vacuum, and you don't get any outside evaluation until you post it on the Internet (or show it in a film festival). Even if the reaction is negative to your work in progress clip, lap that up too, as it's a clear indication of how things are going for you. It's never too late to make changes, until, of course, the film is finished and launched out into the world.

The most surprising reaction we got was from people who asked "How did you make it work?", meaning our collaboration. John lives in Hawaii and I'm in Sweden, so we have an ocean between us, and we're confined to using emails and social media only to communicate. According to our commentators, many such projects attempted by them had failed miserably, and in those cases the distance was shorter, with the interplay spanning just over state borders. Still, entire projects had collapsed due to faulty communication. This is a great pity, for though people with similar interests and talents are spread across the world, the web offers us a means of keeping in touch and sharing information quickly and easily. So more creative individuals should be able to get together and be collectively productive no matter where you live on the globe.

Now, John and I don't have an unfailing recipe to share with you but I can tell you how we work. When we started discussing the Dungeons & Dragons monster movie collaboration, we quickly cleared up our different areas of responsibility, which I think is the most important thing to start with. John was to act out the hero's role in front of his own green screen in Hawaii, and also create the costume and props that he needed. I handled all the monster effects, plus the Photoshopped backgrounds, and the editing and finishing of the film. This allowed John to focus on the more practical hands-on bits he really enjoys (and does very well indeed). He also wanted to have a go at one of the monsters, the purple worm, which he created as a hand puppet. All of this clarity of decision about who makes what seems like a no-brainer, but apparently it's not always addressed in a long distance collaborative project, at least not at the start-up. And if that's the case I can understand when a production eventually runs into a bit of trouble.

John created these storyboards to get us started. I added some extra ideas, and then John went off to shoot all the live-action video clips.

John's green screen set-up is very basic. He built his own wooden stand for holding the screen and shoots the scenes in his garden, with his wife Alicia as the camera operator, and using the sun as his only lighting source. Since it's in Hawaii, the weather is usually on his side and the shots turn out very good. Before sending the shots to me, John has also created optional versions, where the green background has been cleaned up in After Effects, and is free of shadows and other "jitter". This, of course, makes the compositing extremely easy for me.

When all his shots were finished, including the purple worm hand puppet scene, John put all the material on a small portable drive and snail-mailed it to me. So, why not use Dropbox or some similar online file sharing service? We would've, and we are now, but at that time I had some problems with my Dropbox account, and we solved it this way instead.
When I had received the video footage I could start animating, roughly timing the actions of the monsters to John's acting.

The finished scenes are turning out rather well. The backgrounds are my usual collage of photos, mixed and merged in Photoshop. When editing together the finished shots I quickly noticed that I didn't have enough footage of John to make the story perfectly clear, and that he'd need to film more of it. Apparently this is par for course in the big budget blockbuster films as well, so we're in good company. It does, however, make me wonder why a film of sometimes $150 million or more isn't planned out better.

I made some storyboards for the new sequences and emailed them to John, who is now busy shooting the extra material. He had at this point grown a very stately beard and mustache, but these came off in the name of fine art.

As I said earlier, we're now using Dropbox to send clips back and forth, which is working out very well. Our collaboration is so much fun that we already have our next project planned. I can highly recommend creative people getting together in this way, using web communications. I know that so many of you out there have nobody around where you live to share your dreams and ambitions with, and that that can be enough to kill off your fledgling projects. Don't let that happen. Reach out to others around the globe, and find collaborators. It can be the start of a wonderful new way of working.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Making A Friendly Welcome Video

YouTube itself is very active in recommending things for you, including what the next clip you view should be, and how you can improve on your YouTube presence. The latter is, of course, a good thing, and I'm finally taking some advice to heart.
Among the recommendations from the YouTube staff is that you make an introductory video for those who visit your channel for the first time. It's a polite thing to do,  but more importantly, you give the first time visitor a quick overview of your channel content and the general tone of the channel itself. This is where you come in as a personal host, if you will. People in general seem to be very curious about who's behind the stuff they watch on YouTube, and this is something you can take advantage of to really set the tone for everything people watch after having seen your introductory video, especially if you're a funny or gregarious person.
I'm probably not either of those types, but because my puppet-making craft and my animations, if not unique, are at least rare and have a novelty value, my YouTube channel has something that sets it apart from many others. So I hope my YouTube welcoming video reflect that. Enjoy!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Lone Animator Merchandise

I recently made this t-shirt print mainly so I can prance around in it myself, but some of you might be interested in helping me out with some shameless advertising too. You'll find it on Zazzle right HERE.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

I Thought I Saw That Jersey Devil part 1: The Puppet and Song

The USA is shockful of weird and wonderful legends, and one of the oldest and still most vital among them is the tale(s) of the Jersey Devil. This peculiar gargoyle-ish critter hails from the Pine Barrens forest of southern New Jersey. As legend tells it it's the thirteenth child of Mother Leeds; a local witch who cursed the unfortunate infant for the pains he was giving her. The child transformed into a demon, killed the midwife and escaped up the chimney. Since this harrowing episode, said to have occurred in 1735, the "devil" has been seen numerous times, and is still reported every now and then. It's a seemingly deathless creature. The scream it utters is apparently unlike anything else ever heard. I had relatives who lived in the Pine Barrens in the 1970's and 80's, but sadly, they never had any unusual experiences in the area.

I've done a fair amount of research and articles for Swedish press on the subject of Cryptozoology, and I've returned to the Jersey Devil time and time again. I built a small model of the monster way back in the 1990's, but this now crumbling latex and plastic creation was not made for animation. I thought it was actually high time to produce a proper puppet AND animate it.

Actually, the other big reason for me to make the film is this cool and clever song by Kevin Welch. I saw this performance on YouTube, and thought the tune was both atmospheric and humorous. So I contacted Kevin about being able to use it as the soundtrack for my film, and he said yes without any hesitation. Now I like him even more! So, while waiting for my finished video, please enjoy a live rendition of the song by Kevin Welch.

The challenge I put to myself was to make a large puppet, having the strength to stand on one rather spindly leg in a mid-air leap or stride. So I turned to my Monster Clay, so I could chisel out tiny details in the skin of the creature. The head and chest were created separately, and were the only parts sculpted in clay.

This armature was actually built in a slightly different way than I usually do. I simply laid several aluminum wires next to each other in a clump, tied together with sewing string. I added thin nails with the heads clipped off to the aluminum wire clumps, and thereby achieved the unbending "bone" parts I at least have to have when animating, or the puppet will bend all over its body. As you can see, the chest area has a rudimentary rib cage, and the back has a hunch where the wings will be attached. Those parts are aluminum wires covered with Friendly Plastic thermoplastic.

I've talked so many times about how I make bat wings that I'll skip that here, but here's how the wings looked straight out of their plaster cradles.

The puppet came together very quickly. The head has jointed upper and lower lips, and ears using aluminum wires. I'm having my favourite scrapbooking crimson beads for the eyes. I'm using Friendly Plastic to bond all the parts together. Varying densities of polyurethane foam make up the muscles. The little hoofs are also Friendly Plastic.

The puppet is skinned with patches of latex skins cast in plaster moulds of various sculpted skin textures. The knobbly spine was created by just adding drops of tinted latex with a pointy wooden tool. The claws and teeth are cotton and latex.

The finished puppet has a base colour of black/blue/red PAX paint, and Liquitex acrylic airbrush paint. It's over a foot tall, and very light. You'll see just how flexible it is in the eventual animation. I have to say that it's one of the best and effective animation puppets I've built so far.

Time to step out into the woods and find the proper places where you might expect to meet a devil. I won't be visiting the real Pine Barrens, but I have a swampy pine wood area just a stone's throw from where I live. And who'll be in the film is yet to be seen. I'll be calling on some of my friends that don't mind being chased by imaginary monsters through the woods.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"The Other Gods": The Gods Themselves Part 3

No, it's not over quite yet -we have some stragglers among the Other Gods. This bunch is made very quickly and with scraps and found stuff, which I thought might be interesting for some of you.

The top thingie on this puppet is a left over casting from an alien fungus prop made over 12 years ago. I found it in a bag of old stuff and was surprised to discover that the latex hadn't deteriorated at all. Below that is a wooden ball stuck to an empty plastic vitamin jar. A wood dowel runs through the whole thing, and all bits are joined together with hot glue.
The tentacles and the eye stalks are the same stuff I always make; aluminum wires covered with soft wire and latex. The black blobs are Friendly Plastic thermoplastic helping to keep the limbs stuck to the body.

I used only cotton dipped in tinted latex to build up the structure of the body. I would never use the cotton/latex mix for parts of the puppet that would move and flex a lot. It simply wouldn't work, it'd be like covering your puppet in tough leather. But since the body on this construction was rigid anyway it was a cheap and quick way of building up structure. I'm using long thick needle tools to detail the surface by simply pressing the tools into the latex-soaked cotton. Using a heat gun in between laying on new details helped dry the structure very quickly.

To make the eyes I printed out eye images created in Photoshop and dripped "Glossy Accents" scrapbooking plastic over each eye. This is a very cheap and quick way of making puppet eyes with flat back sides.

The finished puppet was spray painted with Liquitex acrylic airbrush colours and the wood dowel was painted in the green chroma key paint I use for the backgrounds.

Here's another cobbled together armature, using my usual aluminum wires and Friendly Plastic bonding material, and another wood ball (or rhombus?) to form a head. This creature is a "servitor of the outer gods"; a bunch of creatures playing flute-like instruments to sooth bigger, nastier creatures floating around in space.
The flute was the handle of a discarded watercolour brush glued into the head. The trumpet part is a plastic bit from a broken calibration tool, and what looks like a brown wooden ball is just that. In order to minimize the troubles of keeping the tiny hands stuck to the flute while animating I simply stuck the hands to the brush handle using bits of small aluminum wires going from the hands into the flute. The rod sticking out of the monster's bum was a bit of steel rod attached to a block of wood.


A quick padding using many layers of thin, soft polyurethane foam helped bulk up the body while still keeping it very flexible.

The puppet was mainly covered with latex casts from older plaster moulds. These moulds were made for the flying polyps of "The Shadow Out of Time", which in their turn came from clay presses in silicone moulds made over weird-looking lichen growing on rocks by the sea.
The arms were thick macrame yarn with softer string wrapped around it and then covered with liquid latex. Having the arms soft means that I only had to animate the head moving back and forth, and the arms would follow. The wrinkly head was latex and cotton, and the spikes on the back was toilet paper dipped in latex and rolled into pointy shapes.

The puppet was finished off with a layer of PAX paint (Prosaide makeup glue and acrylic paint). One dark brown layer went on first and then a grey/green lighter colour was dry brushed on top of that, accentuating protruding details. Blue acrylic airbrush paints added extra life to the critter. Bronze Warhammer paint was brushed on over the flute using a disposable pipe cleaner.

This other "god" was initially based on Quachil Uttaus from Clark Ashton Smith's "Treader of the Dust", which is a baby-like mummy. While sculpting it it sort of developed into something more fleshy and organic. I used Monster Clay for the sculpture.

The front of the puppet was cast in latex, backed with a cotton/latex mix used everywhere except around the neck, which needed to be flexible. Like my tentacles the arms were aluminum wire covered with string and latex. The head part of the armature was another vitamin pill jar and the body was an empty super glue bottle. A long steel nail went up the puppet's behind as a support. Soft polyurethane foam padded the back of the body.

Bumpy latex skin casts from older plaster moulds and the cotton/latex mix covered up the back of the body. PAX paint and acrylic airbrush paints gilded the lily.

These puppets took only one to two days to build, and the demands on them during animating was very simple. But I hope I've shown that you can create stop-motion puppets without spending either a lot of time or money on your creations.