Sunday, July 20, 2014

Gorn Masks and Dragon Heads

A few years ago I made a replica of the mask used to portray the monstrous "Gorn" in the classic Star Trek episode "Arena", where he matched wits and brawn with the formidable force of nature known as William Shatner. My Gorn mask was built according to my personal opinions of how the original mask was constructed, as there is very little info on the subject.
You can read about the making of my Gorn mask here:
The mask was actually eventually sold to Bobby Clark, the stuntman who played the monster. Bobby is now touring Trek conventions displaying my mask as the best replica he's seen, and he should know since he spent several days encapsulated in the hot rubber suit.

Here's Bobby with my mask at the actual location where "Arena" was filmed. I guess that's kind of cool!

Bobby had some reservations about my version, as the original was apparently bigger, and the eyes were covered with glittery sequins. I haven't been able to find any sequins as small as they appear to be in the stills from the episode, but there might've been a sequin of that type in the 1960's. Maybe the Trek costume department had the stuff on hand.

My old Gorn mask seems to be worn out and Bobby contacted me to ask me to make a new copy. Ideally, a new bigger version would've been much better, and I am actually working on that now, but to meet Bobby's convention schedule, a copy of the old version will have to do. So I recently sent a new Gorn mask off to him, along with a plastic baby hatchling. You can read about the making of the Gorn baby here:
Now, is making copies of monsters someone else has designed and established a fun job? Not really, although it seems to be a popular way of making a name for yourself as a creative person. I see many wonderfully made replicas of the Alien, the Predator, and other famous movie monsters. But  I'd much rather  make my name doing my own thing.
It's surprisingly hard work copying what what's been done before, and the simpler the design, the harder it is to get it right. Just try to draw Donald Duck off the top of your head. I'm trying to do less of this kind of work, though getting an order from an old monster performer is flattering and hard to say no to.

During the past four months I've been juggling four part-time jobs. I wouldn't recommend it, as I came very close to experiencing a burnout. I have friends who have gone through this ordeal, and it's no joke. One of my jobs was building props for the outdoor stage show "The Brothers Lionheart", based on a very popular Swedish children's book. I made plastic helmets, rubber spear tips, and similar stuff, but the main big thing was creating the paw and huge head of the dragon Katla. The production team bought a previously used fiberglass dragon head from another stage show. This head was very poorly detailed, and my job was to build up a completely new surface on it. This entailed mixing sculpted and cast skin pieces with structures built up directly on the fiberglass surface. I actually used a thick acrylic paint mixed with cotton to create Katla's new skin, and the result was a very durable, leathery structure.

Here's the Katla head with a new lick of paint, but still not quite finished.

Katla in action during the show. A smoke gun located in the mouth and nostrils  provided necessary dragon ambiance, along with loud sound effects and dramatic music. Apparently Katla's a success with the audiences.

This is my last stage production. I've made a loooooot of them, starting when I was 13, creating props and masks for a fairy tale show. It's always hard work, but usually there's also lots of fun. Now, the fun seems to have gone out of the equation, and it's just work for me. As success coach Brian Tracy says, "if you're stuck in a job you don't like, get out of that job as you would get out of a burning house." And as the old Klingon proverb goes, "only a fool fights in a burning house."
For the sake of reducing stress and disappointment in my life I've now learnt to use the most powerful word there is: "NO!" Now I say no to all offers of working on stage productions. Instead I'm focusing all my efforts on my personal work, i e my miniature animation work, with occasional props and masks created for my own films, or for projects of close friends. If I can't use my creativity to put joy into my life, then what good is it for? I've no idea if my personal work will ever result in any sort of monetary success, but now that seems unimportant. I'm more concerned with what kind of legacy I can leave behind, and I'd rather realize my own ideas than someone else's. I've heard people say that's a pompous and presumptuous attitude, but shouldn't we believe in our own talents and abilities? Seriously; we must believe that our work comes to good, is important to other people, and is worth every second of effort.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Materials I Use

I'm quite often asked (especially on YouTube) what materials I use, so the person asking can go right out and buy all the stuff at once. It's not really that simple. The materials I prefer may not be what someone else would choose, but I guess it's somewhere to start if you really have no idea about what you should get.

 I have used quite a few clays in my creative travels, but I didn't find a favourite until I came across Chavant, medium hard grade. This clay has been my mainstay, as well as the choice of many a sculptor in the FX business. But I have actually found something I like even more: Monster Maker's "Monster Clay". This stuff is very firm until you warm it, either by putting it in your microwave oven for a short while, or (as I do) by simply using a heat gun on it. You can melt it down to a puddle if you choose, and while it's soft you can slap together large rough shapes. As it cools you're able to work lots of minute detail into the clay, and you can handle your sculpture quite roughly without squashing it.

I use a variety of sculpting tools, but the ones I'm holding up here are my three most effective. The red one on the right is home-made, using an old brush handle and simple steel wire epoxied in place. I use this tool to work in both larger and smaller details. The middle tool has two hard rubber points, which are very useful for creating soft, but defined shapes. The larger loop tool to the left is used to smooth out the shapes made by the other two tools, and also to create larger shapes.
To soften the shapes further I put some Vaseline (petroleum jelly) on a finger, and rub it over the clay. I also have texture stamps made by applying latex or firm silicone rubber over surfaces with interesting textures, like bumpy plastic displays in cars or various fruit. I seldom use them nowadays, but these flexible texture stamps are a quick way to add interesting surface detail to your sculpture.

I use only really hard plaster, mostly some brand of dental stone. Hobby plaster will deteriorate very quickly, and if you plan to re-use your plaster moulds for new projects, you'll find that they won't hold up for very long. In short, buy your plaster from a dental supply shop, which is easy to find online. I keep all my plaster in a big plastic container, with a tight snap-on lid to keep dust and moisture out.

Latex can be considered a fairly primitive material now, but it's also one of the most reliable and cost-effective. I really should get on with using silicone for my puppets and masks, but I still find latex far more enjoyable and easy to work with. You can also find it at lots of places, from sculpture shops to hobby shops.
I often mix the latex with other materials, mostly cotton, to add volume. But it's important to remember to never add a cotton/latex mix to an area of the puppet which needs to be soft and bendable.

 For my puppet skeletons I only use aluminum wires of varying thickness. I have used advanced ball & socket metal armatures as well, but I often find them lacking in some aspect, mostly regarding movability. Aluminum wire allows you to bend your puppet's limbs in any direction, until the material covering the wire and padding the body can't be compressed any more, and starts to spring back.

To create the "bones" or the hard parts of the wire armature I use Friendly Plastic thermoplastic. This material is brilliant, and I've been using it for years for all sorts of things. I've made entire sword handles from it, as it's very sturdy. You melt these plastic strips with a heat gun, and if you have to re-do something, just melt the stuff again and again.

I pad the bodies of my puppets with the softest urethane foam I can find, which I simply collect from old cushions and mattresses. I piece together the foam bits using a brand of contact cement, which I believe is manufactured in Sweden. The Casco contact cement is yellow, smelly and dries to a strong flexible bond. It's perfect for puppet work, and I also use it for many other types of projects.
Master animator and puppet builder Jim Danforth recommends a brand called Pliobond.

This is my trusty Black & Decker heat gun. I've had it for over 10 years now, and it hasn't failed me yet. It's a real workhorse. I use it to quickly dry latex in a plaster mould, to dry paint, to soften the Monster Clay and melt the Friendly Plastic. It's an invaluable tool for me.

When I paint the rubber skins of my puppets and masks I use either latex tinted with Kryolan tinting powders or Universal tinting liquids, or I sponge on PAX paint; a mix of Prosaide make-up glue, and acrylic paints. There's a type of Prosaide formulated especially for making PAX, called No-Tack, which means it doesn't have the stickiness of normal Prosaide.
But when the base paint is dry I attack my subject with an airbrush, in my case the Iwata HP-C double action airbrush pen. I can't say if this model is still available, but it's another little tough guy, very precise and easy to clean. I use a small air compressor specifically made for airbrush work.

I've used a variety of airbrush inks. Right now I'm into the Liquitex line of airbrush acrylics. I only use airbrush paints that are water-based. Cleaning up your pen can be a real hassle otherwise.

Moving on to other materials, which I use for prop-making. I've found that the Dragon Skin FX-Pro silicone from SmoothOn is ideal for making soft, elastic moulds in which you cast plastic or plaster items. These moulds last forever, the materials are easily mixed on a 50/50 ratio, and the silicone sets up fast -within about 45 minutes you have a usable mould.
I've also made masks and puppet parts out of Dragon Skin FX-Pro, and there are many ways you can vary the softness of the silicone using additives. I can also recommend PlatSil Gel 10, which is another easy to use silicone ideal for both moulds and mask/puppet projects.

The material I use more than any other for casting props, fake jewellery, puppet armature skulls, etc, is SmoothOn's Smooth-Cast 325. It's another 50/50 ratio mix material, and it can be tinted with other SmoothOn products. Smooth-Cast 325 is ideal for "roto casting", which means that it sets on the inside of your silicone mould if you start to turn it. In other words, you can cast hollow objects of almost any size -from tiny puppet parts to big monster skulls. This plastic also sets very quickly.
Sometimes I use Smooth-Cast 65D, which is more elastic, and therefore able to take a bigger beating.

Are these material expensive, then? Well, the SmoothOn products cost a bit, but are worth every penny. The Monster Clay is also quite pricey, but other than that you won't have to spend an arm and a leg tooling up for your first puppet or mask project.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Aladdin, the Finished Film, and Behind the Scenes

I finally finished my day job film project "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp" this month. It's been a lot of work. The film ended up at 35 minutes, all of it greenscreened. I edited the film with a couple of our project participants, which all have some disability of some kind, both mentally and physically. This film may not be as slick as some of the other stuff I've made, but then again, it's not my film. This is the collective result of our mutual efforts, where all involved have done the best they can. There's no shortage of enthusiasm, but sometimes the effort, understandably, doesn't match the performances of people with perfect health. Having said that, I think there's a LOT to enjoy. For those of you mostly keen on seeing the genie (which seems to have attracted some interest) he appears first at 8:00. I'm afraid the film is only in Swedish.

Joakim, who is one of the extras and also plays a guard, did this little behind-the-scenes-with me. In this video you can see a quick runthrough of the genie make-up, and you'll also see how simple our greenscreen set-up was.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Aladdin: Props and makeup

As I've mentioned before in my posts, right now I'm working half-time at a project called "Media Power", where special needs people of all ages learn how to blog, make interviews, do pod casts, make videos, and generally find out how to use the free social medias to promote themselves and their various interests. I'm the technical go-to guy, and I also try to think up fun stuff for the crowd to do. Last year we made three short films; among these "Beans vs Aliens", which I covered in a couple of posts here. 

Now I'm feverishly editing our next project" Aladdin and The Magic Lamp", which was all shot in front of a green screen. This means I'm now spending my days (and sometimes nights) compositing every single scene for this 20-minute film. It's a huge experiment, and an incredible amount of work. However, I felt this was the only way to make a visually exciting representation of this evergreen fairy tale.

My two co-workers on the project, Jenny and Mia, have worked very hard on it too, but the brunt of the work has fallen on my shoulders. I feel that my colleagues don't feel it's necessary to put in as much effort into the production as I do. But I want people to be surprised at what we have accomplished, using fairly primitive equipment. As for our actors, they're certainly a motley crew both in talent and commitment. Emil, who plays Aladdin, is doubtlessly the big star, carrying the narrative of the fantastic story with great panache.

I thought it might be interesting to show some of my work on this project, so lets start off with the genie of the lamp. Not having a properly impressive genie would make for a poor Aladdin story, so I decided to apply some rubber to the face of our genie actor Henrik to make him less meek in his appearance. I slush cast a bald cap, a forehead and two pointy ears in latex, using old plaster moulds made for orc and dark elf mask pieces. The appliances were stuck on with ProsAide glue, and the edges covered up with a ProsAide/microballoon paste.

Crepe wool hair was used for the eyebrows and mustasches, and also for a ponytail eventually added to the top of Henrik's head.

Rubber mask greasepaint covered with a sealer was used to blend skin and latex to a uniform look.

I can't say that Henrik particularly enjoyed the process of being made up into the genie, but once the makeup was complete and he went in front of the camera he forgot about the uncomfortable mask, and acted out his domineering genie part to the hilt!

When filmed Henrik sat on a stool with a piece of the greenscreen tucked into his pants. A red sash provided a barrier between his body and what would in After Effects editing become a traditional legless smoke-pillar lower body. His skin tone was also changed in AE to a properly alien-looking hue.

I wanted to create the look of old Hollywood Arabian Nights epics, where lush costumes make up a big part of the overall enjoyment. For example, we were going to have a couple of palace guards pop up here and there, and I wanted them to have a special look as part of my big scheme. I decided to build a golden shield to be carried by the guards, and used an old plastic snow saucer I bought years ago. My plan had always been to make a shield out of it, but I never got around to it until now.

First, the two handles had to come off, and I used a Dremel drill tool to cut the thick plastic.

I saved one of the handles to create a simple grip on the back side of the shield. Some soft yarn made the handle more comfortable to hold.

The handle was stuck to the shield using hot glue and screws. Bits of wooden dowel placed in the handle ends created durable points of attachment.

Before painting the shield I'm adding some detail. During the summer I haunt the local flea markets and garage sales in search of various interior design brick-a-brack. This piece here is apparently the decorative end bit of a curtain rod. It looks exactly like those brass studs and plates stuck to leather armour in Roman Empire epics, making them look functional as well as attractive. In fact, pieces like this will add some glamour to mostly anything, as you'll soon see.

I'm making a silicone mould from this piece, so I can cast any number of copies in plastic.

A simple containment wall was created using thick paper sealed up with hot glue.

DragonSkin FX was poured over the metal plate to create the mould.

When the silicone had set, SmoothCast 325 dyed black was used for the casting process.

Here's the first one out of the batch..

..And here's a bunch of them, all produced in an afternoon.

The "Roman studs" were stuck on with hot glue, along with some other decorative cast pieces, including a lion's head moulded from a toy shield.

A coat of black base paint was first sprayed on..

..Then followed by durable gold spray paint. I found a metallic paint that stinks to high heaven when you use it (preferably outdoors) but won't chip off as far as I can detect. Subconsciously I seem to have been slightly influenced by the snazzy shield carried by Harry Hamlin's Perseus in Ray Harryhausen's original "Clash of the Titans".

To show just how fast and easy you can piece stuff together, here's a "steel" chest plate made from an ordinary paper plate, another plastic lion head cast, and studs made out of hot glue squeezed into a silicone mould.

Joakim, playing one of the palace guards, is here see sporting the full ensemble. The sword is plastic and aluminum, created for another film project years ago, and the helmet is real steel, and built by my blacksmith buddy Martin Merkel. The armour is real leather, but all the decorations are plastic castings.

I couldn't find a real old oil lamp, and the only ready-made fake option was the Disney version. I opted to make my own instead using a cheap sauce boat with some Monster Clay added.

Hot glue and thick paper was used to create a containment area for the silicone.

Skipping the silicone-pouring part, here's the plastic cast right out of the mould.

Some epoxy paste and a plastic bead creates a small lid on top, and a copper spray paint guilds the lily.

Making chroma key effects with consumer film recording equipment is asking for trouble. The results vary from really good-looking to merely passable. The nay-sayers (and there are plenty of those in my native Sweden) ask what the point is then, if I can't make it look professional all the way through.

But I can't be bothered with those who ask "why", just the ones who ask "why not?" There are many levels of creativity, and if you're not making your art for the sake of commerce, then it's your damn duty to make it for the fun of it.
Lastly, and perhaps not surprisingly, I've managed to infuse this version of Aladdin with some stop-motion monsters. More about those in an upcoming post.