Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Conqueror Worm

"The Conqueror Worm" was, of course, written by Edgar Allan Poe. It's a poem allowing for all sorts of interpretations, but an overall apocalyptic theme is certainly obvious. I've been planning on adapting Poe for quite a while and I actually made an adaptation of "The Facts In the Case of Mr. Waldemar" in high school, back in the very analog video days of the 1990s. I was Mr. Waldermar and melted at the end of the film, having custard running down my face.

And, as I'm sure you know, Poe movie adaptations have been around almost as long as cinema has existed. "The Conqueror Worm" has also had its adaptation, though it's a cheat of sorts. Michael Reeve's excellent "The Witchfinder General" (1968) was distributed in the US by AIP under the title "The Conqueror Worm" to include it in the AIP cycle of Poe films, mostly starring Vincent Price.

To adapt something as symbolically themed as Poe's poem invited an opportunity to create surreal visuals of a kind I hadn't approached yet. A throng of angels watches the spectacle of humanity on a cosmic stage until the conqueror worm appears and at the end of the show is revealed to be the master of all. I plundered my usual resource,, for stock images I could revise in Photoshop. A couple of HD photos of a dilapidated theatre served as the playhouse where the angels gather. I cut holes here and there in the images so I could place CG animations of a swirling cosmos behind that layer in After Effects.

The angels were represented by stone statues prepared in Photoshop. I also found stock images of veils shot against a black background. Those were added over the heads of the angels, with some tweaking with distortion tools in After Effects.

God was a mishmash of stock footage from A cloudy background, smoke animations arranged to create a triangle, a close-up of a man's eye, and CD lightning bolts.

Most shots are a collage of photos and stock footage from In this shot, the mime is live-action stock footage, as is the animated background. The falling girl (along with other various things passing in and out of the shot) is a stock photo slightly animated with the AE puppet tool.

The cavalcade of horrid things humanity is guilty of is represented by plain stock footage shots of various historical violent scenes. I only added a filter over them and had them transition into each other using black ink added in water as a matte.

The very apocalyptic shots showing the appearance of the worm were, again, built using stock images. I found a few photos included in my stock photo collection showing behind-the-scenes shots from some zombie movie, where "dead" people were stacked upon each other. Perfect for my intentions.

The final shot of the angels shows one of them opening its eyes. That was simply made by using another stock shot of a woman opening her eyes, cutting out that section of her face in After Effects, and applying the footage over the face of the stone angel. The soft edges of the matte tool cut-out, some color grading and the veil in a layer over the angel hopefully helped sell the illusion. 

So, now over to "our hero; the Conqueror Worm." I actually started planning this film last year and made a worm puppet, that I ended up not being happy with. I thought this lean beast didn't exactly represent the gorged monstrosity that fed on mankind. Instead, I included this puppet in my film "The Elder Pharos."

On to Conqueror Worm 2.0. I built this puppet pretty large, so I could animate it making very slow movements. As I wanted it to look like a fat maggot, I knew it needed lots of padding, something that always gets in the way of smooth and easy animation. I included a kind of rib cage in the armature to fill out the body of the puppet and create the desired bulk. The tiny legs were also attached to these ribs. I only made a section of the worm, needing just the part seen above the heaps of bones and bodies.

I used very soft polyurethane foam to pad the worm's body. I put on layer after layer very loosely. Soft yarn was wrapped around the legs and covered with latex.

To create a segmented look for the chubby body I simply wrapped yarn around the parts where I wanted to pull in the foam. Thin latex patches cast in a skin texture mold covered up the body.

The finished puppet was painted with tinted latex. The claws and teeth were made from tissue paper dipped in latex. A single t-nut stuck to the bottom of the armature secures the puppet to the animation stage.

Lastly, I have to mention my UK buddy John Hutch, who, like many times before, provided the narration. We've collaborated quite a few times by now, and will continue doing so for the forseeable future. I really wish he'd get a break as an actor. He's done bit parts here and there in various British TV shows including the fantasy series "Merlin" (where he gets knocked out by prince Arthur in one scene.) For now I'm planning on adapting Poe's "Dreamland" with John narrating.

Do I have a Poe dream project? Yes; it's animating "The Raven" narrated by Nicholas Cage.


Monday, August 30, 2021

Report From the Ghooric Zone


The Ghooric Zone is a mystical place, never detailed, but mentioned in H P Lovecraft's writings. It is, apparently, a place so weird that visiting it could cause madness. I may be able to dream up some weird stuff, but nothing THAT weird. So, I had to make do with a world that was moderately strange.

I wanted to do a film where I could indulge in creating a very alien world, with inhabitants that, although very different from each other, could still be perceived as belonging to the same ecology. I also had the idea to base the main character on a popular concept of the ever-popular alien astronaut theory. Let's start with a look at our hero.

I based my astronaut on the so-called Dogu clay puppets from Japan, created in the Jomon Period (14000-400 BC). Various authors and journalists have pointed out that these ancient dolls kind of look like astronauts or deep-sea divers, and the "Ancient Aliens" movement have adopted them as proof that our planet was visited by alien entities in ancient times.

I sculpted the head and the torso separately using medium-grade Monster Clay. The black detail on top of the torso is a metal curtain rack decoration pressed into the clay.

A clay wall surrounding each sculpture was built up, and DragonSkin FX silicone was poured in around the sculptures. When the silicone had set I mixed a batch of Rhino plastic, with a bit of tinting liquid added, and poured the mix into each silicone mold. The molds were slowly rotated, so the plastic would set up against the walls of the molds.

Two hollow plastic copies of the sculptures were created in this way, with a Dremel tool polishing
off irregularities from the casting process.

I wanted the head to rotate very precisely and smoothly, so I used a dried-up felt marker pen to achieve the effect. One part was attached to the head, and another part, which the first part slid into, was placed between the shoulders of the torso attached to sturdy metal rods. Each arrangement was attached to the hollow plastic castings using a mix of baking soda and superglue.

The backpack oxygen (or whatever this astronaut is breathing) was actually a plastic scuba diving detail from an old Action Man doll I had when I was a kid. I applied a plastic bit to the toy with that baking soda superglue mix to form a sturdy base on the backside of the scuba tanks. I could then stick the whole contraption to the back of the torso with a few drops of superglue.

I wrapped yarn around a couple of copper electricity wires and added black hobby paint to make a couple of hoses going from the chest area back into the tanks. I also added legs and arms to the torso. These were made from aluminum wires wrapped in yarn and covered in strips of latex rubber cast in an old plaster mold containing various shapes for clothing and armor. The shape I picked for the metal bands layering the arms and legs was originally a long studded belt I sculpted for a puppet many years ago.

The whole puppet was airbrushed with a black acrylic airbrush color.

The finished puppet was rubbed down with a metallic wax from Art Alchemy called "brushed Iron." It's kind of like Rub n' Buff. The harder you try to rub it off, the better it sticks. In other words, it's perfect for an animation puppet, which will be grabbed many times over and over. The staff is made from old pencil parts, plus a plastic ring, a plastic ball, and two hexagonal nuts.

The feet have 3M nuts in them, held in place with the Baking powder /superglue mix.

I did add one final thing to this puppet and that was adding two small pieces of Scotchlight reflective material into the eye slits. When I placed a light right next to my camera, that light was reflected back into the camera and created a glowing effect, like there's light inside the helmet. It wasn't a perfect effect but looked very nice when I added a dreamy filter over the footage in After Effects.

The first creature we encounter in the Ghooric Zone is a snoog (yes, I named every critter in this film.) I wanted to make a line-up of alien animals that were truly alien. You'll have to be the judge of if I succeeded.

The snoog exemplifies the approach I took with most of these puppets; they're almost all made up from discarded household items, and bits of latex cast in molds I already had. In the case of the snoog, the main part of its body was made from two empty plastic pill bottles glued together. The front and back were shaped with crumpled aluminum foil.

The ends were then wrapped in soft yarn to create a smoother look. The yarn was soaked in tinted latex to make the application of latex skins easier. Two fins were made from EVA foam and a snout with a sensory organ was built up using yarn dipped in latex over a simple clay shape.

The skin texture for the snoog was created especially for this creature, by pressing details into clay and creating a reverse plaster mold over the clay. Over this plaster matrix, I applied silicone clay to create a mold I could cast into. From this, a skin from tinted latex was cast, and other older molds were also pressed into service to provide other textures. 

Though the purple striders are the largest creatures we see, they're actually represented in reality by a puppet that's only around 20 cm tall.

I made a sculpture for the front part of the main body of this being. I used a red plastic bead for the eye, or whatever sensory organs they have in the Ghooric zone. You'll see similar orbs implanted somewhere in all the puppets I made.

This sculpture was reproduced as a tinted latex skin, reinforced with a cotton/latex mix, and cast in a dental plaster mold.

The three legs and the tail were built up using aluminum wires wrapped in soft yarn. The club at the end of the tail is a clump of aluminum foil covered with cotton and latex. The body skin was reinforced with thermoplastic pushed into the hollow of the skin. The plastic also held the red bead in place.

The sensory organs on this creature are placed at the ends of two long stalks growing out sideways from the body. The stalks are two thin metal rods covered with latex and tissue paper, and the "eyes" are two acrylic domes with photoshopped patterns printed out and attached with Glossy Accents transparent glue.

You may also have noticed that a trunk is hanging out from under the strider. I figured that would be a tool used for finding and grabbing food. The finished puppet was dry brushed with tinted latex and touched up with acrylic airbrush colors.

The astronaut comes across a cadaver being routed by scavengers. The same bunch of creatures appears later to gorge on another carcass.

The biggest of these, the roto walker, was cobbled together using three latex casts from a mold that was used for the neck of another puppet. The three neck wattles became bizarre skin flaps that this creature was constantly moving about. I inserted aluminum wires into the skins to make them animate-able. The rest of the puppet was built up using lates, yarn and cotton.

Aluminum foil was used again to provide lightweight bulk on the puppet.

The eyes of the roto walker are acrylic domes with Photoshopped patterns glued under them.

The carrion flukes are flying critters that join the roto walker in draining whatever energy can be found in dead bodies. I only made one puppet, using a single aluminum wire and a latex skin casting. The head was a bit of Polymorpg thermoplastic attached to a sturdy but thin metal wire supporting the puppet. In this photo, it's wrapped in green screen tape.
The carcass was a hastily slapped together puppet, again using old puppet molds, and picking interesting bits here and there. It does have a full aluminum wire armature, so I could easily pose it. So I could actually animate it if I wished.

The crested stalker is another quick build, created by re-using old molds. Noteworthy about the crested stalker is the crest, which is made from thin metal rods attached to the armature and wrapped in yarn. The cloven hoofs are built up with Polymorph plastic.

The urkin was created from a doodle I made while talking to a friend on the phone. I thought it would make a great example of the weird world I wanted to make. The urkin is one of the larger puppets built for this project. The size allowed me to make the legs really thin. The aluminum wires in the armature were supported by thin metal rods.

I managed to forget to snap a photo of the aluminum foil build-up that makes up the basic bulk of the urkin's body. The foil was then covered by thin polyurethane and the cotton dipped in latex.

I cut long strips of thin polyurethane foam and dabbed them in latex, creating an easily molded material when the latex had dried. I rolled up the foam strips into thin sausages and attached them to the puppet's body in a swirly pattern. Drops of latex were dotted along each foam shape.

The bassoon-like outgrowths along the belly were made with cotton and latex. They were sturdy enough to not need any interior support. The big toenails were built up with latex and tissue paper.

Like most of the puppets, the ridgetail was built very quickly. Not having to sculpt puppet parts and create molds for them saves time.

The head was created from three latex pieces joined together. The body was a single thick aluminum wire padded with yarn soaked in latex. the legs were constructed the same way.

Three bits of polyurethane foam were placed around the body and joined with contact cement.

I can't actually remember what puppet I originally created these ridges for, but I'm guessing it's the belly for something. Various other latex bits make up the rest of this critter.

I gave the ridgetail a very bright color scheme to set it off from the rest of the creatures. The paint job is a mix of drybrushing with tinted latex and airbrush colors.

The wheelwalker, represented in the film as a pack, is a very simple puppet built in just an afternoon. The body is a flat clump of Polymorph plastic with aluminum wire legs stuck to it. Macrame yarn is wrapped around each leg and a glass blob with Photoshop print-out behind it is stuck in the middle on each side of the puppet. It was also very easy to animate, but looks kind of amusing, wheeling along the alien landscape.

I decided I wanted a kind of Harryhausen monster fight in the film, though very brief. On the plains of the Ghooric Zone that gemhead and the snagglehorn slug it out!

The body of the gemhead was another empty pill jar. To make it sturdy I added a few screws to it and over that Polymorph plastic. The screws kept the plastic stuck to the pill jar, and whatever I added on top of that stuck to the plastic.

The gemhead has a sail on its back. Its function probably has something to do with absorbing solar energy, but for me, it's there because it's decorative. The spines are thin metal rods wrapped in yarn and painted with tinted latex. The spines were attached to a strip of Polymorph plastic and the whole contraption was submerged halfway into soft hobby plaster. While in this plaster matrix I could add latex between the spines by simply painting it over both the spines and the plaster. This is the same technique I use for making wings.

The body was padded with bits of foam of various densities. Other details, like the wattles along the neck and the ridges over the body, were made with cotton dipped in latex.

I made a skin texture mold with the same technique as for the snoog, a reverse mold in silicone clay.

The gemhead is a gentle giant, grazing on the wild crystals of the Ghooric Zone. But, as you've seen in the film, it has a secret weapon. It can release the energy it absorbs as a deadly bolt through its gem eye. A couple of years ago I bought a plastic bag full of plastic pearls used for making toy necklaces. I've picked a bunch of them for the sensory organs of the zone's various creatures. The gemhead's gem is one of them. The only thing I did was adding a dash of white paint to the backside of the plastic gem to make it bright.

The main part of the snagglehorn's body was created as a sculpture. I wanted it to have shapes and patterns that were very precise, and therefore easier realized with clay and sculpting tools.

The clay sculpture was reproduced as a latex skin reinforced with a latex/cotton mix, cast from a dental plaster mold. The rest of the body was padded with foam and dressed up with various skin textures.

The snagglehorn does not have any eyes of any kind, but I gave it a pair of ear holes just below the mouth, so it's probably mostly a nocturnal hunter (if the Ghooric Zone has nights.) Again, the paint job is a mix of drybrushed tinted latex and airbrush acrylics.

After the gemhead fells the snagglehorn with a power bolt, the scavengers turn up again. We then find out that there are predatorns stalking them too, as a grabsnout swoops down and grabs a carrion fluke. I wanted something special for this creature's body, so I made in a sort of backwards way.

I rolled up a tapering clay sausage and carved a net-like patterns into it, also addong small bumps abd scaled into each carved shape.

This reverse sculpture was filled in with tinted latex using qtips, pipecleaners and various pointy tools.

When the latex fill-ins were dry I also applied very thin bits of polyurethane foam soaked in latex to add extra support.

I could then pull off the latex skin lake a banana peel.

The head of the creature was a wooden ball with latex skins attached, and a snout made from aluminum wires, yarn and latex. I used silicone clay to make a mold from a sea shell. I cast latex into the mold and added this swirly shape at the back of the head, representing some sort of strange organ. 

There's a thick aluminum wire running along the top of the net-like tail section. That wire animates the undulating motion of the whole package. A 3 mm t-nut in the base of the head provides an attachement point for my flying rig.

At one point the astronaut encounters three flying creatures in a sort of floating landscape.

The two fleeing creatures, called bramblepods, are made from a styrofoam ball covered with cotton and latex. The eye is a glass blob with a dash of blue paint on its backside. I stuck a big steel nail painted green into the ball and attached that to a flat piece of wood. I placed the contraption onto a small sculpting turntable and covered that in green screen tape. I placed the turntable on green screen cloth on the floor and simply span the turntable while filming the prop with my video camera.

The pursuing whirlbug was filmed the same way. It's two parts of an old bug creature skin mold cast pieced together, with the ends being pine cone-like shapes made by pushing the end of a brush into a clay cone and applying tinted latex over the clay. This latex skin was turned inside out and stuck to the main body using latex as glue. I stuck some plastic pearls along the middle of the prop to create eye-like organs.

One representation of life was actually all-digital. When the astronaut walks over a pitted landscape, huge spores are released into the air from the pits. Those were a digital animation downloaded from Videoblocks. That's also where I found the swirling sky backgrounds, which are some kind of colored ink dropped into a tray or a tank and filmed. I think they created a suitably psychedelic and otherworldly look.

The landscapes were all made from digital images downloaded from Depositphotos. Some of these were heavily revised by me, and others were pretty much used as they were, with a part cut out to allow for the insertion of the ink skies.

I didn't use a music score per se, but rather a jumble of sound effects and electronic noises, most of which were found at Bluezone.

Some who watched the film suggested that I should do more adventures with the alien astronaut. We'll see. For now, this was the adventure I wanted to feature him in.

For those of you interested in the Ghooric fauna, I made a diorama poster, kind of in the style of old school historical and nature display posters. I forgot to include the giant spores, the whirlbug and the bramblepods, though.