Sunday, November 14, 2010

The King Who Sought Immortality: Sumerian Dragons and Clay Snakes

The last creatures I built and animated for this two-year project of hope and despair was a dragon and a snake. Which means that the stop-motion part of the film is finally done and finished. Now, only a narration remains to be recorded.

The Dragon was based on the "Sirrush", a pretty mystical creature portrayed on the so-called Ishtar gate, alongside ordinary animals like bulls and lions. The Sirrush has a more than passing resemblance with a dinosaur, but is also furnished with a very snake-like head and clawed paws. Some very enthusiastic  researchers have suggested that the Sirrush is in fact, based on observations of live dinosaurs. The bulls and lions of the Ishtar gate are actually rendered in a quite realistic way. Is this also the case with the Sirrush?
Whatever the Sirrush was meant to be I thought it was a pretty cool beast to build and animate. I sort of took a middle path with my puppet version; It's not quite a dinosaur, and it's not quite the creature from the gate artwork.

I printed a large photocopy of the ancient artwork and measured every part of my armature after it. It wound up looking like this.
So, the proportions of the puppet were fairly close to the Ishtar gate Sirrush. However, the foam muscle padding of the body was entirely based on drawings of dino muscles.

The ancient Sirrush has a spearhead pattern of scales, that looks very ornate, but also very functional. I tried to copy it for the skin of the puppet and soon realized what a nightmare it meant trying to invisibly overlap the skin patches. I managed to piece it all together well enough. You can see the seams here, but when the puppet was painted, they pretty much disappeared.

 The finished puppet is about two feet long, which is manageble, and allows for quite a bit of detailing.

In the film, the king of the title challenges a herd of Sirrush dragons to show his prowess to the gods. The big creatures, however, are less than impressed by the pipsqueak at their feet.

 I did four different animations and spliced them together in After Effects to create the "herd". The longest animation has the puppet lumbering across my chroma key puppet stage, appearing to the right, and exiting to the left. This animation took almost four hours straight to do. Can't say I'm entirely happy with it, but it does show the dragon walking with a bobbing head and a snaking tail.

Now, for the snake. I was so lazy with this very short sequence, I simply sculpted a plasticine snake and animated it. I also animated a pair of gold paper wings for a clip where the snake goes psychedelic and flies away.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The King Who Sought Immortality: Fake Feathers for Flying Fiends.

I based one of the creatures in my film on the Assyrian/Babylonian demon Pazuzu. If this figure looks familiar, it's probably because he's the antagonist in the Exorcist movies. Max Von Sydow's father Merrin confronts a statue of the demon in the beginning of the first Exorcist movie. There is at least one very vivid real-life statue of Pazuzu, and I based my design of the stop-motion puppet on this particular one.
 I didn't have any real feathers in the right size to make Pazuzu's wings. Instead, I folded pieces of opaque sticky tape around bits of aluminum wire and plastic-covered copper wire. After trimming the tape and cutting into the sides of each tape length, I ended up with something resembling feathers. I then joined each feather to an aluminum wire wing armature with friendly plastic.

 The wings, four of them, were in their turn attached to the puppet body armature. This demon was intended to swoop down from the stormy sky in one brief shot, so a wire support was added to its bottom to help it stay aloft.
 I added some color to the feathers with my airbrush. More paint was added later.

 As usual with my puppets, this fellow had a foam-padded body, covered with patches of cast latex skin.

 The support wire of the finished puppet was simply attached to a large block of wood, and held still while animating with a clamp.

 The top part of each wing was covered with fake fur, glued on with contact cement.

 The puppet wasn't required to do much, and had only an articulated mouth in its head. The rest of the body was fully jointed. A bit more work than necessary for a few seconds, one might think. However, it only takes a few seconds for the audience to see that a puppet (or any kind of effect) is done badly. So, better to put enough love in all that you do for it to be visible.

 The support wire going up the puppet's bum was removed via a keyframed mask in After Effects. In the film, the flying demon attacks the hero, but is swiftly dispatched by a thrown double-bladed javelin.

The ups of making your own feathers using sticky tape is, of course, that you can decide the size and shape of them, and that you don't have to use parts from a real animal, if that makes you uncomfortable. Fur and feathers are not always removed humanely, and that is an issue for me. Another advantage is that you can actually animate every feather, and bend it as the wings flap up and down to achieve an admittedly more cartoonish, but also very dynamic movement. I'll be experimenting more with fake feathers eventually, and try to make them more and more realistic.