Thursday, September 15, 2016

H P Lovecraft's "The Thing In the Moonlight": The Puppets

If you recently watched my YouTube film "The Thing In the Moonlight" you probably remember these guys. They're both stop-motion puppets, and very simple ones at that, but they do have one innovation (for me, at least.)

The monsters are supposed to be dressed in the 1920's uniforms of a street car motorman and conductor. Googling up images of these garments I quickly realized that I would never be able to sew these uniform using cloth and thread. Instead I opted to simply sculpt them in clay. I say "simply" since that is a creative medium I am very familiar with. I used Monster Clay Soft to sculpt the whole upper portion of each uniform, which includes a coat, a vest, a shirt and a tie.

I only sculpted one costume set, since I knew that I could modify one of the latex casts to look slightly different. A two-part mold was created with dental plaster.

A dark blue-grey tint was added to the latex, which was then painted into each plaster mold half using a pipe cleaner. The halves were then closed, and more latex poured into the mold and slushed around to build up a thickness to the "skin" of the clothes.

I also sculpted a pair of trousers and a cap out of the Monster Clay. They each had single-piece plaster molds created for them. My trusty boot drying fan was used to quickly dry the liquid latex inside each mold.

I started with sculpting the clothes just because it was convenient, then building the puppets to fit the latex clothes skins. The head of the motorman is supposed to be featureless, except for having a tapering tentacle. The bulbous head was simply a wooden ball into which a piece of aluminum wire was stuck. Soft yarn and tinted latex built up the fleshy shape of the tentacle, while cotton and latex was used as a covering over the wooden ball. Aluminum wires created a neck joint and thin polyurethane sheets were wrapped around the wires. Very simple stuff, in other words.

The conductor was supposed to start running on all fours, which suggested a distinctly animal-like quality. I sculpted a big toothy mouth for the character, but little else in the way of a face.

Only the front of the head was sculpted, and a simple one-piece mold was created over the sculpture. Since it was an open mold a thick latex skin for the face was quickly built up, using a hot air gun to make the latex vulcanize faster.

More soft polyurethane sheets were used to build up bulk on the basic aluminum wire armature. Since the body was going to be covered with the latex clothes I knew I didn't have to spend too much on detail, though it was important to make the foam fill out the clothes in a proper way.

The teeth were small bits of cotton rolled in latex and allowed to dry before attaching them to pits in the gums using more latex.

Both puppets had additional detailing added using small patches of cast latex skin textures. Latex tinted a greyish green was then dry brushed over the wrinkly surface of the skins with a small bit of foam sponge. Claws were cut out of white cardboard, and then covered with liquid latex.

The pants were simply pulled on each puppet, but in order to get the top half on I had to cut the vest open. It was then a simple matter of closing it again with a string of liquid latex.

As you can see in this photo one arm is longer than the other on the coat. That's simply because I was careless, and carried on building the puppets without measuring their arms to the jacket size. To fix this I cast a pair of extra pants and attached the legs as new coat arms.

To distinguish the two sets from each other I left the conductor's coat open and closed the motorman's. The two uniforms also had some additional features, such as extra pockets placed in different places. These, and other small details, were created by cutting out shapes in soft thick paper, dipping them in tinted latex and sticking them to the coats.

To create a creepy otherworldly look to the costumes, giving them the feel that they're not quite right, I painted them with tinted latex. This created a shiny wet look that made the characters look like they had just climbed out of a swamp, or something. A small clock chain, pulled from old brass jewellery,  was attached to the motorman's outfit and all the buttons were painted with acrylic gold colors. The hats, also cast in latex, were stuck on with liquid latex as a bonding agent.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

H P Lovecraft's "The Thing In the Moonlight"

At the beginning of August this year I decided to jump into a project which was virtually unplanned up to that point. I had thought about adapting this particular story for a while, but though I was busy working on other projects, I suddenly decided "what the heck; let's do it now!" And so I did. Let's say this film is an experiment in how fast I can make a film from start to finish, something I have done before.

 This is the resulting film. It was started in the second week of August and finished on the 7th of September. But I took a week and a half's break to finish the LARP props and masks I previously blogged about, so the entire production time for this project was around three weeks.

Lovecraft is actually not the author per se of the short story upon which this film is based. He wrote to his friend and fellow weird fiction author Donald Wandrei (to the left in the above photo) on 24 November 1927 about a curious nightmare he had experienced. In this dream Lovecraft found himself walking through a swamp and later scaling a cliff to reach a plateau, where he eventually finds what seems to be a derelict, but working street car. Suddenly two monsters in a conductor's and a motorman's uniforms appear and scare him off. He then woke up and jotted down his memories of the dream.

Another writer, J Chapman Miske, later took Lovecraft's entire recollection verbatim from the letter and wrote a bookend story around it. The resulting work was published in the 1941 January issue of the magazine Bizarre. Lovecraft had by that date been dead for four years, and I'm assuming Miske published the story with the good memory of the circle of friends Lovecraft had amassed, and who were by then attempting to keep his literary heritage alive.

It's the Miske story that I have adapted without leaving anything out, or adding anything to it. It's interesting to read both the Lovecraft letter, and Miske's story side by side, which you can do in the online Lovecraft archive HERE.

Lovecraft's nightmare world was quite barren, and all of the story took place at night. Occasionally people ask me if I can't find real locations for my films, and the answer is usually no. To achieve the visuals I'm aiming at, I go full greenscreen, and create the locations in Photoshop and After Effects. That was the case for "The Thing In the Moonlight" as well. Finding locations which had all the disparate elements (a yellow street car in the middle of a barren plain, for one thing) was impossible, and would have meant making changes to the story. 

There are two persons appearing in the film. The main character, the dreamer, was played by Andreas Nordkvist, who lives just a stone's throw from me. He was previously featured in my film "What Is It?"
We shot all of of his scenes in one day, actually starting off in a real location. We went to the sea, which is about ten minutes from my house, and I filmed Andreas stumbling through a swampy woodland area. 

As you can see, filming in the sunny mid-day doesn't really lend itself to creepy nighttime monster tales, so lots of filters were added to achieve a dark dreamlike look. This technique was applied to all shots in this film.

We then headed out to the cliffs that tumble down into the ocean, the Baltic sea in this case.

This is probably the most complex shot in the film for a number of reasons. The dreamer is supposed to scale an almost vertical wall to reach the top of the plateau.

Not surprisingly, in reality Andreas was lying almost horizontally on a flat cliff side, and mimicked struggling to keep his foothold. The wind was blowing in almost-gales this particular day, which made for great dramatic movements in both Andrea's clothes and the grass next to him. But unbeknownst to me the wind also rocked the camera, something that caused me a bit of a headache when I was editing the footage.

I used photos I took a few years ago of seaside rocks further down the south of Sweden, and though they might look massive they're only a few feet high. I've used these photos to construct mountain textures for several of my projects. So I built up a fake mountainside surrounding the footage of Andreas, and tilted the footage at a proper angle. However, as the wind shook the camera, the entire image of Andreas was wobbling. Luckily there is a tool in After Effects that allows you to stabilize the footage to a dead standstill.

The rest of the day was spent filming Andreas in front of my trusty greenscreen. Since the weather was fair we shot the whole thing outdoors in front of my house. It was dead calm at my place, so I used a big plastic sheet to wave in front of Andreas and simulate wind moving his hair and shirt.

Later the same week I went visiting my pal Andreas Pettersson, and recruited him to appear as Morgan, the idiot savant who becomes the reciever of the dreaming man's transmitted message. Andreas is himself no idiot, though he has a slight cerebral palsy birth defect, which has also caused him to go blind in one of his eyes. But apart from that he's sharp as a knife, and makes his own films, not to mention playing the drums in no less than three bands. I got to know Andreas when working on the project Makt i Media ("Media Power") which was aimed at people with light mental and movement disorders interested in working with film, blogs and various social media. You can read about two of the films produced within that project HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE.

Since Makt i Media folded I have been incorporating Andreas into my own filmmaking group of pals, so you'll see more of him pretty soon. We shot the scenes of Morgan in Andreas kitchen, simply having him sitting by his kitchen table dressed up in period clothing. His sister Fia and his assistant Martina stood behind him, holding up the greenscreen.

The landscapes of the film were a mix of Wikimedia photos of Norwegian mountains, and timelapse stock footage of cloudy skies downloaded from I really can't tell how good I am at selling my fantasy worlds as real. It's beside the point to me. I want to achieve visions that can't be experienced in real life, so I don't mind my shots looking a bit cartoony or like collages. I am probably more of a folk artist than a pure filmmaker.

I read a the short narration bookending the nightmare sequence, but the very talented Isaiah Plovnick provided the voice of the dreamer. Don't hesitate contacting him if you need a good voiceover. Here's his Facebook page.

There are, of course, also some stop-motion monsters in the film, but I'll talk much more about those in the next blog post.