Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Fisherman and the Genie

If you're familiar with the Tales of the Arabian Nights, then you probably know this story. This film was made for my day job at an educational organization, and it had a very short production history, about one week from conception to filming, which meant that I had to hurry up creating both the genie bottle prop as well as the genie itself.

Let’s start with the bottle. It’s supposed to be a copper bottle, according to the Arabian Nights tale upon which this film is based. In fact, it is a squirt bottle for showering plants, and the worst thing about making this prop was probably removing the paper label on the bottle. It took quite some time, and a lot of scrubbing.

The bottle is decorated with various ornaments. They all came from molds made from sturdy dental silicone clay. I’m using my Polymorph thermoplastic to make castings in these molds. The plastic is melted using a heat gun, and then simply pressed into the molds. After a little while the plastic has cooled down and can be pried out of the mold.  All of these bits are stuck on using very fast super glue.

Since the bottle has been lying in the ocean for a few hundred years I thought it would be nice to add some barnacles to the bottle as a detail. Those barnacles were sculpted in clay and a DragonSkin silicone mold was made over them.

Into this mold I added hot melt glue, which is probably the fastest, cheapest and at the same time sturdiest casting material out there. I just let the glue sit in the mold, which isn’t damaged by the hot glue. And when the glue had cooled I just popped the barnacles out. Of course, I had to trim off all the excess glue with a pair of scissors.

This is the cork for the bottle, adorned with the magical seal of Solomon, scourge of demons and genies. I made a mold from an old amulet I have, actually sporting this seal, and did another casting with the Polymorph plastic. It’s attached to the top of a container for those tubes of effervescent tablets you dissolve in water when you have a headache.

This cork fits nicely into the squirt bottle top, but that top doesn’t look right at all, so I had to cover it up. I didn’t have any epoxy at home, so I did a clay sculpt and then created a silicone mold over that. More Polymorph was used to cast the new bottle opening.

The bottle was first given a coat of copper spray paint, then a layer of grayish green acrylic paints, and then another layer of copper, dry brushed on. And that’s about it for the bottle.

On to the genie. The genie in the bottle was played my my old buddy Martin Merkel, who’s used to be made up as orcs and other creatures appearing in live action fantasy roleplaying.

I didn’t have time to sculpt a new genie mask, so I actually used an orc face mask mold I made several years ago. I added tinted latex to the mold using a bit of polyurethane foam. For areas requiring more delicate detailing I used a q-tip and a pipe cleaner. To speed up the curing of the latex I used a hair drying on its highest setting. I added three layers of latex to this casting, not in every area, but on the deeper spots needing to be more sturdy, like the eyebrows and the cheekbones. The edges which will be glued down, are, of course, as thin as I dared make them. As you can see the skin color is a deep reddish brown. This will not be the skin color of Martin when I’m finished making him up, but this dark color will be a very good base upon which I will add the makeup. 

I also cast a pair of large pointy ears and a chin piece.

I wanted the genie to have horns, as they often do both in old picture books as well as in old Arabian manuscripts. The horns had to be very light, and, again, made very fast. What you see in this image is actually a Velociraptor claw I made some years ago, cast in plastic. I simply built up the horns over this claw using tinted latex and cotton. I added about two layers of this latex-cotton mixture, and let it dry properly. I then cut a slit along the inside of the curve of the horn and peeled off the latex skin like a banana peel. The latex skin was glued together again using latex, and the horn was stuffed with cotton.

The fingernails were very simply made. I used an old plaster texture mold, adding tinted latex to it and then a few layers of tissue paper, laminated with more latex. When this concoction had dried I could peel it off the plaster mold and cut these kind of witchy fingernail shapes. They bend if you touch them, of course, but for these shots I wouldn’t have to worry about that.

I also wanted to add some bony horn structures to the elbows and shoulders of the genie. I used these, which were actually leftover horns for a big dragon’s head I helped build for a stage production. They were made the same way as the other horns, kind of. They were built up over clay shapes.

 Martin in my kitchen, ready to have genie bits stuck on.

 A latex bald cap, and the ears go on first. I use Prosaide cosmetic adhesive to glue down the rubber parts. The white stuff you can se smeared over the edges is Prosaide mixed with Cabosil powder. It creates a butter-like substance which is diluted and adjusted simply with saliva on a finger, and it covers the edge between latex appliance and skin.

 The face piece and the chin attached.

The horns are glued to the skullcap using liquid latex. The other horn bits also go on, including the nails, which are glued on over Martin’s own nails using the Prosiade.

Finally, the skin and the rubber bits are given a coat of rubber mask greasepaints, various hues and some rouge effects are added. The reddish brown base color now helps add some depth to the face.

So there you go, a budget version of the mighty djinn, but in the end I think it turned out OK. Latex compared to foam latex or silicone is an inferior mask material, of course, but you can still go quite far with it. Think about all this classic Doctor Who makeups, mostly created by John Friedlander with liquid latex cast in plaster molds. I think some of them, like Davros, are still very effective.

Filming the djinn was a very simply set up. We filmed outdoors in the soft evening light. I used a fold-out greenscreen stuck to my garage wall. Martin was standing against it, shot from the waist up. The natural color of Martin's skin was adjusted to a purplish red in After effects, and a digital plug-in tool called "Ugly Box" was used to make his skin appear mottled and wrinkly.

 What about the fisherman, then? He was played by Staffan Bonnedal, an avid participant in local stage productions. I've worked with Staffan in a few of them and figured he'd make a great older-looking poor fisherman, and he did. We shot all of his scenes on a small stretch of sand beach not far from my work. This particular day was quite warm (early June) and the beach was full of people, kids and dogs, although it was in the morning on a regular work day.

To get rid of the busy setting behind Staffan we employed a green screen, which was easier said than done, since it was also a very windy day. I held up the screen with a the aid of a temp trainee named Sandra, and my colleague at my day job, Ola Nilsson, shot all of Staffan's scenes.

That's it for "The Fisherman and the Genie". Though it was all pulled together quickly it was great fun to make, and my plan is to make more folklore- and mythologically-inspired videos the coming year. If time, funds and health allow that remains to be seen.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

H P Lovecraft's The Familiars

I've mined H P Lovecraft's sonnet cycle "Fungi From Yuggoth" for video material once before, with my film "Nightgaunts." This time I picked another short poem, "The Familiars", mainly because of the mood in it. But there are monsters to be had as well, of course.

So, let's start with the monsters. There's actually only one monster, though animated twice to look like two critters. The familiars of the title are only described as "two crouching things" with "great black wings", which, of course left me with quite a big choice of designs. I went for a critter that I haven't been able to squeeze into anything just yet; the toad-like abomination Gol-Goroth, created by Robert E Howard. I'm sure he had minions, just like Cthulhu's star-spawn, and this is my version of these theoretical critters. In this case I only sculpted one part of the creature, the head, using medium grade Monster Clay, and a couple acrylic oval scrapbooking decorations.

The mold for this sculpture was created with Ultracal 30, which, by the way, has been impossible to find in my native Sweden for many years until now. I cast a hollow skin for the head with tinted latex.

You all know my bat wing-making trick by now; lowering the wing armature halfway down into soft plaster and then building up the wing membranes with latex over the plaster surface when the material has set.

I also used my standard aluminum wire / thermoplastic armature, attaching the head skin before starting the filling out of the body. The teeth and the horns on the eyebrows were made from a mix of latex and cotton rolled between my fingers.

The padded body of the puppet looks very dense and bulky, but it's actually mostly filled with cotton balls held in place with bits of thin polyurethane foam. Dense foam was used to create the muscle shapes on the legs.

After the wings were attached to the body armature, the whole thing was covered with patches of latex skin cast in a flat plaster skin mold. After that, the puppet was given a unifying coat of tinted latex, followed by some detailing with acrylic airbrush colors.

The finished puppet stands about 20 cm tall (without the wings) and is attached to the animation stage using t-nuts in the feet. The teeth and eyes are covered by Glossy Accents scrapbooking plastic.

The protagonist of the story in the poem is the mysterious John Whateley, a farmer who after finding "some queer books" in his attic is becoming a sorcerer, or so the local populace believes (and they're right). I asked my buddy Andreas Pettersson to play Whateley. Andreas has been in a couple of my films before. He's the inventor of the wheel in "The Age of Invention", and the idiot savant in "The Thing In the Moonlight." To make him look more rugged I applied a bulbous latex nose and crepe hair whiskers and eyebrows.

The nose was glued on with Prosaide adhesive, and the seam between latex and skin was covered up with a mix of Prosaide and cabosil, creating a butter-like paste which can make the seam disappear completely. All these areas of Andreas' face was then covered with rubber mask greasepaint, and touched up with various shades of powdered rouge. A wig of real human hair guilds the lily.

I'm not really sure when this story actually takes place. It's simply in bygone days, and Andreas wore clothes that were used by early 20th century Swedish country folk (though the poem is supposedly set in New England).

All of Andreas' scenes were shot in his kitchen against a green screen. It looks very primitive, but that's all you need. The After Effects plugin Keylight takes care of the rest.

Most of the backgrounds I used here were Photoshopped in various ways. The original photos were downloaded from stock image site Depositphotos, where I have a subscription.

You don't see John Whateley's face until the very last shot, where he turns to the camera. The poem said that "funny lines got creased into his face", which is the country people's way of expressing what they see. I decided that these funny lines would be occult symbols revealing a glowing energy emitting from behind Whateley's skin. To achieve this effect I simply painted the sign onto Andreas' face using water-based blue screen paint. Before I removed the greenscreen behind him I first keyed out the blue lines in his face.

I then added a pulsating digital light effect in the layer behind Andreas. The effect is sufficiently odd-looking, I think. I also animated a pair of glowing pupils.

Finally, the three men that go to confront Whateley were played by, from left to right, Andreas Nordkvist, Håkan Håkansson and me. We shot the scene against a green screen hung on the outside wall of my garage. There are a couple brief scenes of other people in the film, but they're actually stock footage clips. The poem was narrated by Isaiah Max Plovnik, a long-distance collaborator from the US, who has also narrated "The Thing In the Moonlight."

I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that there are more Lovecraft adaptations coming up, but which one gets finished first remains to be seen.

Friday, September 21, 2018

When Chaugnar Wakes: Film and Puppets

H P Lovecraft, although not commercially successful during his lifetime, did influence a lot of writers and artists. You may have heard of "The Lovecraft Circle", which was a bunch of writers who befriended him and were inspired in one way or another by his work. One such circle member was Frank Belknap Long, or "Belknapius", as Lovecraft nicknamed him.

Long's most famous story may be "The Hounds of Tindalos", which you can find in numerous anthologies, and which has been included in the so-called Cthulhu Mythos. But he also wrote other types of horror and a fair amount of scifi. It's generally thought that Long was not as accomplished a writer as HPL, but he was more successful in his day, and I think his prose may be more accessible to a modern reader than Lovecraft's. At any rate, I enjoy the works of "Belknapus", and for years I've been thinking about how I could build and animate one of his most famous creations, the cosmic horror Chagnar Faugn. This monstrous being (and others like him) appears as the villain of his novel "The Horror From the Hills", a madcap tale of aliens, horrible transformations, strange archeology and death ray inventions.  However, I settled on a poem which Long wrote for Weird Tales, September 1932. It features Chaugnar Faugn before he comes to Earth, apparently, or may simply be a stand-alone piece of literature.

Chaugnar Fagn's appearance is not as abstract as with some of the other Lovecraftian creatures. Basically, he looks like an evil version of the Indian elephant-headed deity Ganesha. He has some kind of wings or fins that can be mistaken for ears. What looks like a trunk is a proboscis with a blood-sucking orifice, and what seems like tusks is a crystalline outgrowth which entwines towards the end of it's length. His body is generally humanoid.

I started with creating these tusks, sculpting them in medium grade monster clay.

A mold container was slapped together using bits of cardboard and hot glue, into which DragonSkin FX silicone was poured.

This is how the actual silicone mold turned out (with the cardboard removed). The clay tusks have been plied out after making a cut down what will be the backside of the mold.

The tusks were cast using Poly-Optic clear casting resin. However, since I didn't have a vacuum chamber to de-gass the material in, all the air bubbles that emerge during the mixing of the stuff was left in. This caused the tusks to become translucent rather than transparent. In my case that was OK, since completely clear tusks would've become invisible as I was animating the puppet against a blue screen for chroma key work. As the silicone mold is pretty thick it snaps tight around the back side cut, and there was hardly any plastic seeping out, creating thin bits of "flashing." In other words, the cleanup of this casting was minimal.

When the tusks were finished I sculpted the head and the front of the torso in medium grade Monster Clay. I used the shiny read half-beads that I often use for glowing monster eyes. I probably should come up with a new trick to create eyes, but what the heck -I like it! This sculpture took about two days to complete, spending a fair amount of time adding textures and details to make it all look strange but organic.

I cast the head and torso with tinted latex from a dental plaster mold created around the sculpture.

 The "ears" (or whatever they are) were made to resemble spiky fish fins using copper wire encased in soft plastic, then wrapped in soft string and covered with tinted latex. Polymorph plastic was used to hold them together. This made the spike bits animate-able, so they could squirm and move in creepy and very un-elephant-like ways.

I used my usual trick of adding skin between the moving parts by encasing the whole armature halfway down into an improvised tub of soft hobby plaster, adding more latex between the tentacle bits when the plaster had dried.

The trunk was made , like most of my tentacly bits, by wrapping soft yarn around a piece of aluminum wire. But I also sculpted a clay trunk, or rather the top side, to give it distinct texture and shape. From a plaster mold poured over the sculpture I could then cast a latex skin added over the wrapped aluminum wire.

The sucker-like mouth was made the same way as the ears, except for that I used clay to embed the armature instead of plaster. When the desired shape was achieved I built up a round orifice with latex and cotton, and also added latex teeth.

The armature was my usual aluminum wire and Polymorph construction. The limbs were covered with muscles created by soaking thin polyurethane foam in latex and rolling up bits of it into long sausages. They were all bonded together with liquid latex, and then covered by extra-extra thin foam to smooth out the shapes.

Arms and legs were padded and covered with skin separately and then joined together to form the body. The feet were also cast from clay sculptures.

The torso was completed with a head supported by a skull made from Polymorph and the armatured ears and trunk. The rest of the body was padded with thin polyurethane sheets covering bundles of cotton balls.

The foam bits were covered up with bits of latex skin cast from old plaster molds used for a number of puppets.

The puppet was painted with a unifying layer of tinted latex before getting a dry brushing with greenish grey latex.

The tusks were simply attached using hot melt glue. They stuck very well to the Polymorph skull that way. The finished puppet is pretty large, around a foot tall.

If you started reading this blog post by checking out the video posted at the top you'll know that old Chaugnar isn't the only puppet. He's being monitored by a bunch of aliens with eyes on stalks. These characters were just the one puppet, made in bits and assembled. The head was sculpted in medium grade Monster Clay.

The body, which is a space suit, was also sculpted in clay, here seen upside down.

 Originally I had the notion of making three puppets with slight differences, so I cast three heads and three bodies in latex. However, I soon realized that to make them discernible from each other I had to make them more different than I wanted, so in the end I decided to just make the one puppet, representing the whole alien crew.

I also sculpted some other bits of tech that would be cast in latex and attached to the spacesuit.

I wanted the arms and legs to be tentacle-like so I made them very simply by wrapping soft string around aluminum wire to build up a shape, and then covering that shape with sturdy macrame yarn, and lastly with tinted latex.

Here's the spacesuit body assembled.

And here's how the finished alien(s) turned out with head attached and a greyish metal color added. The eyes are tiny Photoshop print-outs covered with drops of Glossy Accents scrapbooking plastic.

The backgrounds are my usual mix of stock footage, mainly from Videoblocks, where I have a yearly subscription. Some backgrounds were made in Photoshop using stock images from DepositPhotos, where I also have a subscription.