Monday, January 20, 2020

The Two-Headed Monster

Last autumn I discovered the vibrant, funny and slightly irreverent children's poetry of Darren Sardelli. He's both an author of several books but he's also doing lots of work within the US educational system, inspiring kids to start writing. Good stuff, in other words!

Of course, I was mainly attracted to one of his poems called "The Two-Headed Monster." I thought it could become a bubbly, crazy YouTube video, featuring a really weird and goofy stop-motion monster. I contacted Darren and he gave me the go-ahead straight away.

So let's start with the two-headed star of the show because that's what I did. I sculpted the heads and the torso in medium grade Monster Clay, using plastic pearls for eyes. I didn't sketch out or prepare any designs for this character other than I wanted to make it look goofy and maybe a bit scary in the same way that the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire cat from Alice In Wonderland are a bit scary because of their craziness. I applied a mold of dental plaster over the sculpture.

I wanted to make the arms a bit cartoony and bendy-toy-bendy, so this is what I came up with. The balls or bumps that make out the arms are actually yarn wrapped around aluminum wires to create these shapes. The wrinkly skin is bits of latex cast in a skin texture mold.

As per usual this puppet armature is made from bundles of aluminum wires held together with Polymorph thermoplastic. You can see in this photo the t-nut tie-downs in the feet, as well as the spiked ball at the end of the tail. It's made from a paper ball covered with cotton dipped in tinted latex, with cotton/latex spikes attached.

The body didn't have to be all that detailed when it came to the padding. I just wanted it to be lumpy. Thin strips of polyurethane foam were wrapped and glued down over the armature.

Here's the puppet covered up with latex skin pieces, and with the cast torso latex piece attached to the armature and the foam padding. I've also stuffed some cotton balls into the belly.

Here's the final objet d'art. Teeth and claws are also latex, mixed with cotton. The final paint job is achieved with tinted latex, dry brushed on. The plastic ball eyes are simply animated by sticking a needle into the pupil hole and twisted around.

Here's our young hero of the piece, played by Hannes Johansson (reading appropriate literature in the shape of Ruth Manning-Sanders "Monsters.") Hannes is actually placed into a wholly fake and Photoshopped room. Almost all of the elements used to create the backgrounds were stock images downloaded from

In actuality, Hannes was residing in a very simple green screen set-up, which is how all the scenes with actors were shot for the film.

In one shot, Hannes is sitting on the couch that gets eaten by the monster. The couch is a Photoshop printout glued to a bit of stiff card, and Hannes is cut out from his green screen environs and stuck to the couch by manual tracking in After Effects. There is a semi-automatic tracking tool in AE, but I've only made it work satisfactorily once.

The shot where grandpa (Andreas Pettersson) gets his hat plucked off his head was another blend of interaction and animation. Hannes' mom Martina stuck her arm into a green bodysuit and snatched the hat away. In After Effects her hand was keyed out and replaced with the monster's animated hand.

All the stuff the monster eats was made the same way as the couch: It's all Photoshop printouts glued onto thick bits of card. When the monster eats I just snip off bits of the image with a pair of small sharp scissors.

One thing is not made from paper, though, namely mom's cooking. That peculiar dish is a bit of oil-based clay animated like a shapeless blob flying into the monster's mouth.

I'd like to adapt more of Darren's fun poems for kids, although I can see that my videos made for a younger audience won't reach the kind of viewing numbers my Lovecraftian and pulp horror pieces get. But it's an area that's almost unexplored by me and I believe I can achieve some entertaining and imaginative stuff in that department too.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

H P Lovecraft's Azathoth

Still trying to catch up with my backlog of video content posted on YouTube, so here we go with something I posted back in October. I keep returning to H P Lovecraft's sonnet cycle "Fungi From Yuggoth" and mining it for inspiration. The main two good things about Lovecraft's poems are that they're incredibly atmospheric and that they're just the right length for a YouTube video.

Another motivation for me to adapt this particular poem was that Jim Moon did an excellent reading of it over at his podcast Hypnogoria. I contacted Jim and he generously sent me his original recording. In this Hypnogoria episode, Jim does a little analysis of the various cosmic entities of Lovecraft's horrific pantheon. He comes to the conclusion that the demon who carries the narrator through space might actually be the dreaded Nyarlathotep, as the creature admits that he is Azathot's messenger, which would be a clue to identifying this particular abomination.

I, therefore, decided to make my demon puppet a riff on the Haunter of the Dark avatar of Nyarlathotep, which is a bat-winged monstrosity with a burning "three-lobed" eye, whatever that might mean. I actually hope I can do my own adaptation of the story "The Haunter of the Dark" someday, so I didn't need to have this puppet be my ultimate interpretation of this entity. I settled on making something that was efficient and eye-catching in its weirdness, but also fairly easy to build and animate. The above sculpture, executed in medium grade Monster Clay, is what I came up with. I didn't want a long and potentially fragile plaster mold created over the sculpture, so I split the tail end in half, allowing me to make a more compact mold.

I cast the latex skin with a muted blue-purple color tint. The torso section was reinforced and fleshed out using thin strips of polyurethane foam saturated with liquid latex. The eye is a glass blob (apparently used as decoration in flower pots) with one flat side, onto which I could glue a bit of Photoshop-created eye artwork printed on paper. I used transparent Glossy Accents scrapbooking plastic as glue.

I wanted something different for the wings, so what I went for ended up as a bunch of tentacles (rather than a skeletal structure) with a scaly wing membrane between them. I already had a plaster texture mold about the size of an A4 paper, made many years ago, with an interesting pattern, so I cast four bits to cover each wing back and front. The tentacles were aluminum wires wrapped with soft yarn and covered with latex. More latex was used as the bonding material between the tentacles and the wing skins.

The wings were joined to the big aluminum wire running from the head to the tip of the tail on this puppet. I used a liberal amount of Polymorph thermoplastic to attach the wings. I also inserted a very important detail between the wings; a wing nut that acted as an attachment point for my flying rig.

The body was padded out with bits of foam cut from old cushions. As virtually all the detailing was in the sculptured parts cast in latex, I didn't have to spend any time on creating organic shapes like muscles with the foam.

This is the puppet just before the paint goes on. I've added trunk-like protuberances to the end of the tail, and latex spikes to the head. You can't see it in this photo, but there's also a line of latex spikes going down the back. The arms are made just like the wing tentacles, with two aluminum wire fingers added. Patches of latex skin cast in texture molds are added to cover up joins between bigger latex pieces.

Latex was colored with Monster Makers' liquid tinting mediums and dabbed onto the puppet using a sponge. About three differently colored layers were thinly dry brushed on.

As you saw in the film, the narrator is carried through space by the demon by being held aloft by the creature. This means some serious interaction between the actor (Andreas Pettersson) and the puppet, and therefore some serious cheating.

The trick was achieved in a very simple way. I built a pair of big demon hands using steel wires as an armature covered with cardboard tubes and foam wrapping. The claws were latex copies of a Velociraptor claw I had sculpted in clay and then cast in plastic using a silicone mold some years ago. I dipped cotton in latex and draped that over the plastic claw, pressing down the material using a sponge. In this way, I made four hollow latex claw skins that could be peeled off the plastic claw and then filled with cotton. I cast scaly latex skin from a big plaster skin mold and wrapped that around the foam padding using liquid latex as a glue.

Andreas simply stuck the two demon hands under his armpits and stood in front of a green screen. We had a couple of fans blowing some windy movement into his robe.

There's also a piper mentioned in the poem, a creature that placates the idiot god Azathoth with a neverending fluting and keeps the cosmic abomination asleep. I wanted to make a puppet that looked really alien, but (like the demon) was easy to animate. I figured a good main sculpture with nice textures and details would take care of the weirdness without me having to add many moving parts to it. I sculpted what became most of the head and torso in one piece.

I built up a little clay cradle for the sculpture, so when I applied plaster to the thing it wouldn't run out all over the place.

The plaster mold was made in one piece, and tinted latex, supported with a mix of latex and cotton, was cast into it.

I also made additional sculptures for the arms and the piper's big single foot.

The actual instrument the creature is playing was also made from latex. I thought of it as some kind of crazy trumpet. To quickly create the flared openings of the instrument I slapped on some latex/cotton mix on three small bottle caps.

The trumpet tube was a cluster of thin metal rods wrapped in yarn with the latex cap castings attached. I made a bark-like texture by dipping yarn in latex and layering that on.

The latex torso was stuck to a toilet roll padded with polyurethane foam. You can see at the top of the latex skin a white glob. That's thermoplastic holding an aluminum wire in place.

That wire is covered with a wrapping of latex-soaked yarn to create the proboscis that blows the instrument. There is a small wooden ball inside the puckered mouth to give it extra stability. The hindquarters of this slug-like alien are simply bits of foam glued on with contact cement. The whole puppet is attached to a bit of tough cardboard.

The arms only have foam padding in them, no aluminum wires. The fingers are armatured, though.

Each hand has four fingers, two opposing the other two. The lower set of fingers were glued onto the instrument using liquid latex, while the top two could be animated playing the instrument. The holes on the instrument tube are actually suction cups made for an octopus puppet. When the puppet is swaying to the sound of his piping, it's the proboscis that moves both the instrument and the arms. The whole puppet was given a uniform color with tinted latex plus some acrylic airbrush detailing. I was too lazy to properly attach a reliable tiedown arrangement under the puppet, so I simply glued a thin strip of wood to the cardboard base under the puppet and clamped down the wood strip during the animation. 

There are also "bat-things" flapping about in space. They're very vague in my mind, so the puppet I made was quite vague in itself.

The bat-thing puppet had a super simple aluminum wire armature, basically just a few thick wires with a wing nut attached to one end. Latex wings with a bundle of three thinner aluminum wires as the arm and "fingers" were attached to the big body wire with thermoplastic. Bits of foam torn from a solid piece mattress were glued to the wire armature with contact cement.

The foam padding was covered with bits of latex skin cast in plaster texture molds. I went with something that looked warty and nasty. I also made feelers and small tentacles from cotton and latex. A ball and socket flying rig stuck to the wing nut held the puppet aloft during the animation, and the armature wire could be bent to twist the look of the creature's body, thereby making the puppet look a bit different from animation to animation and hopefully being able to represent several individuals of the same species. To guild the lily I attached everyone's favorite animated stock tentacle to each bat-thing as a tail in After Effects.

And lastly, of course, we have our big baddie of the title, Azathoth him/her/itself. As with many of Lovecraft's cosmic entities, it's a conundrum, being virtually indescribable and therefore a folly for every filmmaker to tackle. Which of course isn't to say that I shouldn't give it a go. I actually did this thingie a few years back for my Lovecraft alphabet, and I decided to do an improved version of that concept.

I started by snapping a photo of the pancake-like latex pile that I built for the older video. It's made up of variously-sized clumps of cotton covered with tinted latex, with a few shiny scrapbooking pearls added as eyes.

Since Azathot is said to be mumbling in his sleep he needed a few mouths. These were made by filming a latex sleeve I did for a horror film project (not mine) some years ago wiggling about in front of my green screen animation stage.

Another component was bundles of tentacles growing out from the edge of the blobby body. I used my trusty standard animated tentacle and clumped a few shots together to form a cluster, and then attaching it to photos of my flying polyps from "The Shadow Out of Time" in After Effects. Really shameful cheating, I agree!

Finally, all the elements were brought together in AE and slowly rotated using keyframed motion.

I wanted Azathoth to dwell in some kind of nebula or cosmic cloud, so when combining the various elements in AE I also added digital animations of cloud-like space shots, using different sets of transparency. In shots like these, there were quite a few layers on top of each other.

That's it, ladies and gentlemen! Needless to say, I like sitting in front of my Mac and experiment with various elements to create my visuals. Sometimes happy accidents occur, adding to the joy of it. Sometimes not-so-happy accidents need to be covered over or adjusted to look OK. That's the plight of the no-budget filmmaker. At least I always have a coherent and planned out vision for the end result, which, it seems, is more than can be said of many big-budgeted Hollywood efforts nowadays.