Saturday, February 20, 2021

In the Ooze of Ubbo-Sathla

One of my all-time favorite authors is Clark Ashton Smith, a buddy and a contemporary of H P Lovecraft. They both contributed to the same magazines and developed the genres we now call sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. In their days it was all more or less simply "weird fiction." Smith invented his own bestiary of strange and terrifying beings, one of them being Ubbo-Sathla, basically a primeval soup of DNA with some kind of sentience. Well, I won't go into too many details. Hopefully, you've by now watched the video clip posted above, and you know everything you need to know on the subject.

I have many CAS (as Smith is often abbreviated) projects in the pipeline. Some of his writings are by now in the public domain, but I took the precaution some years ago to contact his stepson, head of the CAS estate, explaining my intentions and requesting permission to adapt his stepdad's work for my YouTube channel. He didn't have any problems with that, so off I went! "In the Ooze of Ubbo-Sathla" is the first of these projects I've managed to finish.

The main character is the wizard Zon Mezzamalech. For this role, I called upon my old buddy John Hankins who is looking more and more like a wizard for every passing year. You might recognize him as the doomed hero (sans beard) in the film "Feather of Owlbear." John has a green screen and a plethora of home-made fantasy outfits, so he could provide me with footage of Zon staring into the crystal orb of the story. He drew some shapes with blue paint on his face, which allowed me to remove the blue and add a digital effect of swirling lights onto his head, showing the being a wizard and staring into unwholesome objects might change you gradually.

Let's get to the backgrounds right away. They were all made in Photoshop using stock images downloaded from Depositphotos. This shot with John as Zon was made up of 12 elements pieced together in After Effects: The background, real candle flames, John, the flickering lights in his face (a stock CGI animation), the stone table, the orb, and the light shapes in the orb. John is in the USA and I'm in Sweden, but I could mail him instructions and he would mail me the filmed results.

This shot is another bit of trickery; it's a still image of John combined with a stock image och a guy in a wizard's robe. It's so short that using stills worked OK in this case.

The sonorous narration was performed by another American buddy, Fabian Rush. I helped out Fabian with a bit of stop-motion animation for his film "Forsaken: Rock Opera of Chaos", and he happily contributed his voice talents to my project. Fabian is in his own right a very interesting creator, a hard-rockin' musician and filmmaker, and, like me, a big fan of the work of H P Lovecraft and Ray Harryhausen. We plan to have more collaborations in the near future.

The city of Mu-Thulan, where Zon Mezzamalech has his tower of sorcery, was also created with layers of stock photos of various buildings. The people moving about in the shot were leftover takes from a production of "Aladdin" that I made with a group of special needs people some years ago. These takes were all shot in front of a green screen. Applying the 3D effect to each layer allowed me to do a fake pan through the city up to the tower.

There are other people in the film, but they're all either stock photos manipulated with the puppet tool in AE, or stock video. I experimented with transitions quite a bit in this project. I wanted to add organic transitions between the shots and achieved this look by applying shots of black ink dissolving in water and using the black and white contrast of those shots to create a matte effect in AE. That was a bit of a learning curve, but it garnered a very useful result in the end. I try to do something new with AE in every new project.

Now let's go on to the creatures. The text describes Zon Mezzamalech's descent into primeval brutehood in detail. One of the first stops in this downward spiral is a "man-beast." I wanted to make this puppet as something inspired by the often weird-looking ape suits of studio-era Hollywood. I took specific inspiration from the suits worn by ape performer Ray "Crash" Corrigan, which were bulky, very hairy, and with a peculiar-looking face.

The only part of this puppet I sculpted was the face, using medium-grade Monster Clay. Two metallic red pearls served as eyes.

The armature was simplicity itself. I didn't add any articulation to the face except for the jaw, which was in keeping with the rather unexpressive 1940's ape suits. The red pearls are stuck to the backside of the latex face using latex eye sockets. They can be animated by inserting a pin into the hole in each pearl and swiveling the eyeball around. As usual, I'm using aluminum wires and thermoplastic for my armatures.

The padding was also very simple, just a few layers of thin and soft polyurethane foam wrapped around the armature.

Real bulk was achieved with fluffy fake fur, a nightmare for any animator by the way, as you keep moving it around every time you touch the puppet. The teeth were made from toilet paper and latex and the exposed parts of the skin were dry brushed with tinted latex. I also did two hardly noticeable breasts with cotton and latex peering out from the fur, again in imitation of the Corrigan suits.

This puppet is quite big, around 16 inches tall. I placed the puppet for scale next to my main coon cat Ludwig, who's huge. Ludwig, by the way, had a fling with the cat variant of the Coronavirus in November. He's just recovered from his ordeal and his usually bright yellow eyes are still stained a bloodshot red in this photo.

The pterodactyl, a Pteranodon to be specific, was built for an as-of-yet unrealized project, a King Kong fan film that I helped out with during the planning stage. You can read all about the making of this puppet HERE.

The Ichthyosaurus was simply a 2D animated stock illustration. The animation was achieved by splitting up parts of the image in separate image files -the beak and the fins- so they could be animated separately and integrated with the body. The fleeing squid was a stock CGI animation.

Eventually, Zon Mezzamalech devolves into a "forgotten behemoth". I based this puppet on the Permian reptile Ophiacodon. Like with our man-beast, only the head was sculpted in clay. The upper part and the jaw were cast separately for easy mold-making.

Again, a very simple armature. The puppet wasn't required to do much more than walk around and bellow at the moon.

I did spend a bit of time doing a decent muscle build-up in foam. The sinewy parts on the legs were achieved using very thin foam soaked in latex and rolled into the desired shapes.

I used a subtle but bumpy skin texture for this creature. All the textures were pulled from the same texture mold. Additional bumps and warts were drops of latex applied with a pointy tool. The crest on the back was made from tissue paper dabbed with latex.

Teeth and claws were tissue paper and latex. The eyes were painted on and covered with Glossy Accents scrapbooking plastic.

On to the serpent people, which turned out t be the most popular part of my film. In fact, quite a few people have suggested I should make a film just about them. I split up the head pieces in two parts again, which always makes the mold-making bit much easier.

Again another simple armature. The jaw is provided with a single aluminum wire. I debated wether or not I should give the puppet a tail, but adding one made it much more snake-like, of course. I wrapped the neck and tail in thick, soft yarn soaked in latex instead of padding these parts with foam. This makes these parts wrinkle less like a rubber toy and more like the bodies of real snakes.

The job of the padding in this case was to make the body very sleek. I only added some muscle details on the arms and legs.

For the latex skin I used a texture mold I made years ago for some kind of dinosaur or dragon. It's a basic scaly pattern, which doesn't exactly imitate the overlapping scale pattern on snakes. I think it gets the look right when you look at the puppet from a distance. The belly was covered with a texture that was actually sculpted a while back to look like the belly skin of a snake.

The serpent man was painted with PAX paint (Prosaide glue and acrylic colors) using a sponge, with airbrushed details. To create the very small teeth I just added tiny drops of tinted latex onto the jaw with a pointy tool. The eyes were painted onto the latex with Warhammer model paints. The forked spear the puppet is holding here was made for one of my older films, "The King Who Sought Immortality."

For the serpent war shot I dressed up the puppet in leathery armor created from latex castings in molds made for various puppets. Since I only made one puppet (lazy!) I had to animate this single puppet a few times to portray a number of characters. The most complex animation had two serpent men sword fighting. I first dressed up the puppet in one type of armor and had it perform the choreographed movements with his sword. I then re-dressed the puppet in the other armor and animated the corresponding choreography. The timing of the puppets was achieved thanks to a function in the animation software Dragoframe, which allows the animator to upload a videofile that can be played one frame at a time as a transparent guide to the motion animated by the filmmaker and his puppet. Thus I could upload the previous bit of animation and time the impact of the swords striking together without any problems. These sword also came from 
"The King Who Sought Immortality" and were made from wooden spatulas ground down with a Dremel tool and decorated with Milliput epoxy. 

The short serpent war shot was another rather complex composition in AE, with 20-ish layers stacked on top of each other. 

Ubbo-Sathla itself was a digital animation created in AE, as was actually most of the environment around it.

I first made a textured layer using the displacement map tool in AE with other effects such as "Glass" and "Tint" added on top of that. What I got was a nasty-looking bubbling, fleshy stew. I rendered out 15 seconds of this.

That shot was then transformed by cutting out a mass of the texture with the rotoscope tool and then using the distortion grid tool to create an undulating animation. I rendered out a bunch of various animations against a transparent background, which allowed me to drop Ubbo-Sathla into any scene I wanted.

The spawn of Ubbo-Sathla were created pretty much the same way, except that I used still images of human veins added on top of a organic texture I made in Photoshop. The spawn shapes were again animated with the distortion grid tool.

And an even simpler version of this technique was used to create the sea of slime in which Ubbo-Sathla reposes. He's joined in the muck by the tablets of star-quarried stone carrying the forgotten wisdom Zon Mezzamalech covets.

These tablets were another simple Photoshop creation, using a font simulating a made-up alphabet to create the writing. I made this writing transparent and placed a digital animation of shiny shapes behind each tablet to make the writing seem truly alien.

CAS´ strange epic "Ubbo-Sathla" is an example of another concept I keep getting back to, the notion of "deep time" -that awe can be supplied by contemplating the sheer vastness of the number of years our planet has existed, how pathetic we and our civilization can appear in comparison to the life cycle of our world. Lovecraft was a master at this type of fiction, but another famous example is Olaf Stapledon's "The Last and the First Men."

I'll certainly return to the mid-boggling fantasy worlds of CAS -I already have a couple of new projects in the works- but I'll also tackle other authors of the so-called Lovecraft group. There's a lot of wonderful weirdness to be mined there, and much of it is in the public domain.

No comments: