Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Red Brain

It was suggested by a couple of my YouTube viewers that I should adapt Donald Wandrei's story "The Red Brain". It's an example of the "weird tale" that I really like; a proto sci-fi/horror story that mixes genres before any genres were really defined. The full title of the story is "The Red Brain -A Tale of Cosmic Horror", and that really sums up what this is.

Apparently, this story is a very early effort from Wandrei. It was written when he was just 16 and eventually published in the seminal magazine Weird Tales in 1927. He became one of H P Lovecraft's friends and went on to co-found the publishing company Arkham House, which was dedicated to Lovecraftian fiction.

"The Red Brain" seems to have been a favorite among the readers. It was reprinted twice in Weird Tales, and most probably published in one of the sci-fi pulps down the line. I believe the above illustration is from one of these reprints. Looking at it, you can see that the alien brains of the story are portrayed with big bulging eyes. They look kind of funny, to be honest. In the actual text, they're only described as giant brains supplied with a kind of snail's foot underneath, a versatile appendix that can transform into anything they need; a hand, a foot, or a tentacle. I went with a cluster of tentacles in constant flux (a digital stock animation), a writhing mass of biological matter, ready to spring into action.

It has been pointed out to me that the story is basically a pastiche of Edgar Allan Poe's tale "The Masque of the Red Death"; a group of individuals takes refuge in a sanctuary to escape a horrible doom, only to find out that they have actually locked themselves in with their doom. I've never read any analysis of "The Red Brain", but I guess that Lovecraft, being a Poe devotee, had a nice chuckle when he read Wandrei's story. 

So, let's start with talking about the making of the brains. My aim was always that I'd have a bunch of brains that each had different swirly patterns, so the viewers could all see that I hadn't just used one brain model, duplicated many times in editing. I started with sculpting a brain in medium-grade Monster Clay.

Over the sculpture, I built up a silicone mold using DragonSkin FX silicone. My idea was to cast the brains in plastic.

I cast one brain in tinted Rhino plastic, and it turned out very well. BUT I realized that making at least three brains this way would cost a bit more, involving expensive materials, than I wanted to spend. When you come to such a point in your creative work, it's time to explore your cleverness and come up with a cheaper solution, because there is always one.

So I began anew by making a basic brain-like clay shape and covered it with cotton dipped in latex.

When the latex / cotton skin had dried I cut it open along the bottom. The process was then repeated a couple of times more.

The wrinkles on the brain surface were made with slim foam rubber shapes. I used very thin sheets of polyurethane foam soaked in latex and allowed to dry. I buy these sheets in packages of many hundred from a medical goods supplier. When the latex had dried I rolled up each sheet into thin sausage shapes.

As you can see, they're extremely flexible and very easy to bend into any shape.

Each foam sausage was twisted into the swirling patterns of the wrinkled brain surface. Liquid latex was used as an adhesive.

This will become the actual Red Brain, and if you look at it you can hopefully see that the brain pattern is smaller than on the brain in the previous photo. I made the Red Brain bigger to differentiate it from the regular brains.

I made three regular brains. I used hot glue to coat the inside of each brain through the slit in the underside to make them sturdier. Tinted latex was sponged onto each brain in two layers, first a dark purple, and then a lighter flesh tone.

All brains were supplied with a rod wrapped in yarn and painted with green screen paint. The Red Brain also had a few inflexible tentacles made from cotton dipped in latex. I used both photos of the brains as well as a few video shots, where they turn or move about slightly.

The writhing mass under each brain was, as I've mentioned, a CGI animation downloaded from With a bit of tweaking in AE it became a very weird-looking organic texture. I placed it in a layer behind each brain.

We briefly follow the evolution of life on the brain planet and start with a very primitive creature, a worm of some kind. I built this puppet using latex cast from older plaster molds draped over a bit of aluminum wire wrapped in soft yarn and provided with t-nuts as tie-down points at each end. It was built in an afternoon.

The rest of the planet's primitive life was summed up with an alien sort of dinosaur, a reptilian behemoth.

Most of this puppet was covered by latex skins cast in older plaster molds, but I did make an original sculpt of the head and the jaw in Monster Clay.

I built this puppet pretty big, probably bigger than it had to be, but I wanted to include a lot of details in its skin, and a larger size will allow for that, of course. Here's how the armature turned out. 

The yellow foam seen here is very soft and allows for easy movement of the joints, despite being laid on pretty thickly. 

The plates on its back were made from cotton dipped in latex. Apart from that, as I mentioned earlier, the foam was covered by patches of latex skins cast in older plaster molds. A lot of what I sculpt in that regard can be re-used. A base color was sponged on using tinted latex and thinner layers of various colors were then dry brushed on to give a sense of organic depth to the hue of the skin.

Teeth and claws were tissue paper dipped in latex. The eyes were just painted onto the latex head cast.

Eventually, life on this planet takes on an advanced form, quite human-like, which not surprisingly results in a devastating war.

I actually only made a clay sculpture representing these advanced creatures. I added hair and colors in Photoshop and used the puppet tool to animate the Photoshopped images to raise their heads slightly.

Eventually, and after the war, the inhabitants grew big brains and smaller bodies. I decided to place them in a world with such advanced architecture that up and down is lost as concepts.

I sculpted this bust and cast a latex copy from it from a plaster mold.

The body was a very quick and simple build-up, using a weird skin texture mold to create the black latex skin, representing a one-piece suit. I plucked a metal wire support stand from a broken hot glue gun and used that to create a simple handle for the vessels the inhabitants use to get around their strange cities. The stand was actually stuck to the green screen animation stage, so I could add a digital image under the feet of the puppet. The actual floating platform was cut from a digital stock image of a futuristic city. As I recall it, this thing was originally the top of a tower. I modified it slightly in Photoshop to meet my needs and added it in a layer behind the puppet and the glue gun stand in AE. I animated this puppet twice, so it could represent two citizens passing each other. But when editing it all together I felt that I had made the heads too small. Since the bodiless brains were their next stage of evolution I figured their heads at this point should be a bit bigger, so I made the heads bigger in After Effects.

I actually forgot about another prehistoric creature, what I call the ur-Antarean, a sort of extraterrestrial Neanderthal. I simply re-used an older puppet, a creature from my film "Imps." All I had to do was straighten out the puppet, which was bent around itself, walking in an awkward posture in "Imps", and give it a bit of loincloth and a spear. I also animated it with a small, but bright light close to the puppet to get that campfire effect.

I'd say that half of the film is held together by the visuals, which are all a mix of digital stock footage and stock footage still images. Parts of those are manipulated in Photoshop to meet my needs, and the combining of several layers in After Effects joins everything together. The actual cosmic dust cloud was found on I think it's some kind of paint or chemical blended in some liquid to produce this very dreamlike look.

When the dust swallows various worlds, comets and suns I again combined the dust footage with other bits of mostly CG stock footage. Over everything, I added a filter in an adjustment layer to achieve a special weird look and tone.

You briefly see a planet disintegrate as the dust swallows it. The effect was done with a photo of (I think) Ganymede falling to pieces using various particle effects in AE. It was basically the same trick used in the Marvel movies when people turn to ashes after Thanos snaps his fingers. I couldn't quite get a grip on how to replicate the effect in AE, but it worked out well enough for this brief shot.

All in all, my subscription to presented me with a smorgasbord of digital stock images, especially various fractal art, that could be turned into complex and mind-boggling structures for the brain civilization. 

We get to see that the brains try to genetically perfect a super brain with which to tackle the threat of the cosmic dust. It doesn't go well to begin with, as the results are monstrous. To create a monster brain mutant, I re-used an animation of the Ubbo-Sathla ooze created for a previous film about Clark Ashton Smith's primeval slime and added a few writhing tentacles; old animations from earlier projects.

The red superbrain they eventually create makes short work of his inferior masters. When the brains explode I only used still images, manipulated with a distortion tool in AE plus the digital effect of an exploding ball of paint added on top. The combination worked well enough to make the intended effect work, I think.

The ever-reliable John Hutch provided the narration. His idea was to make the master brain sound a bit like Churchill and the Red Brain a bit like Hannibal Lecter, which I think were both very effective choices. It took him a while to finish his recording since his neighbors kept having very vocal arguments next door every night. This film marks my first collaboration with Italian paleontologist and musician Marco Zanelli, who provided the evocative electronic score. You'll be hearing more from both him and John in some of my upcoming projects.

"The Red Brain" is yet another example of a pulp-era story that has now slipped into public domain status. I've seen it pop up as an audiobook in a few podcasts and YouTube videos, which is nice since the story is finding a new audience so many years after it was originally published.