Saturday, July 29, 2023

Strange Waters

I had the notion to do a Lovecraftian weird tale in the style of a diary or log book and considered writing my own text instead of finding one readily available. This is what I came up with. I think it's filled with enough cliches to feel comfortably familiar. I decided to dispense with any actors, just showing a lonely ship on an ocean that was getting weirder and weirder.

One inspiration for this project was, of course, the horror-filled nautical tales of William Hope Hodgson, but also the rambunctious songs of Swedish singer-songwriter Evert Taube (seen in his element in the photo above). Some of his songs are very long and tell of nautical adventures, some of which he himself took part in. These songs go into great detail, naming the ship, describing the cargo and the destination, and painting colorful pictures of the crew.

I found a few images online showing model ships built for museums, picked one image, and then spent a couple of evenings removing the background in Photoshop. I probably could've made things easier for me, and only included the absolutely necessary details for a ship shown in the distance, but I wanted to be sure that nothing was missing. I added an animated flag waving in the wind atop one of the masts in a couple of shots, as well as engine steam.

The sea in all the shots is stock footage clips, either showing real oceans or CG versions of water. The sky is represented by photos of normal skies, which are then supplanted by stock footage of time-lapse skies, as well as shots of ink and glitter being pumped into a water tank. 

When the ship eventually crosses into a different dimension it's escorted by strange creatures floating in the ethereal sea of space. I only made one puppet and animated it moving about. This beastie was built from scratch, and by that, I mean not sculpting anything in clay, but only relying on building up the shapes using materials like latex, cotton, and EVA foam. It’s a fairly quick procedure and very cost-effective. I’m starting with making the eyes, and I wanted big watery eyes for this creature. Instead of resorting to buying glass or acrylic taxidermy eyes, I’m making these using acrylic domes bought in a Scrapbooking shop, and Photoshopped eyes printed out on ordinary printing paper. I’m using transparent scrapbooking plastic to glue down the dome over the eye art, creating a lens effect that looks kind of neat. 

For smaller eyes, because this monster will have a bunch of them, I’m adding drops of UV resin over the art and then blasting the plastic with a small UV light. I can then simply cut out each eye from the paper with small, sharp scissors. 

The body of this puppet is this leftover plastic casting made from a silicone mold created over an old perfume bottle. This was what I had handy, but I could’ve used an old pill jar or a bit of scrap wood. I made holes in the plastic and attached screws to create points where aluminum wires for tentacles will be placed. If I just attached the wires with glue or thermoplastic to the body, they might come loose, but when they’re hooked up to the screws they’ll stay put. 

This little wooden ball will become the head and this single 3 mm aluminum wire will be the neck. To attach the wire to the ball I’m using a few drops of super glue, and then I’m spreading some baking soda over the glue, thus creating a new solid material which helps bond the wire to the wood very effectively. I’m also making a hole on the side of the model to attach a t-nut. This nut will work as an attachment point to my flying rig. This nut is also held in place with the super glue/baking soda combo. To attach the aluminum armature wires to the screws I’m using melted thermoplastic. I melt portions of it with a heat gun and being careful I can then handle the material with my fingers, taking care to move the plastic blob around a bit, so I won't get burned. This creature has three tails or three tentacles growing out from its behind, and I’m making them out of 1,5 mm aluminum wires, covered with soft string and then dabbed with latex. You’ve most likely seen this procedure before. It’s one of my golden oldies. 

I wanted something like a strange beak growing out of the monster’s head and for this, I’m using dense EVA foam. Ordinarily, I would’ve made this as a sculpture in clay, then making a plaster mold around it, and then cast a latex duplicate into the mold. But building it up like this saves time, as well as allowing happy accidents to happen. 

To add texture as well as to cover up parts of the puppet I'm applying cotton dabbed with tinted latex. Using pointy tools I can create wrinkles and other textures in the material. This method works well for rigid parts of the puppet that won't have to stretch or bend.

Most of the puppet is then covered with patches of wrinkly latex skin cast from skin molds. This skin is very flexible and will work well for the bendy areas on the puppet.

To create extra details I'm adding drops of latex on top of the skin, creating small bumps.

Cotton and latex are also used to build up folds of skin around the eyes, which have been applied using contact cement.

Finally, the whole puppet is painted a dark red using tinted latex and a sponge. When that layer has dried (with the help of a heat gun) I dry-brush on a grey/blue color to offset the deep red, which will still be seen adding shadows to wrinkles and folds.

The finished puppet was animated and held aloft on my flying rig jointed arm. You only see the creature from one side, but I finished both sides with equal effort.

I read the narration myself, as I usually do. I don't consider myself especially gifted at that, but hiring people to do the voice work is getting increasingly expensive. 

This film was a fun little experiment. I might do similar projects in the future if I can come up with narratives that fit this form of storytelling.