Friday, November 17, 2023

Snail Wizard

For the longest time I've been focusing on adapting other people's texts for my YouTube projects, and it's been a lot of fun. But I do come up with my own ideas every once in a while. I haven't had the best track record with my self-scripted projects -usually, they don't get as much interest as my adaptations. But, for some reason that's started to change. Here's one example, "Snail Wizard."

I actually started building the head of the Snail Wizard character for another project. He was going to be an alien slug on a distant planet; a film project concocted for my special needs people film group. In the end, that slug puppet went in another direction, but I had already sculpted the head and cast the rubber version from a plaster mold created around it. Eventually, while working in my puppet shop and sort of seeing the rubber snail head in the corner of my eye, the character of Snail Wizard grew into being. Then, of course, he needed a nemesis, and Bug Wizard was logically conceived. 

this is the original sculpture for the space slug, conceived in medium-grade Monster Clay. As you can hopefully see, the inside of the mouth has many rows of small holes. Sharp teeth would've filled these tiny cavities. In the end, I filled the holes in the final casting with drops of latex and went with a more human mouth, which possibly looked more unnerving.

The mold for this sculpture was made from Vel Mix Stone, a pink dental plaster that is very dense and very hard.

The next thing I did was sculpt the shell for the Snail Wizard. I went with the shell of an ordinary garden snail as an inspiration but turned the placement and direction of the whirl and made it a mirror image of how actual snail shells look. I made this choice so the audience could see most of the details of the shell during my animations, as the puppet would mostly be seen from the right side (from the viewer's perspective.)

A mold made from hobby plaster, cheaper than dental plaster, was made over the shell sculpture. Tinted latex was poured into the mold to build up a rubber skin. A mix of latex and cotton was then added to the latex skin to make the rubber casting more durable. When the rubber shell had been pulled from the mold I also mixed and added Burro plastic resin and poured a batch of that into the rubber shell, which was thus made extremely sturdy. I could've made a silicone mold over the shell sculpture and cast the thing in plastic directly, but silicone isn't cheap, so by doing it this way I got a great result for a fraction of that cost. You can see that a part of a marker pen has been stuck into the plastic, with an aluminum wire exiting its other end. This is so the shell can be attached to the rest of the armature and also moved about slightly during the animation.

Here's the head, the arms, and the shell attached to the very simple armature made from a single 4 mm aluminum wire. The white blob in the middle of that wire has a 4 mm t-nut attached to it to create a tie-down point. The eyes are made from acrylic domes with Photoshop print-outs attached to the underside using transparent glue. The jaw has a single 3 mm aluminum wire running through it, making it very malleable. The arms are padded with wrappings of soft yarn dabbed with tinted latex.

Soft polyurethane foam was used to pad the body into a sleek, organic shape. Flexible contact cement holds to foam together.

I used two older plaster texture molds to cast thin patches of latex skin to cover the foam padding. Liquid latex was dabbed onto the foam with a sponge to attach the skin bits.

The finished puppet was painted with tinted latex, dry-brushing on thin layers with different hues using more foam bits as sponges. Final touches were made with an airbrush and acrylic paint. The teeth and the wrinkles around the eyes were made with cotton dipped in latex. The jewelry was made with bits of odds and ends I've saved over the years attached to aluminum wires, so pieces of it could be animated if need be.

Bug Wizard was, in contrast to his colleague, an original sculpture. I wanted a scrawny character with big eyes and several legs. I guess Bug Wizard is a mix of several insects and arthropods. As you can see, his face was a very simple sculpture.

I cast his face in tinted latex with a latex/cotton mix to make it stiff. It didn't need any flexibility, and would instead work better as a sturdy piece. The inside of the casting was also lined with Polymorph thermoplastic. 1,5 mm aluminum wires were attached to the inside of the face to provide antennae and mandibles. The mandibles were built up using cotton and latex. Two big plastic balls, plucked from a toy necklace, were painted to make the eyes. A coating of UV resin was added over the eye art to seal it and make it look organic.

I've jumped ahead a bit here, having made the two halves of the puppet. The main armature section is a 4 mm aluminum wire running through the back part with the legs. Each leg has a 3 mm threaded bolt in its feet. All of the exoskeleton structures seen on the arms and legs were built of with cotton, tissue paper, and latex. the claws were tissue paper and latex.

The segmented back and belly sections, as well as the carapace torso, were cast from older plaster molds made for other puppets probably more than ten years ago. The top of the 4 mm armature wire was attached to the torso using a big blob of thermoplastic. The antennae were built up using a wrapping of sewing string and latex. I added a few bits of cotton and latex around the left eye to give the character a permanent scowl.

Each eye has a pupil made from a shiny red half-sphere used in scrapbooking. It was super-glued on and could be used as a grab-on point when swiveling around the eyes during animation. 

Bug Wizard was painted by dry-brushing on tinted latex with sponges. All the bling he's wearing was made from bits of latex, again cast in older plaster molds made for older puppets, combined with aluminum wires and some bits of brass. Most of it can be, and was, animated. It therefore took longer than usual to animate this character, but I think it was worth it in the end, making Bug Wizard a very lively character compared to his sluggish counterpart.

As the two wizards get on with their conflict they both summon two demons to do the fighting for them. One of the puppets was already built for another project, and I'll get to that one shortly, but let's start with the puppet built especially for this film, the pig demon. I wanted the pig parts to look anatomically convincing, though some cartoony details slipped into my clay sculpture.

The whole face, or front of the head was cast as a single piece.

Here's the face cast in tinted latex, with a horn made from tissue paper and latex. I made eyes from plastic pearls, with Photoshopped irises, covered with UV resin to create a lens effect. A single 4 mm aluminum wire has been attached to the head and padded with a wrapping of soft foam. 3 mm aluminum wires run along the edge of each ear and also at the end of the snout. In the last photo, I've added a wrap of thread to shape the neck a bit and give it a few fatty folds. 

Another attempt at realism in this strange chimera-like creature is the feet. I looked at photos of pig's feet and made the best, small clay versions I could. These were reproduced in latex via single-piece plaster molds.

Another original sculpted piece was this flat skin texture, inspired by the skin of an alligator turtle.

The feet were cast as hollow latex skins, with the cloven hooves supported with a latex/ cotton mix. 

I should say that the gig's feet are actually the "hands" or front paws of the character. The hind legs are adorned with turtle feet built up with aluminum wires wrapped with soft string and dabbed with tinted latex. Textured patches of latex skins and claws made from cotton and latex finish the look.

The front feet or arms were built up with 4 mm aluminum wires padded with bits of stiff camping foam seats and soft foam covering the joint sections. the stiff foam adds shape and bulk without adding weight and actually makes the joints work better. You get a couple of arms without a skin that wrinkles and folds up like it would on an obvious miniature construction. Very thin foam was wrapped around the thicker foam to smooth out the shapes and make them softer and chubby-looking. Thermoplastic in the bottom of the latex hooves attaches them to the aluminum wire.

The entire back part of the puppet was inspired by, nay, copied from an alligator turtle. Its shell is ornately spikey, and its hide is prehistorically bumpy and scaly. The shell became a pretty big sculpture that took a couple of evenings to finish. I made an equally huge plaster mold using the cheaper hobby plaster.

The first couple of layers made with tinted latex were reinforced with a latex/cotton mix. When this relatively sturdy latex skin was pulled from the mold it was reinforced fother with a layer of Burro plastic, like Snail Wizard's shell.

The belly section was made the exact same way. This piece was smaller than the shell, however.

Remember the back legs with their turtle feet? Here they are pre-padding with soft foam. The white sections are stiff packing foam. Each leg has a 4 mm aluminum wire, which seems feeble to carry such a big puppet, but most of this puppet will actually be hollow and much lighter than you'd think. 4 mm threaded t-nuts are embedded in the feet using super glue and baking soda to attach them to the armature wires.

Soft polyurethane foam was wrapped around the legs to build up bulky but soft shapes. I didn't build up sections of intricate foam muscles, like I usually do, because that's not how the legs on the alligator turtle look.

Here, the various sections of the puppet have finally come together. A tail has been added to the back leg section.

I've added a folded 4 mm aluminum wire to the shell, embedding it in the plastic reinforcement so I can attach the shell to the middle section spine armature wire. 

The belly part has been reinforced with more sturdy packing foam (white and black.) Again, these sections look big and bulky, but weigh close to nothing.

All of the puppet is here assembled. The middle section is hollow, basically, just a void of air, which (as I said) will reduce the weight of the puppet dramatically. The belly part was attached to the shell with hot melt glue.

The empty spaces between the mid-section parts were covered up with castings of the knobbly skin sculpted for the legs-

The finished puppet was painted with a mixture of tinted latex and acrylic airbrush paints. I added droplets of tinted latex to the transitioning areas between pig and turtle to create green scales. This is a pretty big puppet, about 16 inches from snout to tail.

Pig Demon's antagonist was originally made for a different project; the film "It Wants Blood 2" by James Balsamo. Here, kaiju-sized, it battles another giant monster, which is a mutated version of the rapper Coolio, if you can believe that. I thought the design of the puppet was fun and deserved another go-around. It would make a cool animalistic demon.

The final puppet is covered with tiny round bumps to imitate the look of a real chameleon, but the head wasn't sculpted this way. The head of a real chameleon is actually quite skull-like, so I did a very simple clay sculpture replicating the basic shapes, with protrusions and hollows. The top of the head as well as the jaw were made this way.

Here's how the latex castings turned out. they're reinforced with a cotton/latex mix.

The three big horns were cast in Burro plastic from a silicone mold originally created for another puppet or prop project (I honestly can't remember what it was made for.) To achieve an authentic look for the horns, I wrapped macrame yarn around the plastic horns and attached them to the head with thermoplastic. 3mm aluminum wires join the jaw with the head, and a rolled-up piece of soft foam creates the corner of the mouth.

The insides of the head and jaw were lined with thermoplastic, and a 4 mm aluminum wire was inserted into the head to create a neck. At the bottom of the jaw, you can see a shiny bit of plastic. That's the cap of a marker pen, into which the tip of that pen, now attached to a long tongue, will be attached for certain shots. the head and jaw have now been covered with patches of bumpy latex skin cast in a plaster skin mold. That mold was also used to create skin for the rest of the puppet. Adding skin textures this way creates a sleeker, better detailed head, than I'd been able to produce as a clay sculpture. A mold for such a sculpture would also have been tricky to make without a bunch of air pockets and other problems. The eye is a wooden ball, also covered with latex textures. It's attached to the eye socket with a piece of yarn but can be moved around without having it fall out.

Hey; here's my old wing-making trick again, making bat wings using an aluminum and latex wing structure submerged in cheap hobby plaster.

Here's the finished armature, sans wings. Just above the tail, you can see a white protrusion. That's an attachment point for my flying rig, which will allow me to lift and throw around the puppet frame-by-frame during animation.

And here's the armature with the wings added. The latex skin on the base of the wings isn't attached to anything yet but will be embedded in sections of foam.

Here's the foam padding for the puppet. Again, it's pretty simple, because chameleons don't have defined muscle tones apart from the muscular tail, which in this case is built up by a wrapping of yarn soaked in latex.

The body is covered with patches of latex skin that came out of the same texture mold used for the head. 

Here's how the puppet looked as it was finished for "It Wants Blood 2." All of it was painted with tinted latex using a sponge.

The tongue is a single 3 mm aluminum wire wrapped in yarn and dabbed with latex. As explained earlier, it's attached to the tip of a marker pen, which then snaps into the plastic cap at the bottom of the jaw. The tongue was only attached for shots when it came out.

The teeth and claws were made from cotton and latex, and touched up with my airbrush.

For "Snail Wizard" I glued on tiny plastic gemstones here and there, as a tribute to the glorious dragon seen in "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm," built by Wah Chang and animated by Jim Danforth. 

These two puppets being the sizes they are caused a slight headache for me because they quickly filled up my small animation stage. I've had that problem a few times since then, so I really should update the stage and make it bigger.

The magic energy effects in the film were all stock digital animations tweaked slightly by me in After Effects. The sigils conjured by the wizards to bring forth the demons are two stock illustrations that, as far as I know, have no counterpart in traditional magic. They just look good. The original illustrations are black and white, but I colored them in Photoshop and added a glow to them. They were then animated using the 3D tool in AE.

Here's an example of stock CG effects overlaid on the tongue of the chameleon demon. The pig demon is lit up using the puppet's body as a matte.

The fight between the demons was inspired by the lumbering style of traditional American wrestling by the likes of King Kong Bundy and similar hulking artisans of that tradition. As per usual, I added motion blur via the "Timewarp" tool in AE.

All the backgrounds were purchased as a bundle from the ArtStation website. I'm guessing AI had a hand in the making of them, but the look is perfect for my films. They're not quite real, but not too stylized either. I'll be using more AI-rendered backgrounds in future animations. I'm not much for AI-generated content, especially not when complete works of art, literature, or music are produced using it, but snippets here and there I'll readily forgive. It can be a useful complementing tool.

I posted the finished "Snail Wizard" in May, and something strange happened, something that hasn't occurred before or since: The YouTube algorithm snapped up the video and spread it all over the platform. In just three weeks I amassed over 50 000 views and added 3000 new subscribers to my channel, plus a couple new supporters on Patreon. Since then another 7000 views have dropped in. I have no idea how the YouTube algorithm works or why it picked my video that month, but it was a fun experience seeing comments from befuddled viewers who had no idea of who I was and what my content was about.

Quite a few viewers suggested that Snail Wizard should make a comeback, despite being squashed at the end, and I do have plans for both him and his arch-enemy. Let's see what happens next year.