Saturday, June 22, 2024

Grootslang vs Piasa!

Last month I wrote about "Scrap Metal" on my blog, which had animation footage originally made for James Balsamo's film "Alien Danger 2". The project in question this time is my animation created for Balsamo's movie "It Wants Blood" (2019), where a monster representing national interests, the Native American folklore creature the Piasa, battles a monster representing foreign interests, the African Grootslang.

There are many strange sights in "It Wants Blood", among them Oscar-nominated actor Eric Roberts (brother of Julia), who's had an interesting career during the last decade, to say the least. His aim seems to be to blow up the IMDb credits list since he makes about a hundred movies a year.

Besides my puppet representations of the monsters, there are also full-scale heads popping into the happenings every once in a while.

These very fetching creations were made by make-up expert Joe Castro, who built them in what seems an impossibly short time and also impossibly cheap.

As for my contributions, I actually made a behind-the-scenes video about building the Grootslang monster, so please have a gander at that. I didn't film any documentation on the making of the Piasa, so here follows a written account of that.

This is what the Piasa looks like painted on one of the limestone bluffs along the Mississippi River in Alton. There's always been a debate about whether the story of the Piasa is actually from Native folklore, or a construction made by the first teller of it, Professor John Russel. Look it up, if this sounds interesting. Anyway, the image painted on the limestone rock became my template for the Piasa puppet.

As you can see, the Piasa has a human-like face. I sculpted two versions, but wasn't happy with either of them, mainly because I made them too large. The body size that would've followed would've been impractical to animate on my smallish puppet stage.

This is the face I eventually ended up with. It was the right size but also had a decent amount of detailing.

The face was reproduced as a latex skin from a dental plaster mold created over the sculpture.

The wings were constructed from two mm aluminum wires, joined together with a mix of super glue and baking soda.

To build up anatomical shapes on the wings, I wrapped soft yarn over the aluminum wires.

I've shared my wing-making method many times before, but the main crux of it is to embed the wing armature, covered with yarn and latex, about halfway down into soft plaster. When the plaster has set, I can etch various details such as veins into the plaster, and then cover the areas between the "fingers" of the wing to create wing membranes. The whole wing is then simply pulled out of its plaster matrix.

The tail was built up with lots of yarn over a 3 mm aluminum wire. A thin layer of latex holds it all together.

The armature is a mix of 2 and 3-mm aluminum wires, padded with bits of EVA foam and yarn. The face has been given an aluminum wire-jointed jaw, plus eyes made with plastic pearls placed in silicone sockets so they can swivel. The face is reinforced with thermoplastic, which also holds the jaw and eyes in place. The horns were made from thin steel wires covered with cotton and latex.

Snippets of foam from old cushions served as muscle padding. They're held in place with flexible contact cement.

Right before the base of the tail, I added a 3 mm t-nut so I could attach a flying rig to the puppet. I needed to do this for the flying and jumping shots.

The scales covering the body of the Piasa, as per the limestone illustration, are quite stylized and ornate, sort of heraldic in a way, and I decided to keep them that way. I sculpted three rows of different sizes on a flat slab of clay.

A hard dental plaster mold was made over the sculpture, and tinted latex was pointed into the mold.

Here's what the rows of scales looked like when they were pulled from the mold.

Using liquid latex as a glue, the rows of scales were layered from front to back, overlapping each other.

The Piasa also has a row of smaller fin-like shapes along its neck. These were created the way the wing membranes were made, but using soft clay instead of plaster.

Here's the finished covering of the scales. Now for the paint job. You can see a tongue here as well. It's a piece of aluminum wire wrapped in sewing string and covered with tinted latex.

The Piasa was painted with tinted latex and touched up with acrylic airbrush paints. I mixed some thinned metallic paint into latex and brushed that over the scales with a sponge to create a more shining, glittering effect.

The tusks and claws are cotton and latex, and the beard was cut from an old synthetic fur coat. The Piasa and the Grootslang were two of the biggest puppets I had built up to that point, and they proved to be a bit of a bother when animating them on my cramped puppet stage. But, in the end, it all worked out. All the animations took about two weeks to finish.

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