Turning Heads

It's been a long time coming getting to this part of the film. When I first started animating I knew that if I ever got to the point in the production where I needed to create the little guy above I would almost be finished. Well it's gotten to that point and I can start to see a dim light at the end of a long tunnel... it's kind of nice. 


Anyways the second photo above contains some preliminary character sketches that I made before I began sculpting the head, the final version of which you can see in the first picture. I find it helpful to first sketch my ideas out before carrying it into the 3-dimensional medium of clay. Even if it's not final It helps remind me of what my original intent was for the character I'm creating. That way if I start to stray away from it while sculpting the drawings will always be there to keep me on track. Though sculpture definitely has a lot to offer in terms of designing a character. There may have been something you overlooked in your 2-dimensional drawing that has to be addressed in 3d that ultimately might end up strengthening the design. There's also a lot of little happy mistakes that contribute along the way as well.

Now I'm off to cast a mold for this fella's head since I'm planning on creating a foam latex version of it for animating.



Painting Foam Latex Puppets (PAX Paints)

Vincent T├ętreault, who's amazing stop-motion work and wonderfully helpful blog can be found here:
vincetetreaultstopmotion.blogspot.com, recently asked me what kind of paints I use for my foam latex puppets. The short answer is that I use PAX paints which stands for a Pros-Aide/Acrylic Mix. If your wondering what  Pros-Aide is, where to find it and why you should even bother using this method in the first place then the longer answer might be a little more helpful.

Pros-Aide is a non-toxic prosthetic adhesive commonly used in special effects makeup. Here's an example of it put to practice as I used it to attach cardboard bolts onto my neck this past Halloween.

Much like skin your foam latex puppet will be moving and flexing while it's being animated and the problem with just using just any old paint is that it will eventually begin to crack and flake off as the puppet is put to use which, needless to say, will look pretty awful when played back frame by frame. Mixing Pros-Aide with acrylic paints alleviates this problem because it remains sticky and bendable after it has "dried." So sticky in fact that it will want to stick to everything including itself, which is why it's such a good adhesive. I talk more about this later.

First off you'll need all the materials pictured above: Cornstarch, makeup wedges and a small makeup brush which can all be easily purchased at any supermarket/drugstore. Acrylic paints which can be found at any local arts and craft store like Michael's. And Pros-Aide which can be ordered here:  Frends Beauty Supply.

1. Pour an equal amount of Pros-Aide and Acrylic Paint, 50/50 should be the ratio.

2. Mix thoroughly.

3. You'll know it's fully mixed when you no longer can see the Pros-Aide. Another wonderfully thing about the Pros-Aide is that it won't add any pigment to your paint.

4. Grab a makeup wedge and begin painting your puppet with the new mix. Applying paint with a makeup wedge allows you to get a softer looking coverage as opposed to sloppy looking paint lines when applying with a brush, though smaller details may be handled with a brush.

5. Once you finished painting let your puppet fully dry before moving on to this step. Because of Pros-Aide's tacky nature it has a tendency to stick to itself and when this happens it can tear the paint off of the puppet when attempting to pull it apart. To prevent this grab the makeup brush and dust the puppet generously with cornstarch.  

6. The cornstarch will change the color of the paint when it is first applied, but after handling it for a little bit and making sure that all of the excess cornstarch is off it should look close to how it was before the only difference being that it will now have a slight matte finish. The puppet can now be handled without fear that the paint will stick to itself or to your fingers.

For even more information and a great article about PAX paints you can go to StopMotionMagazine.com and download their October 2009 issue for free. For more information about where to get Pros-Aide you can go to: Pros-Aide.com 



I Want to be Buried in a Puppet Cemetery...

So after five years of production the photo above shows the body count for how many Hollow Boys were harmed during the making of the film. Broken armature wire were the leading causes of death for most of these puppets. Thanks to the wonders of the mold making process I don't have to sculpt a brand new body each time one of these little fellas decides to croak.


-Count Fonzula


Stepping into the Light

I'd like to talk a little bit about some of the lighting techniques I've been using for the film, more specifically the equipment. When I first started down the path of stop-motion I really couldn't find too many resources online that spoke specifically about lighting for miniature sets and characters or that dealt with what sort of lighting equipment to use, so hopefully some of this information will be helpful to you. With that being said I am not a professional cinematographer and though I have consulted with a few cinematographers regarding various techniques, most of the things I share here are from my own experiences in making the film meaning it might or might not work for everyone depending on their specific situations. But it has produced results that I am very happy with and is definitely open to being adapted for you own projects.  

Below is a video explaining more in depth the kind equipment I use and how I use it.

Here's an example of the equipment put into practice.

1) Here is the primary light source covered with a full CTB (Color Temperature Blue) gel and some of the packaging foam diffusion held onto the light with clothespins.

2) This is a circular cutout spray painted black (see reverse view in red) with a piece of the screen door material over the opening to bring down the light.  The idea was to give the light a vignette effect while at the same time mimicking the appearance of moonlight shining through a circular window.

3) A small piece of white poster board (reverse view in red) used to bounce light on the left side of the Hollow Boy's body.

The wooden dowels that you see in front of the Hollow Boy were placed to mimic the circular window's steel bars casting a shadow over set.

Here is what the final frame looks like:

So as you can see you can get some pretty good results using some fairly inexpensive equipment. I've even heard of people using fabric softener sheets to diffuse their lights! So there are definitely a lot of creative possibilities within the realm of household items.



Cry Me a River...of Hair Gel and Epoxy

So I've come to the a point in the story where the Hollow Boy needs to shed a few tears. Water naturally doesn't lend itself to being easily handled or animated convincingly in the stop-motion process. So I had to figure out what type of material or combination of materials would look realistic enough to create the illusion of liquid, be easily animatable and stay consistent throughout the frame by frame animation.

I did a fair amount of research both online, stopmotionanimation.com is an excellent resource, as well as going frame by frame through various stop-motion films to see which techniques they used. I noticed that many of the films tended to use tear shapes that were made from a clear, hardened material. The effect that I specifically had in mind for the Hollow Boy's tears was a combination of utilizing these same solid tear shapes while still maintaining the "wet" look for natural tear tracks and puddles. These were the two materials I ended up using for the creation of that effect:

For the actual tears I used the stuff the on the left. It's a 5 minute epoxy which can be found at most general hardware stores that when mixed and dried will hold it's shape and look very much like liquid. For the tear tracks and puddle effect I use a watered down hair gel. I found this sample pack in my medicine cabinet but any non-colored gel will do, the less viscus it is the better since it will be easier to animate.   

You'll also need some thin wire to prop the tear shapes up once they've dried, (24 gauge), and a piece of wax paper to shape the tear and splash shapes on so that they can be easily removed.

Here's a bunch of different splash shapes I experimented with. Try to keep in mind that these shapes have to work in a sequence so allow that to inform you on what kind of shapes you'll need to make.

Once the shapes are completely dry carefully peel them off and glue a small piece of wire to the back with a hot glue gun.

Here's one of the sequence of shapes I used. It's good to make multiple splash sequences if you plan on having more than one splash, it gives the effect more of a natural and less symmetrical look than if you just kept cycling the same animation. It's also helpful to run a test on the different shapes you've made to see which ones look the most convincing.

For the first part of animation above I basically animated a drop of hair gel on the Hollow Boy's hand with a very thin straw. I just blew the drop further down his hand frame by frame until it reached the bottom where I then used a hardened epoxy tear to drip and fall off of his hand. In the second cut I continued the animation of the falling epoxy tear until it hit the ground where the splash becomes a combination of the replacement epoxy splash shapes and hair gel for the growing puddle. Things that were achieved in post were the small circular drops following the splash and the removal of the wire that supported the falling drops.



Break a Leg...


That's exactly what happened right as I was getting ready to animate another shot. Ahh well at least he didn't complain much. I'm sure there would have been a lot more screaming, crying and excessive bleeding if he was any less of an actor, but being the dedicated and talented young artist that he is, he took it like a champ.

 Here's a photo of the fracture. Right as I looked at it I realized what caused the premature break. I remember accidentally scrapping this piece of aluminum wire with a pair of steel pliers when fabricating this particular armature. Using anything metal to bend or shape any aluminum armature is something that should be done with care due to the possibility that it might kink the wire thus making it more susceptible to breakage in that area while animating. I usually use my hands as much as I can but on this particular day I was feeling invincible... invincibly stupid. There are times when I do need to use pliers to make tight bends but when these instances occur I usually like to wrap the wire in tape or thick cloth of some kind to prevent any unnecessary damage.  


Here's the new armature with the tie down screws attached and placed inside the mold for registration right before foaming.

 The armature after it's been foamed, baked and the excess foam flashing trimmed off.

After the edges have been seemed, imperfections in the foam repaired and final paint applied.
It's party time

There are a lot of options to consider when thinking about what material you want to use to create your characters. I ended up going the foam latex route because I've always liked the way foam latex puppets handled, moved and looked. I've been using a GM foam latex kit and have been very happy with the results. It's also a brand that used by a lot of professionals so you can't go wrong. I get most of my foam and puppet fabrication supplies from Frends Beauty Supply in North Hollywood. They have a lot of great stuff there for your foam and mold making needs.

I don't mean to simplify the whole mold making and puppet foaming step because it is anything but. It's a very time consuming and detailed process that takes a couple of tries to get right, especially when it comes to foaming a character. Here are some excellent links to help you on your way to making a foam latex puppet:  

 Do It Yourself! Foam Latex Puppetmaking 101 : A great tutorial DVD that shows you all you need to know about the foam latex process. Another plus about purchasing this DVD is that creator, Kathi Zung, has been generous enough to offer unlimited tech support. I have the DVD and on many occasions have contacted Kathi with questions about the process and she has always been more than happy to help.

Stop-Motion Magazine Tutorials : These guys are great! They've posted tutorials about the process on you tube, and the best thing about it is that they are free! They also have free bi-monthly magazines about everything stop-motion. Check them out here along with some other free stuff they offer: stopmotionmagazine.com


After becoming familiar with the foam latex process you'll need a few more things. One is an electric mixer and the other is a scale to measure your ingredients. Now I've seen people use some pretty fancy, and by fancy I mean expensive, equipment. But since I'm not mass producing my puppets for a series or making more than a couple every few months, I can make due by using these relatively inexpensive tools. The mixer is a regular Oster hand mixer and the scale is a Chefmaid plastic scale which I both bought at Target for under $30.


You are also going to need an oven since everything you use, including the electric mixer, SHOULD ONLY BE USED FOR FOAMING NOT FOR FOOD PREPARATION. I bought this Hamilton Beach electric oven at Costco a while back for about $60 and it works great. Or if your feeling crafty you can make one yourself:  Foam Latex Oven Build



Brick by Brick

One of the materials that I've consistently been surprised with in terms of versatility in it's usage is foam. Using a fairly simple technique, I was able to create some realistic looking brick walls that definitely became useful during set construction.  

The type of foam I used for the walls are like the ones pictured above. It's a pretty common foam that can be generally found in most arts and craft stores. They come in a bunch of different shapes and sizes and since foam is a really easy material to shape your not limited in the range of things you can create.


The only two tools I used to create the bricks were a wooden sculpting tool and a makeup wedge.

 This was my process:
  1. Decide on what type of brick wall you want to create.
  2. Use the wooden tool, and a straight edge, to score the pattern into the foam.
  3. Give the foam a base coat of gray paint for the concrete, you can use a makeup wedge but a large paint brush is quicker for this step.
  4. Use the makeup wedge to add the final top coat of paint for the bricks. The imperfections in the paint coverage will reveal the undercoat nicely giving the natural illusion of the brick having multiple layers.
*DO NOT use solvent based spray paint on foam. It's corrosive to this material and will melt whatever beautiful creation you've made. Try using another type of paint like an acrylic, or Krylon H20 Latex spray paint as recommended by my good friend Brian Engh.

 Here's a detail of the first wall I made. You can see here how the gray undercoat really looks like concrete wedged between a bunch of red bricks. Another good thing about this type of foam is that it has a lot of rough texture that looks like rock. In stop-motion texture is a really good thing to try to incorporate into your set construction as much as you can. It make things look more realistic and much more imperfect, unless of course you story calls for something different where you want things to look very smooth and clean.

With the second wall I stuck with the base coat as an overall color but painted a few groups of bricks with the makeup wedge for variation. I wanted this wall to look like it was made out of cinder blocks as opposed to the red brick wall above.

Here are some roughly composited examples of how I ended up using the walls for the film. 


One quick word on using the right material for your story. As you might notice from the brick wall details above their textures are a little different. The red bricks are a little smoother and softer while the cinder blocks are more pitted and brittle. This was a happy little accident that happened mainly because I found these two unrelated pieces of foam in my garage. I didn't buy them at the same time so they weren't exactly identical in the way that they were made and I only realized this after finishing their construction. But it didn't ruin the shot in anyway, instead it greatly contributed to the right mood of the scene. The cinder blocks look more menacing and uninviting while the red bricks are a little more stable and peaceful. This made me realize that the choices of material you use to create an object can greatly inform it's character just as much as it's color or shape would. 



Rocket Science

Old "rocket ship jungle gym" pieces like the one above, popular in playgrounds around the late 50's through the 60's, were the source of inspiration for the location of the climax in my film. I tried to base my design on the original so that it could still be identifiable as a "rocket ship jungle gym" but I also took liberties with the design for the functionality it needed to serve in the story.

Materials used: Foam board for the interior construction of the rocket and window frames, card stock construction paper for the curved surfaces, spackle for shaping and filling in seams, balsa wood for the bars in the windows, counter sink wood screws for the big bolts in front, push pins for the small rivets, and silver and flat black spray paint.

1. Translate graphite drawings to a working full scale schematic.

2. Construct honeycomb frame for card stock construction paper
to wraparound (based on schematic measurements).

3. Begin to fill in unwanted seams with spackle while using sand
paper to makes edges flush.

4. Paint with flat black to better identify imperfections in 
construction then repeat spackle process.

5. Flat black paint application/spackle process repeated once more.
Window template measured for proper placement.

6. Watered down spackle applied to better identify small 
imperfections.Windows cut out.

7. Final flat black paint applied to rocket.

8. Silver paint applied, window frames applied with push pins.

9. Bars in windows applied as well as "mouth piece" with screws and
additional "rivets."

10. Fins and final painting detail applied.

To be honest I didn't know if this process was going to work but I figured it would be worth a try. Planning definitely helped out as well as following the measurements on the schematic. If your trying to build something, or create anything for that matter, and you find yourself not really knowing where to start, just start with what you know. I knew what I wanted to build based off of my drawings and that informed the steps I took in the construction of the rocket.

Example: Fiddlesticks! I need my rocket to be round but what materials would allow me to do this? Foam board works well for solid rudimentary shapes and card stock construction paper would fit around the form while reinforcing the structure. Yeah that sounds good! But what about gaps? I want a smooth finish. Well spackle is sand-able, maybe I could work with that to get what I want...

Of course it wasn't that simple but this form of planning is an abbreviated version of what I had to think about when building the rocket and it definitely helps when exploring creatively uncharted territories.



Kicking the Bucket


Working under a tight budget? Construction materials for your ideal colossal set piece to expensive? Not enough space to build, work or store large set pieces? Well your not the only one. These are many of the same issues I come up against when trying to recreate scenes set forth in my storyboards/animatic. But of course ideas on paper tend to have a little trouble translating themselves into real-life. In my case I needed a down shot of the Hollow Boy approaching the entrance of a stairwell. The following photos are the steps that I took to create the stairwell using sort of an unconventional object.

Materials used: Foam board for the stairs, aluminum wire for the
stair rails and of course the bucket for the stairwell.

1. The glorious bucket with the Hollow Boy for
size comparison.

2. Roughing out the position of the camera,
doorway and stairs inside the bucket.

3. Setting a reference line where the steps are to
be positioned.

4. Placing steps according to reference line.

5. Rough lighting and paint.


 6. Digital paint mock-up.

7. Final wall paint.

8. Final floor paint, stair rails and final lighting.

 9. Hollow Boy animation.
(Shot separately and to be scaled down in final scene). 

10. Final scene with stairwell and Hollow Boy digitally composed
in the same frame along with minor cosmetic changes.

So as you can see with a little experimentation and imagination it's possible to get some pretty interesting results just using objects found around the house. It definitely saved me from building a huge set piece that would have had to have been in proportion to the Hollow Boy's actual size. The bucket was the perfect size and shape, it only needed to be scaled up which ended up working perfectly in post.