Monday, August 31, 2009

TFS- Studio Tour

Here's a vid that gives an overview of how I organized the shoot, in terms paperwork and studio space:

Saturday, August 29, 2009

No Festival. No Fear.

Colour me naive, I guess. I got to the convention around 1pm, and the line was... how shall I put it... ridicularious. It stretched. And stretched. And stretched. And this was to just buy a ticket (implying the madness of packed fans that would await inside). From what I could figure, it seemed like it would easily by at least an hour wait.

I had truly figured I'd simply walk into the centre, mosey up to the ticket booth and say "one, please"... and stroll into a wonderful world of spooky goodness.

Next year, I'll either go on a Friday (which I hear is more mellow), buy a ticket in advance, go earlier, or find a victim/sucker/pal who will line up like this, so I have someone to complain to.

Instead, I went to see the new Halloween, Rob Zombie's latest flick.

House of 1,000 Corpses? Very interesting. He really announced himself as a filmmaker. The flick had some serious problems, though, in a dozen ways. But...

Devil's Rejects? A really wicked surprise, in a good way. Intense, uncompromising, brutal, but charming, funny, exciting, tasteless... I was pretty impressed. Mr. Zombie was no hack (no pun intended).

The first Halloween remake. Interesting take seeing Michael Myers as a kid, etc... some great casting... amusing. Mildly entertaining. Not being a huge fan of this horror franchise, it didn't do much for me. Was not looking forward to Zombie's Halloween 2. Would be boring and a lame cash grab. I figured I'd wait till his next original film came out.

Was I surprised. Maybe it's cause I was eager to get my horror on (but was denied at the convention), or maybe it was cause I saw it on the big screen (saw the first one on dvd), but this film kicked some pretty serious slasher film ass.

If you're not a fan of slasher style horror (I was the perfect age in the 80s for the birth of the genre), skip it (obviously). If you're a fan of intense, nasty, brutal horror with some touches of amazingly spooky stuff (the Pumpkin Court scene is amazing) you really should see this. For my money, this film has really set itself apart from other recent slasher- style flicks. It's pretty smart, great casting, excellent visual effects, with a tonne of seriously powerhouse scenes, all of which are strung together in a very effective way (in terms of story structure).

And as I said earlier, I have never been a fan of the Halloween franchise. I've always found the William Shatner mask thing to be not only NOT scary but a little... well... silly.

But this film's converted me.

It's SOLID. And Rob Zombie not only directs these things, he writes them, and handles the music. Yowza.

Anyway, if you are in the mood for a sizzling hardcore slasher horror flick, go for it.

If not, then avoid, at all costs. Nasty stuff.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Festival of Fear

I'm going in order to schmooze horror film producers and distributors, pick some people's brains (mmmm, brains), buy some indie horror dvds, and nerd out a bit.

In short, it's 70% business (which is a form of pleasure), 20% flat-out nerd pleasure, and 10% curiousity, as I've never gone to any conventions except a couple of low-rent comic cons over the years and some flea market type things as a kid to buy comics (which was the best of the experiences, cause I was really young, and finding ANY cool comics when you're little is a blast- I remember an awesome bound collection of Creepy comics that blew my mind.)

Anyway... why not come out and count all the male virgins, dressed in black.

TFS-Finished Puppets

After all these puppet making entries, here's the finished deal. I will probably do a costume entry at some point (which is an obviously huge part of any visual appeal these puppets have). Arlen Gruszczynski makes my costumes, she's amazing.

Anyway, I thought I'd post these so you could get a sense of the whole deal.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

TFS- Puppet Making Part 5- Arms and Hands

Some of these pics are big, sorry. Too lazy to resize...

Arms and hands are (like all the other parts) a world unto themselves. So here we go...

The above pic is based on that good ol' scale drawing you've created a while ago (see why it's so important to have that life-sized drawing?) You need to use that scale drawing to figure out the exactly size, shape, length, and overall look of the arm and hand for your character. As you might expect, it needs to be to scale, once again. To arrive at this drawing, I "light tabled" from the original scale drawing to get the arm and hand figured out... then from that drew in what the armature would look like.

You'll notice there's some square brass stock at the end of the arm. That's to slot into the chest armature. Further, you'll see the length of the arm is braided 1/16" armature wire, with some epoxy for the arm bones, and epoxy for the hand (into which is embedded pieces of thin floral wire for fingers). The skin over top is liquid latex (which I haven't talked much about yet, but will).

Floral wire is nice for fingers. It's strong, will stand up to the animation fingers need to do (detailed, precise movements) but is still easy to animate. You don't want really thick wire for fingers, as it will be hard to animate.

Since both of the characters arms were the same, this one scale drawing will serve. Just keep referring back to your scale drawing of the arm armature as you cut pieces and mix epoxy, so that you are making the arm JUST the right size. It's easy to drift, so use that drawing to check. After you make this basic arm and hand, you can simply bend the fingers which ever way you want, to craft it into a "right" arm/hand or a "left" arm/hand.

The above pic is the puppet arms in progress. It's darn handy to use clothes pegs to hold the arms up safely as each coat of latex dries. And another tip- don't apply the brass stock till the arm is 100% done. If you put it on earlier, it's quite tricky to figure out the exact arm length. Leave yourself extra wire at the end of the arm, make the arm, apply all the latex, then snip the wires to length, then glue on the brass stock.

Gluing tip for armature wire when attaching it to brass stock- use "gap filling glue". It's very strong, and will expand as it dries, hence the name. Regular Krazy Glue is super strong, but will only bond surface-to-surface through direct contact. Gap filling glue is the way to go (in this case).

The process for putting on the latex is TRICKY (notice all the caps. I must be SERIOUS). I've practiced a lot, on various projects, to get to a pretty good point. It takes lots of practice. You'll notice with these arms/hands they need to be smooth from the finger tips right up to the shoulders, (smooth, as in like real human arms/hands) since the whole arm would be exposed. If the puppet had long sleeves, you'd only have to make smooth hands and maybe wrists (and not worry about the arms).

Costume REALLY effects puppet making, in this sense.

It was also a challenge because of the visual style I wanted. The puppet heads were smooth and cleanly sculpted. So the arms and hands had to match. If I had made the heads "rough" in their finish, the arms/hands could have been "rough" as well. "Roughly" applied latex is much easier to achieve, and you can get some wonderful textures by using make-up sponges or bits of foam (thanks to Ted Heeley for that tip). You can get a really nice "smooth but pebbly" finish that looks great under camera. And it has a really warm "Muppet" vibe, like a very dense foam. Really appealing, great texture (and we all know stop mo is all about the textures). BUT my visual style was smooth, so the arms had to be smooth.

A HUGE tip I give students- create a visual style that allows your puppet to have a rough finish, and you will be MUCH happier. But- smooth is possible, if you are brave enough. Or stupid.

Here's the finished arms (pre-brass stock). Note their smoothness. Hard-earned, right Carla? And another tip- once you are 100% done applying latex, dump some baby powder on the arms. Rub it in, and it takes any unwanted stickiness away from the latex, and gives it a very pleasant matte finish (latex errs towards shiny- baby powder it away). And besides, you get a sweet-smelling puppet. Win-win.

Here's how I got them smooth. I used a small, cheap brush to get the first layers of latex on. A coat of latex... let it get pretty much dry... then another coat... it takes time. There's lots of tricks and tips for using liquid latex, you can find heaps at

I used this process to get the arms basically "on their way". By that, I mean at the joints (elbow, wrist) I used this process to add lots of layers of latex, so I had a nice smooth tube. In other words, if you ran your finger from the wrist all the way up the arm, it was flat- no dip inward at the joints. Now, with that basic "tube" of an arm, I switched techniques. I now started "dipping".

You can only get so smooth a finish by brushing. The bristles ALWAYS leave a path as you draw the brush up the arm, leaving grooves and streaks. But dipping means no brush is used, so there's nothing to leave a mark.

To dip, I found a bottle (baby food) that was deeper than the arms were long. I filled the jar with latex, tinted it with the skin colour (acrylic paint), held the arm by the end wire, and dunked it, fingers first, into the latex. Then I pulled it out, fast, being careful not to bang the arm or fingers on the jar mouth.

I quickly flipped the arms around so the fingers were point up, and used a small brush (and often a toothpick) to carefully "urge" the latex downward in the spaces betweens the fingers. Without doing this, you'd get really stubby, web-like fingers. A toothpick works well, cause right after you dip there is SO much latex it can be moved around without leaving streaks. And with the fingers pointing up, you let gravity help.

The next step (once you're sure you aren't going to get stubby fingers), is to rest the arms. This is when a pair of "helping hands" is, well, helpful. Because you want to be able to tweak the angle at which the arms are drying, as they dry. This way, if you see the latex is "sagging" to the underside, you can flip the arm to balance that out. Helping hands are fantastic for this. As the pic below illustrates:

And here's how the finished arm fits into the armature:

Finally, this is a REALLY important aspect of using latex for arms and hands. The brand makes a HUGE difference. I've used other types of mould maker's latex (which is what this material is usually called at the art store), and they suck. They are too thick, too "chunky". You CAN water latex down, with (duh) water, but still... The best brand is this:

Burma Brand latex. End of story. It's lovely and thin, paints on really easy, absorbs acrylic paint (for tinting) really easily, and is great for dipping. It's THIN, and that's how you get SMOOTH. Only use this brand.

Other brands are ok for rougher finishes. Only use this for smooth (or another brand that's equally thin, but I haven't found one).

After all this, here's my two cents of puppet making for those that are serious: come up with a design that is "rough"- a creature of some sort, an alien, a monster, it can be cute, scary, sad, silly, whatever, but let it rough in its design. You can then make some MARVELOUS puppets (I see students do it every year), if you keep it rough in it's finish. That way, you wind up with an awesome looking puppet, and learn about the materials (specifically latex) as you go... then attempt smooth with the next puppet.

On the other hand, now that you know about dipping (after this entry), maybe you'll be smooth right away.

Good for you! But you owe me 5 bucks now.

Friday, August 21, 2009

TFS- Puppet Making Part 4- Armatures

A quickie, since I'm pressed for time.

Using that scale (life-sized) drawing of your character, the next step is to design and fabricate your armature. What's an armature? Find out on your own, I'm in a hurry!

Tape that scale drawing to a window, or use a light table if you have one. Lay another piece of paper over top, and draw out how the armature should look. Imagine you're drawing the skeleton for the character.

It's pretty safe to assume (if you making a human) that you'll have a hard chest piece (epoxy), and a hard pelvis (epoxy), into which braided 1/16" armature will go into, for the movable parts.

Sorry this pic is a bit crooked...

In this picture, there's some things to note. See how every limb ends with a small square piece? That is square brass stock.

The ends of all body parts will be covered in the male size (5/32"), and embedded in the armature blocks (the chest, and pelvis) will be the female size (3/16"). This allows the body parts, should they break during animation, to be replaced. You break an arm? No problem, just slide it out of the chest block, and slide in a new one!

BUT- this isn't so easy. I tried it this way, on this film, to test-drive the technique so as to be able to advise students. If it HAD worked, it would be a fairly easy, cheap way to make an armature that can have parts replaced (as opposed to making or buying an aluminum armature, or a steel ball-and-socket armature).

Why it DIDN'T work very well is that the removable body parts tended to shift and slide out of the armature blocks. The solution? I covered the male stock on each part with a thin layer of CONTACT CEMENT. Not rubber cement, not Krazy Glue... contact cement.

The cement dried quite well, keeping the part in place, BUT would probably have allowed me to yank the broken part out without damaging the armature. I never had to find out, as I never broke a body part (blush).

The OTHER option (instead of all this brass stock) is to simply directly embed the armature wire limbs into the epoxy. This works very well, and you'll get a pretty darn solid armature.

The drawback is that all the parts are committed. So if ONE little part breaks, the whole armature has to be scrapped. That's why you aim to have replaceable parts.

You'll also know from that picture there's a neck-type piece. It's a bit confusing, but a puppet neck is made up of a piece of brass stock for the base, then some armature wire, then another piece of brass stock (that will slide into the head). The thick part is actually a latex tube, tinted the colour of the puppet's skin, slid over the neck so it actually LOOKS like a neck.

Where's the arms? Again, arms are a separate thing (for another entry, that will come as soon as I can)...

And- the feet look like lumps of epoxy. That's true, but what you can't see is that embedded in those lumps are rare-earth magnets, which are super strong.

As you're figuring out, it's ALL custom designed, built and assembled pieces. So if it's confusing and unclear, well- that's why it's taken me years to start to get a good handle on it all. I animated professionally for years, and observed the puppet makers. And I started to adapt techniques and approaches for what I myself could handle at home. I had others help me, I showed pros my work, I kept making more puppets... It's just not a quick thing to learn or figure out (just like all good things in life). I'm still very far from a master at it, but I'm pretty good.

My puppets work.

The only real way (after reading this mess of an entry) to start getting good at armature wire and epoxy armatures is to start practicing. Get some epoxy, braid some 1/16" armature wire (you braid it to make it stronger, but it's still easy to use), some basic tools (Olfa cutter, pliers, wire snips) and start learning the materials.

Use some tight fitting rubber gloves when using the epoxy, too. It's not particularly nasty, but over time it could cause health concerns, and no matter what sticks to your fingers, so the gloves make life easy.

All these materials are CHEAP, so get them, and start playing. You'll learn heaps...

Be Advised- Slow Blogging Ahead

Ah, for those summer days, long gone. Changing diapers, putting baby down for a nap... then running to the computer to post blog updates about my film. Those were the days, huh?

Now, I'm back to work at school, and surprise surprise, find myself with much prep work on my hands for my Fall classes...

Blogging will continue at whatever pace life allows, I promise.

Monday, August 10, 2009

TFS- Puppet Making Part 3- Puppet Heads

As the previous Puppet Making posting says, it's now time to think of the puppet head as something distinct from the body.

All these examples are from TFS.

So to begin, I've resolved some important design issues already: most importantly, how is the facial animation is going to be created. This is essential to know BEFORE you make the head. The answer (for this project) is- sculpted heads that will have applied on to them animatable features (eyelids, pupils, eyebrows, and mouths). Again, I certainly didn't invent this approach, it's used all the time, mostly cause it WORKS.

The sculpted head will keep its form and volume perfectly (unlike a clay head, that would have to be resculpted constantly), but will still "be alive" cause of the features that will animate. Those features will be a mix of coloured Sculpy, mixed with a soft wax (which helps keep the features from smearing on to the puppet head, which makes a big mess and screws with the paint job on the head).

Next step is to figure out how to actually craft the head, from the core, outward. And that's what this image shows you:

At the core is BRASS STOCK. You can get it at hobby stores, call around. It comes in all sizes. For puppet heads, I use " square, 3/16" ". You can also buy it round, which is why I specify.

The purpose of this brass stock is that it gives a sleeve for the neck of the puppet to slide into. The neck (when you make it) will ALSO have brass stock on it, but a slightly smaller gauge- I use "square, 5/32" ". You want an easily removable head because at times (while animating) you will want to do some detailed work on the features, or you might need to retouch the paint job. Being able to actually take the head off the puppet makes this very easy (even in mid shot!)

Again, you need to be working at scale now, drawing the head out (based on the original scale drawing), and figuring out just how long you need to make the brass stock so that it embeds nicely, and won't be sticking out at its bottom. This takes practice, no two ways about it.

Cutting the brass stock is a bit tricky. It CAN be done with a hack saw and a vise, but it sort of sucks that way. Much easier and faster is with a rotary tool (often called a "Dremel" which is one brand), that you attach a cutting disk to. It cuts the brass like butter. Remember though- the brass will get VERY hot, so hold it with pliers, and wear safely goggles and a mask (there will be brass dust kicking around).

Often, I do this part for students, since it's a bit tricky and potentially dangerous if you're unsure of yourself. So be careful...

You CAN make the puppet with its head as part of the body. That's a faster, easier way. But this process (using brass stock) is a pretty pro way to go, and that's what we're aiming for, isn't it.

With your brass stock for your head cut, the next step is this:

I've molded plumber's epoxy (a two part compound, available at Home Depot in Canada) around the stock. Again, I've used the scale drawing to make sure I don't put too much on. This epoxy is so that the foil (which is the next step) has something to grab on to. You'll note all the weird pointy bits on the epoxy. If I had done it smooth, the foil would just spin on the epoxy, and your final head would ALSO just spin around loosely- driving you insane while animating (and ruining your film).

Plumber's epoxy is an amazing material. You can use it for anything hard in a puppet's armature- arm bones, leg bones, pelvis, chest... it dries very fast, and is very hard (giving you a really strong armature). There's lots of tips and tricks to using this material, but that's not for THIS posting. Just be sure to practice with it first to get a feel for the material (before putting it to REAL use), and wear tight rubber gloves (the epoxy will stick to your fingers over time, and it's not really healthy). It also doesn't hurt to have a fan and open window, as the fumes are stinky.

You'll ALSO note (this is vital), that I left a wee bit of space at the bottom of the epoxy. This is so that when I apply the Super Sculpy (which is the final layer of the head), there is brass stock for me to sculpt the Sculpy on to. This way, the final layer will be very strongly attached to the brass stock, AND the foil, and the epoxy. If the epoxy covered all the stock, the final layer of Sculpy would only be attached to the epoxy, and that increases your chance that the whole head will spin on the stock, again- driving your insane. This is a bit confusing, but practice is the only way to get it. Nothing about puppet making is "easy", or perfect on the first shot. It's very much a learned skill, and that comes through practice. C'est la vie!

Next comes the foil. Nothing fancy, just good ol' fashion tin foil. The purpose of the foil is to "bulk up" the head, while keeping it light. That's why the final layer of Sculpy is actually so thin- it keeps it light. And a LIGHT head is very important for a puppet. A heavy head will weigh the puppet down, and make balance an issue.

Pack the foil on tight, but not TOO tight, or it gets heavy. Refer always to your scale drawing to keep on size...

Finally, it's time to sculpt. I use Super Sculpy cause it's tough, and I use the grey kind cause it's easier on the eyes and (I'm convinced) sculpts more smoothly. It doesn't drag in the way the flesh-coloured (if your flesh is "white") Super Sculpy does.

A sculpting tip- use a length of 5/32" brass stock (if you used 3/16" in the head) to put your head on to while sculpting. It makes it easier to rotate and keeps your hands off the actual head.

Rotate the head all the time you're sculpting, checking all angles, making sure it's balanced and pleasant and looking "right" in all dimensions... it takes me ages to sculpt (well, hours- a puppet head probably takes me about 6 hours in total to sculpt). But I really enjoy it. I love the process of building the head up, trying things out, starting over... I listen to talk radio, zone out... I love finding the planes and angles that are right... letting the character rise up out of the clay... I'm self-taught, and whatever skills I have it's really just through practice. Take your time, get good. If you're already good, get better.

My basic tools. The weird little wire thing is just some stiff floral wire (covered in plastic) wrapped around into a sort of "mini-scooper" thing, for digging out small spaces..

Here's another tip, for when you're done sculpting for the day, and for when you actually bake this head. Use a wire curled like this:

It keeps your soft head up off the table, cause the wire is sitting inside the brass stock. And when you bake, you can just set the head on this wire base, and place the whole thing on a baking pan. Just make sure as you make the curly base, you keep it flat and level, not wobbly.

When you're ready, bake the head according to the instructions. Baking Sculpy is a bit of an art, keep an eye on it, don't let it burn... and practice.

A baking tip- when it's done baking, turn off the oven, open the oven door, and let it cool. Don't try to take the head out while it's hot. It's now VERY fragile, so leave it alone. I've wept tears of pain from taking a head out too soon... Once it's cool, it's rock hard. But let it cool!

Also- be sure to use the joke "I'm going to put my head in the oven" as much as possible at this stage. My wife tells me that one never gets old...

Now with a cool, hard head, you should have something like this (when viewed from the bottom):

Notice how the brass stock is flush with the base of the head. That's what you want (or even the brass stock up inside a bit). The main thing is that you don't want the stock sticking out (it will look terrible on camera), and you want the square of stock clean and free of Sculpy. If there's any gunking the stock up, you can easily pick it out.

Now it's time to paint. Painting Sculpy is easy, AND tricky. It's easy to apply the paint, but it's tricky to ensure the paint is strongly adhered to the Sculpy. You're going to be putting your hands (and pressure) on this head for every frame, and paint can easily scrape/chip/smear off, if you don't take precautions.

The best way to get a solid paint job is to use a primer on the head. I use automotive primer, grey. It's flat and thin. You just need a thin layer, on all of the head. It dries fast, and from THERE, you can paint on acrylic paint with a brush (or air brush).

Be careful when spraying the paint. Do it somewhere that a bit of mess is OK (like a garage). I use a cardboard box as a "spray booth" to catch the excess paint. And I use a base of wood with skewers glued in to hold the heads, for painting.

Well, now you've got a puppet head. Apply your paint job. Be sure to keep a little bottle of the skin tone paint, for touch ups!

When you're done painting the head, let it dry well, then SEAL the paint by using either a spray fixative (available at art stores), or a paint-on version. This just helps keep the paint on better, and prevents little things like a random fingernail from causing trouble. Be sure to use a flat (or matte) finish, not gloss. Unless you're making a puppet that's glossy (perhaps a fish man?)

The paint WILL chip off, or peel. Not a lot, but it's still likely to happen. Eyebrows are notorious, as they are animated across the head. They stick, they smear, they can pull paint right off. Just be very careful (no kidding), have touch up paint ready, and all will be well!

This process is tested and true, and although it's not perfect, it gives excellent results in a fairly straight- forward, DIY fashion...

Friday, August 7, 2009

Sorry I'm Late

Very cool "in-camera" movie. You can watch it here.

Loving it...

TFS- Puppet Making Part 2- Full Sized Drawings

This and basically every puppet making entry will describe a process for making a HUMANOID puppet- two arms, two legs, standing upright, head on top. From this basic structure, you can modify your heart out...

Now that you know specifically what your puppet has to do, draw your whole character from the front, AT FULL SIZE.

Regular computer paper works just fine for drawing the character out (and you can putit on a light table or against a window to trace through, for designing armatures later on). Do rotational drawing if you want to, but a lot of the 3d aspect will come out in the actual sculpting/crafting of the puppet...I personally like to get the size right on paper, then let the character fill out as I sculpt/craft him/her/it.

An adult male is approximately 30 cm tall (this gives you an adult puppet that is big enough to easily animate, but small enough to keep your sets and props that will go with this puppet small enough to be manageable). This is basically working at 1/6th scale, if you are wondering. It's pretty standard.

The bigger your puppet, the bigger the sets and props have to be, and that can take up space and material very quickly!

Kid puppets are obviously smaller than the adults, but you need to actually keep kids bigger than they really would be in relation to a 30 cm adult. Think of making a kid puppet (compared to an adult) as making a very short adult. If you make a kid puppet too small, it will be almost impossible to animate, because its parts will be so tiny.

Draw out all of your characters (if you have more than one) like this, so you can check them all against each other for size relationships. Since you are now working at FULL SIZE, if your storyboard shows lots of shots featuring character A in a medium shot along side character B, both characters had better be approximately the same height for composing those shots, or your going to go mad trying to find a camera angle that allows you to get your shot! In other words, a giraffe and a mouse would have a hard time sharing the same frame. To get your shot, you could lie the giraffe down, or put the mouse on a ladder (both of which are possibly valid staging options), but you then need a giraffe puppet that can lie down, or you need to craft a ladder! And if so, do either of these options really WORK for your story? Or do they distract from the real intent of the scene?

As you can see, size relationships have a lot of impact on production. Drawing your characters at full size at this early stage will let you see these sorts of issues early, and let you redesign or reboard...

Now that you have a SCALE drawing (meaning you have a drawing the is the same size as the puppet is going to be), this scale drawing will also be used for creating the puppet's armature, and to help with framing, sets, props... but before that happens, you should make the puppet's head.

Yep, take it from me: get your puppet designed on paper, to scale. Then start with the head, not the body. At this point, you should be almost thinking of them as two separate (but connected) production issues: the head, and then the rest of the puppet.