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March 9, 2007

elder thing puppet test

by sven at 4:40 pm

Yesterday I was a busy boy. I built a new puppet and tried out animating it.

new elder thing puppet

While I was driving to Tucson, I thought through some changes in the script for Let Sleeping Gods Lie. I've been really unhappy for some time with the "joke ending" I'd originally planned. I've come up with a story now that is much more dramatic -- while still using my basic elements.

But changes? Oh dear...

I'm loath to ask my actors to come back for yet another shooting session. I still might be able to avoid it... I've decided that my storytelling style has generally been too linear; I want to switch my approach to "hitting the high points." By using a style that's similar in pacing to a movie trailer, I may be able to get away with using only what I've already got in the can. ...And then if there are a few vital pick-up shots, I may try using myself as a stunt-double.

starting the armature

An important development: I'm adding a whole new section to the film. I'm calling it the "deep history segment." Because it's a sort of flashback, I think it's appropriate for this segment to have a different visual style. I'd been contemplating animating something viscous -- like black molasses, or a mixture of ink + hair gel on glass. But then yesterday it struck me: why would I not use puppets?!?

So I set out to build a "quick and dirty" elder thing puppet -- just for proof of concept.

armature progresses

The limbs are made from 1/16" aluminum armature wire: two strands for the arms and eyestalks, three for the legs. The arm and leg wires are 6" long.

The spine is a piece of wooden dowel, and the limbs are attached with plumber's epoxy putty. After fixing the limbs onto the dowel, I added an additional layer of epoxy -- just to make absolutely sure everything holds together.

beginning foam wrapping

I've got 1/4" and 3/8"-thick sheets of cushion foam on hand, which I cut into long strips and wrapped around the armature to bulk it out. Most of the time I chose the 1/4" foam. It allows greater control -- but does take quite a while to layer.

The foam strips are held onto the armature with athletic tape.

adding a rigging point

It's a little hard to see in this photo, but I remembered to add a rigging point for this puppet. In one of its "armpits" I epoxy-puttied a 1/2"-long piece of 7/32" K&S.

[Notice that underneath the puppet you can see the rough blueprint that I drew for scale before starting construction.]

foam wrapping done

There, the foam-wrapping stage looks about complete!

refining form with underwrap

Next, I refined the form of the Elder with althletic underwrap. This is an extremely thin non-adhesive foam tape.

testing cloth tape on leg

I had the thought that maybe I ought to use the athletic tape -- which is flexible -- as the final form-shaping layer. I tried this idea out on a leg tentacle... And found that I didn't like the way it crumples when the tentacle bends.

However, for the torso -- which is not meant to bend -- the tape worked out very nicely. It's sort of like applying papier mache -- but with cloth Band-Aids. The tape did a nice job of refining the form; it also accepts paint better than the porous foam does.

ready for painting

Here's the pup, all ready to be painted.

painted with latex and acrylics mix

I mixed mold-building latex with black acrylic paint for the paint job.

My latex has the consistency of thick mayonnaise. I would rather have used a more liquid variety -- but didn't have any on hand.

Why use latex? I was hoping to smooth over the texture. And I wanted something that would help hold the underwrap all together. And I've read about this technique -- but hadn't tried it yet -- so I wanted to try something new.

Nick Hilligoss describes puppets that have been painted with liquid latex as bending "like a rubber boot." Yep -- that's what it's like!

I don't really like how the latex turned out... How it crumples when you bend it. How it wants to stick to itself. [I know I could apply talc -- but it's important that this pup be as black as possible.] ...Still, it's good enough for a test puppet.

Almost forgot: I also added a little bit more epoxy to the eyeballs, just to make them bigger.

whipping leg test: click on image to play movie (33 KB)

On to animating! The first test was a very simple "whipping" motion with one of the legs.

I've got some new photo lights. This was their first outing. Turns out their light is extremely blue. Not too happy about it.

walking test: click on image to play movie (76 KB)

One of the big mysteries with the Elders is: How the heck do they walk?

I haven't really figured it out yet, but I've begun to get a better sense for how weight shifts from one leg to the next.

...This is one of the HUGE benefits of making an elder thing puppet: I don't know how I'd ever be able to figure out how they move if I was just positioning pixels with a CG version. I need to hold the creature in my hands and be able to push it around, trying out different possibilities in a concrete way.

black line test: click on image to play movie (99 KB)

I've been trying on a new hat lately. I'm playing with calling myself a "mixed media animator." (I also heard the phrase "animation artist" recently, which I kinda like too.)

I love stopmo. But "mixed media animation" is probably a better label for the style that I'm ultimately going for. Not just using CG effects to enhance stopmo -- with digital water, skies, and fire. No, what I want to do is mix CG, cel animation, motion graphics, and puppetfilm in innovative ways that blur the lines.

The clip above is a good example. I've taken the puppet animation and used AfterEffects to turn it into what look likes a digital line drawing. ...I like!

standing up test: click on image to play movie (109 KB)

Another thing I've been aching to see is how the elder things stand up.

Looking at the prior "walk test," it seemed to me that the Elder was almost comical -- waving its arms around hysterically. These creatures are millions of years old, frighteningly intelligent and dignified. Maybe they don't move their arms much at all? Maybe they don't writhe -- which has always been the assumption -- maybe every motion is very purposeful.

Important puppet construction note: This puppet sorely needs tie-downs at the ends of each of the legs and at the base of the spine. Animating a two-legged puppet without tie-downs is painful, but can be done in a pinch. Having five legs all subtly shifting as you animate, when you really want them to stay fixed to the ground? ...Intolerable.

white line test: click on image to play movie (197 KB)

It's going to take more playing around, but I'm beginning to have insight into the Elders.

(Huh. Does puppet pushing constitute method acting?)

Their limbs are fast and lithe. But lifting up their torso -- that's heavy, so the rise has to be more deliberate and burdened.

As I'm animating, there's a tendency for me to choose one of their five faces and think of it as the front. When I do so, I see a pair of arms and a pair of legs -- which looks almost human, if I don't focus on the other spare limbs.

I think I can use this impression of humanity to good effect at key moments in the film -- but I must beware. What are the other faces doing and thinking while I'm looking at this particular side? Maybe it's better to conceptualize the Elder as five separate people, all standing back to back. Kind of like certain photos of multi-faced (Indian?) gods that I've seen.

The eyestalks... If they function like human eyes, then they ought to dart around from focal point to focal point. But there's a danger of making the critters too human. In the "standing up" test, I tried having all the eyes swing around in unison -- which produced a sort of sea anemone effect. Plausible, but very appropriately alien.

For this last clip, I tried using AfterEffects to multiply the critter, and tried out using white lines on a black background. This is very close to what I think I'm going to ultimately use. I thought I'd like to use a "lens flare" effect to create green, star-like eyes... But it turns out that I'd probably need to use LightWave to get what I want -- which may not wind up being worth it.


Holy cow! All that in one day??

posted by sven | March 9, 2007 4:40 PM | categories: let sleeping gods lie, movies, stopmo