Hi there, I have this very specific problem with my medieval set, and was wondering if you guys had any ideas;

I'm building quite a massive 1:9 scale medieval street, with cobblestones. I found a great way to create the stones using gluegun, but, I remain puzzled as to how I should make an uneven street, using material that I can drill for tiedowns. My best bet so far is to use a wooden plank and make it uneven with a sanding machine, but this way I can't make it uneven enough, plus its a lot of work. 
Is there any kind of material I could use on top of the wood to make large uneven shapes, that I could still drill through? 

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I would use chicken wire to get the rough shape and fiberglass over that to get a surface that is strong, paintable and can be drilled for tiedowns. 

^ A very good plan! Stay away from the fiberglass matting though - it's nasty ragged stuff and when you cut it - or anytime you handle it really, it puts little fiberglass particles in the air that float around for a long time and you breathe them - not good!! They also itch really bad on skin contact. Instead get fiberglass cloth, which is actually woven rather than just randomly pressed together (like the difference between cotton fabric and cotton rag paper). It's much cleaner to work with and apparently doesn't cause the floating particle or itching problems. 

Also, rather than using nasty smelly and highly toxic fiberglass resin, you can use a strong gypsum like hydrocal or ultracal. In combination with the fiberglass cloth it's supposed to make a very strong surface that you can easily drill through. To be fair though this is information I've read but haven't tested. 

If I were attempting what you're doing, I would try to cover the chicken wire with plastic so that when the gypsum is solid I could remove the chicken wire forms from underneath, thus not having to drill through it for tie-down holes. 

I've done plaster and glassfibre over chicken wire, and I wish I had put plastic over so I could take the chickenwire away.  But, I also had some profile shapes cut from particle board, and the chickenwire was stapled onto that.  It was mostly for rocks and cliffs, rather than slightly irregular ground.

Another way is to make a mound or undulating ground shape in water based clay (pottery clay), then lay fibreglass and plaster over that, the same as if you were making a plaster mould.  Only the plaster is the actual object, not the mould.    Then when it is set, you turn it over and remove the clay.  I did a big wide figtree trunk that way, over a clay shape that had a flat back.

Another way that I used for some big flat rocks that needed tiedowns, was to make a latex mould from some real rock.  Nice sedimentary rock with layers in it, that still worked as a small scale model.  Then I cast the rock with plaster and fibreglass inside the mould.   If you were making a mould, you could still roll out the clay, but sculpt the cobblestones on it, so the cast would not only have the shape but the texture.

I do use chopped strand matting, It's unpleasant to work with but not so bad once it is encased in the plaster.  As well as fibreglass cloth, you could use loose weave hessian (Burlap) fabric for reinforcing the plaster.   Actual fibreglass resin would be stronger and lighter than plaster, and if you don't want to use the stinky polyester resin, you could use epoxy resin instead - but it is a bit more expensive.  It has the advantage that it is not inhibited from curing by moisture like polyester is, so it could set over water based clay.  

Thanks so much for this tip, I'd never heard of fiberglass as a liquid material, I thought it was just used for cables, but as it turns out, someone helping with my set works in a polyester factory, so next week I get to make this in a factory for free 

This guy thought it would be necessary to put paper mache over the chicken wire to prevent the polyester from falling through, but what I understood from your stories you just put those mats straight onto it? 

I'll try with plastic wrap so I can remove the chickenwire in any case. 

The process for fiberglass is a lot like paper mache in some ways - you lay down several thicknesses of the matting and then you apply the liquid polyester resin to it. It soaks in and hardens and voila, hard lightweight plastic mache! But don't quote me on that - once again, I've never worked with the stuff, and I might have it completely wrong - but that's how I understand it's done. The particulars may vary of course. 

I used polyester resins sometimes for boat repairs but I don’t have any experience making landscapes with polyester resins. Anyway, when I would make a medieval street, I would not choose for chopped glass fiber mats soaked in polyester (or epoxy). It’s a nasty substance, a fluid as thick as molten icecream that drips of the fiber mats, sticks to everything (except plastic). And 30 minutes later, it suddenly starts to become a gel and a few minutes later it's a solid and not usable anymore. You need several layers to create a strong stiff structure. And even then you will need some support of a wooden frame. I suppose a 1:9 scale street is several square meters(yards) tall. A further disadvantage is that it is hard to paint afterward. You need a 2-component paint to get good attachment to the polyester. And it shines very nice. That’s good for a boat, but no so good for a medieval scenery I think.

When I was a kid I had a model train. The scenery was made of chicken wire, coverd with old cotton sheets soaked in plaster. For the smaller details I used toilet paper instead of sheets. It’s easy to paint with waterbased paint. Still you need a good wooden support because it becomes quit heavy.  

 

Good luck with your project.

If you go with fiberglass and polyester (or epoxy) resin, be sure to determine how thick a layer you'll need to get rigidity.  Years ago I animated spiders on a brain (which I consider a fairly uneven surface :-) ) and while the brain surface was latex, it had fiberglass laid into it as an undersupport.  The brain was 6 or so feet across.  The fiberglass was about 1/8 to 3/16" thick in 3 or so layers and was stiff enough for what I did, but it also had some springiness.  You would want it to be more solid in areas where buildings or other things are attached.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OM-M4ToMRzY

It sounds like some people are talking about making an entire set floor from fiberglass, which of course could be done, but I was assuming you only need it for the actual surface of the street or streets. I was thinking of a basic plywood set floor with cutouts where the streets would be and those filled in with fiberglass (or fiberglass cloth with plaster). Wherever puppets don't need to walk you don't need to drill tiedown holes, so you can have a plywood floor and build up over that however you want - a few layers of cut styrofoam with paper mache over it or whatever, which is standard terrain buildup technique for model railroad layouts. Since the rectangular cutouts for the streets are narrow they wouldn't need to be made extremely thick or strong. 

In fact, you could sculpt out the overall terrain first (after making cutouts for streets) and then place chicken wire from underneath so it will be removable later - attach with screws to the underside of the plywood. While you're creating the shape of the chickenwire push it up from underneath until it matches the uneven surface contours of the terrain you've built. You might need to cut the chickenwire in a few places to get it to conform to an uneven surface. Those cut areas could probably be reinforced with regular thin wire if need be, but you probably wouldn't need to. 

A few sheets of newsprint between the chicken wire and layer of plastic would be very helpful - a thin sheet of plastic would tend to get squashed down while you're working over it with whatever your surface material is and sort of mold itself into and through the chickenwire, possibly conforming to it so strongly that it can't be removed later. And for plastic I'd want to use something thick like a tarpaulin or painting drop cloth, not cling wrap which is too thin and would tear very easily. 

New thoughts - 1/9 scale is pretty small, and if you only cut a slot the width of the street it might be too narrow to get your hand up in there for tightening tie downs. It might be better to cut an area twice as wide as the street (or however wide you determine it needs to be to allow for tiedown manipulation) and go ahead and build the street and some of the surrounding terrain over the chickenwire using fiberglass. Then the remainder of the set terrain around that could be built up with sheets of styrofoam carved with a drywall saw and coated with the material of your choice. 

Keep in mind you only need to do this where puppets actually will be walking, so part of the length of the street wouldn't need to be fiberglass. 

I missed that bit about the 1:9 scale.  I work even smaller for building whole streets, at 1:24, but that is not for puppet animation, I have close-up sections at 1:6 scale for the character animation.  

I don't know how wide your streets would be - I've been down some very old streets in Morocco that were barely wide enough for one donkey with saddlebags on.  So maybe anywhere from 1 ft to 2 feet wide?

Streets, even medieval cobblestone streets, tend not to be too lumpy, they might be on a slope and have a curve at the top or bottom of a hill, but even for wagons it needs to be fairly smooth.  So I'm thinking, you can use flat sections of particle board, ply, or MDF set at an angle, and curved sections of thinner ply or mdf where the angle changes, laminated together for more strength if needed, then only apply some texture onto that.    

Sloping streets definitely add a lot to the set,  compared to everything being flat and level, it did a lot for Boxtrolls having the town built on a steep hill.  Much harder sets to build, compared to just using the flat tabletop, but worth it.

Unfortunately I do have to animate in 1:9, I don't have the room to go bigger since my sets for this project are all in the streets. It's gonna be a pain, I know.. 

I did look at the Boxtrolls design a lot, it's so amazing, I love their style. I do have some slopes (Just tilted a table :p) but not as extreme. 

My streets are rather wide, since I have a lot of shots with a cart, so I'll try out what you said about only making a part of the road in fiberglass. 

Thanks everyone for thinking with me!

If you just need to create the look of several layers of streets overlapping each other, you can get away with sheets of cardboard stacked at odd angles. If you want to have a cobblestone look, you could use Blackwrap, a thick black aluminum foil that is used in motion picture lighting. It can be used to create very organic shapes, is lightweight, and incredibly strong when crumpled together. I would roll out several crumpled lengths of the Blackwrap to create planks, then take the thin edge of a screwdriver to press in indentations where each cobblestone began. You can stagger the indentations from one plank of Blackwrap to another, and as each plank would be slightly smaller or larger than the next, this will give you a really uneven road. To seal the overall shape you can use duct tape, and then paint a layer or two of plaster over that, and then give it a couple of coats of paint on top of the plaster. I'm not sure if you'll be able to walk on it, but given how small the scale is, you probably won't need to climb on the set to reach the puppets.

The image in this post is not the above, but will give you an idea of what it would kind of look like when completed. 


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