Building up a Classic Stop Motion Monster

written by Richard Svensson

The techniques described here are very useful for creating the King Kong-Harryhausen-type monster, dragon, dinosaur, etc –that is, creatures that will be featured with live action scenes and that are supposed to look pretty ”real”. It´s actually easier to create an extremely detailed puppet with the build-up method, than a smoother, more stylized one like Gromit. You´ll end up with seams that need to be hidden and that will go easier on a puppet with scales, wrinkles and the like.

After building (or buying) your armature it´s time to put some flesh on it. I usually start with making the head as a separate sculpture and cast it as such. This is just to get the look of the head just right, since it´s a pretty important part of your character. You´ll have to figure out what kind of a mold will be appropriate for your puppet head. The idea is to get the head as a loose, but not to thin, latex skin that can be placed over your armature head, which will be covered with foam. In short; you make the sculpture, do a mold of it in durable gypsum material (such as Ultracal), and pour some latex into the finished mold. Take care to make the latex a little thinner in the mouth and eyebrow areas, if you will have movement there.

Eyes can readily be made out of plastic pearls or balls. To make eye sockets I press down the finished eyes halfway into a piece of clay, then apply a few layers of mold-making latex over the exposed part of the eye as well as a small area of surrounding clay. The last layer of latex is reinforced with some cotton. When the latex has set you have a flexible eye socket that will hold the eye, but allows you to move the eye around by pushing it with a pencil eraser. Put the socket in place on the inside of your latex head skin before attaching it to the armature. Pop the eyes into place after painting your puppet.

Sometimes I attach latex gums and teeth directly to the latex head skin. You can also make teeth and gums out of Sculpey or the thermo-plastic ”Friendly Plastic” and stick them onto the jaw of the armature.

Check out pictures of muscles without skin and study how they overlap each other. Nowadays you can even find images of dinosaur muscles. Take time to do a sketch of how the muscles are supposed to sit on your puppet.

Cut pieces of a foam mattress to form your muscles. If you can use two different densities, softer for around the joints where there´ll be a lot of movement, and harder for areas where you will be grabbing hold of the puppet a lot while animating, like the upper part of the back and the back of the shoulders. The muscles are glued on with contact cement and put in shape as they are bent and glued in place. The smooth outer surface of the foam mattress will of course be facing outward. In this way the entire armature is covered. Try bending the joints every once in a while and check that the foam doesn't´t hinder the armature in its movements.

When I make skin for an entire puppet, like a dinosaur, I roughly measure the proportions of the built-up body. This means that I do an approximate measure of the length of the body, the stretch of area from the top of the back to the bottom of the belly, underside of tail and underside of neck. Together these measurements make a sort of pattern that I simply draw an outline of on a piece of clay rolled out flat. This outline should look like a skinned dino- a pelt. Several shapes are then sculpted in this clay surface; larger folds, wrinkles and scales –I´ve even made some veins on occasion. When you have this pattern to go from it´s really easy to see where you should put detailing. Of course, additional detailing occur spontaneously when you stretch and shape the skin while attaching it to the foam muscles, but I like to add some stuff already when the skin is produced. It makes for great control.

Then you make a plaster cast, preferably in Ultracal since it´s a really durable material. Tear off a piece of foam rubber and use it to sponge some latex into the cast. Try to find latex used for slush-molding fake noses and such appliances. My impression is that it´s softer than mold-making latex. Let the latex dry in the mold, powder it liberally with talcum and remove it carefully by peeling it slowly from the mold. Use a new sponge (duh) and dab the inside of the skin piece with latex. Then carefully lay it onto your built-up puppet, slowly pressing the skin against the foam muscles until the liquid latex has soaked slightly into the foam. Now leave the skin on and let it slowly stick to the foam. It won´t take that long. Just sit with the puppet and press on the skin here and there until it has grabbed hold of the puppet in all spots. You will now get some wrinkles around the body that will hopefully look natural, but if you´ve already sculpted some wrinkles and folds in the skin before casting it, these will help putting the skin in place in such areas as around the legs, tail, and neck. This larger skin mold is also usable for creating smaller skin pieces for the legs, for patching, etc. You can´t get away with a build-up and not patching the skin, but it does help working with larger pieces of skin to begin with. After applying smaller and overlapping latex pieces, hide the seams with some drops of latex. As I said, I prefer to sponge the latex into the molds. This creates thinner, more uneven edges that are easier to blend over each other.

Sometimes I´ve also made texture stamps for producing scaly skin. This means I´ve sculpted only a tiny part of the skin, made a thin, flexible mold of it with mold-making latex and simply used this flat latex mold as a texture stamp, pressing it into larger clay sculpts to create skin texture easier and faster. Sometimes I´ve made texture stamps from toys, real reptile skin and other surfaces.

I usually paint my puppets with PAX-paint (a mixture of the prosthetic glue ProsAide and acrylic paint). This gives you a very strong painted surface, although a tad shiny. You can choose to drybrush color after color over your puppet of airbrush it using acrylic paints. I use a type of paint used by taxidermists, that comes with a base that really grabs hold of the airbrushed shades.

Picture of some of my puppets-in-progress can be found here:

Purple Mushroom

And thanks to Marc Spess

 

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