Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hands Part 1

So as I begin the puppets for this film, I have started breaking down their parts and pieces. The first full puppet I am working on is Gregor. He's a big Russian dude. I have done some rough designs, but kept it loose so I can really design as I go with him. He's going to be a built up foam puppet over an armature with sculpted hands and face. So lets start with hands.
Hands are often over-looked and under utilized in stop-motion. You'll hear a lot from animation masters about the importance or eyes and faces in character animation. I agree 100% but somehow hands are often approached as an after-thought. This is partially because stop-motion hands are hard as hell to do on your own. I have the advantage of working in a commercial studio with access to the necessary elements. Traditionally, when you have to get things done fast or cheap or both, you use a dipping method. This is where you make an armature for the hand, and dip it repeatedly in latex until it builds up into a hand. This is great for those Rankin bass elf style hands and I have even had some luck using fun-foam as a base to get more shape out of the final hand. This is fine if this is how you have to do it (I've done all my hands this way until now) but I decided that I wanted more sculptural hands for this film so I am sculpting and casting.

To start, I built a wire armature glued with epoxy into a brass tube below the wrist. This way, when the wire breaks (which they always do) Ill be able to switch out a new hand fairly easily. Hands get a lot of wear and tear. You constantly move the fingers in the same places but they are small so they need to be smooth enough that you can get some subtly out of them. For me, those subtle hand poses really bring the rest of the pose to life. Look and an elegant dancer. When they strike a pose all the way to the fingers, its ten times more beautiful than a flat hand. So you want strong, but small and smooth. The standard for this is floral wire that you can get at any craft store.I usually do a mix; small gauge aluminum wire for softness and a doubled up steel floral wire for strength. When you are figuring out your wire mixture, play with it. Try to image the amount of material (cloth, latex or silicone) that it will have to fight against. Its a good rule of thumb to make it just a little stronger than you think it needs to be. When I have my wire mixture figured out I bend it into my desired hand shape and glue the wire into a brass tube with epoxy. Use the 2 ton stuff and let if cure over night. There's nothing worse than getting it in front of the camera and having it break out because the epoxy isnt strong enough. At thins point I start dipping it in some hot clay to coat the armature and then put more clay on that until its roughly the right shape. I like to carve away at my sculpts so its good to put too much clay on to start.
Work both hands at the same time. If you do one and then the other, you're likely to waste a lot of time trying to match things. If you take them both to rough and then to finish simultaneously, They are more likely to be symmetrical. For these, I wanted blocky squared edges wherever I can get them. I sculpted smooth and round until they we close to finished and then started breaking them down into planes and squaring corners. I added square knuckles for fun. I like things to be fairly clean, but not as clean as commercial stuff or toy sculpts. That style of sculpting is beautiful, but for me, if you are doing stop motion, it;s great to see the process in the product. Leave a little tool mark in there and it'll be more human in the end.
When they are done being sculpted I prep them for molding. This is something I've done many times before, the wrong way, so this time, I went to some friends for help. My friend Marty who does lots of puppet work at Bent Image Lab. He walked me through doing things the right way, and although I am always a bit rough around the edges, it wasn't too anal.
I sprayed the hands with grey primer and then marked with a black sharpy where I wanted the mold to divide. You make dotted lines along an imaginary edge so that when you build the walls of the mold you have a guide of where you want the seam to be. I made a simple 2 part mold so my dotted line went along the side of the hand and around each finger. It's important to note that if you want a simple mold, sculpt your stuff flat so that there aren't a ton of under cuts. If I sculpted the hand in some clawed position the mold would be a nightmare with all of the undercuts. Then I coated the hand with a thin layer of Vaseline. There are fantastic release agents you can get, but if you're doing this at home, Vaseline works great. Just be careful not too thick, or your mold will have a lumpy or brushed texture. So now we're ready to make a mold. This post is long enough, I'll get into that on the next rant.

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