Working with the Hands

February 1, 2014

Elf Head and Power Lines


First were the initial ideas and sketches and writings.  Then I started the artwork, the concept art, the storyboards, the poster art to be hung on the bedroom set.  Now I'm working with the three dimensional world with sticks and glue and clay.  Now that the bedroom set is just about finally dressed I am starting to build the masks that are required to tell this story.



Production Values


Production values are one of the reasons we love to watch films.  We love entering the world of the cinematic story and production values are what we expect from these films.  Great camera work, good lighting, interesting sets and locations, appropriate props, special make-up and masks and special visual effects that look as real as can be or that bring a style all their own, a cast of thousands, great choreography and all the rest that movies offer including musical score, creative editing, etc.


I've been making masks for many years now and from many different materials; from painting up paper bags, to papier-mâché , to sculpted clay molded and casted with latex rubber.  Each medium, or material has its own quality and has levels of production value.  For example, Lord of the Rings would be a whole different film if instead of complex make-up effects and masks, Peter Jackson instead chose to use papier-mâché masks and cardboard swords.  On the other hand, a film like David Lynch's Eraserhead would not be the same if the little radiator woman singing with the puffy cheeks was a computer generated image or made up from complex make-up effects.  The raw nature of her make-up adds to the mystique and nightmarish quality of the film.  The director has to decide on what effect can be achieved that is most appropriate for the story while also considering the budget. 



Elf Head


I decided first that since the elf head I was going to build would be about twelve inches in diameter and maybe fourteen inches high, I would not make it out of clay and then cast it in rubber.  The expense and the work would not be needed.  The elf is going to be a very short scene, (a few shots), in the dark mostly and not shot in close-ups but in full body shots only.  Therefor the detail isn't critical.  After searching objects that might have this egg shape similar to my design and not finding anything, I decided to buy a pack of balloons and make the base of the head from papier-mâché.  I love papier-mâché because the process is very meditative, just like animation; one strip of paper at a time is dipped in the glue paste and then placed on the balloon until the whole balloon is covered.  What is achieved is a beautiful shape that is no longer a balloon but a delicate egg shaped newspaper sculpture.  I like to paint each layer of paper, after dried, with white gesso paint so that I can easily see what the next layer of paper needs to cover.  The while paint also allows me to see what the shape is as it reflects and shades the light.  Then there is that white shape that is so much like an egg and so light and delicate and you just have to hold it in your arms and cradle it.  Then I put another layer of paper, this time brown bag strips of paper that will dry harder than newspaper.  I could continue this process until the mask base is hard as wood.  Next I tape rolled up and bunched up tissue paper to the mask base to get the basic shape of jaw and the flatness of a face.  It helps to then paint a face on the surface to get a sense of what the face will look like on this shape.  Working this way involves a lot of randomness and letting go.  For example, I have to now work with this egg shape and build from there while if I sculpted the whole thing with large chunk of clay I could have decided on the initial shape from the beginning and continued to change this shape at any time.  Papier-mâché is fairly rigid and not so easy with major shape changes that might warp or pucker the whole shape or reveal creases in the paper.  After finishing the base for the mask I had to decide how to make the features of the face - the eyes, nose, and mouth, etc.  I could have done these with papier-mâché and bunched up or rolled paper, or masking tape or Celluclay (papier-mâché pulp), or a liquid latex build-up process, but all of these would leave the features a bit rough looking and since the head was already pretty rough and low-tech as it was I decided that I could make the features a bit more detailed and smoothly formed (upping the production value of this video).  I decided to sculpt the eyes, nose and mouth and chin and ears from plasticine clay, then I made a cement mold and then cast them in latex rubber.  These then will be added to the mask using the liquid latex like glue.  It will be sort of a Mr. Potato Head approach.  In fact, I think the end results will look a bit like a big red radish or beat head. 

I know that at some point I will need to build some portion of the suburban landscape in miniature and so I decided to start with a power line tower.  This was made with chop-sticks that were glued and cut to size and also some thin Popsicle sticks.  As I built it I couldn't help thinking that I was working on one of the old Godzilla films where they had to build these wonderful little cities that he/she would destroy.  Building things like this is really a small step away from drawing.  I am drawing in three dimensional space in a sense.  Making a drawing buy gluing sticks together.  I've found sculpture to basically be very similar to drawing, the difference being that with sculpting you are always considering and shaping several angles of the object.  Shaping an angle, turning, shaping that new angle, turning shaping that other angle, revolving it back and reshaping that original angle again.  Like a Rubik’s Cube.




Multi Tasking and Production Line


I always felt a little disappointed when I found out how most special effects companies worked.  Artists are assigned to their areas of expertise, which definitely makes sense, yet I wanted to do many different things, not just be assigned to that one area.  A painter needs to sculpt and a sculptor needs to write and a writer needs to act and an animator needs to sing and dance.  All these disciplines inform what we love to do and make what we do richer.  As I teach students I always tell them that whatever their discipline, (because I teach everyone from actors, animators, directors, editors, cinematographer and computer effects students), it is good to make a short video in which you can do what you love while venturing into all the other aspects of a film.  This full experience allows them to keep their work in context of the larger picture while giving them a taste for other art forms, some of which they may decide they would rather persue. 

I started out in animation and I still have the approach where I build many things at the same time.  While the papier-mâché mask is drying I work on gluing the miniature power line tower, while that dries I work on more concept art, then I get back to the mask that is now dry enough to work on again, etc.  All of this is in service of making this video and telling this story, but as I get older I am more and more aware of how it can all be a meditation.  As a young adult, while doing some emotional work and looking at early childhood experiences, I realized how drawing and doing stop-motion animation was a way I gave myself space to slow down and focus.  It probably saved my life.  Later I further noticed how stop-motion animation was like dance.  It breaks down the movement one incremental step at a time.  I would much later explore this aspect of movement and stillness with the body when I made my film Jump Fence in the 1990s.

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