The Crucible of Transmutationanecdotes about the creative process

Making Models and Props (part 2)

By 1987, I was reaching my goal of becoming a professional stop-motion animator; however, the work was inconsistent due to the typical "per project" hiring practices of the movie industry. To remain employed, I continued to take on sculpting and model-making gigs. Sometimes the two professions were both needed on the same production, a situation which worked out very well.

Scary castle on hilltop

This spooky castle was created for a 1986 Budweiser print advertisement. Anton Tremblay designed and supervised the project, while Christopher Halsted and I were sculptors. The main material we used for the project's fabrication was green foam, aka "green death" in the model-making industry. The process of carving the foam caused the release of gritty, nasty particles which were very hazardous to breathe and tended to cling to our clothing. The only real advantage to using the material was the fact that it was fine-grained and easy to carve. Typically we would don disposable coveralls and use a respirator or a dust mask to protect our health while sculpting the foam. The finished model, which I photographed on stage for my records, stood about four feet high. In the actual final ad, a couple of people were composited in, positioned by the bridge and looking up at the castle (without the benefit of Photoshop, which had not been invented yet).

Labyrinth made of hedges

Here we have another scale model, a garden maze, created for a print ad and designed by Anton Tremblay. By 1986, I was working on many of Anton's projects and we became fast friends. It was a lot of fun to make the maze, cut the basic shapes out of Styrofoam and paint them green. To give the appearance of hedge foliage, we applied white glue and then sprinkled on a shredded foam "ground cover" product that was originally made for model railroads. The grass area was actually made of carpeting, painted green and carefully brushed to give it a natural clumping appearance. For the pathway, we found that fine aquarium gravel worked well. The completed garden labyrinth model was about three feet per side in scale. I photographed this image outdoors for a realistic effect. Although I never saw the actual advertisement, I suspect it probably looked quite different from my personal shot.

Frog and Toad view a distant mountain

The mountain is from the 1987 stop-motion film* Frog And Toad Together*. Besides being a principal animator on the production, I also constructed several of the sets. Director John Clark Matthews tended to prefer using craft store materials for his movies. For instance, most of his sets were made of Celluclay, an instant papier-mâché product. I sculpted the distant mountains and the foreground using either chicken wire or screen over a wooden support to get the basic shapes. Celluclay was then applied on top to give a nice organic feel. After a paint job with acrylic paints, I added scale model railroad trees to the mountain and dressed the foreground piece with mosses and artificial ferns. To give a sense of distance to the mountain, a stretched sheet of translucent material called "bridal veil" was placed between the foreground and background. That idea came from an old special effects trick that had been used to give the illusion of atmospheric perspective.

Frog and Toad in a scary woods

The frightening forest from Frog And Toad Together was fun to create. I fabricated the trees and rocks using the aforementioned Celluclay over chicken wire method. It was easy to achieve a convincing bark texture by sculpting the Celluclay. Artificial leaves from the craft store came in handy and they were in perfect scale since the sets were 1/1 actual size; however, we cheated the scale of the tree trunks for the desired effect. In reality, trees would look gigantic compared to the characters, Frog and Toad!

Frog and Toad encounter a snake

I used the same techniques for the snake cave set. Note that the Frog and Toad world included a light green sky. By the way, the snake puppet was sculpted by my buddy, Don Waller, while John Clark Matthews sculpted Frog and Toad. Nikki Matthews handled the foam latex puppet fabrication and clothes.

Ralph Mouse in his grandfather clock home

I was an animator on the 1987 ABC television special Runaway Ralph. I also made this grandfather clock dwelling and several specialty props for the production. The set was actually constructed inside a real clock to which I added a couple of wooden platforms on which Ralph could perform. Then I dressed the set with various items and weathered everything with paint to give a grimy, lived-in look. Additionally, many of the clock mechanisms were rigged for the purposes of our stop-motion animation.

Super hero mouse watch

I also created this custom watch for Runaway Ralph. Based on a sketch by John Clark Matthews, it depicts a super-hero mouse similar to the famous Mighty Mouse character. I started out with an ordinary Timex watch and built up around it with Sculpey modeling clay. After completing the sculpture, I made a silicone mold, then two castings out of polyurethane. This method allowed me to incorporate both the working watch movement and the crystal for additional realism. Gloss enamel paints added detail, color, and shine. The watch band was made of a stretchy material and painted pink to look like the mouse's tail. The ultimate result was a prop that looked like a manufactured children's watch. I made two watches in order to allow simultaneous filming on separate stages if necessary. In the movie, the watch served the purpose of a "MacGuffin" - an object of interest that helped to drive the story.

Story © 2015
Read part 1 and part 3 of Making Models and Props.
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