Saturday, 12 March 2016

Sculpt Completion, Vacuum Forming and Plaster Casting

This post contains a lot of images that do a better job of showing you how the sculpt processed than I could describe. The process of splitting the face made it much easier to make the sculpt symmetrical because there is a solid line marking the clear middle point of the sculpt. It also added a fresh look to the sculpt when it was split in half and laid out, and it was simple to put the two sculpts side by side and use a ruler to compare the height and proportions of both sides. Whilst in nature nothing is symmetrical, it is good to have a general level of logical symmetry in the sculpt in order to make it attractive and to make the parts match neatly.

After finishing the sculpt as you can see in the time lapse above, I put each half of the sculpt on buckets and used a copper wire to push through the sculpt at the low points and details of the skin folds, mouth edges and eye corners. Because I had planned this, the holes drilled in the MDF guide made it relatively easy to locate the parts of the sculpt that had no MDF underneath them, so the wire could be pushed in at an angle and pulled all the way through and out of the other side. These holes allow the vacuum former to suck the details in whilst the plastic is hot, and prevents any air bubbles and loss of detail.
Vacuum forming is always a little nerve wracking on a soft clay sculpt, as it's often only the one chance you'll get before the sculpt is heavily damaged. I was very lucky in that both sides of the sculpt pulled perfectly first time in the vacuum former.

Shiny, smooth and detailed!

As you can see, an unfortunate side effect of using the plastic baubles as the eyes in the sculpt was that they got absolutely stuck to the inside of the vacuum formed face, causing more destruction to the original sculpt in removing the face from the sculpt. Whilst this is not a huge issue because they don't add any considerable weight, I wanted to make a plaster cast of the inside of the heads before I began cutting them up, just in case I made a mistake or needed to modify a part of the shape.
To fix the problem, I used a Dremel with a cutting wheel and a sanding end to remove the excess bauble until it sat flush against the eye socket. After doing this I began filling the inside of the face with a fine casting plaster, propping it up with styrene blocks I cut on the bandsaw to be the same height as the highest point of the face, double checked with a level.

The Natural History Museum and V&A

It was so fascinating to see a Dodo skeleton in the flesh - however it was unclear how 'well put-together' this skeleton was as the only information on it was about the extinction and history of the dodo. I imagine this skeleton is made of parts of different birds and possibly some reproductions as it doesn't seem to 'match' perfectly, in size, texture and colour. The skull is definitely real, and makes me glad that I've decided to make the dodo head longer and with a slimmer beak, instead of thick and stubbier with a very bulbous end like a lot of art and other depictions of the Dodo stylise it to be.

Something that has surprised me is the layout of the feet - in all the other depictions of Dodos I've seen, the back toe is either more towards the inside of the bird more like a thumb, or is in line with the middle toe of the foot and completely central. On the skeleton above, you can see that the back toe sits angled towards the outside of the bird; I haven't seen this in any other examples and it makes me question if perhaps the bird is presented in such a way that the feet are incorrectly rotated inwards. Of course, it doesn't feel right to question the staff of the natural history museum, but this is rather unusual.

The top image is also from the London Natural History Museum, and the bottom is from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. In the top example, you can see that the rear toe appears to be angled slightly inwards towards the bird, and the bottom example shows on the left a rear toe in line with the rest of the foot, and on the right one that is again angled towards the inside. This conflict of depictions suggests to me that it may be most logical to go with the most frequently presented option, and as such the toe will be in line with the rest of the foot.

The two paintings that are above were in the 'Images of Nature' section of the Natural History Museum. The top image shows the classical, most popular painting of the Dodo in its natural habitat, surrounded by other birds in a dark and tropical paradise in a beautifully textured and atmospheric scene. On first glance, the image below it looks like a cheap reproduction, lacking all the texture, depth and skill of the first painting, but it is actually a depiction of the Dodo that better reflects all of the new findings that have been discovered about the shape and size of the Dodo, including that characteristic slimmer beak. There are certain aspects of the Dodo that I'd like to keep faithful to traditional views of its appearance, such as the fluffy, puffball tail that will add so much movement and character to my puppet, but some traits like the flatter back of the newer depiction will better suit my intended purposes and design, being better able to take the saddle and rider.

On a different but equally interesting note, below is a pair of trousers from the ballet 'Swan Lake' which were in the Victoria and Albert Museum. As you can see they have a fantastic soft, fluffy texture, which according to the information panel is simply silk chiffon. Whilst I am avoiding animal materials from an ethical standpoint more in line with the intentions of this puppet, it would certainly be interesting to play around with a synthetic chiffon that hasn't required the labour of an animal to produce, to see if I can achieve a similar effect. I imagine this will be most simply done by sewing a wide strip to a base fabric, then cutting and 'ragging' a bit with a wire brush. Dependent on the texture of the chiffon, it might not even need to be 'ragged'; it depends how straight the fabric naturally hangs.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Snuff Puppets - Australian Roaming Beings

Snuff Puppets is a puppetry building and performance company that has traveled all over the world delivering strange creatures that explore the relationship between puppet and audience. Their shows are often peculiar, vulgar or oddly sexual, embracing the ability that puppets have to 'say what can't be said'.
These cows are both part of a show and roaming puppets, chased by the terrifying butcher whilst causing trouble along the way. The puppets have a very unique style - some would say lacking in 'finesse' - but their personalities give them a lot of strength and their unique appearance only adds to this characterisation. The show comes to a conclusion when the butcher catches the cows, pulling out their guts in a sexual frenzy - truly peculiar and quite frightening, these shows aren't for the feint of heart - even if the audience often involves children.

The snail is slightly less terrifying as a roaming puppet. He wanders around, stealing people's hats and eating their heads. One thing that all of the snuff puppets have in common is that they have a structure, covered by lightweight fabrics which make them look slightly tent-like, and makes them easy to move. Lightweight is a quality that roaming puppets have to have - to be used for a good amount of time without needing a break, the puppeteer must be able to perform without becoming too fatigued.

The seagulls are really fun - they aren't pretty to look at, but neither are real life seagulls. Their charm is all in the way they are performed with. They are an embodiment of cheekiness, looking for trouble, stealing food and terrorising people just as normal seagulls do. The costumes being so lightweight allows the performers to be as energetic as possible, leaping around, grabbing each other with their beaks and generally being as spirited and lightweight as birds are. This is more important for a bird which can fly than my Dodo; the Dodo is partially characterised by it's 'chunky' and 'weighty' look, bumbling along the ground as a floor-dwelling creature, whilst flying bird puppets must be feather-like and almost slightly ethereal to read well.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Big Beast Feet

Dodos have attractively balanced feet, with three frontal toes and a rear 'thumb' (not opposable). This will translate really nicely to the puppet, as the foot layout means that the shoe for the wearer can sit inside the main flesh of the feet, with upholstery foam attached and carved to form the toes. 
I will put an EVA foam mat, similar to plastazote, on the bottom of the feet to create a textured, waterproof sole that is lightweight, flexible and durable. 
Claws are an important part of the look of the foot and the puppet will need something flexible, like the rest of the foot. It would be nice to have something with a sheen, or at least a different texture to the rest of the foot, that is still lightweight and durable. This could be plastic, latex or a carved and coated more rigid foam. It must be able to take knocks without breaking or detaching from the foot, and must not get dirty too easily.

Here is an example of how many mascot style feet are made, which involves making a template, cutting it out of upholstery foam, carving and upholstering. I intent to use this process on my feet as a quick and straightforward method of making my Dodo's oversized (50cm long!) feet.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Large-Scale Puppet Example: Tauntaun

This Tauntaun puppet from Star Wars is a good example of a large puppet with fake legs. It also utilises a pair of plastering stilts to gain height and make the puppet a more accurate comparison to the movie piece. It has limited movability; the head and neck do not hinge, there is no moving jaw and whilst the tail looks like it could have some swing to it, it doesn't have any movement mechanism inside of it. However, the sheer size and height of the puppet still make it impressive; it's a large beast that dwarves the people around it and attracts attention.

The finished puppet seems to be lacking some finishing touches; the way the maker has made it entirely out of one type of fur means the body lacks visual interest, especially with no kind of shading. The head looks nice - it is made of expanding foam, which is a good material for pieces without a moving jaw but can be fragile in thin pieces. In this example, it works well because the head is one large chunk, so has no way of collapsing.
The legs look a little small for the wearer; it's obvious they've patterned them from just a couple of tubes, or even just stuffed a pair of trousers and put some boots on them. This is an absolute pet peeve of mine when it comes to 'rider' type puppets as it's not very difficult to make a realistically proportioned pair of legs; even if it results in the legs looking large on the puppet, at least they are a believable size and don't break the illusion of the puppeteer riding the puppet.

It appears that the maker has used an aluminium backpack-type frame to attach the body of the Tauntaun to himself. I plan to make a similar frame, but one that doesn't come so far up the back as not to be visible under the puppeteer's clothes; it also feels a little bit over the top for the smaller bird's body. By making a smaller structure as a back brace, I can disguise it as a saddle, adding security whilst allowing the puppeteer to still wear cool clothes for summer gigs - the wearer of this costume has to wear a large, padded winter coat to cover up the lines of the pipe.
The puppet's internal structure is made from PVC pipes and some form of flexible plastic bracing. This cuts out the need to have foam over the PVC structure but you can see in the photo of the finished puppet that the body lacks a pleasing structure, as the fabric has dipped slightly between the bars. It isn't too noticeable with such a long fur but it'd be distracting on any structure covered with a thinner material. Because of this, my PVC structure will be covered with a foam shell which is smooth and round without any dips or lines. Whilst using a cage structure instead of a foam shell would have less weight, I don't feel like it's a worthwhile compromise when the structure would be visible under the fur.

Friday, 4 March 2016

The Rider: Who, What, When, Where and Why?

It is important to develop this project not only in terms of the bird itself, but also the costume as a whole - this includes a rider.
I started fleshing out her character further by creating this rhyming lymerick-al account of the freeing of the Dodo, fleeting over the pair's background together and how they found each other.

"Sophie was a Scientist who studied every day, but when she heard of the cruel and absurd, the laboratory who recreated a sacred bird, she reacted with dismay…

You see, the laboratory didn’t care for the kind heart and trusting mind; their eyes were laid upon subjects of the meaty kind: The Dodo, a big, bold bird, once stood tall at three feet high.
But the laboratory created a larger, bulbous thigh: A big head and big brain, a puffball chest, a beefy body and a fluffy tail crest, standing at a sturdy five feet tall: a large, friendly fellow who came to call. This reincarnation was no act of kindness, but an act of selfish absent-mindedness; a chunky profit in the meat industry - for the knife was this bird’s destiny.

One quiet night at the laboratory, Sophie swept in with a stolen key. She snuck her way inside its white walls, weaving in and out the halls, until she stumbled upon…
Our friendly bird Beef, with curious eyes - they stared each other down with blank surprise. Quietly unlatching the door, Sophie lured Beef from the laboratory’s core, and the pair sprinted to freedom through the cool of the night, into Sophie’s home upon the fifth flight.

Comically round in the cube of the flat, Beef seemed to be feeling rather fat - he squeezed through the doorway, helping himself to the tempting fruit on the kitchen shelf. Sophie had no quarrels: as she quizzed in her head, planning to make Beef a comfy bed.
Sophie laid awake that night, the lounge was dark but her mind shone bright. For as Beef slumbered in the master bedroom, she was driven to save others from doom: you see, not only Beef was at peril that night, and with this one must embrace the animal lovers’ plight: If you love them, leave them be - for all animals should be safe and free."

Sophie's stats are that she is a 24 year old Conservation Scientist. She is an only child that comes from a working class family, and is the first of her family to have been to university. She works in a laboratory in London and is renting a small fifth floor flat which is full of curious and anatomical models she's saved from the bin at work and the local museums. She has a very bold and some may say... tacky fashion sense, but it's certainly unique. She loves old music like Fleetwood Mac and has an extensive record collection. She is incredibly stubborn and doesn't like being told she can't do things. However, with that stubbornness comes determination, and it's this determination that helped her save Beef from the peril of the meat industry.
Sophie has long, curly brown hair and tends to favour clothes that you wouldn't usually expect to see together. She wears a cream Victorian-style frilly shirt that she found in a charity shop which helps to give her the confidence to be the person she wants to be. It is also cool enough to wear in the summer months whilst still looking as fancy as she wants to be.

Sophie's suede flared trousers are her favourite part of this outfit, and they're straight out of the seventies. Somehow they manage to tie her outfit all together - perhaps because they're so outrageous. They suit her natural colour palette well and have a tactile softness that matches her bird, too.

Sophie's chequered socks are her idea of bringing a little bit of punk into her life. Unfortunately, she also decides to wear them under a pair of sandals, unfortunately destroying any element of coolness that they bought to her outfit.Sophie is quite a shy character, though - but when she dresses up for festivals, her bold clothing choices help to bring out her confident side in interacting with the public as they're amazed and intrigued by her giant Dodo friend,

Sophie chose to wear gummy sandals over her socks because they remind her of the freedom and excitement of being a child. Her mother bought her a pair from the big shoe shop in town and she loved them - until she grew out of them a few months later. She was adamant that she needed to get another pair to fit her adult feet, and has treasured them in their glittery gold glory ever since.

Depictions of Dodos in Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland'

Alice in Wonderland has been depicted over and over for decades, and it is for that reason that I'm not touching on it too heavily outside of research - I don't want to redo a book which has been done so many times before. However, it's a great source of reference for different interpretations of the Dodo character.

Sir John Tenniel's original illustrations.

Alice in Wonderland has such popularity that even Disney have created an interpretation, including this plump, jolly and somewhat professor-like bird. It's interesting to see the different ways people have interpreted the colouring and proportion of the Dodo, as there are so many illustrations and examples of Wonderland.

Alexander Dodon's Russian Dodos.
Björk and Eriksson's Japanese Alice in Wonderland.
Peter Ferguson's Alice.
As I have a large collection of images of further Alice interpretations, you can see more under the cut;

Sculpt Time Lapse Videos 1 & 2

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Pixar's 'Ice Age' Dodos

Ice Age illogically has Dodos in it's story - the Dodo was not an evolved species during the Ice Age era, and neither were humans. However, this is the cartoon world - and the 3D models for the Dodos in this film are very pleasing to the eye. They have very chunky bodies which contrast with their skinny legs, and in the same vein the dramatic changes of thickness in the beak add a lot of visual interest to the character.
It is, however, a little disappointing that as usual, the Dodo is portrayed as a clueless beast which drives itself to extinction through it's own poor decisions. Hopefully as you've read by now, this wasn't the case at all, and it's frustrating to see these kind, intelligent birds portrayed over and over as guffawing hooligans too blind to see their own shortcomings. My Dodo will be the pinnacle of intelligent, witty and cheeky, interacting with the public to hopefully encourage them to reconsider how such a smart hunk of feathers could have become extinct, and how human actions are causing animals to become extinct all over the world.