Making a 1:6 scale ‘working’ fireplace

The cosy library set featured in the previous post included a fully ‘working’ fireplace. Any ‘flames’ needed were to be added in post-production using CGI so I didn’t have to worry about those. But my brief was to make the physical prop work .. that is ‘light up’ .. to an extent, at least incorporating a suggestion of glowing embers. At the time of making it was not yet clear whether the ‘coals and logs’ part would be seen in different states i.e. from fully stocked to nearly spent, so my thinking was that this part needed to be made as a separate and interchangeable shell .. a translucent one .. independent from the source of light. In any case, I didn’t want to mess with integrated electrics since they’re almost always a bit cursed, in my experience. So I decided to make the fireplace setup open at the back so that it could be lit from behind as simply as possible. Below is the only photo I managed at the time of the fire lit up, a quick test in daylight before the surfaces were fully painted and accessorized ..

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, working fireplace effect, painting unfinished

I designed the ‘coals and logs’ unit to sit within an ornamented grate which hid its edges and also masked spillage from the light source behind. This meant that it would be easy and quick to substitute different stages of the fire modelled on the same base-shape.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, Sculpey modelling of fireplace

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, Sculpey modelling of fireplace

I chose to make the base shape in Kapa-line foam, probably because this was easiest .. but Super Sculpey doesn’t readily stick to much, especially foam, and to have any control over the modelling a firm base layer is essential. So I started by massaging small portions of Sculpey to become almost paste-like and working them into the surface. Once this was covered the resistant, wax-like qualities of Sculpey could be fully exploited .. I much prefer to model by pushing/impressing, kneading and displacing, hardly ever cutting or scooping out, and a whole variety of weird impression tools will often do much of the job for me. I had a bag of strange, impossibly hard and oversized ‘croutons’ I’d found in a Chinese supermarket and I didn’t have to do much with these to create an interesting textural starting point. When it came to the ‘logs’ or chunks of coal I used a custom impression tool I’d made for tree-bark .. Sculpey modelled and baked over an old scalpel handle .. using it in a partly random way, just to create some spontaneous interest.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, Sculpey modelling of fireplace

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, Sculpey modelling of fireplace

But the whole looked dull, deliberate and lifeless, until I attacked the surface with brushes! The most successful was the black plastic one, like a large and sinister toothbrush, which accompanies wire brushes usually in packs of three .. I’d never found a good use for these plastic ones before, and none other since really! Once the Sculpey work was finished I made a standard mould from it comprising a silicone ‘skin’ part supported by a plaster jacket. This is common practice, even though it takes a little longer to complete than just pouring a block of silicone, because it cuts the amount of silicone rubber used to easily under a quarter.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, Sculpey model and silicone mould

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, casting clear resin fireplace

I had two options for casting the hollow, translucent shell .. using either clear epoxy or polyester resin. But epoxy resin can only be made thixotropic (converted from a liquid to a spreadable gel or paste) by adding a filler powder such as fumed silica. Dependant on the amount of powder needed, the epoxy resin could lose much of its transparency, whereas clear polyester resin can be thickened using a specially thickened  gelcoat  additive which is almost as clear. I needed to mix the clear polyester, gelcoat and shared catalyst together first before tipping the mixture into the mould. I had to wait about 15mins before the mix firmed up enough to be ‘shaped’ into a relatively even shell, using a chopstick as a spatula, but the window closed fairly quickly after that.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, casting clear resin fireplace

I’ve said ‘clear polyester’ but in actual fact it was the ‘general purpose’ or GP polyester resin from Tiranti, not the ‘Clear Casting’. I’ve always used Tiranti polyesters (whether general purpose, ‘multi purpose’, ‘clear casting’, gelcoat or thixotropic paste) partly because I’ve never had any major problems with any of them. They’ve also lasted far longer than any others I’ve bought .. for example, I used the same can of GP polyester on-and-off for over five years! Tiranti’s GP cures a warm grey/beige which can be seen from the following photos, but this was fine for my purpose, and the cloudiness (compared to Clear Casting) was also something which I’d hoped would diffuse the light for a better effect.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, resin and Palight fireplace unit unpainted

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, resin and Palight fireplace unit unpainted

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, resin and Palight fireplace parts unpainted

I removed the cured polyester shell from the mould the next day, and designed/made the ‘stool grate’ (that’s the proper term) around it using Palight foamed PVC. The photo below shows this primed in Humbrol matt black enamel (not yet given its metallic gilding), set up against the fireback and the hole cut to let the light through. There were restrictions to the depth that the fireplace unit could be, and I could have solved this with much more blackening or shading around the stool grate .. a shame, but there was no time left. What did work nicely were the strips of vinyl wallpaper I used to suggest the fireback stonework, washed and sponged with acrylic. 

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, painted fireplace parts

David Neat, prop and set making for stop-motion animation, working fireplace effect

To give the rich ember colour when lit, I had thought of coating the underside of the polyester shell with red/orange/yellow glass paints (i.e. Marabu GlasART or Pebeo Vitrail) which I know work very well. But it the end I felt it would be more adaptable if the colour came from the light source, or through gels fixed behind the cut hole. Since I’d spent some time on the modelling (especially on getting the texture interesting) the painting was fairly simple .. an overall skim in black first with a large ragged brush, followed by less of a skim in mid-grey and then even less in light grey. Again I used Humbrol enamel for this, just to be sure the paintwork stayed on the polyester surface if the piece was going to be handled.

David Neat, props and set making for stop-motion animation, fire effect

I used a thicker Palight for the fire surround and mantel shelf below, and the small ‘designs’ were cut/carved using the thinnest .. 1mm. Palight of whichever thickness can be carved and sanded with surprising ease .. it’s a lot like carving a soft wood, but without having to cope with grain direction, and the exposed ‘grain’ hardly looks any different to the rest. Here in the UK it’s available in white up to 10mm thickness from Bay Plastics at http://www.plasticstockist.co.uk  though from 2mm onwards it’s actually ‘Palfoam’, which is an even softer variant.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, fireplace carving in Palight foamed PVC

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, painted fireplace surround

For creating a controllable ‘speckle’ with a slight sheen to it I base-coated first in a lighter tone then mixed darker acrylic with some acrylic retarder gel, to stipple it over. This allows a decent amount of working time in which to even out the effect and it makes the paint into more of a glaze. Most of the tube acrylic paint companies offer their own brand, though one will work with another, however the ‘gel’ type has become less common. Now it’s usually a thickish, glycerine-like liquid but it should work in the same way.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, fireplace setup nearing completion

Thanks again to Astrid Baerndal for the only photo I have of the fireplace installation properly assembled, under natural light with no atmosphere unfortunately, in the hurry to ship the whole model off. The large fish were modelled in Super Sculpey over Styrofoam base-shapes; hollow-cast in polyurethane resin; basecoated in Humbrol matt black enamel, then ‘dusted’ with Treasure Silver Wax Gilt finish like much of the rest. More about the making of the fish can be found about a third of the way down my general article Modelling and shaping, one of the group Making realistic models which is first on the menu in the Methods section.

Casting prop books and making ‘specials’

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, cast and painted books c 1:6 scale

Continuing with the subject of prop-making for stop-motion animation, back in 2011 I had to make a small library full of books for one particular film. I made both the sets and props, including furniture, and the heads of the puppets for this one. The setting was broadly based on Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill so the books had to look ‘antique’ but with a little more freedom in the choice of colours. Most of the books on the shelves needed only simple surface treatment, and could be faked because they weren’t going to be taken out or touched, so for the most part it was sufficient to create ‘blocks’ of convincing frontage with some suggestions of depth at the sides and tops. But there also needed to be many piles of loose books on the floor and on tables, plus a proportion of loose books in the shelves, and a few of these actually needed to be opened! Below is a close-up of part of the shelf-book frontage with singles interspersed. Many thanks to Astrid Baerndal http://www.baerndal.eu for this and countless other excellent photos in the past!

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, cast and painted books in shelves, c 1:6 scale

Since all of the books .. whether faked blocks, simple or more involved singles .. were made in polyurethane resin, the painting method was basically the same. The castings have to be left for a few days to fully cure; then they need to be lightly scrubbed in warmish water and detergent; then primed using a plastic primer such as Simoniz or Rust-Oleum; after which they can be painted with regular acrylic using whatever preferred methods. I used a mixture of my usual acrylics .. DecoArt ‘Crafter’s’ or ‘Americana’ also Rosco Supersaturated and in addition Vallejo Model Color for fine details and transparent glazing. Given the prominent ribbing and other textures the ‘worn’ look was easily achieved with a combination of careful sanding with a sponge-backed sanding pad and some dry-brushing. The film-makers agreed that any attempt even to suggest writing on the books would have been too overwhelming in effect .. quite apart from the effort, since there were many hundreds of them!

Library at Strawberry Hill, watercolour original by John Carter 1784

Above is the original watercolour by John Carter showing the library at Strawberry Hill, published by Walpole in 1784. Below is a photo I took of part of the 1:6 scale set in progress, under natural light without the full decoration, just to rehearse how the first try-outs of the shelf books were going to look. In addition to the blocks of 4-5 books at a time I included a number of individual books which could lean against them and impart, I’d hoped, a less regimental, more informal and certainly less tightly packed look than most of the other ‘old library’ references I’d seen. The other reason was that there would be scenes where some of the books fell from the shelves and started flying around the room!

David Neat, set for stop-motion animation (in progress, unfinished) c 1:6 scale

To look more closely at the ‘singles’ first .. my plan for the more detailed individual books was to prototype a collection of different covers and ‘spines’ in various matching sizes, and assemble these around a Kapa-line foam core. This was because the books had to be as light as possible and it was also because I had a good technique for scraping the foam with rough sandpaper to look just like blocks of old paper. I had some sample swatches of embossed paper from the firm E.Becker and these, together with some vinyl wallpaper patterns, were just the thing for creating some variety in the book cover surfaces. I cut and sanded shapes in 2mm Palight foamed-PVC and spraymounted the patterned paper on. I sanded/impressed the ribbed spine parts in Kapa-line foam.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, book parts ready for mouldmaking, c 1:6 scale

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, moulds and casts of book parts, c 1:6 scale

I think I must have run out of my usual Lukasil 429 silicone rubber to make all of the moulds so for the spines I used some leftover paste-form silicone which involved completing the mould block with a plaster ‘jacket’. The casts above are made from Tomps Fast Cast Polyurethane. Below is a collection of individual books ready for painting.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, cast books unpainted, c 1:6 scale

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, various 1:6 scale model books

Above is a selection of the individually finished books showing the range of sizes and different treatments. There are touches of gold, which I preferred to be very sparing with. Thanks again to Astrid Baerndal http://www.baerndal.eu for the beautiful photo!

The bulk of the shelf books needed also needed to be as light as possible. Because of the size of the model and the number of shelves to be filled I think I’d calculated that it would involve about 5 metres worth of miniature frontage!. For these ‘blocks’ I shaped individual fronts (only about 2cm deep) varying the heights and thicknesses, stuck them together and made moulds from them. These Kapa-line prototypes below are already simply painted because I wanted to test whether the detailing would be sufficient when dry-brushed to look worn.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, casting runs of books, c 1:6 scale

David Neat, prototype and mould for 'book blocks'

Shown above is one of the block moulds together with, this time, the painted resin cast. What is visible at the bottom of this is actually the top .. I’d realised I would have to detail at least the first centimetre or so at the top because this might be seen. Below shows the making of these complete blocks in progress, involving a short line of ‘frontage’ with a ‘complete’ book attached either side. This was necessary because the full depth would be seen when the loose individual books in between fell or flew out.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, 'blocks' of shelf books being made

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, book moulds being filled with resin and foam

The parts of these book-blocks were cast in a resin/Fillite mixture (Fillite is a very light, grey ash filler commonly used in resin casting, especially where reduced weight is needed). As a further reduction to the weight I inserted blocks of Kapa-line foam while casting.

I’d made the range of individual, more detailed books first so I could make moulds of some of these to cast the larger end-books for the blocks, because for these it didn’t matter that one side would be blank.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, completed books ready to be moulded for re-casting

As I’ve said, there were a few special books that either needed to be opened and read in the course of the action or others which would flap like birds around the room. Luckily for me, I didn’t need to introduce tight hinges to animate this ‘flapping’, so I choice to make the practical books using cut portions of cheap notebooks, choosing only those in which the pages were firmly glued to a cloth spine which I could also attach to the cast covers. I could seal most of these pages shut, leaving a few free at the place of opening. These I covered with copies of minutely scaled-down text on especially thin cream coloured paper.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, making a 'working' book, c 1:6 scale

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, c 1:6 scale practical books

I had a particular challenge coming up with a method of achieving the elaborate, raised cobweb design on the main book above. I wanted it to be as fine and sharp as possible so this ruled out drawing it on with a relief medium, even one of the relatively fine relief outliners used in glass painting. In any case, this might not have survived much handling! Luckily I had been thinking for a while about possible methods of ‘working in negative’ .. that is, casting into voids or depressions made to achieve certain effects instead of working ‘positive’ .. so I made use of the ease with which Palight foamed-PVC can be finely incised (a little like lino-cutting) as a mould for casting this very detailed form.

David Neat, props for stop-motion animation, carving a 'negative' for raised decoration on a 1:6 scale book

 

New Blades 2016

Once again 4D modelshop and the colleges taking part (see the list below) have come together with a truly excellent show of graduating work .. unique, inspiring as ever and unmissable .. if one could make that single June 9th! I could have easily spent a week of my life there and considered it both a lot of fun and a valuable education, especially if it included the chance to talk more properly to the exhibitors who are always so approachable!

This post is just a sample because I want to include much more eventually, but it will take more time to collect together the right information i.e. more images, proper titles and some background info from the makers involved. There was so much that was praiseworthy .. I felt there was even more inventiveness this year, and consequently more of the unexpected. I congratulate those who received awards on the night and accept that these were deserved .. but I have to say that these choices were much at odds with what I personally found most noteworthy or inspiring in the show!

New Blades 2016 featured 120 graduates from the Arts University Bournemouth, University of Hertfordshire, University of Bolton, City of Glasgow College, University for the Creative Arts and and Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology. For the complete photo album of the 2016 show .. pretty good photos under the circumstances! .. go to:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/newblades/albums

 

Annette Larsen Skjetne

Above Annette Larsen Skjetne below Emily Bowers

Emily Bowers

 

Alex Wilson

Above Alex Wilson below Christine North

Christine North

 

Becky Marsh

Above Becky Marsh below Alex Lanfear

Alex Lanfear

 

Luke Black

Above Luke Black below Sophie Magern

Sophie Magern

 

New Blades 2015

For another year running I was so thankful that I didn’t miss the single, ever-so-brief chance last Thursday 11th to see New Blades 2015 the annual model makers recruitment fair at the Holborn Studios in London. In actual fact this was amazingly the 23rd year running and this unique event is organised each year by 4D modelshop on behalf of the colleges, featuring the work of graduating students from model making or special effects courses throughout the UK ( go to the end for more info on the colleges and courses ).

I have rather ambivalent feelings towards the terms ‘model’ and even more so ‘model maker’. Personally I cringe inwardly when I’m referred to as a ‘model maker’ because I feel it instantly reduces me to a fraction of what I am or what I’m involved with .. and judging by the quality, depth and variety of much of the work on show at New Blades 2015 I think the graduates deserve to feel the same! But however much I might dislike the term because of how little it’s understood ..seeing the show makes me very proud to be considered a ‘model maker’ too!

I’ve tried to include photos here of the work that most impressed or interested me this year, but I’ve also included work from past years which I felt was indicative of New Blades as a whole. Unfortunately, since there are no catalogues or online records of the exhibits, I was limited in the choice of photos and only had the names of the exhibitors, but no work titles or other info..

Thomas Hughes, New Blades 2015

From this year’s show above work from Thomas Hughes and below from Alex Brooker

Alex Brooker, New Blades 2015

This is not really a ‘review’ of New Blades 2015, just some thoughts on what I saw and on the regular institution the show has become over the years, because I feel that something so special deserves wider attention. The students, their tutors, the colleges and the organisers could do with more feedback, in spite of the show being very well attended during the brief time it was on.

But wider publicity is more for the benefit of the public than the contributors. There is work here that would not be seen anywhere else .. at least not so close and personal. Each year the chance comes along to focus on the type of painstaking, practical work that contributes so much to our media experiences .. if actors are venerated, almost worshipped by some, for igniting our imaginations why not the objects created too?

Imogen Nagle, New Blades 2015. Tiger mask

Also from this year above from Imogen Nagle and below from David Patterson

David Patterson, New Blades 2015

This is a great deal more than a ‘model making’ show .. it is a roller-coaster ride through some of the finest, most entertaining, most inspiring examples of physical making! It is a show about passion, dedication .. and breathtaking skill! At times it’s very difficult to connect the works on view with the young, hopeful people standing next to them during the ‘Industry Night’. The quality of many of the objects suggests more years of experience .. many years of practise and an ‘old school’ attention to detail. What comes across from the show as a whole is that the passion and dedication are so obviously shared by everyone involved with it .. the organisers, the tutors, the industry professionals and the commercial sponsors.

How can this rather diminutive word ‘model’ begin to do justice to the serious quality and vast range of the work produced. In this context the word has to embrace prosthetics, costumes, ‘cosplay’ artifacts, theatre and film props, puppets, animation sets, automatons, animatronics, character portraiture, creature design, architectural models, product design, museum and exhibition displays, sculpture, fine engineering and bespoke furniture.

Stephanie Bolduc, New Blades 2015. Still from 'Manoman'

Above still from Stephanie Bolduc’s short film ‘Manoman’ and below work from Alexandra Poulson, both from this year’s show

Alexandra Poulson, New Blades 2015

Below work from Matthew Cooper 2014

Matthew Cooper, New Blades 2014

Joanne Harvey, New Blades 2014

Above costume work from Joanne Harvey 2014 and below Ollie Knights from the same year

Ollie Knights, New Blades 2014

Perhaps the general tag of ‘model’ is not so bad in some respects though .. it is like a little signpost pointing to the ‘hands-on’, the physical and practical. Unlike some Degree shows objects are always centre-stage here, and partly because of that each show is packed with immediate focuses of interest .. but never feels cluttered!

'please touch' New Blades 2013

The roller-coaster experience may be a little unkind to the architectural or product models exhibited .. I always feel a bit sorry for them! They need a quiet zone of contemplation. They are often beautifully made, faultless, and they certainly have their devotees amongst the audience .. I would say the same for the custom vehicles .. but they’re not so likely to get the ‘popular wow’ vote.

Henry Welch, New Blades 2015

Above Henry Welch from this year and below Petre Craciun from 2014

Petre Craciun, New Blades 2014

Below Ollie Knights 2014

Ollie Knights, New Blades 2014

There are however prizes awarded in a number of categories, including ‘Best Architectural Model’ ( awarded in 2014 to Petre Craciun, above ). We all like being acknowledged ourselves and it’s difficult not to be moved when we witness the acknowledgement of someone we believe deserves it, but I feel that the prize-givings are more just a part of the entertainment. With so much variety, so much choice .. it can never be completely ‘fair’ .. I’d estimate a good 25% of the achievements in New Blades deserve the same accolade each year!

Speaking of choice .. in terms of subjects and treatments I’m guessing that students don’t have a completely free choice as to where or how to focus their efforts. If they want to get work these choices are conditioned by the market and tutors would be failing the students if they didn’t equip them to satisfy it and guide them towards it. So bearing this mind there’s always a surprising measure of individuality and innovation .. I’m just not sure that I want to see another Incredible Hulk, Elephant Man or Dobby the House Elf. I feel that no matter what skill or sensitivity is shown it’s getting hard to remain inspired by them.

Skilled makers don’t necessarily have to be innovators, or have great or original ideas, but in New Blades 2015 as in previous years there was no shortage of ‘special’!

Thomas Hughes, New Blades 2015

Above another piece from Thomas Hughes this year and below from ‘S.B’ 2013

S.B, New Blades 2013

Below another piece this year from Imogen Nagle, ‘Herman the merman’

Imogen Nagle, New Blades 2015 'Herman the merman'

The show also offers the unique opportunity to learn something about the making processes. As one comes to expect from design/practical Degree shows there are many portfolios to browse through which include detailed records of the designing and making process. What distinguishes New Blades in this respect compared to other Degree shows I visit is that many of the students really do take this aspect of ‘record keeping’ seriously .. as an integral part of their work. Often the work-in-progress photos are not merely snapshots, but carefully balanced and crafted works in themselves! I think this reflects the increasing importance of Internet presence, but also perhaps the increasing popularity of ‘making ofs’ as part of the entertainment.

Imogen Nagle, New Blades 2015 'Herman the merman' sculpt

Above ‘Herman’ sculpt from Imogen Nagle and below the ‘space bulldog’ maquette in progress from Thomas Hughes

Thomas Hughes, New Blades 2015. Space bulldog maquette in progress

But I feel one of the most important inspirations from this exhibition within the current climate is that much of the best work emphasizes the value of ‘fusion’ .. the discerning use of digital help and the perfect fusion of traditional hand-work and machine-enabled. Faced nowadays with a greatly expanded toolbox, ‘model-makers’ have to become expert ‘choosers’.

Rujie Li, New Blades 2015

Also from this year above Rujie Li and below Jack White

Jack White, New Blades 2015

It may be wrong to take perfection or absolute realism as benchmarks for judging the physical work .. one has to accept that if the work is destined for the screen it could undergo further transformation. Considering the fusion of practical and digital methods currently prevailing it may not make economic sense for a physical object to contain every nuance .. it may be quicker, easier and cheaper to add refinements digitally. On the other hand I’m guessing that the students are nevertheless encouraged to put as much as possible into the physical rendition. I was very glad that the exhibition gave the physical objects centre-stage, and that there seemed to be very few monitors or laptops around!

This year’s students haven’t exactly been ‘quick off the mark’ in getting their portfolios online, part of the reason why I’ve used examples from past years as much as from the present to illustrate the range and standards achieved. If you like what you see, you can see more work from this year’s or previous exhibitions at

https://www.flickr.com/photos/newblades/albums/

.. and go to the 4D modelshop website from May onwards next year to see when the next New Blades will take place.

There’s only one single and major fault with this show .. that it’s not on for longer, at least long enough for more of the public at large to appreciate what it offers! It’s always brief, but this year was extremely so. It’s a big ask in London though! It must cost a lot to stage it even for a couple of days and all money made goes towards the costs.

University of Hertfordshire, Character and creative effects

Above work from the University of Hertfordshire website

The colleges and courses

If you’re not a film/tv industry insider you may struggle to understand what is meant by ‘visual effects’ as opposed to ‘special effects’ .. and it’s even a little more complicated when it comes to courses! Course options are changing in accordance with constantly evolving territories. For example University of Hertfordshire offers three ‘Model Design’ BA choices .. ‘Character and Creative Effects’, ‘Model Effects’ and ‘Special Effects’. Arts University Bournemouth offers one comprehensive BA in ‘Modelmaking’. University of Bolton runs a BDes in ‘Special Effects for Film & TV’. University for the Creative Arts entitles their BA ‘Creative Arts for Theatre and Film’ and City of Glasgow College offers an HND in ‘3D Design: Model Making for the Creative Industries’.

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