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 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 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


Small props for stop-motion animation

Back in 2011 I was making settings and props for stop-motion animation, and one particular scene I’d been asked to work on involved the eating of an apple down to its core. The film called for a kind of poetic realism .. I mean that its world was ‘ours’ to an extent, the puppets were recognisably human though stylised, furniture and props needed to be fairly accurate and believable, even though the action was often dreamlike. This was one of those moments in dream when reality is tugged a little more into focus, so although a loose approximation of an apple getting smaller in bite-shaped chunks could have sufficed I wanted to make the moment properly convincing.

So I modelled the whole apple first in Super Sculpey .. in two sizes because one would be needed for close-ups and the smaller for scene shots. I made silicone moulds from these, and then enough casts for about ten successive bites of the apple. My intention was to carve away each bite in the sequence, so I cast in thin Fast Cast polyurethane resin mixed with a third of Fillite (a light ash filler) which would make the material nicely carvable especially if using a Dremel.

I guess I knew from the beginning, or at least pretty soon after, that I would have to manually copy the ‘bites’ on each successive one down the sequence, but I didn’t want to make more than one mould for each apple size. I made the stalks individually out of white styrene rod, slightly carved and sanded (and the ends ‘crunched’ with something heavy). I used Vallejo acrylics to build up a nice glowing red in layers, and kept the surface detailing to a minimum since each stage would have to be exactly copied.

I made a very simple mould for both using my usual Lukasil 429 (from, a silicone rubber I’ve been using for years which has always been easy and reliable). For small and basic shapes such as these it was enough to tack them with a little more Sculpey to a baseboard, build a containment wall around them and pour silicone as a one-piece block around them. Once cured the silicone needs only to be lightly split with a scalpel to take the prototypes out and make the casts. This is what I often call a split-block mould. This is the easiest form of 3D casting, each cast needing just a little bit of clean-up work around the pouring hole.

Advice on making props etc. for stop-motion animation

This was an example of a special prop serving a visual sequence which had been properly thought through. In this case the way the prop would be used was very clear. This is not always so, partly because room has to be left for on-site decisions during animation and partly because it’s rarely possible to think of everything anyway, especially if props are commissioned at an early stage, long before animation begins.

In this situation it’s always good practice to allow for possible changes, and include these contingencies straight away at the making stage as long as they don’t lengthen the making time too much. One very good move, where there’s a choice, is to pick materials which are relatively easy to alter. Foamed PVC for example is very easy to cut and can be re-glued instantly using superglue. Another prudent habit is to keep parts which ‘may’ have to move separate until the last. As an example, even if something like a school-desk isn’t likely to be opened (according to the script .. and there should always be a script!)  it may be wise to keep the desk-top separate, and give the underside and the desk interior the same colour treatment as the rest just in case. On the other hand I would never go to the trouble of making working hinges for this kind of ‘what if’ because it’s often easier to animate a movable part like that just with a concoction of Blu Tack and bent wire.

If you’re asked to make props or furniture for someone else’s stop-motion animation you can only work as efficiently as the information you’re given .. or, more truthfully .. the information you’ve had the sense to ask for! I’ve never worked on anything where I didn’t have to tease out important facts by asking a lot of searching questions. You will of course want the principle design directives first .. the scale or dimensions, and the full visual appearance of each article. Then, just as importantly, you will need to know details of how each is used if at all, or whether they are just background dressing. These are the main questions, but there are many others that one may not think to ask at first, so here are just some of them.

If a prop is going to be used in the action, do we see the puppet holding it? If so, how easily can the puppet do this? For example, does the prop need to be specially light? Do holes need to be drilled in the prop to attach fixing wires, or if something like Blu Tack or ‘sticky wax’ needs to be used is the paintwork suitably resistant? In the case of pieces of furniture, do they need to be secured to the baseboard (partly to keep their position, but especially if sat in or leant against)? If so, legs usually need to be fitted with strong wires or bolts at the bottom.

Has the question of ‘relative size’ been properly considered when deciding upon the scale of a prop? To put it simply, just like dolls or cartoon characters puppets often have larger heads and hands in relation to their bodies and their overall height. If, for example, a retro style desk telephone is needed and this is scaled faithfully according to overall puppet height, it may look reasonable enough in the background but if ‘used’ the speaker/receiver part may look ridiculously small against the puppet’s hand or ear! The solution might have to be that two differently scaled versions are made, or just one slightly larger speaker/receiver part.

If you’re proud of your own work, if you’ve taken good photos and want to publicize what you can do, will anyone object if you do this before the film itself has become public? It’s important as a courtesy to reach an agreement, even if it’s not something dealt with in your contract .. or even if there isn’t a contract! You should consider the fact that an independent stop-motion film may be many years in the making and this is a long time, either to not be able to promote your own work or to feel a bit secretive or guilty when you do. Often this can be resolved, as I’ve done in this article, just by not mentioning the film by name.