Sunday, 23 August 2015

Building Armatures: Nausicaa

I began planning this project in April, and when the summer holdiays finally came around I was ready to start making. 

The first step was to draw scale images of my puppets from different angles, and use these drawings to design the armatures. Let's start with Nausicaa.

I knew that I wanted her to be 15" in height, the size of an antique Japanese doll I own. I scaled up a front, back and side profile of a skeleton diagram to use as a base, and traced over it to plan the armature. 

The skeleton I'm making for my Nausicaa puppet is a more advanced version of the previous skeletons I've made for soft sculpture experiments. Although the pelvis and skeleton will be steel, the arm and leg joints are twisted aluminium, which holds its pose best for animation.

The brass K&S metal forms the 'bones' of the puppet, the gaps inbetween where the aluminium wire joints are. These were cut to size and filed down to remove any sharp edges.

The aluminium wire has heat shrink tubing applied to it, which will prevent the aluminium rubbing against the brass when bent - any nicks in the wire will weaken it and might cause it to break. The wire is then glued into the brass tubing with a strong 2 part epoxy.

The square K&S creating the basic pelvis structure will also serve as a rig point. If the puppet needs to be supported whilst being animated, a smaller piece of K&S attached to a rig can be slotted in through the back.

I made the feet in a similar way to Lisa Lichtenfels, with the wire twisted to make that nice back heel shape. This will work as a nice structure for soft sculpture.

The toe shapes are then added on, formed from a very fine copper wire.

By adding nuts to the balls of the feet, they can be tied down to a set. The nuts were first glued to the foot and then encased in milliput. Milliput is an incredibly strong 2 part putty, and once cured goes solid as a rock. This will stop the nuts from potentially coming loose.

Now that I had the basic shape of Nausica's body, is was time to build up the 3D skeleton element for soft sculpture - the ribcage and the pelvis.

The ribcage has always been tricky; getting symmetry and that bell shape with steel wire is quite difficult. I decided to try something a bit different, using very small brass tubing on the spine to slot the wire of the ribcage into.

This seemed to work very well, as it helped with the placement and shaping of the wire. Here is is half built up. The ball joint at the top of the puppet is so that the head and neck can be posed in a natural way. 

I cut the threaded rod to size, which is where the length of the neck. In this image they're just temporarily threaded on - the thread needs to be soldered to the ball for permanence.

The finished ribcage - I'm happy with how it came out!

And here's the final armature, minus the hands (I'm waiting on some wrist joints, so will talk about those in a different post!).  I'm quite happy with how she's turned out, and have certainly learnt a lot along the way. The next stage will be wrapping the armature in yarn for soft sculpture, but before I can do this I need to sculpt as cast the skull for the head.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next post, which will be about making the armature for Kai the bird.

Friday, 14 August 2015

From Inspiration, a Plan is Hatched

I decided to make Nausicaa and her bird because I love her character and the world she lives in, a world of giant insects and spectacular flying machines. But committing to this project was just the first step; my next course of action was to research and plan just how I would make these puppets.

There are many ways that stop motion puppets can be fabricated, so long as they can be animated for their desired actions. Think of old school Wallace and Gromit, sculpted from plasticine, compared to the 3D printed faces in Laika's 'Paranorman'. In this sense my options were wide open, but I already had my mind set on pursuing a different making technique entirely, one which hasn't really been used in animation before...

Discovering Lisa Lichtenfels:

For me, research is ongoing and daily. I'm forever reading articles and scouring the vast ocean that is Google Images for new inspiration. On one fateful day I stumbled across an artist who would excite my mind so much that I had to buy her book straight away to find out more about her work. That artist is Lisa Lichtenfels. 

Lisa creates incredibly detailed, life-like human sculptures from the least expected materials - batting and nylon tights. She firstly creates a wire skeleton in the desired final pose, and then sews layer after layer of thin batting onto this armature. Once satisfied with the shape, she stretches skin coloured nylon over the body and stitches it into place. The results are incredible, like nothing I've ever seen before. Here's one of my favourites from her book:

As I naturally gravitate towards sewing, this idea of 'soft sculpture' was immediately exciting to me. Upon receiving Lisa's book, 'Figures in Fabric' and reading more about the process, my mind wandered  to the possibilities of using the same technique for puppets. If the wire armature underneath was reposed, would the wadding pose with it, and hold its shape?

I began making my own figures with her book as my guide, and experimenting with poseability. Although I never got past the wadding stage, it was enough for me to see that this could really work for puppets.

This is a skeleton from one of my early attempts. As you can see, the wire armature is wrapped in yarn, which means it can be sewn onto. The bones are then built up with felt.

This is the body at a later stage, after having been built up with many layers of wadding. She's stood next to my 15" tall japanese doll for scale. This is the size that I intend to make Nausicaa.

I love the challenge and patience required when sewing on this scale. The results are very satisfying.

From reading Lisa's book I discovered that she was actually once an animator at Disney, and made character designs for 'The Black Cauldron' using soft sculpture. I contacted Lisa to ask her more about the connection between her sculptures and animation, and what she thought the possibilities were. Her encouraging words to pursue this project have given me confidence that the results could be good!

Initial Research:

With the knowledge of how my puppet's bodies would be made, I started gathering visual imagery for their finished appearances. For Nausicaa this mainly revolved around her face, which is very particular in terms of shape and proportion.

She has those massive anime eyes, tiny nose and big forehead. Having a lot of references to hand when I make her face will be be important for achieving an accurate model.

My research for Kai the bird has been even more extensive. Finding many good pictures of 'Horseclaws' has proven tricky, but the discovery that they're based on prehistoric Terror Birds was helpful. I've studied their skeletons, as well as the general skeletons of birds, to help me think about how the armature will look. Here's a quick little maquette I put together to help me with visualising the shape:

I try to sketch and collect images every day - anything to help expand my understanding of what I'm trying to make. To me this will always be ongoing, right up to the point when I'm adding the finishing touches to my puppets.

In my next post I'll be talking final maquettes and scale drawings. Thanks for reading!

Monday, 10 August 2015

A Girl and her Bird - The Nausicaa Project


Firstly, thanks for visiting my blog! My name is Rachel Brown and I'm a Performance Design student at The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, Wales. 

I'm about to start my third and final year, and intend to use this blog as a platform for documenting and reflecting on my projects. I hope what I learn along the way will be of interest to those who also love making in miniature!

The Nausicaa Project:

During my third year I have to complete three specialist studies for my exhibition, which should be relevant to my desired career path. Stop motion animation is my keenest interest, and I decided a while ago that puppet making was something I really wanted to explore further. 

I spent some time thinking about the characters I could bring to life, and wavered between designing my own from scratch or realising existing images. I eventually decided on the latter, because although I enjoy character design, it would be another layer of processes on top of what will likely be an extensive making project.

My final choice of character comes from one of my favourite animated films, 'Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind'. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where giant mutant insects and a toxic forest dominte the terrain, Nausicaa must try to heal the broken bond between humanity and the earth.

I'm unable to pinpoint Hayao Miyazaki's design for the film, which is a wonderful blend of period and sci-fi. From the architecture to the costume, every detail is considered, which greatly appeals to me and my making sensibilities. 

One of the fantastical creatures in Nausicaa's world is the Horseclaw, a giant dinosaur-like bird, genetically engineered as replacements for horses. Nausicaa's love of animals is one of her strongest traits, so as well as making a stop motion puppet of her, I also intend to create Kai, her noble steed:

Stop motion puppet making is very new to me, and as I'm not on a course that specifically teaches it. Therefore most of my knowledge will come from online resources, friends in the industry and trial and error! I'm excited for the challenges that this project will throw at me, and the amount I'll learn about new processes and materials.

I'll base my puppets on a variety of references, my aim being to create two fully animatable puppets which accurately depict Miyazaki's original designs. I intend to fabricate every detail, from Nausicaa's costume to Kai's embossed bridle.

Stay tuned for my next post, where I'll be sharing my research and puppet design process!