Monday 19 January 2015

The Making of My "Fawkes the Phoenix" Puppet - Part 1

or My Feathery Descent into Insanity...

I recently became aware of the phenomenon of shoulder puppets. I was impressed with the lifelike results achievable using a simple bike cable mechanism and it set me thinking… what could I make that capitalises on this? Having not long visited the Harry Potter tour at Warner Bros Studios it was a fairly safe bet that my simple man-brain would take me in a wizardy direction, and true to form I soon became obsessed with the idea of building my own Fawkes the Phoenix.

Step one was to come up with a basic plan…

Now I’m not completely insane, I realised this was a somewhat ambitious undertaking. This wasn’t a simple sculpt and paint, there would be a number of processes involved that I had little to no experience of, so to minimise the risk of my enthusiasm running out before the project was complete I decided to make the puppet slightly smaller than the adult bird seen in Dumbledore’s office.

I knew I would need to sculpt the head and feet but the skeleton needed to be reasonably light weight so it made sense to make this from a wire frame which I could then pad out with foam or wadding. I came up with a number of ideas for the mechanism but couldn’t really try them out until I had a structure to try them in… so I did a rough sketch, approximately to scale, and with the barest of plans decided to get cracking.

Step 2 Sculpting the head 

I’ve seen other people sculpt things but had no idea if I could make a proper job of this. In the past I’ve always been more of a kit basher/plasticard fabricator. I knew I needed a frame to work on and that I should use some tin foil at the centre to bulk up the shape and keep weight down… so I got a coat hanger, quickly bent it into a triangle (for stability), squeezed some tin foil onto it and got going.

I roughed out the shape of a bird skull as a starting point, trying to view from different angles as I went to keep it all symmetrical. Then came the waiting. Waiting for clay to dry. This turned out to be the hardest part of the sculpting process, trying not to tinker with a sculpt whilst it was drying.

The next day I added another layer of clay and pressed some beads in to form eyes. The clay was simply too lifeless and soft to work any kind of consistent detail into it whilst it was this thick, so again I played the waiting game.

Day three I finally started sculpting detail onto the face,

Day four I realised the head was far too long and filed a large chunk off the beak. I also received delivery of a bag of glass eyes so I dug out the beads that I had been using and replaced them with the new arrivals. Also reworked the brows.

By day five I was fairly happy with what I’d got so time for the next step…

Step 3 Learning to cast resin

I figured it would be better if I had a strong but light weight head on the puppet rather than a chunk of fragile clay. It would also be helpful if I had a few copies to allow for experimentation. I had read some tutorials on resin casting on the interweb and decided to have a go. I ordered a resin casting kit which arrived swiftly and set about making a mould of my clay master.

I had hoped the silicone would be thick and cling to whatever I was attempting to mould but instead it all ran off, so I ended up mixing more silicon than I had intended and encasing half the head.
This went reasonably smoothly, although there is one thing I have learned: don’t try to enclose silicone with plasticine. It just doesn’t hold. The silicone worked its way through my plasticine dam again and again despite me standing there plugging leaks. The stuff takes like 12 hours to set so I gave up trying to contain it long before it had gone off. In future I’m going to try hot glue and card to contain this stuff.

My first few casts turned out nicely but the mould soon started to leak and is now kinda ropey. The leaked resin effectively glued parts of the plaster support mould together which resulted in the plaster breaking as I tried to prize it apart.

Initially I had hoped to slush cast a hollow head so I could fit the eyes, but I soon realised it was far too small for me to attempt to fit the eyes from the back of the head, and besides I couldn’t seem to slush cast with a thin enough wall. My solution was to cast up a head with the glass eyes already in place, stuck to the inside of the mould. This worked a treat, with only very minor clean up required.

I was so overjoyed with my first resin casts I carried one around with me for a couple of days :)

Step 4

Soldering the skeleton

I bought some heavy gauge garden wire from a local DIY store which was easy to form but had enough strength to hold its shape. I started making up elements of the skeleton, laying them over my scale sketch. Once I had a front and side profile I used cross ties to hold the proportions then formed up some rings to join them together. I used masking tape to hold everything in place and ended up with a surprisingly sturdy construction.

I had always intended to solder the skeleton in the long run but the solidity of the skeleton using just masking tape made me wonder whether I could get away without. After much consideration I decided that the tape simply couldn’t be relied upon, over time it was sure to dry out and crumble, solder would be the better long term option… which of course meant I had to learn how to solder :P

This went OK but not great. I think I could have done with a larger soldering iron, the one I had just wasn’t able to transmit enough heat into the wire skeleton to get the solder to melt evenly around it. I would have liked it to be perfect but I didn’t obsess too much as I knew this would all be hidden in the finished build.

Step 5 Sculpting feet

I had been putting off making the feet, I’m not sure why but it didn’t sound like a fun job. In the end though this was one of the easier parts of the build. Being something of a novice when it came to resin casting I’d had to put a lot of thought into how I was going to form the feet and make the mould. I went for a very simple design although looking back I could have separated the toes quite easily and had nicer results.

I sculpted them in clay, over half a coke bottle to give them a curved base. For texture I borrowed one of my niece’s dinosaur toys and coated an interesting looking scaled area with some thick Copydex. Once this was dry i peeled it off and pressed it into my wet clay to transfer the scaly texture.

I made sure the sculpt was fairly symmetrical so it could be used for both feet. It took some thinking to work out how I was going to cast them but I think it worked fairly well. I tried a different method to dam the mould, using card with plasticine to hold it in place but again the silicone slipped through with ease and before long I gave up trying to plug the continually emerging holes. Definitely trying hot glue next time.

*** EDIT: I have since learned that plasticine and silicone is a really bad combination, I'm lucky the silicone set at all. There are special "sulphur free" oil clays available that are fit for this purpose ***

When it came time to make the casts I set a loop of wire in the resin so I could attach the feet to the skeleton.

Step 6 Painting resin

This was the part I was probably most confident about. I grew up painting Games Workshop products and went on to train as an illustrator, I was pretty certain that whatever else might go wrong with the project the paint job was going to be OK.

I'd already used one of the first heads I cast to do a quick test paint. I undercoated the head with a plastic primer then worked over this with acrylics, finishing up with a matte varnish. The paint seemed to adhere to the surface just fine, and although the finish was redder than I had intended I was happy with the results. I decided I was ready to paint up the good head with the glass eyes cast into it.

This went smoothly. I dry brushed some of it to give it that slightly leathery look whilst also painting in some false highlights to add visual complexity. I yellowed the back edges of the head where it would blend into the yellow feathers and help hide the eventual join.

To protect the eyes as it was being painted I masked them with copydex, a cheap solution that worked fine, only minor touch ups required.

I used a similar process with the feet, combining dark washes and light dry brushing to bring out the texture. The claws received a coat of gloss varnish.

< Continued in part 2 >