Monday, March 3, 2014

Building Character: Julia Master Post

Most of my lovely regulars have been following the development of this particular mini-project in past posts, but a few such lovelies suggested a Master Post with the whole process, materials and more comprehensive insight into the struggles and victories I experienced while bringing Miss Julia to life. I think it's a brilliant idea. Not only do I hope that it inspires others in their endeavors, but it will help me when I start the next mini-project: IE Julia's counterpart, OniSan.

It's going to be a big hold onto your butts.  

The Idea. The original plan was to make a fully functioning stop-motion puppet, something akin to Coraline or ParaNorman since creating characters for LAIKA is my dream job. To begin, I watched every stop-motion movie plus their special features I owned or could find legally online and scoured through the two books that I got for my birthday on stop-motion:
      1. Stop Motion: Craft Skills for Model Animation: Edition 2 by Susannah Shaw (Recommended by LAIKA on Twitter and gifted by Mom)
      2. The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation by Ken A. Priebe (Gifted by Raul – whoever wants to gift me part one will be loved forever)
Both wonderfully helpful for people making puppets and for people animating puppets and really for anyone interested in stop-motion. After sticky-noting my way through these and doing some more Google-based research on custom part costs. It became clear that as much as I wanted to learn/strengthen my molding/casting and tinkering abilities, I would not be able to make her a puppet this time around. It would break my budget and kill my savings for our impending relocation. As I wasn't planning on animating her either, I couldn't justify the cost, no matter how cool. So the goal was revised to be: make a detailed multimedia sculpture – similar to the Swamp Witch I made for Joan Kresek's Illustration Media class but better. I could use that for displays and for lighting reference and it'd still be cool. Huzzah for multitasking!

The Materials List. Most if not all of these materials were already on hand since Raul does a lot of sculpting and I also have a bit of a sewing/cross stitch hobby on the side. (Comes from being raised by a mob of quilters) Everything else came from local craft stores such as Michael's, JoAnn's, and Meiningers.
    1. Armature
      1. Paper to cover workspace and tape to hold it in place
        1. Armature and Jewelry wire      For building the skeleton of the armature
        2. Piers                                          For trimming and bending wires
        3. Epoxy Putty                              For solid, immobile areas
        4. Wood Base and screw/nut        For a stand
        5. Tin/Aluminum foil                   For building the bulk areas of the armature
        6.  Calipers                                     For measuring things

  1. Sculpt and Paint 
    1. Super Sculpy (The peach stuff)                   For sculpting itself
    2. Turpenoid                                                    For smoothing out the clay
    3. Various sculpting tools                                For shaping the clay and smoothing surface  
    4. Acrylic Paints – opaque, translucent, glimmers            For painting the baked sculpture
    5. Acrylic gloss medium                                                    For “wetting” eyes  
    6. Brushes and water cup/paper towels and Palette paper                     For using the paint

  1. Hair
    1. Embroidery floss – various colors               Primary hair material
    2. Glue Gun and glue sticks                             For securing various materials in place
    3. Jewelry wire                                                 For structuring curls of hair
    4. Scissors                                                        For snipping things
    5. Tweezers                                                      For precision placements 

  1. Costume
    1. Two varieties of a basic costume satin.        For the dress
    2. Two varieties of satin ribbons                      For the ribbon-y bits
    3. Tulle                                           For poofing up the skirt without adding too much weight
    4. Lace                                           For details
    5. More Embroidery floss – same color as lace            For hand-made lace
    6. Thread and Needle and Sewing Machine                 For sewing and fastening things
    7. Bristol board paper                                                   For “stiffening” the corset
    8. Seed Beads                                                               For pearl details
    9. Jewelry Charm (From Britt)                                     For broach detail
    10. Pins                                                                           For holding stuff together
    11. *Had I a functioning Iron I would have used that too, for pressing seams more neatly. That's a Christmas Hint - Mom or Nana - Practical and Fun. ;) 

  1. Prop
    1. Scrapbook paper                        For the paper fan
    2. Thin, squared dowel                  For the support of the paper fan
    3. Regular glue                              For fastening the fan together

Of course I had a separate area reserved for working so I didn't have to waste time packing up each night. And I moved the lamp from the bedroom to the studio for more/better light. I mentioned before that I don't have quite enough light in the studio area, but what I do get from windows is cold north light as opposed to the lamp's predominantly warm light. This gave me a good sense of how my colors were engaging each other in various scenarios – since she won't always be sitting up in the studio. The unofficial materials list looks like this:
      1. Large glass of Milk                        For drinking/hydration - very important
      2. Snack foods                                    For snacking
      3. Speakers                                         For listening to Raul's Spotify
      4. Raul                                                For immediate consultation
      5. Circle of Trust                                For ongoing feedback
      6. Cell Phone                                      For checking time and occasionally         
                                                                 communicating with various people
      7. Internet                                           For ongoing research and other such things

The Process.

I started with piecing together the development page so I wouldn't be guessing along the way in terms of what I wanted her to actually look like or what materials would be most practical. A good deal of the researching started here. I looked at everything I could think of that would pertain to her character and the sculpt and I looked at things that might not necessarily be related, but I stumbled into and found interesting anyways. (This is a habit I thank my Mom for and also why I know so much random crap) I like to think I have a pretty good sense of what works and what doesn't when I have a clear picture of what I want the outcome to be. There's always some room for trial and error, but most of the time I end up with satisfactory results within the first two construction attempts. I find it best to spend a lot of time in this phase so there are fewer frustrations and broken hearts (limbs) later.

When I was FINALLY happy with her (This wasn't the first iteration by any stretch of the imagination) and the costume I made an orthographic image to scale of the final model. She stands 9.5” tall, so a little larger than the proportions LAIKA used for Coraline, who I believe stood about 7”. Drawing the blueprint allowed me to trim wires consistently to the right lengths (Calipers are super useful doing that) and build up the appropriate amount of cushion with the foil so as not to over-due the Sculpy and have problems baking.

I referenced a video tutorial that Jordu Schell made for the sculpting techniques as well as pestering Raul for his advice. (He sculpts a LOT of dinosaurs/creatures and was actually working on something-that-looked-like-a-hammerhead-newt-whose-scientific-name-I-can't-remember-and-I-feel-his-eyes-judging-me-even-now while I was doing this project) The hands were super hard. I did them once. Hated them and tore them off. Tried again. Hated them and tore them off. And then I rewired the finger armatures and tried again. Passable. Even though I wrapped them all separately in foil before baking...two still stuck together – eliminating my hopes for giving her gloves, like in the drawing. I followed the baking directions on the box of Sculpy – about 15 min at 275F – removing a shelf in the oven so her head wouldn't be too close to the coils. Thankfully nothing burned.

From here I could have opted to utilize the already peachy tone of the Sculpy, but I've never been fond of that color so I built up layers of skin – used pretty much every color under the sun...except maybe yellow. When I was ready for the smaller details of the face I proceeded cautiously, using the glimmer stuff sparingly on her lips and eyelids and saving the gloss medium on her eyes for the last touch. I added her little pearly necklace at this point with a seed bead and embroidery floss and a TINY drop of glue.

Next came her hair, which was super fun. Ideas of using my own hair were fizzled by the glue gun which liked to melt and burn things without my permission. In the end there was probably more glue on the table than on the project due to the gun dripping so much which was a bit disappointing. Didn't burn my fingers nearly as much though. I started with her lower, larger curls which are wires wrapped in embroidery floss (Got the idea from ParaNorman special features when they were talking about making Neil's hair). They were the first glued on. I had to reposition one and accidentally cracked her neck, but it's a hairline deal that paint covered up. If I hadn't just told you, you probably wouldn't have noticed. Then came the hiding of those wire ends with some very careful arrangements of “roots” and such. After that came the top of her head and the side curls, equally hidden amongst “roots” and finally her bangs which wove back into her bun. It was an exercise in problem solving for sure and I was really thrilled with how it turned out. In the Swamp Witch I had to braid clay for her hair and roll a million coils which I am admittedly not great at even though it came out okay. Embroidery floss is much easier, lighter and cheaper. It also comes in all sorts of fun colors and it's like string cheese – one strand breaks into 6 – who doesn't love that?

Next came the layering challenge of her costume – the real tricky part. I started playing around with the Bristol for her corset first before realizing the skirt should probably come before that if I was going to hide those seams effectively. So the first thing was the underskirt. This involved cutting out the pieces for the skirt (I didn't make a mini pattern for this like I did the mini corset a while ago, I guesstimated it based on the last skirt I made for myself) and sewing those seams. Cutting out the lighter green rectangles for her bottom hem, gluing those in place. Cutting the ribbons, gluing them together and to the skirt. Sewing the back seam. Prepping the waist cinch. And the grand finale of that layer – hand stitching the smaller lace. I used a basic backstitch so I didn't have to be as concerned with loosing loops than if I used a regular forward stitch. Once done I dropped it over her head and cinched it in place. (I bunched up the tulle and stuck that underneath to keep her skirts poof-y, probably could have used something else, but I had it on hand and it's not like she's going to be walking around much)

Next came the upper skirt, which I started the same way as the lower skirt. Once I had it cinched in place I glued the lace on the bottom edge (should have done that sooner) and used a hand needle to pull up the gathers and tack the ribbons in place. The bow was probably the one place where I could have spent a little more time on to get something closer to what I had in the drawing.

Next I wrapped the Bristol corset in more fabric (GLUUUUE) and wrapped her up snugly, which hid the aforementioned skirt seams. Next time I'll give it a bit more clearance in the armpit region so fitting the corset will be easier. I also cinched some of the lace for the sleeves. It wasn't until I was writing this that I realized that I forgot part of her sleeve. That's what I get for stashing the reference picture before I finished. Won't do that again. After the sleeves, I very carefully made the collar piece – opting not to do the hand lace there since that wasn't exactly fun the first time nor did I think it ended up subtracting much from the design. The jewelry bit came from Brittany's vast collection of jewelry coolness (THANK YOU) and I nipped the top part off with a pliers before gluing it in place. The seed bead there I had to sew on by hand.

The fan was fun and a lot more trial and error. I have a LOT of fans around my apartment, but I still had to basically guess how to cut the appropriate shape out of paper. 4th try got it. Then I had to fold tiny folds back and forth. And then glue the dowels bits in place and all that to her hand. Probably better that the gloves didn't work out at this point.

Then all the photography! My little brother took those classes in high school, but I didn't have room for them and the animation/advertising...kinda wish I had taken at least one of them though. I set her up with a blank background and used every lamp I owned to try and get something workable. My little power shot camera wasn't the best – nothing like the SLRs I had access to at school – but it worked well enough for the time being. I'll see if I can get better pictures before this fall. In terms of final victories – she looks MUCH closer to the drawing than the Swamp Witch did to her drawing, so vast improvement with my 3D skills/my ability to translate 2D to 3D. Albeit a few tweaks I am very pleased. Reminds me a little of Red Nose Studio. Love his work.

The Conclusion. Just because the sculpt was done, didn't mean I could rest. I had been doing some doodles of Julia while building the sculpt and taking all the process pictures, so I spent another chunk of time cleaning those up, formatting pages, etc. so I could have those four pages ready to post with the finish. I still have one more to do – her “beauty shot” - one visual development illustration featuring her. I'm contemplating thumbnails, but I may wait to revisit her until after I'm further along with OniSan's mini project. Wouldn't be much of a portfolio to just have one character in it. lol

I think in total she took me about 15-20 hours, but that was spread out over several nights and about half a weekend due to the day job – patience was key on this, I tried really hard not to rush or get ahead of myself – which translated to me looking like I was just staring at her for hours I'm sure. Definitely think I leveled up though, so I guess it's time for a quick character sheet update. :)

If anybody thinks of something I forgot or wants to know something even more specific, please leave me a comment and I'll reply ASAP. I hope to take her "on tour" this fall *fingers crossed* so anyone heading to CTN can come check her out in person. 

Onwards to OniSan!! :D


  1. Great work! Question though, did you do your baking with the character on the wood piece? And if so were there any problems with it? I have a sculpy sculpture I need to bake but it was sculpted on a wooden plank and cannot be removed from it...and I was unsure about putting the wood into the oven.

    1. Thank you! :) I did bake her while screwed into the wooden base. And though I was a bit nervous about it even having done the same for the Swamp Witch, I didn't have any problems. I would probably be a bit more cautious if the base wood were wet (Maybe certain types of wood will shrink/warp when rapidly dried out and cause the sculpture to become unbalanced and tip over?). I also placed her on a cookie sheet so her base wasn't touching coils or the shelf. Whenever Raul bakes his projects he also adds a layer of foil to the base of the cookie sheet...just in case. Good luck on your sculpt and shoot me a link when you've finished!! :)

    2. I've heard the tin foil thing a few times so I'll try that and the cookie sheet to be safe, and will definitely send over a link when it's done! Warning though, it is no where near as detailed as yours is...but my next one will be. :)

    3. Can't wait to see it! :) I don't think details are always that important. It's got to serve the story - so long as it communicates what you want to say you're golden.

    4. When working on something small and detailed in Sculpty and are afraid of baking it I've found that using a heat-gun (kind of like a really hot hair dryer) to bake as you go works pretty well. Just don't burn your fingers. :)

      Your character studies are excellent.

    5. Thank you!! Oh man, I am so checking the prices of heat guns now. :) Thanks for the tip!

  2. Beautiful work and an amazing post, Beki! You're the best.

    1. Great and Powerful Oatley! :D I am so glad you like it as your approval means a lot to me. Thank you for being the most awesome-st teacher and mentor!!

  3. What an informative and beautiful post. My daughter is really into miniature sculpture and claymation, and I've been trying to get her to use armatures and tinfoil to lighten up her creations, but she's resistant (she has autism). I wonder sometimes if she could see another artist using these techniques if she could be lured into trying them. Thanks for sharing your work with us.

    1. Thank you!! I can totally relate. I never used to think that I needed a good armature - and I was so frustrated because things kept shifting around that in several projects I tended to give up as soon as the weight of the Sculpy crushed it for the tenth time. When I started using armature wire I noted improvements, but I still wasn't sold on all the fancy wire wrapping and foil stuffing that Raul did for his sculpts. This time I caved and tried it his way. I was significantly less frustrated. I used more wire and foil...maybe a little too much epoxy, but also way less Sculpy (Which cut costs and bake time). I find it fascinating that so many people can solve the same problem differently, so I'm always looking for ways to improve my own work flow. I'm glad to be of any help or inspiration! : )
      If she doesn't already know about the Thorne Miniature Rooms ( she might get a kick out of them. They blew my mind the first time I saw them at the Art Museum in Chicago.

  4. I just found out this got Laika's attention. I'm not surprised, I actually thought of Laika the moment I saw this. Congrats! Your work is inspiring!

    1. I worked really hard to make this post as thorough as possible and I'm really thrilled that so many people are able to use it as reference and are so inspired by it. ^^ It really means a lot to me that I'm hearing such great feedback too. (I'm still a little floored that Laika reposted) Thank you so much for the support!!