First post of the decade!
This spring, the graduate course i teach will be Masks and Armor. Because of the way some course-offering rescheduling has shaken down, I haven't taught the course since 2007. The last time i taught it, I recall that the students struggled with a couple of the topics we covered--scaling up from a maquette to a full size matrix , and molding and casting in plaster. We talked about it and looked at static images, but at the time i thought it's be great to do a demonstration of either of these things, but that it wasn't really practical--the class period is only so long, and it doesn't help much to get started on something as a demo that's going to actually take you 10-20 hours to realize. And, i have mainstage responsibilities to keep up with as well; it'd be one thing if i were making masks for the show i'll be working on (and thus have a built-in reason to do the sculpture outside of the course demo), but i'm not.
At the time, i thought, "Next time i scale up a mask from a maquette, or cast in plaster, i should make a video to show them the stages." In all my copious free time, of course. So needless to say, that didn't happen. And then, some time ago, i heard about some existing videos which, though not specifically tailored to the purposes of theatre, might be some good resources: John Brown's character sculpture training DVD series
, and the Monster Movie Masks
series by Omar Sfreddo and Anthony Giordano.
So, who are these guys?
John Brown has worked as a character sculptor for the toy and animatronics industries, and as a creature concept artist in Hollywood for such films as Mars Attacks!
, and Monkeybone
. He has released a series of DVDs through the Gnomon Workshop
on various aspects of the character-creation scuplture process--everything from making armatures to maquettes to full-sized characters.
Omar Sfreddo has done creature effects for films such as Spiderman 2
and The Chronicles of Riddick
, while Anthony Giordano has worked as a prop fabricator for Saturday Night Live
. They've put together a three-disc series on sculpting, molding/casting, and finishing/painting monster movie masks of the 'giant rubber villain' variety.
The creature-creation demands of film are different than mask-making for theatre (for example, the high degree of close-up realism film commands is not applicable to theatre, while the allowance for speech acoustics and actor vision that theatrical masks require is not applicable to film), but there's enough of a basic crossover that i thought, it's worth checking them out.
The problem is, well, i'm successful at what i do, but i don't just light my fireplace with burning $100 bills because money means nothing to me anymore; educational DVDs are costly and i don't want to drop a few hundred dollars on DVDs sight-unseen, when they might be poor references or not useful with respect to my field.
That's where SmartFlix.com
comes in! They're a mail-order DVD rental service, kind of on the same level as Netflix, except all their DVDs are instructional topics in a wide range of fields, everything from blacksmithing to working with fiberglass to firearms training to sewing techniques. From SmartFlix, i was able to rent the DVDs i was interested in for a fraction of the purchase price. It turned out to be a great bargain (3 DVDs for a week's rental came to $26, as opposed to a purchase cost of over $100), and completely convenient; like Netflix, they come with their own postage-paid return packaging so all you do is drop them back in the mail when you are done watching them.
So, on to my reviews of the DVDs themselves!
First up, the Sfreddo/Giordano DVD, Monster Movie Masks: Molding and Casting Latex Masks
Okay, so clearly these men are good at what they do, given their resumes. And, my expectations of educational DVDs are much lower in terms of things like whether there's segue music, quick cuts between multiple camera angles, artistically designed credits and other text elements, and how many takes are possible. Plain fonts, stretches of silence, and occasional imperfect action segments ("Whoops, dropped my brush...as i was saying, apply the solvent here...") are to be expected.
This DVD though, it embarrassed me to watch it, the production quality was so slipshod and the presenters so unprepared and nervous. It's clear that both men are extremely uncomfortable in front of a camera, and they give the impression of having never taught any kind of workshop before. There were several spliced sections of text (such as tools/equip lists, supplies needed, etc) that were full of blatant spelling errors--at one point, even Omar Sfreddo's name is misspelled. Overall the actual editing is truly poor, as well, cutting the men off mid-sentence at illogical points in the presentation and struggling with volume issues. I'd crank up the volume to hear the sotto voce
narration, only to have some dorktastic segue music blow me out of the chair. There's stuff on YouTube that people have made on their laptops that's better quality than this.
There were a couple of bits of good advice (for example, their "standard" of sculpting at 120% scale for "one size fits all" applications, or the use of a custom-made skin texture stamp created by taking a latex surface mold of an orange), but i felt they went too fast for the utter beginner and too slowly for someone with some experience in maskmaking already. I think these DVDs would have benefited from Sfreddo and Giordano hosting several real-time workshops with actual students, to iron out their own confidence issues and to preempt a lot of the problems with timing. Real students would make them stop and clarify, or they'd realize when they were spending too much time on something, and that would have ultimately improved the video itself. But, all that's moot, because the videos exist, and i am glad i didn't pay $60+ for them.
John Brown has an 8-part set of videos out, but many of them deal with full-body sculpture of characters, either for animatronics, CGI 3D surface mapping, or prosthetic production. I chose to check out just Volume 3: Sculpting the Detailed Head
, which covers scaling up a creature head to full-head size from a 1/3 scale maquette.
Brown is a better teacher than Sfreddo and Giordano--he exhibits a bit more confidence in front of the camera (though his frosted Hollywood rocker hairdo made me laugh...er, admittedly only because it reminded me of a guy i used to date), and seems to have at least conducted a few workshops in real-time situations before making his DVD sets. He suffers from improvisational diction issues (lots of "you know, uh") and his propensity for prefacing teaching moments with the word "obviously" worked my nerves a bit. If it's obvious, why would anyone spend $50+ on a DVD about it? And if it's not obvious to the viewer, way to potentially alienate them.
He does show practically how to use a pair of calipers to scale up a sculpture from a 1/2, 1/3, or 1/4 scale maquette, which is exactly what i was hoping to find in a video of this sort. Because in this video he's working life-size, i think it IS probably quite useful as a teaching tool in a maskmaking context, because it does very clearly illustrate how to go from small to large; granted, in theatre you will probably not be making a full-head orc mask (which is what he's sculpting in the video), but you might, and the exact subject itself is not what's important to focus on here for my purposes, it's the technique.
The editing is a bit crummy at times (though compared to the prior DVD it's fabulous)--some sections feature repetitive narration, and some sections could probably have been shown at double-speed. At one point Brown has a coughing fit, which is humorous but really, they ought to have rerecorded that section of the voiceover. And, there's a point where he spends some time working with epoxy putty with his bare hands that made the OSHA dork in me cringe--the MSDS for it clearly advises nitrile gloves.
He has some great points on the importance of visual reference materials and is clearly coming from a classically-trained art background when he lists off his examples, of which some include Michaelangelo's David
, the portrait photography of Yousuf Karsh
, the figure drawings and facial expression studies of George Bridgman
. He also suggests other resources such as image searches on Corbis
and bodybuilding magazines (for weird veiny muscular necks/heads). He talks a bit about exaggeration of features for extreme character looks (his example is the huge brow muscles in the orc face he's making), and ways to manipulate composition of the face to convey emotions (i.e., V-brows denoting anger, while pitched-brows convey worry or sadness).
One great aspect of Brown's presentation is the coverage of his own particular techniques and custom-modifications of sculpting tools--he shows how he's made several specific tools by modifying store-bought loop tools and wire rakes, created custom ergonomic grips with duct tape and foam, and even done things like cutting up a dog-brush to create a great stippler. He shows several sculpting techniques specific to face-renderings in clay, and is GREAT about keeping you apprised of "real-time" passage ("I'm about 4 hours into this sculpture now..."), which i find invaluable. He also has some good tips on lighting your sculpting space for maximum visibility--he recommends an overhead lamp, fluorescent so it doesn't put out heat and soften your clay or make you hot while you work, and with variable intensities, as lower light helps bring out the visibility of the details once you get down to any fine sculpting work that you might need to do.
The DVD includes a "Lecture Notes" section (basically synopses of the segments and links to URLs mentioned) and a "Bonus" section (some 360 pans of sculptures accompanied by laughably new-age music), which were ok, but i'd have preferred some PDFs of equipment/media lists and some trailers for the other DVDs in the series. Regardless, this is the DVD i plan to make available to my class as a resource when we discuss the leap from maquette to full-scale mask, as its shortcomings are overlookable and the material presented is excellent.
 By "scaling up from a maquette to a full size matrix" i mean, initially it is a good idea to sculpt a mask on a smaller scale--1/2 scale, 1/3 scale, or 1/4 scale--when you are working out the actual translation of a mask design with your costume designer. S/he may only have rendered it in 2D without any oblique or side view, or the design might not be as intricately defined as the mask will need to be. I can work up a 1/3 scale maquette in an hour or less, and can go through as many iterations as i need to in order to settle on a given design; this is FAR more efficient than working 10-15 hours on a full-size sculpture, only to find out that the designer would prefer the nose larger, the ears in a different location, the eyes further apart, and the forehead way more bulbous. Or something. But, once you settle on a maquette, you then need to scale that up to a full size mask.