Hi folks,

Been working on a new short from a script that came about a couple years ago. Inspiration struck when I stopped trying to think of something, and after moving and figuring out a formula for hardening the clay just enough to stay flexible without sagging under the hot lights, I got to work on the set and character.

Here's some pics from preproduction:

Not sure what else to add, other than "it's coming along sloooowly". The film is about a man who becomes paranoid after a frightening phone call and even the most normal activities around him become a threat in his mind.

I was advised by a friend not to make it because of the parallels to something that happened to me on the internet, but the trolls have long since moved on and I've already done everything they said I'd never do by going to film school and studying with the pioneers of Claymation. Rather than animating this as a form of therapy, I am doing it as an excuse to write a more cohesive story after viewers said that Blue Alien Summer was a little hard to follow. I spent about a month fine-tuning the script to make it as clear as possible without being overly hampered by jokes and gags that might detract from the story. Having been awake only at night for the past 12 years, anxiety and not knowing what is going to happen in the dark is something I can really identify with.  When I was a kid, I was really scared of the dark, and working at night helped me get over that. So, I decided this would be the next short, and included many elements from a future project that will have similar sets and lighting. BAS was a sort of "boot camp" for animation school, so this is more or less "basic training" for that bigger project.

Over the years I've found that each film kind of leads to the next one, and I really want to tackle some things like making it look like a character is watching television while intercutting back and forth from their reactions to what they're seeing on the TV. When I was a kid and had these ideas, desktop video was in its infancy and wasn't yet affordable to the indie filmmaker, so it will be neat to actually do these things I couldn't do back then. It's also nice to be able to draw from the experience on previous films, and each time the techniques are a little more refined. On this one, all of the furniture is made from compressed aluminum foil and covered in duct tape before spreading clay on it. The clay is very firm, so the props and set pieces are pretty solid, like hunks of plastic. There is very little color transfer between the colors because of the special mix of wax added to the clay, so it's very enjoyable to work with overall.

To make this harder clay more flexible, I use halogen lighting which softens it to a rubbery consistency without causing it to melt and sag. The wax makes the clay a little shiny, so I use a polarizing filter on the camera.  When I'm not animating, the clay goes back to being hard again, which is preferable when sculpting or cleaning up a character. I used to think cold lighting was the answer, but that's really not the case with clay animation. You want the lights to be about as warm as a Summer day. Then when Summer comes and the lights would make things too warm, I plan to use LED or CFL lighting with the appropriate color temperature.

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Here is the armature for the main character, which is based on the armature design I've been using since 2006, but with some updates.

A few weeks ago I found that clay really loves to stick to PVC tubing, so I have incorporated it into the armature. The arms and leg wires are covered with it. The hands are the same design I used on A Currant Affair at school, and can be popped on and off because they are parts of a pen with plumber's epoxy for the hand. The head core is made of crushed blackwrap and sealed with duct tape. The mouth is not a hollow, but a piece of vinyl black tape placed where the mouth cavity would be. Clay doesn't stick to the vinyl tape, allowing me to form the lips around it and peel them off without going off-model or unintentionally collapsing the lips into the mouth cavity. The teeth haven't been decided on yet but will probably be Van Aken ivory sealed with Mod-Podge (liquid vinyl). In the past I made the arm bones above the elbow and closer to the shoulder, but having them be where the forearm is gives me a grab point, and when I go to bend an arm if I'm not using the hand as the grab point, I will pinch the forearm or at least brace it with my middle finger. For clay puppets I don't like to have too much armature in the arms but just enough to get them to do what they need to. The tie-downs in the feet are made with nuts masking-taped to a loop of wire that makes up the feet, and then sculpting plumber's epoxy over it. The nuts are vinyl lock-nuts, which prevents the screw from going all the way through from underneath. I have broken epoxy before by tightening the tie-down too much, so the lock-nuts were the logical solution to that. The tie-downs on the set are holes punched through the cardboard floor (the set used be a thick cardboard box for 24oz beer) and the entire set sits on three 2x4's, allowing a good 4 inches of space so that the plank of wood it's sitting on doesn't have to be drilled. 

Here is some grass and a pic of the chair armature, which originally was going to be dark green but is now purple because it clashed with the color of the door.

...and finally, the set on its supports (the other side is the exterior of the house).

When I'm actually animating this scene, the frontmost 2x4 will be moved to the back to allow access to the tie-downs. I just wanted to show a quick 'n dirty idea of the setup. If the floor flexes at all, additional supports will have to be placed, but that's further down the road. 

Oh- one more thing I wanted to mention- when making sets out of clay, if you coat the floor with Mod-Podge Matte it won't get messed up as much when you animate puppets walking on it. Another approach is to coat the bottoms of their feet with the stuff, so that the clay of their feet never touches and sticks to the clay of the floor. At Vinton's, we were told in class, the set floors were generally made of wood and plaster and then painted with acrylics to match the look of the clay characters but were seldom made of clay.

The textures look really cool, very unique. I like that you've used clay for the set as well as the character, that gives it a very unified look. The character itself looks great, too, as well as the lighting in that last shot. 

Did you use a hardening clay for the set, and non-drying clay for the character, or the same for both?

The set has the same kind of clay, but is mostly a different brand. For the character I used Van Aken with more waxes in it. For the set I used Craft Smart, which is very similar but a little more durable. A rep told me what's in it, but I don't know the exact formula. It is very well-formulated though, and cheaper. It also has the advantage of being perfect right out of the package despite not coming in as many colors. Unfortunately, the colors it does come in are not perfectly matched to Van Aken, despite being intended to replace it at all Michael's Craft stores. I found it wasn't as good for puppets because of its stretchy nature, but it's wonderful for sets and takes detail well. 

When I don't have a certain color of the Craft Smart, I make the Van Aken a similar hardness by melting it down and adding things to it, and I find that the degree of firmness can be the same for both puppets and sets. It's really the heat from the lighting that allows the puppets to move and bend without cracking because they make the wax warm. What does wax do when it's warm? It bends! The PVC tubes in the arm and leg armature also helps because it gives you more surface area than bare aluminum wire. Before I knew about the PVC tubing, I was winding a piece of steel wire around the arm wires and taping it in place where there would be "bones". Doing that gives the clay more texture to grab, but the wires would eventually shed tiny shavings into the clay and discolor it as well as the steel wire would poke through. The tubing solved both of those problems.

Very interesting. It looks great. I'm excited to see it animated. 

Wow Don, super cool!! Everything looks excellent. Excited to see the new project underway. It all has the distinct Don Carlson look, and yet you've obviously learned a lot since the last one. I love the idea of making the clay harder so the heat softens it enough to bend nicely. That's using your head! Make those lights work FOR you rather than against you. I love it! 

Thanks Strider! Yeah, the light thing was something I posted about on Facebook awhile back. It was when I had mixed a batch of clay and it was rubbery and flexible while it was still warm, but once it cooled it was very hard and brittle. I had just replaced all my halogen bulbs with LED's and thought, "what if the reason the lights were hot was not because the animators couldn't use cooler ones, but that this was a deliberate attempt to make the clay as pliable as it was when it was first mixed and adjusted?" I also had some wax candies with syrup you could suck out and I would run them under warm water and found that they were really pliable for a few minutes, so that was another indication that I was going in the right direction with this idea. 

Recently while looking up old articles about 80's Claymation, something a writer said confirmed this. I believe the comment was "...wax is added to harden the sets and puppets and I suspect the lights are hot to keep the clay pliable" Without the added wax, Van Aken is too soft. I have added an equal amount of wax to both Plastilina and Claytoons, and despite Claytoons' tendency to seem softer, that might actually be because it comes in smaller (4oz) individually wrapped amounts so the heat from your hands disperses through it more quickly than the whole package of 1.1lb Plastilina. the temperature at which both became ductile was the same. I have not yet found out if it makes a difference in consistency if you mix it longer in the double boiler, but tend to pour it out as soon as possible because I would think that the soft oils in it would eventually evaporate. As a kid, I always thought Van Aken was too soft and chalky and didn't like its texture, but after speaking to their chemist a few years ago, the fact that it was compatible with other waxes was a revelation. For now I'm keeping the exact amounts a secret, but it might show up in a future book update. Reformulating really makes a difference in how usable the stuff is and what you can do with it.

Hmmm, I had some notes to add before the save window cut me off here....

By creating a clay-wax admix, you are basically just moving the melting point. I used to use very high-temperature waxes, but those tend to be sticky when they are warm, so the focus has moved more toward lower-temperature waxes that are brittle at room temperature (about 70 degrees). The lights bring the whole mixture to about 80 degrees, which is a little more than half of the melting point for Van Aken.  So far I've experimented with several paraffins and coal-based hardening waxes, and I've also got plant-based ones which I've yet to try. One interesting wax was an emulsifier that would actually add properties to the clay where it could be smoothed with water instead of oil. The problem with that, was that there wasn't really much of a difference between the two, and when you emulsify something, the water becomes a permanent softener- it's just like adding too much oil. Both will loosen the pigment in the clay and cause it to become a funky slime all over your hands. Tap water will also add an undesirable property to the clay, which is its ability to grow mold. If you did emulsify a batch, I would use distilled water instead but you still might need to add an antimicrobial preservative.  What I didn't know until recently, though, was that whether it's grease or oil you're adding if you overdo the hardener, both increase stickiness. I also didn't know that once clay has been hardened with wax, it's more resistant to being softened with oil- so you can use more on the surface before it becomes a smooshy nightmare.

First tree I've ever built that was the size of my head! Lightweight, made of heavy aluminum foil and duct tape, and covered in firm clay. The combination of hard clay and strong armature makes a prop that will withstand warm weather. Anticipating a hot Summer...

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