Hi this is my first post here and I am just starting to dabble in stop motion.  I have an idea for a film which requires a desert landscape with some plants. The landscape will be somewhat sandy and the shots will be like close-ups because of the theoretical size of the characters.  I am looking for ideas of what kinds of materials I can use to build the sets? I want the scenery to look fairly realistic, except the plants I'm ok with being a little more experimental looking.

There will be mounds or dunes in every scene. The biggest obstacle is that I want the mounds to also breathe ( I know this sounds weird), so they will be moving up and down. I've thought about using balloons underneath the mounds, but haven't built anything yet. Any ideas for this one also??

There will also be a scene where there is a puddle that one of the characters will take a swim in. Any ideas on how to do this with hair gel or other methods?

I know it's a lot of questions, but I gotta start somewhere. Thanks so much, I really would appreciate the input!

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So is this really overscale, like insect characters that are made as puppets 6 or 8 inches long?  If it's really oversize I would use something coarser for the sand, like vermiculite.  If it's closer to real size, I sometimes use real sand, sometimes sawdust glued onto the set because it doesn't wreck saw blades if I need to cut it.

I would make flexible mounds from 1" thick sheet foam (from upholstery or fabric store).  You can cut a pattern and glue it together with contact adhesive, just like making large hand puppets from foam.

I tried balloons for breathing a couple of times but couldn't control the air pressure well enough.  They leaked a bit, so I tried constant air pressure to compensate, and increased the pressure to make the balloon get bigger.  But if you can seal the balloon around the hose that goes in, you might be able to do better.  

So when I had a bit of ground that had to pulse (in a film called Turtle World - it was the skin under a hole in the shell showing a heartbeat) , I put a spare tripod with a geared centre column under the set, and cranked it up and down.  A car jack could work, too. I think I had a flattish bowl upside-down on top of the tripod to give it a round shape and push the foam up more evenly.   The basic structure of the ground was a sheet of 12mm particle board, with a hole covered by the foam where I needed it to go up and down.

I use wallpaper paste to thicken water.  It comes in a sachet, as a white powder, that mixes with water. It goes whitish and lumpy at first, but becomes clear after a couple of hours.  My foam latex puppets could move through the liquid and be animated, but needed washing out and drying afterwards.  But you get a perfectly flat surface, no ripples.  I never tried mixing the paste thick enough to make peaks and waves that would stand up.  

A way to make waves you can animate was done (in this film, Grace Under Water http://www.graceunderwater.com/home.html  ) with a sheet of clear perspex, hair gel on top of that, and a sheet of clear cellophane on top of the gel.  It was moved by brushing the cellophane with the fingers for each frame.  It works for swimming pools where the water is disturbed from many directions at once, so the water movement is fairly random.  Actually looked surprisingly good.  Drawback is, for the puppets in the water, they were cut in half, with everything below the waste under the perspex, and the top half screwed to it through the perspex and gel.  So they could wave their arms about but had to stay in one place.  

Here is a desert set with pool being made, for animals to wade in, from many years ago. Ground texture is plater over the particle board.  Actually 2 sets were used, a 1:50 scale set for the wide shot, and a 1:10 for the closer shots with puppets.  So neither of those is the full size or larger scale you are thinking of, but might be of some help.

Another short video of making a set, no water in this one, but you can see how it's built:


Thanks so much for the thorough reply!  It definitely gives me some good ideas to experiment with.  I am planning to do a bunch of mini trial and error construction and test shots before I finalize anything, so these are great tools to play around with!  I'm not familiar with vermiculite, so that will be cool to explore a new product. So much to learn! But it is exciting to make my idea come to life.  I am hoping to make my sets smaller than yours because I have more limited space to work in. Thanks for the videos, I have seen a bunch of your work and tutorials on youtube and love it! very inspiring. 

-Leah :)
StopmoNick said:

So is this really overscale, like insect characters that are made as puppets 6 or 8 inches long?  If it's really oversize I would use something coarser for the sand, like vermiculite.  If it's closer to real size, I sometimes use real sand, sometimes sawdust glued onto the set because it doesn't wreck saw blades if I need to cut it.

I would make flexible mounds from 1" thick sheet foam (from upholstery or fabric store).  You can cut a pattern and glue it together with contact adhesive, just like making large hand puppets from foam.

I tried balloons for breathing a couple of times but couldn't control the air pressure well enough.  They leaked a bit, so I tried constant air pressure to compensate, and increased the pressure to make the balloon get bigger.  But if you can seal the balloon around the hose that goes in, you might be able to do better.  

So when I had a bit of ground that had to pulse (in a film called Turtle World - it was the skin under a hole in the shell showing a heartbeat) , I put a spare tripod with a geared centre column under the set, and cranked it up and down.  A car jack could work, too. I think I had a flattish bowl upside-down on top of the tripod to give it a round shape and push the foam up more evenly.   The basic structure of the ground was a sheet of 12mm particle board, with a hole covered by the foam where I needed it to go up and down.

I use wallpaper paste to thicken water.  It comes in a sachet, as a white powder, that mixes with water. It goes whitish and lumpy at first, but becomes clear after a couple of hours.  My foam latex puppets could move through the liquid and be animated, but needed washing out and drying afterwards.  But you get a perfectly flat surface, no ripples.  I never tried mixing the paste thick enough to make peaks and waves that would stand up.  

A way to make waves you can animate was done (in this film, Grace Under Water http://www.graceunderwater.com/home.html  ) with a sheet of clear perspex, hair gel on top of that, and a sheet of clear cellophane on top of the gel.  It was moved by brushing the cellophane with the fingers for each frame.  It works for swimming pools where the water is disturbed from many directions at once, so the water movement is fairly random.  Actually looked surprisingly good.  Drawback is, for the puppets in the water, they were cut in half, with everything below the waste under the perspex, and the top half screwed to it through the perspex and gel.  So they could wave their arms about but had to stay in one place.  

Here is a desert set with pool being made, for animals to wade in, from many years ago. Ground texture is plater over the particle board.  Actually 2 sets were used, a 1:50 scale set for the wide shot, and a 1:10 for the closer shots with puppets.  So neither of those is the full size or larger scale you are thinking of, but might be of some help.

Another short video of making a set, no water in this one, but you can see how it's built:

You may have seen vermiculite, if you have seen any old movies where someone is sinking into quicksand.  It will float on top of water, so it is often used for that.  You may be able to find it at a garden supplies shop, it can be added to soil.  It comes in different grades, fine to coarse, to suit the scale you are working with.


thanks for this! Just wondering have you had any luck with adding paint or other color to vermiculite?


StopmoNick said:

You may have seen vermiculite, if you have seen any old movies where someone is sinking into quicksand.  It will float on top of water, so it is often used for that.  You may be able to find it at a garden supplies shop, it can be added to soil.  It comes in different grades, fine to coarse, to suit the scale you are working with.

I've painted over it after I've stuck it down onto a surface, haven't tried colouring the loose stuff.  I do colour coarse sawdust to make small scale foliage by stirring it into watered down acrylic paint, then taking it out and  spreading it out to dry, so that might work for vermiculite.  I don't have any right now to try that with.  

When replying, you can just type in the white box that is already there under  "v Reply to Discussion", I think you are clicking on the ">reply" which repeats the previous post, including video and images.

ok thanks, I was wondering which "reply" to do! Wasn't sure if I was trying to respond to you personally that you would see the message if I put it in the white box.  Thanks about the paint ideas. I will try it both ways and see how it looks. :-)

Hey Nick or anyone else: was wondering if you have any experience moving characters around without tie downs. I have a worm puppet that has a fabric covering and am looking for ideas on how to secure the puppet while moving it. Whatever I use I would not want it to leave a stain or residue on the fabric, or leave obvious protrusions or holes. Any ideas?? thanks so much!! :)

I moved snail characters around on the ground without tie downs, just slid them around.  If I needed to have them hold still while I moved the mouth or eyes, I just held them in place with one hand.  But I did put a screw into one when it was up on the vertical surface of a garden stake - it just stayed there and chewed on a leaf, it didn't have to move.

I have seen quite a few clay animations with snakes or worms moving along the ground, with no tiedowns.  As long as they are laying on the ground, you don't need to secure them the way you do a walking human where they are off balance, held by one foot on the ground.  But if it climbs up a slope, or coils up so it is not balanced, I can see where you need something.

One thing that might work to secure the worm so it doesn't slide around, without marking the fabric covering, is to use a pin.  If the ground was a material like a pin-board - Canite or cork is what I've seen used here - or even a sheet of styrofoam - that would work.

For a very small spider running along a bar, I drilled a row of very tiny holes in the bar top (made of mdf) with a 1mm drill bit, and had a pin through the spider body.  I lifted it up, changed the positions of all the legs, then put it back down, with the pin going into the next hole.

The only other way I know, that doesn't make holes in the puppet or ground, is to use magnets and a steel sheet for the ground.  It could be like an animated fridge magnet!   If it needs to be able to get close to the ground but not get pulled onto it by the magnet, you put a steel plate in the puppet, and have the magnet under the steel floor.

I am leaning towards the using pins idea since it seems much easier to cut foam then metal. Also with all the other material on top of the base the magnet might not be that strong, and adding more things inside the puppet may restrict the way it moves. But the magnet idea is really cool and would be neat to try sometime.  I was originally making the base of my set a raised wood platform and building on top of that, but I may have to rethink this one. Possibly a combination of corkboard or foamcore with some beams of wood underneath for support. Hopefully the pins will be able to easily go through what the ground is covered in without creating damage.

thanks for coming to the rescue!

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