Sculpting for Stop-Motion

Puppet master divulges his secrets with new book

From effects work in recent big-screen efforts such as New Line Cinema’s Elf and Buena Vista’s upcoming The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou to highly anticipated animated features like The Wallace and Gromit Movie and Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride, stop-motion animation is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Inspired by these projects and Ray Harryhausen’s new book, An Animated Life, many aspiring animators are taking another look at this delicate cinematic slight of hand, which was widely written off for dead with the birth of computer animation.

Harryhausen has often lamented the lack of stop-motion how-to literature available when he was first driven to experiment as a kid. Today, one needs only to log onto the Internet or browse a local bookstore for excellent resources such as author Tom Brierton’s Stop-Motion Puppet Sculpting from McFarland & Co. A companion piece to Brierton’s 2002 release, Stop-Motion Armature Machining, the new book is a superbly illustrated guide to making articulated characters using foam injection and build-up methods.

Brierton generously shares the knowledge he as gleaned from more than 30 years of puppet-making experience. In his first book, he showed how the jointed metal skeletons known as armatures are created using simple machinery, time-honored techniques and a few new tricks. This time readers are introduced to such skills as twisting and bending wire into simple armatures, sculpting bodies and facial features out of clay, making plaster molds, mixing and injecting hot foam latex, building musculature from pieces of upholstery foam and casting latex skins to stretch over the foam muscles.

The various steps are clearly explained and are accompanied by detailed, black-and-white photographs, which also show off a few of Brierton’s expertly machined, professional armatures of apes, praying mantises, Minotaurs, rats and more.

The author shows how these techniques can be applied to both cartoony stop-motion characters and more realistic, Harryhausenesque fantasy creatures. In both cases, Brierton stresses the importance of research. In preparing to build his Minotaur, for instance, he consulted works on the art of ancient Greece and general anatomy. He suggests keeping a "morgue file," which is a collection of drawings and photos of various flora and fauna that the artist can use for reference while building a puppet. Attention to anatomy is something a young Harryhausen learned to embrace when his mentor, King Kong animator Willis O’Brien, told him his stegosaur’s legs looked like sausages.

Tom Brierton is an independent filmmaker who teaches stop-motion and computer animation at Columbia College Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Art. Reading his books gives one the sense that he truly enjoys sharing his methods and doing his part to ensure that the demanding art of stop-motion remains vital and relevant in the digital age. While most magicians are loath to divulge the tricks of their trade, we’re grateful that Brierton and others like him are spreading their knowledge. After all, no amount of peeking behind the curtain could ever diminish the magic that is animation.

Stop-Motion Puppet Sculpting from McFarland & Co. is available in softcover from McFarland & Co. (www.mcfarlandpub.com) for $49.95. Orders for this book and Stop-Motion Armature Machining: A Construction Manual can be placed by calling 1-800-253-2187.