Review of Stop Motion Puppet Sculpting by Tom Brierton

You know how sometimes you come across a movie or a TV show, where you find the whole idea to be interesting and you can see exactly where the director was trying to take it, but at the same time you feel like it just didn’t quite get there? There’s just something almost inexplicable that the film doesn’t have that makes it feel like it’s fallen flat, but it’s excruciating because you can see that the initial idea was there and that it was good. You feel like you can’t even say it was a bad movie because the premise was good, yet you still leave the theater or the couch feeling disappointed and frustrated. This is very much how I feel after having finished reading Tom Brierton’s Stop Motion Puppet Sculpting: A Manual of Foam Injection, Build-Up, and Finishing Techniques.

I can see that Tom Brierton knows what he’s talking about. The picture on the cover of the djinn model and even the black and white shots of some of his finished work on the inside all look professional and well made. But I just feel like so much is missing from the presentation that I couldn’t take away nearly as much as I would like. With the title of the book being what it is, I was really hoping for a more comprehensive introduction to various techniques of foam injection, build-up, and finishing techniques.

There is a lot of good information to be found in certain sections of the book. The parts where he discusses how basing your sculpting or build up techniques on real anatomy and research can be a benefit was interesting to read and made a lot of sense. He even shows how, when he placed foam on a minotaur figure in the approximate locations of real musculature and then covered it with a latex “skin,” it caused the skin to curve and dip over the muscles in a very realistic manner. He does mention his own preferred brands and materials which is always a good reference to have, knowing what brands the professionals go to, but he fails to mention why -which I found frustrating. He says that it’s about personal style, that different brands of mold making plasters ect. have different consistencies and that some people prefer something more liquid while others like to work with something that’s more of a paste…but he doesn’t say why. What would a more liquid mold material offer for pro’s and cons? What about the thicker, more paste-like one? Why does he in particular prefer this brand? These were just a few of the many questions I found myself having to deal with leaving unanswered as the book continued to push through in the description of these techniques.

When he talks about taking a model sculpted out of clay and getting ready to make a mold from it,  he talk about the first step being to build up a clay wall around the character. I can assume from the context that this is meant to control where the plaster of molding agent goes, but it bother’s me that he doesn’t take the time to explain it fully. I also wondered, if the model is made of clay and the clay wall is also clay, what’s to keep them from sticking to each other and ruining the surface of the model with all this clay you’re pressing around it? Has the model been left to harden since the previous page where it was still being sculpted? Was it possibly even fired? Is there something about the different brand of clay used for the clay wall that prevents them from mixing together or is the model coated with something to prevent them from sticking? Again, the answers never really surfaced, or if they do, it’s pages after the concept was first introduced, and then I have to mentally back track and readjust what I’m trying to learn and take away. Overall, much of the information was an exercise in frustration where I wished I was in some sort of classroom or even just reading an online article where I could raise my hand to get an answer or leave a comment and hope to get a response. I felt like I was expected to already have a certain amount of knowledge about this process going in, but that seems unreasonable to expect from people buying a book that’s title seems to indicate it’s a guide for beginners.

Additionally the order of the chapters felt wrong to me.  We jump into the concepts of sculpting and then on to mold making and foam injection, something that appears to be the more time consuming, expensive, and higher level technique. Then he talks about using a build-up technique with more common materials, and a skin molding method that doesn’t require a specialized oven that the hot-foam injection technique does. At one point he says there is a cold foam technique, but I remain unsure of what that actually is. Is that what he was talking about when he mentions the skin mold since it doesn’t have to be cooked? I felt we started in with the more complicated technique and then backtracked to something more intermediate. And still, any observations about why one technique would be better to use than the other, are really left for the reader to ponder and deduce on their own as the thinking behind these design choices isn’t really explained.  Even the finishing techniques I felt were half-hearted. Rather than having a chapter on finishing techniques, there is just a passing mention of one painting style at the end of the foam injection section, and a few paragraphs about gluing an unrolled cotton ball onto the build-up model to create a hair/fur sort of effect. In the final picture the cotton wasn’t even painted so the minotaur figure he was creating suddenly looked like a minotaur trying to pass as a sheep. It really felt like it was a last minute addition to the puppet so the author could write about how to add hair. And it felt like a very amateurish design idea at that.

The last thing that frustrated me was that there wasn’t really any connection made between the puppets used as examples and the animation they were intended for. I would have loved to have see a sequence of shots of one of the finished puppets being run through a test animation. I would have to assume that any professional fabricator would make sure that the puppet moved properly after it was finished. Make sure there weren’t any unexpected bends in the wrong place, or a part of the paint job that just doesn’t look correct when viewed from the side or something. It felt like the process just stopped once the last bits of paint and glue dried and the puppets were just stuck on a shelf somewhere to become nothing more than a statue. I really wanted to see how one technique effected the realism or ability of the puppets to work over another. How does the hot foam technique look when moved through a basic walk cycle? How about the build up-technique with the latex skin? I think that would be another one of those things that would be important to know from the perspective of someone who’s making these puppets in order to animate with them. If one moves is a very different way, I want to know about it so that when I do take on a project like this in the future, I can make a more informed decision as to how I want to go about designing and fabricating things myself.

In many ways the biggest thing I managed to gain from this book was from one line in the acknowledgements where he mentions stopmotionanimation.com. You have to join the group and set up and account but inside is a wealth of blog posts, links, and ongoing discussions from people who are just starting out as well as people who have been working in the industry for years. After having finished the book, I signed up for the site, hoping that I could find some of the answers I was looking for in it’s many discussion forums, and instructional blog posts. There was so much material there, that I ended up spending most of my time just exploring the site and trying to get a general sense of what it has to offer. From my first hour or so I’ve clicking links and following threads, I can see that there is a lot to be found if you have the time to seek it out. I will certainly be making that time and will hopefully be able to follow this up with another post in the future where I can say that I’ve found the answers to a lot of my questions.

Until then, I’d probably recommend checking out the site over looking to this book for a place to find information about starting to learn these sorts of techniques. I hate to say it, but it’s just not worth the $50.00 price tag for the paper edition, and I even wonder if the $15.00 I spent on the electronic version was even worth it. Maybe I’ll be able to stumble across the author himself on the site and get some better information straight from the source, because the book version just doesn’t seem to work, at least not for me.

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One response

  1. Fantastic puppet building designs from your inventive mind! 1% inspiration and 99%
    perspiration. May the road to fortune soon be in sight. I have found my
    stop motion projects to be more therapeutic than lucrative.

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