Posts Tagged ‘mask’

Short bits for May 4th, 2009

  • 03:19 Waiting for the shuttle to the airport. I’m tired from having fun this weekend and also fromthe bleakness of this hotel. #
  • 04:00 Wow. I allowed waaaaaaaay too much time to get to the airport and through security. Did get to use the nifty e-pass again. #
  • 05:42 Bizarre. TSA was pulling people out of line during boarding. #
  • 08:15 I’ve landed in NYC and am contemplating taking a cab so I can nap sooner. #
  • 08:28 Looked at the length of the taxi line and, no thank you, I’ll take the bus. #
  • 08:51 A woman just got on the bus wearing a surgical mask. Really? You’re that worried about swine flu? #
  • 09:35 – A SyFy ad on an NYC bus is as lame as you might imagine it would be. #
  • 09:53 Home again, home again. #
  • 14:44 Maggie update: She weighs noticeably more than when I left on Friday. She’s still thin and bony, but no longer skeletal. #
  • 16:34 Also, may I just add, personally, how much I love the new volunteer management software for SFWA? #

Coraline mask

Bill Schafer, at Subterranean Press, realized that he wanted to send out one other Coraline thank you. We couldn’t do another doll, because we had said that there would only be three of them. So I suggested a Coraline mask.

Scaling up Coraline I started by scaling up the pattern from the doll. Basically, I scanned the small pattern into the computer. Then I measured the distance from mouth to eye on my head (3 inches) and enlarged the pattern until that it matched that.

The exterior It goes together just like the little Coraline heads did. In some ways working at this scale is easier, because I don’t have to convince the paper to make tiny turns. In other ways it is harder, because I have more material flapping around as I’m working.

Destroying the book Because this is going to be a mask, the interior will be visible. I asked Bill to send me a pdf of the book so that I could print out some pages and use them to mache the interior. He sent me the book itself.

This caused the single biggest slow down on the project. I had to prep for a while before I was ready to destroy a book.

Owie! You can’t hear me whimpering, but I am.

It makes sense to use actual pages and I know that there are other copies, but oh. Oh. It goes against everything I was taught about respecting books.

Wheat based wallpaper paste Besides the paper, the other ingredient in paper-mache is wheat-based wallpaper paste. Everyone has their own recipe, but this is what works best for me.

Starting to macheThe lovely book is now so much raw material. I get a little paste on the paper, and then work it in so that it permeates all the fibers.

Smooth the paper Because her forehead has such nice big planes I’m able to lay in large pieces of paper.

The interiorI normally alternate colors of paper so I can tell how many layers I’ve done. Here, I alternated text and illustration. When I had my three structural layers in, I went back to add some purely decorative pieces, like making sure that I had a piece that said, “Neil Gaiman” in there prominently.

Warped As the mask dried, it warped. This happens sometimes if something dries unevenly or is unsupported. In this case, the damage happened because I painted it when it was still “leathery.” I didn’t think about the extra moisture I was pushing into the paper.

Back in trueFortunately, with paper-mache, one can re-dampen it and coax it back into true. Because I had painted it with watercolors, I could not dampen the outside so I brushed the interior with water. As I held it in the correct shape, Rob hit it with the hair dryer. Voila. A reformed mask.

Coraline mask and small head I used watercolors to paint the head. Here it is with the test head from the Coraline dolls.

Coraline mask, completed I had a moment of panic because the store no longer carried the paper that I’d used for the dolls’ hair. Fortunately, we found a substitute that had the right weight and color. Otherwise, I’d have been forced into taking a white sheet and tinting it. I was not excited by that.

Coraline mask, worn The mask worn. As a mask, it is very difficult to see out. For stage, I could preserve this look and give it more visibility by poking a billion pinholes around the eyes. But I suspect that the primary use of this will be to hang on the wall, so I left it alone.

Doggone it all

When I do a bid on a puppet, mechanisms are the most expensive part. They are fiddly things and no matter how many times you’ve built something similar, each puppet is radically different. This dog puppet, which I’m creating ears for, technically has four mechs in it since each ear is capable of two movements. The ears pull back for angry dog, and droop for sad dog.

As I was explaining to someone, I always quadruple the amount of time I think it will take to do a mech because it never goes right the first time. I’ve installed ear mechanisms on masks before. This was a thing I was familiar with. And yet…

I did a rough draft of the ears on Tuesday. On Thursday, I came back to install the final ears, but we weren’t sure where the puppeteer’s hand needed to be for the control. Saturday, I went in at three o’clock to install the triggers. I left at three a.m. Here’s what I did during those twelve hours.

Prepping the headWhile I had installed the ears on the exterior of the head, I wasn’t sure until I went in on Saturday where I would need to run the cables to control them. (Normally, you figure all of this out in advance, but there were some staging issues that needed to be resolved first, in this case.) The cable for the ears needed to move three inches in order to trigger the angry dog pullback. Unfortunately, where we needed to put the trigger, there wasn’t enough room for a lever to move that far. So, I needed to reduce the amount of distance that the cable had to move.

It’s sort of like a reverse block and tackle, because I was willing to increase the amount of resistance, to decrease the distance moved. But to do that, I needed to allow a length of line pass through the skull in a “v.” Another line would attach to that and pull it. So, I needed to cut a slot in the skull. I started by drilling four holes.

The coping saw inserted

I then inserted a coping saw blade into one of the holes to cut out my opening.

The slot cutOnce the slot was cut, I tested the ear. Which resolutely failed to work.

After a bit of cursing, some internet time and a conversation with my dad, who is a very clever man, I realized that I had attached the pull line with a fixed point, and it needed to be a fluid point. Such a silly thing to do. After that, it worked exactly as it was supposed to. Whew.

Cables inside the dog's headSorry this is a blurry photo. All the cables have to come together to a fairly tight point where they run down the length of the dog’s spine. I’m using goldenrod cable (a flexible push-pull cable for model airplanes) to get from the head down to the handle where the trigger will be. That’s the thin yellowish cable, with the brass fittings on it. I have to use cable in a housing, otherwise the movement of the dog’s head would trigger the ears as the distance between the head and the trigger changed. A housing keeps that distance fairly consistent.

Closeup on trigger
For the trigger, I opted to go with a wheel rather than a lever. The cable exits the housing and wraps around the wheel as it rotates. Rather than centering it, I put the pivot point off-center to give the puppeteer some mechanical advantage. We tested it and it worked well. Happiness.

I installed the other mechanism, which was comparatively simple. Again, running it back to a wheel. Suddenly the first mech acquired a lot of friction. I couldn’t figure out where it had come from since the new one didn’t touch it. In desperation, I pulled the second one out, thinking that its mounting might be binding the first one somehow. Nothing. I tried activating the mech from within the head without using the cable. It seemed like it was within normal limits there, which meant that the friction was occurring somewhere along the length back to the trigger. I undid the mounting on the first one, checked it for crimps and reinstalled it. Still, it had that awful friction. It was unworkable. I was baffled.

I pulled the trigger from the other mech completely off the handle and–the first mech got easier again. It was still tight, but it wasn’t unworkable. What we were facing turned out to be a combination of factors. The trigger for second mechanism put the puppeteer’s hand in a weaker position. It also activated a mechanism that naturally had less resistance, so the first mech’s trigger hadn’t actually acquired more friction, but it felt significantly harder compared to the second one. At the same time, the monofilament that I’d used had stretched out. I normally avoid the stuff, but because the dog was so pale I used that instead of the braided dacron (which is black) that I prefer. It was a bad combo all around.

The triggersUnfortunately there wasn’t anywhere else to install a trigger. It was also two o’clock in the morning. Emily had to get on a plane with the puppet later on Sunday, to Ireland. I was tearing my hair out in frustration.

What you see here is a mockup of what I wanted to install. I used the connector on the end of the cable and a ziptie to create a thumbgrip. Elastic held it in place. One slides the thumbgrip back and the ears droop. You can still hold the dog’s handle and operate the trigger for the first mech in a reasonably comfortable position. It is far, far from ideal, but it works.

Here’s the proof.

This should have been a five or six hour job. My quadruple estimate was closer to being accurate. When Emily comes back with the dog, we’ll be able to fix it for the NYC shows in January.

A new jaw

The jaw is creating two problems; it’s contributing to the ventilation issue, because it’s solid fiberglass, so is providing a shelf that the actor’s breath bounces against, shooting it up against the eyes. It’s also not fitting one of the actors well. This bear needs to be able to fit multiple people which provides challenges, since masks are usually built to fit one person. Particularly with a mouth that’s activated by the performer’s jaw, the mask needs to fit extremely snugly. The fiberglass, while providing clean movement if well-fitted, is too big for one of the actors.

So. To start with, I created a copy of the jaw in reticulated foam. I use a brand called drifast which is designed to wick moisture away in outdoor furniture. Hopefully, this will help with the venting issues. To get really specific and uber-jargony on you, I used 1-inch DriFast with 35 ppi (pores per inch). Copy of jaw in foam
Next, I stitched elastic to the exterior of it, in the same place I had elastic on the original fiberglass jaw. I also added a piece across the interior, which serves to two functions. It helps the jaw retain its shape and it also acts to cup the actor’s chin. Added elastic to jaw
I lined the jaw with black fabric, and covered the exterior with fur. One of the things that I love about reticulated foam is that you can stitch to it very easily and it’s tear-resistant. Lined interior with black
Once it was all covered, I installed it in the original location. To my surprise, this has better movement than the original fiberglass. Usually you think of going rigid for mechanism, but, I’m guessing, because of this is a really snug fit it responds more quickly to the jaw’s movement. Think of it like wearing a ski mask. Covered exterior with fur

Sadly, the thing still fogs, but it’s slower and not as hot so that’s movement in the right direction. I’ve been reading about defoggers for scuba divers. Most websites recommend spit. Somehow, I can’t see myself recommending spitting into a mask that’s supposed to be worn around sick children. There are actual products, so I’ll see if I can find any here.

Before anyone recommends it–there is no place to put a fan in the bear’s head and even if there were, it would not solve the humidity issue. I think we have oxygen flowing in the mask now, but the humidity is the next hurdle to deal with.

If the defogger doesn’t work, then I’ll try putting a vapor barrier between the eyes and the nose, but this will likely make it uncomfortable, so I’m trying to avoid that.

(For the puppet geeks reading this, I buy my foam here. They ship.)


We’ve discovered that the bear has ventilation issues. I was worried about the heat buildup in the mask before I left, but it turns out that is only part of the problem. We have more of an issue with fogging in the eyes. If you’ll recall, the eyes are made of sunglasses and the mask, despite my cutting away for the fiberglass, is still a very closed environment. There’s nowhere for the humidity that the breath carries to go because the fur is too thick to vent.

I’ve started by opening the fur over the holes in the front of the mask. Hole in head
Next, I filled the hole in with a fine net. Net over hole
Using small plugs of Hringur bear’s fur, I carefully place them on the net. My goal is to create the illusion that the bear is still fully furred, while allowing more air to pass into the mask. Using plugs to mask hole

Here it is in the finished state. Filled the hole with hair plugs

Next I’ll replace the lower jaw with a foam one, which should allow for more ventilation.

Sculpting the head

Once I had the life mask of Rob finished, I was ready to start the sculpture. My first step was to do a full size drawing of the bear to make certain that I had the proportions correct.

IMG 5887Hringur bearGummi Þor had already done a sculpture to demonstrate how the proportions would have to change from the drawing in order to accomodate a human. Using the sculpture as a reference point, I created the large drawing. (I took a picture of this, but the pencil lines didn’t show up. Sorry.)

With that information in hand, I started sculpting. My challenge here is to make it look as much like the drawing as possible while meeting the requirements of fitting on a human head. I started by placing the bear’s eyes, two semi-spheres which I put over the life cast’s eyes. Using these and the life cast’s mouth as my guidepoints I started sculpting. I sculpted the Polar Bear’s head out of clay. In this case I used waterbased clay. Everyone has perferences on clay but I personally like the feel of water-based better. It’s a textural thing.

polar bear3As I sculpted I kept the drawing of the character open along with several pictures of polar bears. This one, in particular, was my reference. I like the expression on his face. My clients want the bear to be young, curious, and trustworthy.

Isbjorn sideI deviated from the drawing by making the nose a little shorter and the distance from the nose to the bottom of the chin smaller. Both of these are indicators of youth. On a more practical note, because my mouth/eye distance was locked in, there was a limit to how thick I could make the nose. Which meant that if I extended the nose out from the face as far as in the drawing it would taper to a needle-like point. I didn’t think this really expressed the huggability we are going for. So, shorter and broader.

IsbjornHere is the finished sculpture. My next step is to cut the chin off and do some detail work on the inside of the lips. I’ll cast the chin and face in fiberglass separately. I’ll also remove the nose itself and replace it with one made of foam covered with leather so that it will feel right if a child touches it. The ears will also be be made of foam and fur so they are soft to the touch. The final head will look larger than this because of the fur, which will add about two inches to the apparent size of the head.

Oh, and if you are curious about the spoon in the lower right corner of the picture, I use it to smooth the clay. By rubbing it in circles across the surface of clay you can burnish the clay and make a smooth surface. It doesn’t actually matter what the surface is like for this one, because the whole head will be covered in fur, but I find it easier to tell if I’ve made the head lopsided if the bumpy bits are distracting me.

Reading Aloud 2: Character voices

This entry is part 2 of 17 in the series Reading Aloud

The human voice is very flexible and we’ll look at the ways you can manipulate it. Remember though, that the voice uses muscle and you can strain it just as easily as an ankle. Pay attention and stop if anything hurts.

Your basic tools are Pitch, Placement, Pacing, Accent and Attitude.
Pitch is fairly self-explanatory. To check your range, hum from your highest to your lowest note. Of that, you probably mostly use the middle when speaking. While it can help color a character, it isn’t a good idea to rely on pitch alone to distinguish between characters, simply because you use more than one note while speaking.


There are several resonators which affect the tone of the voice. Put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your nose. Now hum through your range again. As you do, you’ll feel your chest vibrate at the low end and your nose vibrate in the upper middle. These are both resonators.

The facial mask has several other resonating cavities, which you mostly notice with a sinus infection. Ever wonder why you sound nasally with a cold?

You can move the voice from the front of the mouth to the back of the throat. Broadly speaking Russian tends to be at the back of the mouth while British English tends to be very forward.

I will now attempt to explain how to do this without being able to demonstrate. (Oy. Why did I think this was a good plan.) Okay, start with the nasal resonator, because it’s easiest to find.
-Hold your nose, say, “Nnnnnn” and try to get your nose to really buzz.
-Now remove your hand and try to talk, keeping your voice as nasally as possible. Use the phrase, “What did you say?” as your experimental phrase.
-Try adjusting the pitch while keeping the nasality.
A little bit of nasality can be used to make a “brighter” sound.

Next we’ll move to the back of the throat. Open your mouth in a yawn. Let your soft palate rise. Try to talk. Does it feel like your voice is at the back of your mouth? Again, play with pitch. Placing your voice at the back of your throat can make a “darker” sound.

Next, we’re going to move a series of consonants from the back of the mouth to the front. As you do this, pay attention to where your voice feels like it is during the “aaaah” portion of each consonant sequence. It will be subtle.
The series runs like this. Guh, guh, guh, guh, Gaaaah, Kuh, kuh, kuh, kuh, kaah, (I’m not going to write them all out, I’ll give you the consonants and you can figure out the pattern.) G, K, D, T, B, P.
Reverse it, moving from Puh to Guh.
Try saying our test phrase, “What did you say?” at each “location” in the mouth.

Roughly, and very loosely, that’s placement. I’ll talk about other aspects of placement when I discuss how to create specific types of voices like children and older people.

Moving on.


This covers everything from how quickly a character speaks to the types of rhythms they use. Is their voice quick, but fluid or is it staccatto. Slow and halting, or does it drawl?

Note: Generally speaking, always speak slower than you think you should when reading.


You can tell on the phone if someone is smiling, right? Technically, it’s a combination of the things we’ve already talked about, but fundamentally it’s about attitude. If you know your character, you’ll know how they speak.
Take the phrase, “What did you say?” Say it as if you are angry. Now, curious. Disbelieving? Great. Now say it like you’re a parent and a kid has just talked back to you. That is attitude. Attitude is your friend.


Chances are, this won’t be something you need to deal with. If you do have a character who has an accent for God’s sake, make sure you can do it convincingly. There’s nothing worse than hearing someone butcher an accent, it will destroy the credibility of your story faster than you can say “Run fer the hills.” There are a lot of tapes that deal with learning accents for actors. If you’re going to do it, do it right.

So, those are the basic tools. The nice thing about character voices is that you can be fairly subtle. Most of the time the Attitude and Pace will be enough. If you can affect Placement, that’s even better. What you are looking for is a voice that is distinct from the other voices and appropriate to the character. Of course, which of these tricks you use for each voice depends on the character for whom you are speaking.

Still, there are some basic types of voices, so I’ll talk about how to make a child’s voice as an example, and then later talk about aging voices and cross-gender voicing. A lot of this will be useful for other voice types.

The natural impulse for people is to shoot up into falsetto for kids’ voices. The trouble is that it alters the placement of your voice so much that it sounds ridiculous.

In singing one speaks of the Chest Voice, Middle Voice, Head Voice and Falsetto. Each of these resonates in a different place. Most people speak with their chest and middle voices–this includes children. So when you raise your voice too high to match a child’s pitch you move it into a different place.

The human voice uses a number of different muscles to generate sound. Generally speaking, the longer someone’s neck is the deeper their voice will be. So a child, with a short neck is also going to have a higher voice. In addition to the changes that happen at puberty, this has a huge impact on the pitch you hear.

That said, we respond tone as much as pitch. So to make a child’s voice, raise your pitch a little, but don’t try to do a literal match with kid.

The next thing is resonance. There are different resonating cavities that simply don’t develop until you’re an adult. To make a child’s voice you need to kill the resonance in your voice. Part of that happens by raising up to a head voice, which gets you away from your chest resonating cavity. Next, keep your soft palate down. And now try to make certain that you aren’t resonating in your nose, which you can do by pinching your nose. (Remember those exercises?)

You also need to add a tiny bit of aspiration. Aspiration is what happens when you allow more air to pass through your throat than is needed to produce sound. Remember the scene in My Fair Lady when Eliza is learning to pronounce her Hs? An H is an aspirated sound. People will also say something sounds “breathy” Think of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday.” A little bit of aspiration helps make the voice sound less supported and younger.

Finally there’s the pronunciation. This is going to change depending on how young your child is, but in the under-10 camp things to listen for are more pronounced dipthongs and softer consonants.

Great, but what if there’s a piece with more than one kid? Remember Attitude and Pace. You can also still adjust placement by making one voice more or less nasal. Or having a voice that is breathier than the others. Again, with this or any character voice you don’t need to push far to make it distinctive.

With all voices, the main thing to focus on is telling the story, if a character voice prevents you from conveying emotion don’t use it.

Next week, I’ll talk about narrating.

Air Trixie and Falling Bessie

The first shot on the call sheet today was Air Trixie. This was the first time that a full-body greenscreen puppet got used this season. Sarah worked Trixie’s head and torso. Emily worked the arms and I was on feet. For the shot, Trixie had to leap up and do a karate pose to the camera. It was fun, but difficult because I had to aim the foot in a extremely specific direction and had trouble nailing it. It’s hard to explain why it was challenging, because I’m sure it looked simple from outside. Certainly, I felt bad that I had trouble doing it. but in the end we had several takes that Jonathon (the director) liked.

After that I moved on to being Bessie’s live hands, which I always love. She was telling the story of the Three Little Pigs and the director kept asking for more dramatic, so I got to go over-the-top with some of her gestures. It was fun.

The next shot. Ugh. I was still Bessie’s live hands, but this time I wasn’t attached to a puppet. It was a close-up of Bessie’s hands as she falls from the sky and catches a tree branch. It’s the kind of thing I do a lot for the characters, but Bessie’s hair is so big, that it would be in view no matter how close you were to the action. First we put her wig on my head. That seemed like a good solution, but they checked the stunt puppet and realized that in fact, for the proportions to be correct, a tiny bit of her face was going to be in the frame. So they put the Bessie mask on me. See, there are times when they use kids in costumes so they have masks of all of the characters. Bessie’s mask hadn’t been worn yet. It had only one hole cut for air, and it lined up with my chin, which meant that I only had the air I brought into the mask with me. I also couldn’t see anything, except for what was directly in front of me. Gasp. This meant I had to act, instead of relying on a monitor to tell me what I was doing. Still, I think the shot turned out well.

The rest of the day was spent with various small live hand activities and fetching carts.

Giant ball

Today I worked a giant ball of stuff. I have such a glamorous job, don’t you think? The mayor needed to pull a giant ball of stuff out of the back of a car. So one puppeteer had the Mayor, someone else was working the arms, which left me with the giant ball of stuff. The only thing that was really tricky about this shot wasn’t in our control. The car had to drive into the scene, and we were using the car and wagon to mask ourselves. If they hit their mark even a little bit wrong, then a gap between the car and the wagon exposed us.

Live hands

I was on set all day today being the live hands for one of the characters. It was wonderful and exhausting. Being back at work feels great, but it means lots of poses that would make a yoga master wince. Fortunately I only seem to be facing standard fatigue and show no signs of trouble from my fall last October. Whew.

Today I was hanging laundry. The problem is that I enter the puppet’s arms at her elbows, which means that she can’t raise her arms above her waist without my arms showing. Make sense? So we had to do lots of very interesting cheats, using different things to mask me. It was challenging and fun and we did some good work, I think.

Throwing the Lollipop

I seem to spend a lot of time throwing things when I’m on set. This morning I had to throw a lollipop straight up. It kept going a little to the side. Try it. Put your hand over your head, and then try to throw something straight up. Now, do it without looking.

Last night our last shot was me catching the lollipop. That I could do everytime, and I couldn’t see it when I was catching. Because of placement, I could see the throw, the when the acutal catch happened it was in a space masked by the puppet. I can’t watch a monitor for things like this because there’s a three-frame delay, which means that everything that I do is a delayed reaction. Have to “look live”.