CUSTOMIZING ARTICULATED FIGURES


WHAT IS A CUSTOM ARTICULATED FIGURE? It's an action figure made from a 3.75" GI-Joe type of figure. This includes the "Mortal Combat" series, the original "Buck Rogers" figures, etc. The main thing is that the figure have a lot of, or appropriate articulation. I've made a bunch of figures using the "multi-jointed Spiderman", although they really are out of scale for any "official" Star Wars" universe characters. What you're trying to avoid is having to create the articulation from scratch.

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO DO THIS? 1) You can place them in a much broader range of poses than the static Kenner poses. This creates a more interesting display. 2) They present a varied and challenging modelling experience. Unlike creating a static sculpture, you need to consider how the articulation will work (By the way, the new Kenner "Coruscant Luke" would have a hard time in the real world-- His shoulder p ads would knock against his helmet whenever he raised his arms.), and how to best hide the articulation junctions through costuming. 3) The plastic used in these figures is usually stiffer and easier to work with than the official Star Wars figures'.

WHY WOULD SOMEONE NOT WANT TO DO THIS? 1) It takes a LOT of work. It takes a LOT of time. 2) It forces you to develop your modelling skills. If you don't care to, then don't. 3) The scale for these figures is *slightly* larger than Star Wars figures. (But from what I've seen, the Kenner figures don't really pay that much attention to accurate scale, anyway.) 4) You have to "burn" an existing figure. Really good figures are not currently manufactured, and the proportioning of the more recently-manufactured figures is pretty crummy (=more work for you).

SELECTING A FIGURE Find a suitable figure to convert. You're looking for something of appropriate size and proportion, with the bottom line being the width of the hip joint. Articulated figures usually have a metal part in the hips- a bar with ball and socket joints at th e ends and a hook to tension the pose. Unless you have access to some metal fabrication tools or want to deal with redesigning the mechanics necessary for proper tension, you are stuck with this hip width.

ADD ADDITIONAL ARTICULATION If you want to, you can add additional points of articulation. The easiest to add is rotation, which particularly useful at the wrists. To accomplish this, use a hobby saw to cut across the middle of the forearm. Very important: Make this cut as clean as possible, and perpendicular to the line of rotation. Next, take a tiny drill (not electric!) and drill into the center of the arm stump and wrist stump, about an eighth of an inch deep. Be careful to drill the hole in the center, and straight... Nex t, take the tiniest screw-eyelet you can find (at a hardware store) and use it to "start" the drilled holes. Leave it in the second stump and use diagonal clippers to clip the eyelet off at an angle aligned with the thread of the screw. You've just crea ted a "headless" mini screw: Screw the other pre-drilled stump onto what's left sticking out. With any luck you should be able to minimize the gap between the two pieces, and still have the hand/wrist facing the correct direction.

Doing hinges (ie, the wrist) is a bit more work. I've used paper clips and tiny model railroading screws for hinges. It's a toss-up as to whether the results are worth the effort.

STUDY THE FIGURE Now it's time to start carving away the proper body shape. Before you start, consider where you will have to add material (with epoxy putty) and remove material (with a Dremel mototool). Take a good while to study the figure, and visualize what you're g oing to do.

REMOVE UNWANTED SURFACE DETAIL Using the Dremel tool, grind away any unwanted surface detail such as gun, knives, air hoses, etc. Wear safety glasses; you don't want to be blinded by a chunk of molten plastic!

SMOOTH TRANSITIONS Next, use the Dremel to smooth the transition between the articulated parts. For example, most toy figures have too big a gap between the top of the shoulder and the top of the arm joint. This can be sanded down for a smoother transition. Of course, yo u're still stuck with the seams unless you cover them with costuming or go the armature/rubber suit route (not covered here--whew!). You can apply this treatment to the other major joints: The hips/leg, the upper torso/hips, etc. After you've taken care of the easy stuff, you can then begin to fine tune the figure. This means grinding more realistic curves into the torso, the arms, the legs, the calves, etc. You will need to use your eye to tell you what works and what doesn't.

Most toy figures are produced so that the joints are functional, not aesthetically pleasing. There is a trade-off between these two issues. The "ball-hump" opposite the elbow looks better when it's sanded down. But it looks best when the arm is extende d, not when it's closed. Similarly, the shoulder joint is typically spherical, but in the real world, the sphere is a part of your skeleton. This brings up an important observation: You're sculpting the figure for a specific pose. You want to sculpt t he figure so that it looks okay for a range of poses, but optimized for a specific, static pose. It's a compromise, but it's the best we can do since humans aren't built with exoskeletons.

The most recently-manufactured GI Joe figures are more barrel-chested and hunchbacked than the old ones. I don't know why this is but it can be fixed by grinding away. Don't worry if you cut through the torso's plastic... You can fix this by taking apar t the torso and backfilling it with epoxy putty. Just don't cut too much away before backfilling, and leave enough clearance for the "guts" (the rubber band, the arm anchors). Once the putty has hardened, you can reassemble and continue the grinding ope ration.

EPOXY PUTTY Epoxy putty is sold at most hardware stores and is used for fixing pipes and other broken stuff. It's a two part compound conveniently packaged as a roll. You just cut off a bit, knead it, and go to work. The nice thing about it is that it's incredibl y strong, stable over a long period of time, and cures at room temperature. The speed at which it cures can be either a blessing or a curse.

Manufacturers use different formulas which affect the color, curing time, strength and other more subtle properties. I prefer the Devcon's white stuff because it gives you about ten minutes to work. I recommend working with small amounts of it though. It has a fairly stiff consistency, which makes for more work when blending it onto a surface.

SCULPTING There's not much I can say about sculpting epoxy putty. It requires metal tools that can be cleaned smooth, since epoxy will stick to almost anything. Periodically I have to sand down or scrape my tools. You want a variety of surfaces for smoothing, mas hing, scribing, cutting, poking, etc...I use X-acto blades, a dental pick and some steel-tipped clay working tools. Occasionally, I'll make a custom tool for stamping patterns or shapes. You should also have a small squeeze bottle of denatured alcohol . This can be used to "thin" the putty, for smoothing and blending.

The most challenging part of sculpting is training your eye to catch what's wrong with what you've done. Having a humble attitude helps... if you're never satisfied with your work in progress, you will continue working on it until you reach the point whe re you don't care anymore. Hopefully, your critical eye will have guided you in a positive direction, and your attempt will be something you can live with. If you get discouraged, remember the fact that it's not impossible--the real world CAN be duplica ted in miniature. It just takes time and a lot of work.

Take breaks (including breaks of a few days) from working so that you can refresh your critical eye. The longer you work a piece, the more blind your critical eye becomes. You may know that something's wrong with your work, but can't quite pin it down.. . It's amazing how you can come back from a break and instantly see solutions to flaws that you had been spending hours trying to fix.

It's a good idea to start with the most general proportions and then work your way down to the details. It disheartening to find out that the head that you've just worked on for four hours is too big for the body. You're left with a decision: Redo the h ead? Redo the body? Live with it?

TENSIONING Another issue to consider when working with articulation is that parts are held in position by the tension of a rubber band. The rubber band will eventually die. While you're doing these extensive modifications, you might want to replace this with a met al spring, similar to the type found in a disposable lighter. In some lighters, the length of the spring is just long enough to make a loop that matches the size of the original rubber band. Secure the loop with some thin wire.

SANDING & FINISHING Sanding is the most tedious and least enjoyable of all the aspects involved in a project like this. You have several ways to minimize the amount needed: 1) During the Dremel phase, grind your surfaces fairly clean, removing deep nicks, indentations and flaws. Because of the motorized nature of this sanding, the surface planes will be somewhat flat, so you're going to need to manually sand the smooth cur ves in. But it's a lot easier if you have less material to sand off. 2) During the Epoxy phase, try to blend the surfaces as smoothly as you can. When you add putty, it may look like it joins smoothly to the surrounding area. Many of the seams will not become evident until you've primed the figure for painting. So duri ng the puttying phase, use alcohol and strong mashing pressure with a smoothing tool to feather the seams.

PAINTING The finish of your action figure will never be as durable as the factory-made item--You probably don't have the equipment to cast parts in different colored plastic. And as you know from figures that have been played with, even the factory painted parts are not all that wear-resistant. The best we can hope for is a paint job that survives some of the posing that we will want to do, without requiring major touch-up work. That means: These are not intended to be toys. You can expect paint to rub off from the pressure of the tension at the joints. The leg/hips joint are a good example. While you should paint as much of the leg that is visible up into the ball socket, the friction at that point will always wear through the paint. Another place to watch out for is the shoulder/arm joint. The best remedies for this type of problem are to make sure the paint dries thoroughly (I'm guilty of not...) and using thin coats of paint where close clearances might cause friction.

Prime your figure with some type of spray paint. It helps the acrylic paint adhere to the plastic & putty. I use Krylon Ultra Flat Black because it dries fast, and I'm impatient. You should disassemble your figure to paint hidden areas, bearing in mind the paragraph above.

I use a variety of brushes and acrylic paint over the primer. An airbrush gives better results for shading and goes down in very thin coats. Personally, I'm not all that fussy. I can't stand the noise of a compressor and the distractions of cleaning, c hanging colors, etc.

I don't use clear protective coatings over the acrylic, unless the figure requires a wet or shiny look. I have never found a varnish labelled "matte" that ever was truly "matte". At one time I believed that breathing heavily (for the humidity) over a th ick coat of matte finish while it was drying clouded it sufficiently. I don't think it's good for your health, and you do get really dizzy.

COSTUMING/FINAL DETAILS Costuming and final detailing are the only parts of this that I really enjoy. Everything else is...work! This is where the figure starts to look good; You get to use your creativity and a wide variety of materials to achieve whatever effect you want.

However, you should have thought about this step very early on in the process, because it will have determined how much work you needed to do in the earlier steps. For example, why detail a part when it will be permanently covered by fabric? (unless you 're into anatomically correct action figures) The decision of whether to sculpt a costume or create a fabric costume is guided by the effect you want, and the materials you have at hand. I use panty-hose as fabric, because it's about the thinnest material available, and looks most in-scale. It does not work well in all cases however. Certain costumes require sculpted-in folds and draping to look right.

Another issue is accessories: Do you want detachable belts, removable guns and helmets? These are all separate project unto themselves. The choice of materials and techniques that you can use here is pretty broad... Let your imagination be your guide.