1:6 Scale Alien
Part 2: Building the Beast
11/08/09- I wish I'd thought to weigh the pieces before I got started, but trust me when I say that this thing is heavy. The head is especially heavy and is obviously a solid casting. In contrast, for its size, the torso wasn't as heavy as I'd expected. I first thought they'd used microballoons filler in the resin because the casting's walls felt so substantial and I didn't notice the full parting line of a 2-piece mold. Fortunately, a wiser person than I pointed out that holding it up to light would tell the true story. Indeed, it was hollow. This is not just a casual observation, but very important information for planning on how to build the beast.
The Plan: After playing with the parts, I realized that superglue and putty alone were not a good way to build this kit, especially for joining the legs. The full weight of the torso, head, etc., is concentrated at the legs in circles less than 1" in diameter. That's the maximum amount of surface that glues and putty have to work with. If a glue/putty bond should break (and remember that superglue bonds are vulnerable to side-shearing forces), the kit would collapse and self-destruct from its own weight. Very, very ugly. Even though the resin is quite strong, tipping the kit over would probably do some horrendous damage. I know for a fact that test-fitting the head to the torso can do some damage if it starts to slip and you overreact with a save and pivot slam the head against the torso! So instead of glue, I chose to rely on a much stronger connector: Fence screws. Yes, screws are ugly. However, at this stage of the build, looks aren't a big concern. How well it's put together is the most important thing since you don't want to have to fix that later, when you're working on how it looks. Most definitely, you don't want to learn the hard way about the importance of the build strength after it's been put on display!
I wanted her to stand on her own, without bolting her to the nearly 1.5" thick solid resin base or relying on any external support rods. This probably comes from my "action figure" background, but I like figures to be standalones since they can be more easily moved to display with other figures. Otherwise, I think of the whole shebang as a diorama or scene, and the figure loses some of its conceptual independence. I know this sounds like bullshit, but it's similar to the reason that I don't like doll stands. At least with doll stands, the figure is removable, and if it can't stand on its own two feet, it was designed badly.
Digressions aside, this limits the posing options and rules out anything really dynamic. (I'm okay with this since if I want dynamic, I can just watch the movie.) It does have some obvious risks though, notably from tipping. To do this, the tail would need to serve as the third leg (since she obviously shouldn't be expected to balance on her two feet), with the center-of-gravity biased for a backwards lean onto the tail. The danger of forward tipping could be reduced by anchoring the tail to the surface, either by a weight, clamp, or wire. This could be made to look far less obvious than a support rod from the front. The weight concentrated through her feet should keep them from slipping backwards, but it's something to think about if you're planning an elaborate display slab.
Getting Down To It: After deciding this stuff, it was time to get to work. The first thing to do was to fix the hollow torso. You don't want to be driving fence screws into a wall of unknown thickness, because they may not hold. The obvious material for filling the torso is polyurethane resin (like Alumilite, Polytek, or Por-a-Cast-- whatever you can get). This low viscosity stuff can be mixed and poured through a small hole into the interior. When it cures, it's a very dense and hard material, sufficient for drilling and supporting screws.
In this application, you do have to think about quantity, because it will make the torso heavier, which will affect the center of balance. The torso is cone-shaped, with most of the open volume in the front. Therefore, if it were filled completely, the front would gain much more weight than the back-- which I didn't want. My plan to have her stand on two legs and tail relies on the weight being shifted towards the back. Even though her head is big, heavy and makes her top-heavy, the shape of her head helps with this because most of the head mass is located towards the back, nearly over her legs. Filling the lower part of her torso with resin helps shift the weight rearwards.
Fortunately, the entire torso doesn't need to be filled since the arms and spines are relatively light and can probably be attached without screws. However, the head isn't: A second pour is necessary to fill the neck area so that the head can be fastened to the torso with a screw. Once the resin has cured, we can begin attaching the parts.
The head is a good place to start, since it plays a major role in the weight distribution/center of gravity, and you want that tacked down before dealing with the legs. Unlike the legs, the head fits in only one position (unless you do some radical modifications). Attaching parts is easy: drill the hole and insert the screws. The screw hole openings should be beveled so that the screws can be countersunk and topped with putty.
Attaching the legs is more difficult than the head since each leg really needs 2 screws so that they don't pivot. Don't even think about leaving them articulated because the beast is just too heavy. If they slip, the whole thing will come crashing down-- like I said: Very, very ugly. (To attempt to articulate them safely, you'd need a very strong racheting hinge.) The need for a second screw does limit how you can pose the legs due to the design of the creature's hips. If you don't want the second screw's threads to be exposed, the screw should go through the exterior of the leg and into the spike that projects outwards from the rear of the hips. This positioning results in a less crouched-forward look, but forms a balanced tripod with the two legs and tail. It's not as dynamic a pose as having a leg swept backwards (as the toe positioning on the left leg indicates the sculptor intended), but I don't think that pose would work without additional support.
The Third Leg: The tail casting is sculpted so that it's elevated and posed along the left side at about hip-level, sharp tip facing forward in a striking position. Clearly, this wouldn't work for my "tripod" pose, but I was confident that I could fix it. I'd really hoped that the tail casting could be heated and bent into a new position, but it was not meant to be (That trick works on thin castings of white resin). During the process of trying, I damaged the tail in so many places that I thought of totally resculpting it. From my tribulations I learned that the resin was very tough. I couldn't just snap adjacent vertebrae apart, and that the embedded wire wasn't responsible for holding the shape of the tail, but for reinforcing the casting. The difference is that if I'd broken/cut the vertebrae into parts joined by the wire, I couldn't expect the wire to support the new postion and be a very strong third leg.
I decided to reconstruct the tail using thick aluminum armature wire for the main core (anchored to the torso), and running a second copper wire above it to align the vertebrae. Each vertebrae of the cast tail would need to be cut separate, drilled with the two holes, and strung like a necklace. The produced a very stiff tail that's stiffer than the wires alone; putty filler increases the strength and stiffness. Since the tail has to be curved, it's not ideal as a support leg, so stiffness and strength are important to keep it from spreading. Fortunately, the tail's vertebrae can be wedged or secured against the side of a foot, acting as a brace to further stabilize the tail's position.
Unbendable Resin: As I mentioned, you can bend white hobby shop resin by heating it, and you can usually bend it pretty far without cracking it. This resin is an entirely different beast. I thought that I might be able to use this trick with the fingers, since they're so thin. However, heating this resin doesn't make it pliable; it makes it weaker so that it can be broken/cracked/torn more easily, without the snap. It's kind of like what happens when you break a medium hard brownie in half. At any rate, I don't recommend doing this unless you're prepared to resculpt the damaged detail.
OSHA Sez: I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how nasty resin is to work with! This stuff makes huge clouds of powder-like dust when you cut or grind it with a Dremel, and hand-sanding it isn't much fun either. I'm pretty reckless about this kind of thing, but even I use a mask when dealing with it. Pouring resin is also pretty nasty: It's similar to handling superglue, except it doesn't come in a small bottle. Don't slosh it, splash it, or stir it too vigorously.
| The torso casting looked (and felt) very solid under normal
lighting, but holding it up to a light revealed that it was hollow. Once
resin was poured through the spike hole, the white resin showed very clearly
where the casting's wall was the thinnest.
I was surprised at how visible the white resin was through the outer casting since the casting felt very solid when I initially poked around to figure out if it was hollow. Thin-cast white resin would bend under poking, but this gray stuff didn't. It may look thin, but I don't think that there's any danger of the torso crushing or cracking with normal handling if you decide not to fill it with resin.
|The top of the head was drilled, then grinded with a bevel
cut, and a screw inserted. This should be easy to patch during the pre-finishing
Another reason to do this is that it lets you remove and work on the head after you've worked out balance issues. Assembled, this kit is really too big to manipulate for detail work (which is going to be an issue during the painting phase). I'm thinking of sculpting or resculpting the front piece so that the tongue is separate, and giving her longer teeth. This would be better to do when viewing the context of the whole head, rather than working on that part in isolation.
|Rear underside of head, where torso joins the head: Clearly this will need to be fixed. I think the weight of such large castings deforms the molds so that parts that mated perfectly on the mold master don't fit quite as perfectly when the resin's cured. I consider this a trivial issue, since it's easy to fix with a little bit of grinding, puttying and sculpting.|
|The legs were attached with two screws each to ensure that they didn't "articulate". On a heavy resin sculpture like this, any weight-bearing parts that swivel can do so unexpectedly, and when all that weight suddenly breaks loose, other parts may break loose when the thing comes crashing to the ground.|
| The middle vertebrae were numbered and cut apart so that
they could be strung on a new wire armature. The original reinforcing
wire was a hinderance to drilling the holes since it couldn't be removed,
and its position wandered within the cross-section. This interfered with
drilling holes where they should have been, with the resultant misalignment
of some vertebrae. Correcting this was deferred as a resculpting task.
Some of the vertebrae were snapped off (instead of cut)-- a consequence of my first efforts to reshape the tail. The jagged edges will need to be fixed when epoxy putty is used to fill the gaps and patch the damaged vertebrae. I'm impatient, which isn't a good thing. It would have been much smarter to fix this as I went along, but I was very anxious to see if my "tripod" support design would actually work.
| The tail armature is made of two wires, which makes the
tail much stiffer than a single wire and helps when reshaping the tail
since (in theory) it keeps things aligned naturally.
Once the tail is puttied together, the assembled whole is left to stand for a few days to test whether it's stable. Hopefully, the wire won't slowly bend: The biggest fear is of the gradual creep that goes unnoticed until the weight/balance/gravity reach a "tipping point", which causes a loud crashing noise, usually in the middle of the night. Of course, you don't leave it totally free-standing without some means of stopping it before it crashes! The "safety net" should have some visual cue so that you can see if it's moved from its free-standing position. If it does, you're screwed, and it may be time to start thinking about "Plan B". Or you can just disassemble everything and start all over again...
| The hands are sculpted with a very
flat open-handed pose, similar to, but flatter than those of Halcyon's
Alien Queen. I'd hoped that reposing the fingers would be as simple as
heating and bending them slightly. However, this resin isn't quite so
cooperative: It softens, but cracks or breaks when you bend it.
Epoxy putty seems to do a good job of repairing the damage. It's about the same hardness as the resin, and bonds to it very well.
The toes will need to be broken off and resculpted to fit the posing of the leg (in a diorama, you could just stick a fallen pipe under them and pretend that it was supposed to be that way).
| I'm a practical person, and realized
that if this were permanently assembled with glue and putty, she'd be
untransportable by box. No matter how carefully she was packed, no amount
of bubble wrap and styrofoam could keep rigidly attached parts from snapping
off if the box were subjected to routine handling. Therefore, I've designed
her assembly to be more "plug-in" than "glue-on".
(Since I don't have an anti-grav machine, this will also help with the
painting.) Because of her dark coloration and detailing, the seams
probably wouldn't be that objectionable. The screws in her legs would
get filler plugs of partially cured putty so they wouldn't stick too aggressively
to the screws (I'm not sure if this would look okay for the head screw,
but I'll figure something out). Plug-in construction is a good idea regardless, since you can always glue & putty the parts as the next-to-final step (before touch-up painting).
The fit of the "paws" wasn't very precise, and when test-fitted, seemed to bring them too close together, almost crossed. Adjusting them to a preferred pose gave me the opportunity to cut an access hole in her torso in a location that wouldn't be too visible; then I'd be able to stick a finger or tools inside to do putty work to secure the armature wire supporting the arms. The "paws" plug into armature wires that extend through the torso to her backside, where they're plugged into a pair of spikes. Although the arms are cross linked to each other by armature wire, I may redo them and cross link them to the spikes.