1/6-SCALE MEDIEVAL, 2017

AN APPROXIMATION OF
MORGANA, FROM JOHN BOORMAN'S EXCALIBUR


1/6 scale custom Morgana doll/figure, 1981 Excalibur 10/03/17- I felt obliged to do this project: It's what you're supposed to do after you've made Mordred.

Back in '99, after making King Arthur, I remained in Excalibur mode and made Dark Knight (my take on Excalibur-esque armour). Next up was Queen Dragon Momma, my take on a nurse-Ratched-meets-Excalibur sorceress (a.k.a. "Auntie Mildred"). She was sort of a surrogate for Morgana, but more fun to make.

I like the film's Morgana character, but the problem is: How to make a doll look like her? Merlin and Mordred have obvious features: You can tell who they are at a distance just by their costuming. Morgana wears several outfits in the film, but the most distinctive one is her final costume with the armour breast plate. Because it's just one of her "looks" and only briefly seen in the film, it doesn't have the same recognizability that Merlin's or Mordred's costumes have; that puts more pressure on capturing her facial likeness.

I had zero confidence in my ability to do that because I'm just not that good of a sculptor! She was a complex character with a myriad of facial expressions, none of which were iconic and character-defining. I couldn't identify obvious and distinctive facial features (the stuff that makes line-art caricatures work) that were present in pictures of Helen Mirren in the '80s through the present. In fact, I think she looks more distinctive now than she did when she was in her 20s and 30s.

Given the low probability of success with the headsculpt but feeling the obligation to make the doll, I would settle for an approximation of Morgana, based on the overall look. That's where the first round of hand-wringing began, and led me to think about what I call "1/6th scale".

 

What is the Meaning of 1/6th Scale? For traditional military scale modeling, it's very clear and unambiguous: A tank, rifle, or historical figure has a researchable size that can be mathematically scaled-down to 1/6th scale. It's either accurate or it isn't.

There are practical reasons why scale accuracy isn't always observed, even for military subject matter. 1/6th scale is big, far bigger than the 1/35th scale that's popular for military modeling. 1/6th scale (or what I think of as "12-inch dolls") originated in the world of toys. True-to-scale accuracy usually doesn't matter for toys where play-value is more important. Kids usually don't care; accurately-sized parts could be a liability if they're too fragile for play.

Sometimes scale accuracy is sacrificed if the sheer size impedes production and sales. Subjects like helicopters and tanks take up a lot of space in 1/6th scale; an underscale representation that has the approximate look is cheaper, easier to display, takes up less retail storage space, and easier to sell.

Even in the modern age of expensive 1/6-scale collectibles for fussy adults, manufacturers don't make figures in a continuous range of sizes to accurately portray the heights and builds of historical figures. It's just not that big of a deal for most collectors.

For sci-fi and fantasy media properties, it's even more elastic. Because it's made-up and manipulated to appear on screen, there's a clear separation between the created illusory world that appears on the screen and the real-world actors and objects that make it happen. While you can focus on the real-world stuff to get objective measurements, they don't always jive with what the film portrays. That's even more likely nowadays with digital technology. For the 1981 Excalibur film (per Google):

  • Nicol Williamson (Merlin) 6'2"
  • Nigel Terry (Arthur) 5'11"
  • Robert Addie (Mordred) 6'2"
  • Helen Mirren (Morgana) 5'4"
Merlin is tall! I don't think Nicol Williamson was cast as Merlin because of his height, but probably because of his acting ability. In films, it's easier to "fix" height than acting ability.

To me, from a casual watching of the film it wasn't obvious that Merlin was so tall; it's evident in some wide-angle shots, but other shots are framed from a perspective that deemphasizes his height. Merlin appears in many scenes by himself where there's no relative size reference. He does appear in numerous scenes with Morgana, where he is clearly much taller than her. That height difference doesn't draw attention to how tall he is because we expect females to be shorter than males. The film doesn't deliberately shy away from his height, but it doesn't go out of its way to emphasize it either.

The hobby lets you put dolls in the same "frame", even if the characters were never portrayed together in the film. In that respect, 1/6th scale is more like a scaled replica of actors in a set. The loss of selective framing can rob some of the magic that film uses to control what you see. For a property like Star Wars where the actors are seen frequently and together in all combinations, what you see is what you get. For a property like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, should a 1/6th scale doll depict the actor's true size, or the illusory size that the film can create? Obviously, the latter.

In that case, as with many modern media properties, the backstory world is fleshed-out and known by the audience: We know that hobbitses are shorties. That isn't the case for the 1981 Excalibur; the actors' actual heights are knowable, objective facts, but mostly irrelevant for the story.

The 12" doll hobby lives in its own world, with its own realities: Dolls exist in real-world collections where height differences are obvious. You can't deemphasize them, except through photography for a virtual audience. For custom dolls, unless you scratch-build your own, you're constrained by the base figures that you can get and the modifications that you can make.

When making 1/6th scale media properties, should you focus on the impression that the film creates, or the objective measurement of the real-world actors? For me, it's more about the former. So for me, 1/6th scale is a general size category, not an absolute mathematical scaling factor to rule over all. Maybe "approximately sixthscale" or "somewhere in the neighborhood of 12-inch doll" are better terms? The term "Playscale" is probably better for denoting an approximate size class, but no one in this neck of the woods ever uses it. Whatever.

 

1/6 scale custom Morgana & Merlin doll/figure, 1981 Excalibur

Why Did This Even Come Up? It goes to the "overall look". When starting a new project like this (depicting a movie character), after collecting reference photos, the first decision I make is what to use for the base figure. Morgana's costume shows a lot of bare skin at the shoulders, and it's a major part of what makes the outfit distinctive. This pointed to using a Phicen/TB League rubber-skinned figure to hide the shoulder articulation seams. However, at this time, their female figures are one size: Tall (11.5" or 5'9" in 1:1 scale). There's no easy way to change that or customize a rubber-skinned figure's build. She would look too tall when posed with my other Excalibur dolls, especially Merlin.

When I made the Merlin doll, I didn't research the actor's height, I just found a figure that displayed okay with the Arthur doll based on impressions from the movie. To fix this for Morgana, I'd need to replace Merlin's figure with one that was much taller, which would ripple through to Arthur, Mordred, and (maybe) the Dark Knight. Trying to fix this through an accurate scale solution would be a stupid amount of work for something that I didn't care that much about: As I mentioned earlier, Helen Mirren's height is 5'4", and Nicole Williamson's height was 6'2". To preserve the relative height relationship based on the 11.5" tall Phicen figure, Merlin would need to be around 13" tall to display accurately with the Phicen Morgana. Then I'd feel obligated to fix Mordred, and maybe Arthur. That wasn't going to happen.

Another option was to use a hard-bodied figure that could be height-modified and stray from the film's costuming to hide articulation seams. Although I enjoy doing my own take on costuming, I didn't feel that the Morgana character was distinctive enough to stray too far from its screen costume design. Straying from a film's costume design puts more pressure on absolutely nailing the actor's facial likeness. It would be hard for me to do a credible job, and she'd probably end up looking like a generic young white gal with long brown hair wearing a costume that looked vaguely-similar to Morgana's costume. (Which is what happened anyway!)

Because there were no perfect solutions, I came up with a compromise: I replaced Merlin's figure with a slightly taller (12.5") figure and used the Phicen/TB League figure for Morgana. This didn't fix the height accuracy problem: Merlin's only slightly taller than Morgana. Not ideal, but it didn't dramatically upset the balance of heights with the other Excalibur dolls. I'm okay about accepting compromises like that. (Also, I wanted to use the seamless figure because I'd never used one in a project like this before.)

Using the squishy-flesh figure also solved another problem I'd anticipated, specific to the skimpy costuming. Morgana's armour breastplate is made of one piece of metal, covering her boobs down to her belly, but with cutouts at the side. (This isn't a very practical design, and couldn't have been very comfortable to wear in real life.) Accommodating this with a hard plastic figure's articulation would be problematic; I considered sculpting the torso with absolutely no articulation. This would have looked best, but would have been a step too far back to retro-Barbie articulation for my liking: I like dolls to have at least some amount of torso articulation. The seamless figure solved this problem because the torso articulation is hidden and underneath a thick layer of squishy doll flesh. The doll could do torso poses in this breastplate that would be too painful for humans!

 

1/6 scale custom Morgana & Mordred doll/figure, 1981 Excalibur

The Armoured Breastplate Using a squishy-flesh figure for a project like this was new territory for me. I knew that the figure's skin was delicate and picked up marks and discoloration stains easily. Unlike a rigid plastic figure, you can't work directly on the figure and patch 'n paint later. I knew that I couldn't hammer-shape metal on the figure, and didn't know if forming Worbla directly on the figure would damage it, or even if molding silicone would interact with the figure's skin. To use any of my usual armour-making techniques, I needed a hard-flesh version of the torso. I tested silicone molding putty on an inconspicuous area, and confirmed that it didn't bond with the skin. This let me make a resin casting of the torso, so I could try out the different armour-making techniques.

1/6 scale Morgana pewter breastplate (abandoned), 1981 Excalibur

My first preference was metal because it would look most like the breastplate in the film, down to the inexact fit that showed the edges lifted away from the skin. I was also drawn to doing it in metal for the challenge: The costume is relatively simple, and I look forward to challenges to maintain my interest. Although the breastplate is a relatively simple design, being a single piece made it more difficult. Deeply dished boob cups are much easier to make as separate pieces since the rest of the metal sheet doesn't interfere with positioning and manipulating the area you're working on. Maleable pewter flatstock made the dishing and shaping job tolerable (it still took a few hours to do the rough shaping for fit), but... blackened fingers from working on it showed that the tarnish would transfer to the squishy flesh and be very difficult to remove. Reluctantly, I moved on to Plan B: Worbla.

Wobla seemed like a good choice because it doesn't stain. It could be quickly and easily formed to fit, and easily tweaked with spot heating to make more form-fitting. It may even have been heat-formable directly over the figure without the resin torso copy, but I didn't want to find out the hard way that it wasn't. It required less prep work than vacuforming styrene, and is a tougher material that's less likely to tear. It's slightly thicker and heavier than a vacuformed version, which isn't a bad thing. It's rough-textured and harder to get a smooth finish that can painted to resemble shiny metal, but once again, Flexbond did its job.

I was satisfied with making the breastplate fit the figure, which was easy with Worbla... but it wasn't the way the actual armour was constructed to fit the actress. I think Worbla's exact fit makes it look less like the film's. After-the-fact, I thought that I should have distressed the surface with a Dremel to make it look more like it was hammer-shaped. Between the smooth Worbla shaping and the Flexbond surfacing, I think it lacks "soul", and looks like a plastic toy part.

There aren't a lot of reference pictures of the breastplate, but there are enough to let me know that I only achieved an approximation of the shaping of the cutouts in the actual costume's breastplate. I wasn't too concerned about that: Phicen's figures all have big boobs, even the ones they call "medium" (which was all that was currently available), so "screen-accurate" was doomed from the start.

 

Below the Breastplate I didn't find any good references for the costume below the breastplate. The only hints came from a portion of a brief, darkly-lit scene in the film, where she's lying in bed wearing what appears to be pants under a netting-like material. I wasn't impressed by the little bit that I could see, so I used a black sarong-like floor-length skirt that I'd made for another doll a long time ago. Close 'nuff.

It's like Merlin's cloak: From watching the film, it looked like a drapey old black thing. I later saw a picture of the actual cloak photographed under good lighting and saw that it was actually an intricate patchwork of different colored panels. I never caught that from watching the film. Knowing that, was it worth trying to make an accurate cloak that, in typical lighting, would look less like the impression I got from the film? Not to me.

 

The Head Sculpt All I can say is that I tried... I think the result looks human, but nothing about it says "Helen Mirren - Morgana".

Sometimes when I sculpt a likeness, I get a brief glimpse of recognition when I've captured some part of the actor's look, and then it's a matter of trying to figure out where the wrong parts are and how to correct them. This time, I didn't get even a single glimpse of recognition. Not once. Not an encouraging sign.

Absent that, the only way forward was to try to match the position and size of the main facial features from a variety of photos and extrapolate how a neutral expression might affect where stuff would redistribute. And try to make the features symmetrical/human.

My "neutral" expression is a bit snarly; it's not an expression seen in the film, and wasn't even intentional (like I said, I was aiming for "human"). I seem to go down that path a lot and I suspect that it was influenced by my selective, simplified perception of the character. In the film, Morgana was a complex character: Not comic-book evil, and traumatized as a child. She spent most of her screen time being submissive to Merlin to manipulate him, and showing pride/affection for her son, Mordred. After she vanquishes Merlin and acquires great power, she isn't shown being a snarly and evil Disney-esque villain. So in a sense (though not promoted by the film) she's actually a sympathetic, tragic character. However, I think that I felt subconsciously compelled to "editorialize" and depict some of that familiar cliché in her expression. Fortunately, I don't write stories... Doll-making lets you suggest stories, but it ain't the best medium for subtleties!

Moving over to the technical side: Phicen figures are notoriously difficult to flesh-color match with an off-the-shelf headsculpt. Making a headsculpt (this one sculpted in tinted epoxy putty over an Obitsu head) let me match the color of the unpaintable Phicen body, which is a weird slightly dead flesh color. I mixed a batch of craft paint flesh, white, brown, and black which got me somewhere in the neighborhood.

 

The Chain Headress Another blind alley. I did try to make a chain headress that approximated the one in the film. I didn't have clear reference photos for this, but I saw enough to let me know that striving to recreate an accurate one would have taken a lot of work and time, with an unknown (likely low) probability of success. It's basically a metal headband with 3 short chains on each side of the front, connected to a network of links and beads in a ladder-like construction around the sides and back of the head-- that would have been the hard part. I simplified the construction to 8 crisscrossed chain lengths, minus any attempt to do the ladder effect with beads. The thickness of the chains was an issue: They needed to be as thin as possible, yet with openings big enough to connect them to the headband. I settled for a plastic (Worbla) headband because it was easier to drill all the little holes where they needed to be and used snipped chain links to make the connector rings. The completed headress looked good standalone (considering the inaccuracies), but on the headsculpt, the headband connection rings were too thick and took up too much space on the inside. It didn't look terrible, but it looked like the headsculpt was wearing the connection rings instead of the headband.

1/6 scale Morgana chain headress (abandoned), 1981 Excalibur

The real problem was that the headress was competing with a chainmail coif that I'd made a long time ago (lotsa work!) and had been using as a placeholder during this project. I liked the look of the coif (even if it wasn't screen accurate) so the headress needed to convince me that it looked better, or made the headsculpt look more like the actress... which it didn't.

 

Final Words From the approximation of the costuming to the approximation of the likeness, I think I captured an approximation of the character... which, sometimes, is the best you can do. Despite this less-than-desirable verdict, I'm glad I did the project-- She needed to be made and fills a spot in my collection of Excalibur dolls.

1/6 scale custom 1981 Excalibur dolls/figures

Auntie Mildred got in the portrait to suggest that unofficially, the film's world isn't limited to what's shown on screen, and that the story doesn't have to end when the credits roll: It's only limited by your imagination. I think that's one of the most fun aspects of the hobby.


MEDIEVAL