Last modified: Monday, April 2, 2001 5:34 AM


THE CONCEPT I've been working half-heartedly on this figure for a couple weeks now as a background activity. I haven't felt motivated to start a page on it since there wasn't much going on with it, and the bit that's shown in this first installment is likely to change. But this gives you an insight into the truly inefficient way I work.

There are two ways that I play with concepts-- the macro view, in which I decide on the details of the "world", and the micro view, in which I concentrate on details of a specific figure within that world. Both of these take plenty of time in the idea collection phase. Outwardly, it doesn't look very productive since I'm not physically making anything-- maybe testing a few ideas. But it's fun and a necessary part of coming up with ideas-- ideas motivate you and give you direction. Once I have ideas, it can go pretty quickly, depending on how fleshed out those ideas are, how much fun I'm having or not having. It's rare that I have a fully-fleshed out idea though. Usually, the simple, concrete ideas come piecemeal, I do the work, and then wait until I've got more ideas to act on.

That's what's been going on with this project. It was conceived of as a "furniture" project, to provide a generic background evil warrior character for my ongoing "Primal World" jamboree. (ugh...that's become a lousy name, but I guess I have to live with it.) In the meantime, I discovered the skeleton "Artie" figure and incorporated that as an evil warrior (actually, there are now two Arties). So now I'm back to this, but the characterization has changed slightly. It's now a generic warrior character, sans the "evil" part. As I said, it's a furniture project-- I don't want to put too much effort into it, and I just want the end result. Consequently, I didn't want to devote a lot of time to the figure itself. A new headsculpt perhaps, but not whole body sculpting. It's a costuming project.

THE DESIGN The design inspiration for this figure was shamelessly ripped off from an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons miniature-- a "Berserker", I think. That's not too terribly shameful though since most of that is mongrelized from historical roots. So I'm mongrelizing a mongrelization. Besides, I pretty much freeform the costume details once I've settled on a character archetype because I'm lazy and it's fun to work from your head. So what is this archetype? It's one of those helmet wearing, partial armor wearing types like you can see in the picture, duh! He was envisioned as a counterpart to Minx, who has some armor elements (but a whole lot of skin). Since I'm sticking to the sexist conventions here, the guy version has more armor and less skin. That brings up that old question of anachronisms and luckily, with Fantasy you don't have to dwell on it too seriously. Heck, Lilith is wearing high heeled patent-leather boots. Besides, Devil Women weren't a real fixture of History, were they?

Historical sources are indispensible for quickly gleaning ideas. But as a newbie, if you start studying historical sources too closely, you're likely to be drawn into that mode of "historical accuracy". There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not really ideal here. When you discover a treasure of historical reference material, there's a natural compulsion to strive for historical realism, since all the design work is already done for you. That can lock you into a hypercritical mindset where you're less free to accept mongrelized designs for worlds of your own creation. To retain the mindset to create Fantasy, you have to be somewhat deliberately ignorant of precise historical details... or know them so well that you can intelligently extrapolate beyond them. If that were the case though, chances are that you wouldn't be doing Fantasy. And that's an awfully long road to travel. Like I said, I'm lazy.

The general design strategy is by naturally accompanied by thoughts of production technique details. I decided to make plate armor (like the Excalibur stuff) because the general shaping is fairly simple, it easily covers a lot of the figure's real estate, and thermoforming parts is quick and easy. It also creates an imposing, powerful look at a very low weight. But I didn't want this to overlap with my Medieval stuff since I consider them to be two separate worlds. The design challenge is to make this one look similar but different, and more primitive than my medieval Excalibur stuff. My solution is to put less armor on, with some bare skin showing. More leather too, perhaps decorated with some metal.

THE FIGURE Because I'd be making armor to fit a non-customized figure, I needed to select a base figure. I thought it would be a good idea to earmark one body style for this purpose, since I might be making duplicate armor pieces -- since I'm going through the trouble of setting up for vacuforming, why not? I settled on Dragon's older body style since I had several leftover torsos from previous projects. It's got good articulation and a fairly conservative body shape. Plus it doesn't have as serious shelf-diving problems as some other figures-- not that it's perfect, by any means. I really didn't want to waste a Masterpiece Edition Joe on this figure since their feet are like gold to me.

I haven't thought much about male figures in quite a while, having been mainly concerned with the female ones. But I quickly realized that our choices aren't ideal, and the state of female figure design may actually be further along than male ones (!) There are very few good choices for a realistic male figure, proportion-wise, even ignoring the articulation seam issue. And some of the articulation ain't as good as it could be-- even Dragons seem to have that weak ankle problem. Max Steel's articulation is good quality, but the body shape doesn't work in a lot of situations. And there's his weird head connector. It's always something, huh? I haven't bought any of the newer boutique male figures like Medicom and BBI, so I can't state this unequivocably. However, even Sideshow Toy's Frankie isn't what I would consider the ultimate incarnation of generic male Joehood. He's too skinny and some of his articulation feels flaky. That being said, I may have to resort to some minor cosmetic bodywork on the Dragon figure because the exposed flesh of his thighs and arms looks strange. We're not even talking about a typical Jimbob nudie figure here...Sheesh!

CREATING THE OUTFIT Once I selected the figure, I had a basis to begin making the outfit using the "design as you go" philosophy. My general directions were influenced by the AD&D miniature, so I started there. In particular, I liked the helmet design despite the fact that it's not particularly practical: Those tiny eyeslits would probably be pretty difficult to see out of in 1:1 scale. I sculpted it directly over a spare "Adam/Odo" head-- no huge loss in my opinion. I'd planned on attaching long horns from the sides, but am leaning towards not at this time. That's a purely decorative decision which can be deferred until later.

The simple shoulder pads were sculpted next-- I figured that he needed something to cover the arm seams, and the big football pad-like ones look really powerful. It's a look that I like, but it makes it meld with the Excalibur look. I'm undecided on that one at this time and have considered going with leather ones.

The breastplate was sculpted over an armless and legless Dragon torso-- just the right size to fit in one of my vacuforming frames. The breastplate design was pulled from the air, since I wanted something generic. It was deliberately sectioned to mirror the articulation of the Dragon figure, just in case I wanted to do something with that later. Otherwise it would still work as a quickie unarticulated single piece of armor.

THERMOFORMING I tried the helmet a couple of ways; first, as separate front and back sections. Naturally, I would have to fit the two together and blend them. I also did an all-in-one-piece version, just to see if it were possible, preferring to do less finishing work whenever possible. That produced those perfectly formed creases which are visible in the picture at the top. I thought it looked neat because they were nearly symmetrical, but I've since grinded them off. The helmet has also been partially backfilled with putty to make it rigid and give it a little more weight. The breast plate forming was uneventful. I didn't sculpt one for the back, choosing instead to directly vacuform the back of the Dragon figure. (Yep, it fits pretty well.) I'll have to tackle the back later, but I need to see how the front detailing works out. No point doing a lot of work on something that might get scrapped.

I learned a few things with this round of vacuforming. Firstly, instead of using duct tape to secure the plastic sheet to the frame, I used aluminum tape. It's much stiffer and doesn't turn goopy under heat. That means less sticky mess and less likelihood that the sheet plastic's edge is going to curl under the heat. Secondly, by slamming the frame down on the vacuforming bed, plastic side down, you get a good and natural vacuum seal. I think that the aluminum tape helps with this, since I found out I could get by with taping two of the four edges-- it held the full length of plastic rigidly at the edges through the entire process. And clean up was much easier too. Thirdly, filling the form's undercuts temporarily with clay made it much easier and quicker to demold the form and reduced the risk of breakage. That's a pretty simple concept but in my haste previously, I didn't think of doing this. A little extra setup work in advance saves a bunch of post cleanup work.

LEATHER STUFF I've made a quickie set of black leather boots and skirt, just to make the overall design easier to assess. Visually, it needs a belt & sword to fill out the mass of the hip area. I made boots similar to the style used in the Minx project-- they're probably anachronistic, but they match thematically and I don't want to have to redo them just to service that bit of inconsistency. Sandals might have made the figure look too Greek, especially with the skirt thingamajigie.



03/04/01- EXPERIMENTS There's stuff that we want, and there are ideas that we have, but unless we do something about it they're only as substantial as the ether. While I've made a vacuformed breast plate, I'm aware that you can't paint it to have the same appearance as metal. I've tried Testor's Metalizers and SnJ's kits, and they don't do it. There are a few other options:

Real metal (left): Cut from a can and pounded into shape. Roughly. Sheee-ewt, that's hard stuff. It's not as difficult as doing the real thing I'm sure, but the small size makes it difficult to see what you're doing as you pound. I think the idea is that you anneal the metal to make it softer, then you pound with a hammer over anvils and wooden forms to shape it. Of course you've got to have the right tools to do this; I didn't, so I used the huge head of a regular hammer, wooden dowels and whatever wooden shapes I could find or quickly make. This required more sets of hands than I had (so I used my bare feet too), working on the concrete floor. The results are pretty unspectacular. There's some unfortunate creasing at the arms and the overall shaping is extremely crude and bumpy. You can sand some of this down, polish it to a high shine, or age it, but the material is not very friendly to standard plastic modelling techniques: Putty remedies wouldn't look very metallic, which defeats the whole purpose. As is, I consider this a failure-- with the right tools and a whole lot of patience, I might be able to refine it to my liking though.

Metal foil (right): This is two experiments. On the left, I've used a leaf-style crafting foil (Aleene's, I think). It was a lot shinier before I ran a few polishing and tarnishing tests. With this stuff, you coat the surface with an adhesive-- as is, the adhesive is quite thick and leaves brush strokes which are visible after foiling. Once the adhesive is dry (2 coats at about 30 minutes each), you place the foil over the part, burnish it and pull off the backing sheet. Foiling is a bit unpredictable, as there are inevitably some spots where the foil doesn't stick and you have to go back to refoil them. The result is a lot like a gold leaf foiling (if you've been around Thai temples)-- it's not really smooth because it's so thin that it picks up every surface imperfection (like the adhesive), and you can't polish it to smooth it out.

On the right, I've used Bare Metal Foil's Bare Metal Foil. Originally it was gold, but a little bit of polishing wore off the thin topcoat tinting. This product is an adhesive backed thin metal foil, and applying it over complex curves is an artform. If you don't have the technique down (such as myself), you get the characteristic wrinkling from the fact that foil doesn't stretch. I think you're supposed to figure out where to make cuts to avoid this problem. Where it's done correctly, the resulting finish is very good. Polishing and tarnishing tests show that this is indeed a thin layer of metal. It's a shame that this is such a bitch to apply.

Electroplating: This is the last I idea I have, but I don't have equipment for it and I doubt I'll try it. As I understand this, you need to use an electrically conductive paint on the plastic, electricity and chemicals to build up the plating, molecule by molecule. Sounds like an interesting process, and one that's worth investigating at a later date.

So that leaves us right at where we started: painted styrene. You can look upon these as failures (and they are), but as I've said before, you learn from stuff like this-- so they're not without value. Customizing as a hobby isn't subject to the same standards of efficiency as a business. It isn't necessarily the cheap way to go if you're after a particular effect-- time and money get gobbled up in the pursuit. It does excel as being a way for you to form a more intimate relationship between the things you collect. The fun is the journey and the associated learning you pick up along the way.


03/10/01- A LITTLE HEAD It's actually Saturday. Unlike yesterday, when I believed it was Saturday-- a good long stretch of time to commence work on something. From about 4:30 until nearly 7:00, when I was supposed to be at work -- blissful, until something clicked and panic hit like a tidal wave. This is unlike that brief period of confusion you sometimes experience shortly after waking up. I actually believed it for several hours! From this experience I can conclude: work sucks (a reaffirmation of the fact); always take your shower shortly after waking up, even when you think it's a weekend. Miraculously, this guy was salvageable, despite the fact that I literally dropped everything I was doing, got dressed and sped off to work. I worked on him about 4 more hours today, so that gives you the rough time frame for taking a fuzzy, featureless Adam's head to the first rough draft (taking time to make coffee, roll smokes, pee, and service the whining, puking cat). There's still a lot of work to do. least this doesn't look like one of my snarly female headsculpts. I was beginning to believe that I was sculpting the same thing over and over again. It's especially comforting to know that this one looks "male", despite the fact that our noses aren't shaped like penises, and we don't have any obvious gender-unique features when we're hairless. Sometimes you just get lucky? Generic heads aren't too terribly difficult; it just takes time to shape it into roughly human form, based on the compound curves that make up our face. You don't need a skull model to understand what the bone, cartilage, muscle and fat do to produce the curves-- fleshed-out examples are everywhere, and there's no shortage of humans on the planet. Of course you have be able to translate what you see into what your hands do; explaining that is about as easy as explaining how you walk.

I'm also dealing with the question of figures... As I mentioned above, none of the choices are ideal, which is frustrating: I'm tired of having to rework figures. All of them have the look of being refugees from a CAD/CAM machine; that's great for mechanical things, but humans are organic things. The look is totally soulless, and you only have to look at real sculptures to see the difference between an artist-sculpted chest versus one of these perfectly symmetrical & chiselled toy chests. Hey, I'm guessing here, since I don't know how they make these things. I can't imagine that a human would deliberately sculpt such stylized weirdness. I surmise that this has little to do with the differences caused by adding articulation, other than the fact that the mechanics are easier to work out on a machine, and it's easier to do everything at one time. It's also funny how some decisions seem really moronic: Why does the super-articulated SOTW figure have super flexible feet which don't allow him to stand? Why does 21C's "Junkyard Jack" have floppy bicep articulation AND elbow rotation (which do exactly the same thing)? I assume that humans make these decisions? Some things defy explanation and we're forced to assume that either genuine stupidity was involved or it saved a few pennies.

The armor thing is still up in the air... hovering, and waiting to check out that landing spot. You know how I hate doing the same thing over & over...


03/14/01- A SWORD Out of habit, I usually save this stuff for last, but this sword is for killing time. It's a medievalish sword, which may not be the best choice for this project, but what the hell... I like the style, it's what I wanted to make and it's a second stab at Excalibur, without the cheesy gold foil. This one's got a brass hilt and a wooden grip. It's not finished; the grip needs to be wrapped with wire or carved, and I should do something decorative with the pommel. I may engrave the hilt, once I figure out how to do that. I know that if I tried with my Dremel, I'd probably fark it up badly.

Working the wood was fun. Now that's a friendly material. Metals are considerably less friendly. Other than filing, most of the work requires machine grinding, cutting, shaping and finishing. Doing it by hand would take a really long time. Because metal is so hard, things which require lots of fine control are extremely difficult without the right tools. A Dremel can be used for crude engraving, but because of the rotary action, bits are likely to bind, go out of control and skitter across the face of the metal, marring the finish. Even working it by hand is difficult unless you're really skilled and have the right tools. The hardness can cause a chisel or scribe to slip, gouging out nasty scars in the metal (or your skin if you're not careful). It's extremely difficult to do precision work when you're required to apply quite a bit of force. You can see an example of the difficulty I had in the groove on the blade. I initially cut a rough channel with a wheel to ensure that the line was centered and straight (well, that was the idea at least) and to provide a guide for the cutter. I then tried to smooth it out with a ball cutter. Unfortunately, the ball cutter likes to hang and bind in metal, creating nice little uneven depth depressions. It's very difficult to drag it along as you might in plastic or wood. Abrasives and polishing can only do so much to smooth out the unevenness.

Again, most of my difficulties probably are the result of ignorance, a lack of experience and not having the right tools. I probably could have smoothed out the groove if I had a proper-sized abrasive bit & wheel, or perhaps if I'd gone slower. But I'm making do with what I've got and my instincts... and probably destroying my collection of bits in the process. Ignorance, though blissful, can also be expensive. Fortunately, there's a cure for that. But there's not really a cure for the part about this hobby being expensive...