So, we're in the final stages of pre-production! It's so exciting to actually start filming soon. It also means we're taking care of some final pre-production tasks, one of which is prop fabrication! I thought I might be a nice time for a little DIY prop fabrication discussion!
While I fully endorse working with an accomplished special effects artist (since it is such a fascinating art and the people who practice it should be supported) there might come a time that you need to make something simple quickly.
SO I thought I'd lead you through the process of fabricating one of our own props!
This film has a LOT to do with Halloween, and trick-or-treating is going to figure heavily in the film. One of the props we needed to fabricate was a special Halloween mask worn by one of our kid stars!
So, here's a step-by-step process on how we made it!
First, start with your idea. What is the look of the prop, whatever it is? Make a concept design, sketch it out! Here's OUR concept design!
So, for making this mask we needed:
A template to work on. Since this is a pumpkin-shaped full-head mask to be worn by a child, we chose a 10-inch diameter styrofoam ball as our template. You also need:
Paper Mache (VERY fine-cut paper)
So, here's how it worked.
Taking our template (the styrofoam ball), we covered it entirely in modeling clay. In the clay itself, we sculpted the design of the mask.
Once the sculpt was finished, we then covered the clay mold in petroleum jelly. This is important! Since the final paper mache mask is going to be molded directly on top of the clay, the jelly will keep the clay from sticking to the inside of the mask, which is horrible to remove. Plus, if the mask comes off cleanly from the mold, you can keep the mold and re-use it if you need to make copies! If your mask has eyeholes or perforations like ours does, be sure to apply the petroleum jelly to the edges of the holes as well, to keep it from sticking.
Then, mix the the paper mache. We ended up going with a special pre-mixed brand using ultra-fine shredded material. This makes the paper mache more clay-like, easier to mold and sculpt, and allows for finer detail. Also, paper mache is very light and easy to wear, but also fairly hardy. However, there are multiple materials you could use as a base: shop paper towels work well for smaller masks, as you can mold the entire mask using one or two whole towels which will give you a smoother finish on the mask. For an even smoother mask, you could mold in latex or foam. That, however, is a different process, and not the look we wanted. We wanted the mask to at least give some impression that a child could have made it. We wanted it to look a little rough.
Once the paper mache is finished, apply to the clay mold! Add details and sculpt! For larger masks like this one, we also made sure to make it thick, to help it hold up and keep from breaking. Then allow to dry! We suggest allowing the mask to air-dry, as opposed to quick-drying in a low-heat oven. The faster you dry it, the more chance there is that the paper mache may shrink and crack. Air-drying will take at least 24 hours, and more for thicker masks. Ours took around 2 days to dry enough to remove from the mold. Be patient! The paper mache is dry when it is no longer cold to the touch, but instead feels room temperature.
Once the mask was dry, we CAREFULLY removed it from the mold. GO SLOWLY here. This is where things can go wrong if you rush. Either the mask will crack, or won't come away cleanly from the mold. That means scraping out clay and potentially ruining the mask, AND means that your clay mold can't be used again. This is why you need to apply the petroleum jelly: it adds a buffer and allows the mask to come away cleanly. For us, we deliberately made the mask in two pieces. This was partially so that we could take it off the mold, but also so that we could easily work on the inside of the mask (apply foam to fit the actor's head, etc. The two halves can be attached later.
Once we removed the mask from the mold, we allowed it to dry further. The wet clay and petroleum jelly will sometimes prevent the underside of your mask from drying completely, especially if the mask is thick like ours. Again, be patient! It will take a while. Once the underside is dry enough, CAREFULLY remove any remaining petroleum jelly from the underside. That'll help it dry faster.
Once the mask was fully dry and hardened, It's time to paint! We used acrylic-based paint for the mask. Acrylic gave us the look we wanted, and it drys very quickly.
FINALLY, to finish the mask entirely, we varnished it. This will help seal the paint against the bumps and scrapes of shooting (fewer chips), AND help to harden the mask to keep it from breaking. You can pick up varnish in any craft or DIY store. There are many different kinds you may want to use depending on your project, but we went for exterior paint varnish. It's harder and tougher. We also chose a semi-gloss finish to give it the right look, but you can use matte finish if that's what you're after.
Hooray! It's painted and varnished. Now, time to stick the two halves together.
We wanted the mask to sit around the actor's head fairly closely, to get the right look for the screen-ready costume. This is the other reason for the mask being in two halves. First, we attached the two halves together at the top of the mask (under the pumpkin stem) using plain craft felt and epoxy. We would recommend reinforcing normal epoxy with both super-glue, and some sort of physical fastener: tack, staples, etc. The dusty, flaky nature of paper mache means that many glues will not consistently stick. The felt acts as a hinge, allowing the actor to open the mask and remove it.
To secure the mask, we attached two strips of velcro at the bottom of the mask on either side of the “neck hole.” Again, we recommend using super-glue to attach things like this, to ensure they won't peel off. Velcro, felt, epoxy, and super-glue can all be purchased at any craft store.
Then, to adjust the mask to comfortably sit on the actor's head (and not wobble like a dashboard bobble-head), we glued pre-cut foam to the inside of the mask, to make if sit more snugly. For this work, we recommend foam rubber. While more difficult to acquire (you won't necessarily find it in your local craft store), it is by far the most superior substance for padding masks and helmets. It is soft, firm, yet pliable (you can curve it easily to fit contours), and it is carveable. Many craft stores will only sell cotton batting or batting-like material. This tends to be stiffer, tear off in tufts (instead of clean carving cuts), it tends to pull apart and is difficult to glue in place. Go for foam rubber, which can be ordered easily and cheaply online.
Finally, we added one more touch: on screen, we wanted to give the impression that the mouth, eyes, and nose of the jack-o-lantern were filled with shadow (we did not want to see the actor's face through the mask). In order to achieve this look and still allow the actor to see clearly, we added a layer of thin black scrim material to all of the openings in the jack-o-lantern's face. This obscured the actor's own face, yet still allowed him to see.
Here it is!
That's the screen-ready mask! Simple enough! BUT...
Out parting advice is: SAVE THE MOLD, and MAKE COPIES. While these materials are cheap, easy to acquire and easy to use, they are also fragile. Filming is a rough-and-tumble business, and accidents will happen. You don't want to be caught on set with only one copy of your mask when it breaks and you have a whole day's shooting!