Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Where There's Newprint, There's a Way

Like me with my Brady Piñata, my Mom hadn’t dealt with papier-mâché in years when she went about making her fantastically scary Shelob. Once she got going, however, she was inspired to further inventiveness with this incredibly handy and versatile craft-form. First, Mount Doom, but later, masks to represent orcs and Ringwraiths. (In this case, no human actually wore the masks, but they were mocked up to be terrifying on their own – and can I just say that I’m not sure I would really want to wear a papier-mâché mask on my head, at least not without its having the opportunity to air out for several days. The flour/water paste combined with newsprint is an incredibly foul smell to have so close to your nostrils.)

She started by inflating several standard-size rubber balloons to about the size of a human head, maybe a bit bigger. These she covered with two or three layers of standard newsprint papier-mâché. This yields an egg-shaped base, which when dry can be cut in half to make two basic “masks.” When I arrived in Georgia, she and my nephew had already made a couple of these into orcs by applying features such as eyes, nose, scars, and scary lumps to the half-eggs with other bits of newsprint molded and dipped into the flour glue.

Here's her orc after having its newsprint features applied.
The night before the party, while Mom made two other masks into Ringwraiths, she asked me to do a couple more orcs from the remaining bases. For inspiration, I pulled out pictures from the Lord of the Rings movies showing some of Weta Workshop’s especially unpleasant creations.

Orc #1 was based on this attractive guy:

It was quite helpful to look at this image as a model, as I immediately realized that, while the egg shape made a good base, I would need extra dimension to really bring him to life. Taking fists-full of soggy newsprint (and momentarily oblivious to the fact that he would need to be dry and painted in less than 24 hours), I first started building up the sides of his face to form his high, elongated cheeks. I did the same to build out an area around his mouth, so that it would appear to be a cavity in the mask rather than something applied to it, and for fun added a protuberant tongue. (For lack of time, I didn’t attempt to build any dimensional teeth - perhaps a mistake.) Again for the eye sockets, I built out newsprint both below and above, mainly above. The nose was fun – more clumps of newsprint, up into which I stuck my thumbs (yes, gross) to create deep nostrils. I knew I couldn’t recreate this orc’s massive batwing-like ears without some kind of extra support – maybe cardboard? – so I went for a smaller version of the same thing. Because I was working fast, and sloppily, I found that my surface was pretty rough – even ridgier than that of my lovely orc model. Given more time, I suppose you could let the built-up papier-mâché dry and go back over with a couple smoothing topcoats of newsprint. But these are orcs after all, not beauty queens, so I wasn’t too worried about the wrinkles.

Orc #2 was based on an orc called Grishnakh – different looking but just as generally disgusting as the first model. I used the same process as before – this time giving him a wider nose and heavier browbone. I should say that all this built-up wet newsprint gets a bit heavy, such that especially for this guy the shape of the mask was somewhat distorted by the weight. In a way he looked more clownish and silly at this point than scary, but the great thing about making orcs is that it’s nearly impossible to mess up – your result might be different than expected, but it’s no less an orc. Sum total I probably spent about an hour and a half on both orcs, getting my hands completely gooey in the process, then left them to dry overnight.

Next day, I had two still quite soggy orc masks sitting on the counter. Seeing as the newsprint was more than an inch thick in several places, not too surprising. With the party a few hours away, I pulled out a hair dryer and, switching back and forth between the two orcs, began drying. I regret to say that the carbon footprint for this project was relatively large, as I spent more than a half-hour blow-drying orcs, passing the time reading Entertainment Weekly, until they were still clammy but dry enough to paint.

(That's Grishnakh on the left, Orc #1 on the right.)
As with my vase, the orcs looked quite cool in their bare-newsprint state – somehow about as scary and gruesome as you’d want them to be. As before, though, I knew that to achieve a true orc-y effect, I needed to go ahead and paint them. Again using my images for guidance, I squirted several different shades of acrylic paint onto a palette: grayish hues for #1, reddish brown ones for #2. Working quickly and haphazardly, I daubed different colors from each of the chosen palettes over each mask; this achieved a nice blotchy skin tone which to some extent made up for the loss of the patchy newsprint effect. Because I had defined the features so well dimensionally, I found not too much additional painting was necessary beyond the blotchy skin tone. However, I added dark paint to the insides of any crevices or cavities to exaggerate the depth, and did some general shading around the cheeks and brows. Then I used a pinkish white color for the eyeballs of each, and gave the grey one a reddish-black tongue and the brownish one rotted-looking teeth.

As party time neared, I was charged with the task of setting up the orc ambush scene. Mom found several odd garments to use for their bodies – old graduation robe, pancho, lengths of old fabric – which I took out to the chosen cluster of trees, along with coat hangers, wire, duct tape, and the four orc masks. Working with my brother-in-law, I found that the best method for hanging the orcs was to make two holes in each mask: one at the bottom (below the chin) and the other at the top (above the forehead). We pulled the coat hanger hook up into the bottom hole, secured it inside the mask with duct tape, and wrapped a length of wire around the top of the hook which we pulled up through the hole at the top of the mask. Then we tied the other end of the wire around a tree branch at about head height. Afterwards I draped the fabric and clothes over the coat hangers, trying to suggest some type of body mass beneath. Some of my judgments here, however, were questionable: particularly the pairing of a red length of fabric with a black graduation robe, effectively turning Grishnakh into a University of Arkansas grad. Anyway. To add a little ferocity, I found several long branches, which I propped up alongside the orcs to represent some type of staff-like weapon. (All the "real," plastic weapons were in use by the party guests.)

Once assembled in the woods, the effect was pretty cool. Somehow my initially clownish Grishnakh proved the scarier (despite his Razorback regalia), while the pointy-eared orc looked a bit goofy. Perhaps it was the lack of teeth. Neither actually came out much like my model - I guess the images wre more inspiration for my own unique creatures than literal models to be copied. My nephew’s and Mom’s orcs looked equally good, and the grouping as a whole made a great backdrop for the archery contest.
The whole papier-mâché dimensional mask idea is one that I'd love to try again - given more time it would've been fun to add stringy hair, build out the ears, use cardboard to make teeth, and otherwise get these guys a little closer to the Weta models. However, I think it was pretty good work considering the time constraints. Maybe for Halloween. Or if my brother ever decides he's Peter Jackson.

Lesson Learned: Where there's newsprint, there's a way: Dimensional papier-mâché sculpting is a really fun and reasonably quick way to achieve great effects; however, next time allow at least a full day for the thick, gloppy newsprint to dry.

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