The Bone House: Or A Very Dreadful Business

London, Victorian England, mid 1800s – and death is all the rage.



Fanny Elizabeth Hermione Knapp,

Died for her love of a pony and trap,

Betwixt her horse and her cart,

She was torn clean apart,

Now her torso is missing her lap.




The production of Mr Bird’s masked head has required a complex series of processes and the mask’s beak was particularly challenging both structurally and cosmetically. The beak itself was constructed from Sculpey over a lightweight core to avoid unnecessary weight, which would drag the puppet forward and downward. Once sculpted, advice was to dry brush enamel paints over the surface, to give the beak a weathered metallic finish, in keeping with the full-sized version designed and built by Seth. The process is to build up the texture and colour, by applying the darkest colour first (in this case a matt black) and then gently dry brushing coats of increasing lighter shades onto the surface. Dry brushing is deceptively difficult, as it requires quite a lot of experience to see how the coats will develop to the final finish. Initially, it feels as if you are getting it wrong, as the trick is to clear the brush of all visible paint on a rag first and then very lightly brush onto the surface in a consistent direction and pressure. Eventually, the colour does start to develop, but it takes some confidence not to load the brush with more paint to get a more immediate result! Further, enamels are notoriously tricky to work with as they do not dry but rather ‘cure’. Therefore, speeding up the drying process is not technically possible as the advice below explains:

“Technically speaking, enamel doesn’t dry, it cures. It’s a fundamentally different process. Paints like nitrocellulose lacquers (like automotive lacquers) and aqueous acrylics truly do dry. The binder of these paints is dissolved into solvent (either lacquer thinner or water), and the paint hardens as the solvent evaporates. Dehydrators can be very effective in driving off solvents- they’re obviously designed to evaporate water out of food, and evaporating solvents is very similar.

Enamels harden due to oxidative crosslinking. When enamel is exposed to oxygen, it starts a chemical process which molecularly hardens the binder- creating a sort of ‘shell’ as binder molecules link with each other. Heat and convention have a limited effect in speeding this process. I may increase the crosslinking process slightly, but certainly not in the way that it dries solvent. If you thin enamels with lacquer thinner, you’re not changing the curing time. By introducing a volatile solvent, you’re creating a mix that needs to cure and dry. But after the solvent has finished evaporating, the enamel binder still must cure- and the binder will still cure at it’s own pace.

If you want enamel to cure quickly, the best way is to spray it as thin as possible. This way as much of the paint as possible is exposed to oxygen, and it can all go to work on curing. If you apply enamels thickly, only the outside surface is exposed to oxygen, which can dramatically increase the curing time of the paint deeper in the layer. Spray enamel too thick and it is possible to keep some of the paint from ever completely curing. The outermost portion exposed to air can cure perfectly well- but this cured outer portion becomes a barrier to prevent the paint deeper in the layer from being exposed to oxygen. As a result the paint will always be soft, under a thin cured film.

This is why enamels have such strange application instructions- you must spray everything on at once (within a couple of hours), or you must wait days or weeks to apply another layer. If a layer is applied and it begins (but does not complete) curing, only to be covered by another layer, the first layer will never cure.

Of course applying many thin fully cured layers is a perfectly acceptable (if very time consuming!) way of applying enamels. But if you try sanding/polishing it, you will see quickly that each of these individually cured layers is distinct. You will clearly see where you’ve sanded through one to the layer below, rather like sanding through an onion. It makes enamels difficult to apply thickly…”

Read the full forum post here.

So it took quite some time to complete the finish to the mask’s beak! I also found that time it took for enamels to cure was dependent on the type of modelling material to which they were applied. For example, those applied to the porous, slightly chalky surface of the Sculpey cured within 24 hours per coat, but those applied to the waxy, non-porous surface of Milliput (used for the scales along the mask’s nasal bridge) took much longer. I assume that this is because the enamels were able to seep into the Sculpey surface a little, resulting in a thinner coat and therefore a faster curing time. When applied to the Milliput, however, the repellent surface resulted in a thicker coat and in turn, a longer curing time.


Faustus: Stay, Mephistopheles, and tell me, what good will my soul do thy lord?

Mephistopheles: Enlarge his kingdom.

Faustus: Is that the reason he tempts us thus?

Mephistopheles: Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris.
(It is a comfort to the wretched to have companions in misery)”

― Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus



Hell would not be Hell without a flaming inferno and therefore animating fire became an important skill to master.  My first attempt to animate flames wasn’t so successful as it didn’t convey an authentic movement (which, although not prerequisite for representing fire, seemed like a useful convention to learn.)  The convention for animating fire is to treat it as a waveform that moves in a regenerative cyclical motion.  Rather like a flag, water or any other material, the movement of flames is governed by the air currents that move through them.

Air rises from the hottest part of the fire (the centre) and is replaced by cool air rushing in from the sides at the base.  This cooler air is subsequently heated by the fire and rises, sucking in more cooler air in its wake and resulting in a continuous process.  The timing of the movement is fastest at the base, slowing as the air cools down on its journey through the fire.  The movement of the flames is rapid, fluid and ever-changing, seemingly always rising upward.  Any downward movement tends to ruin the effect.  A good source of information on animating waveforms is “Timing For Animation” by Harold Whitaker and John Halas (Focal Press, 1981).

My initial attempt can be seen here.  By comparison, my revised line test showing the air flow points can be seen here and the final inked version can be seen here.


The completion of the sequence ‘Boot squishes eyeball‘ was significant, not simply as it was the first stop motion sequence to be wrapped but also as it set some basic standards for lighting, composition and overall aesthetic. In terms of movement, the sequence was deceptively complex; involving a rig, glass in front of the camera and replacement eyeballs to achieve 24 frames worth of action. Further, paint mixed in Vaseline on glass was used to create the pulp that seemingly hits the lens as the eyeball bursts under foot, adding to the highly textured imagery that is a prerequisite in the production’s visual design.

Criticism of the motion was that it wasn’t a smooth as it could be. One method since considered to remedy this is the use of motion studies for all subsequent sequences, regardless of the seeming simplicity of the motion. As it is possible to import video into Dragonframe for frame by frame playback whilst animating, I plan to video myself acting out each sequence and use these as a ‘rotoscope guide’ for the animation whilst under production. This should better ensure a more plausible and polished result.

Another observation was to be cautious with the lighting. Despite several recces, the image may still be a little under exposed which may render it too dark on some display mediums. Advice has been to slightly over expose and then correct in Adobe After Effects as necessary. Further tweaking to the standard lighting mix is certainly required before further sequences are shot. In general, however, I am pleased with the outcome and feel one step further to laying ‘The Bone House‘ to rest.


The Bone House: Initial Lighting And Set Layout Tests

Although it may feel that The Bone House is a false memory and you are being driven quite mad by the ongoing stop-start, stop-start, stop-start of this project – rest assured dear readers, that the work is clawing its way back from the darkest depths of the back burner and onto the stop-mo table.  Puppet fabrication and blocking are the next stages in production, so I aim to bring more updates from the studio over the next few weeks. Above is a still from my initial lighting and set layout tests.  Feedback was that although these tests are strong in terms of dramatic composition, the lighting was too ‘primary’, not nearly sickened or putrid enough… And I have to admit, I agree.

Oh well, back to the gel kits then!