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Thursday, August 20, 2015

My Hatbox Ghost: Part 3

Click for Parts 1 and 2.

Sculptural Restoration

To bring the clay copy I made of the eBay head back to the sculptural excellence of the original Hatbox Ghost, I took two approaches, one for each type of problem.  The most straightforward is the general droop.  It's most apparent on the sides of the face.  I did the clay pour in Monster Clay, which has great elastic properties.  This makes it so all I really had to do to give that little facelift is to press the sides of the head inward, and it bends the overall shape without distorting the surface much.  Pretty neat.  But it is tricky to tell if it's done right, because, though I have some nice reference photos, camera lenses can dramatically change how wide an object appears to be.  So I took it slow and did a little bit at a time until it looked right from various angles and proximities (if you stand closer and farther away from the sculpture, you can kind of simulate different lens focal lengths by eye).

The second part was all about the detail.  Thanks to some relatively high resolution photos (and a few really low ones) of the original, it's not hard to discern what the details are supposed to look like, but I also know from the damage analysis that pretty much any crevasse is going to need to be carved deeper, and any peak may need to be made a bit sharper.

I started around the mouth, carving out the grooves between the teeth, and refining the taut wrinkles around the lips.  Somehow, the lower teeth had sort of caved in, leaving him buck-toothed.  You can see the difference here, with the original photo next to the raw clay casting.  I don't have a definitive answer for how that happened, but unsupported flexible molding materials are probably to blame.

For those, I ended up building out each lower front tooth to meet up where it appears to in the original photographs.

I cleaned up the eyelids, too.  This part was trickier, because the only good look at them comes from this low resolution photo of the prototype head.

 There's not much to go on, but I'm pretty confident that everything around the eyes is as least a little deeper and crisper than the eBay head.

There's no good look at the forehead that I've seen.  But this shot at least suggests that the wrinkles are more ridge-like than a traditional forehead's.

So I used the remaining detail of the eBay head as a guide, and crisped it up a bit.

I used these two little loop tools the most, since they allowed me to carve away tiny amounts of clay without disturbing the area around it.  The rounded wooden ends are also good for smoothing areas over a touch.

Next, I had to perform a bit of reconstructive surgery on his left ear, because my clay pour didn't capture the detail there very well.  I cast up another copy of it for comparison as I worked.

The only other major change was to finish off the bottom of the head.  The pipe will become a pouring spout in the mold.

And that's where we are now.  To the best of my knowledge, this is now the most sculpturally accurate Hatbox Ghost head out there.  Perhaps even more so than the ones in the parks.

And of course I painted the first casting out of the mold!  You're probably sick of seeing those two original photos by now, but, hey, that's the best there is.

Return to Part 1, which introduces the project and provides an appreciation for Blaine Gibson's work on the Hatbox Ghost.
In Part 2, I look at the specific problems with the head casting, and try to identify their causes.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My Hatbox Ghost: Part 2

Click for Parts 1 and 3.

Where the Trouble Started

Before I began fixing the sculpture, I needed to analyze what had happened to it.  The eBay head itself was painted when I got it, so this was easiest to do once I molded it and cast it in clay.  The neutral, uniform color makes it easy to see the forms.  Get ready for more detective work.

There are basically two ways in which the original sculpture has degraded in the time it got to me.  First in detail, and then in overall distortion.  From my experience with molding and casting, this is the story of what probably happened.  I believe the source for this head was a retired hitchhiking ghost from the mirrors at the end of the ride.  We know they have been replaced now and then, because a set was displayed at a Disneyland exhibit a few years back, and there being a few of each ghost in that setup, it seems easiest for one of those to escape unnoticed.

That head probably lived with a Disney employee of some kind, until they loaned it to a friend to mold for themselves.  From there, the family tree would have grown many branches, as copies of the head got distributed, and, every so often, remolded.  There's no way to say how many generations down from the original the eBay head is, but there are some good clues available about what caused the problems.

This picture is of the clay copy I made of the eBay head.

Perhaps the easiest problem to spot is the softened detail.  I've come to the conclusion that this is the result of an earlier generation being pulled from a well used plaster mold.  Plaster is a great molding material, but it tends to degrade over time in a way that most other materials do not.  Each time a casting is pulled from a plaster mold, it takes a little bit of plaster away with it, especially from the areas that represent deeper grooves and such.  If you've ever made a plaster mold for a latex mask, you'll have noticed that detail like skin texture starts to disappear after several pulls, and sharper points, like fangs, start to round off.  For my Beast masks, I get about 15 pulls before the mold needs to be retired.  Eventually all the detail is softened enough that you need to take a casting from the mold that was made early on and make a new mold from it.  This is exactly the kind of degradation seen in the head I have.  I'm certain that it was a plaster mold, rather than a plaster casting, that caused the degradation, because you'll notice the nostrils are smaller than the original's.  The mold would have had protrusions to represent the nostrils in negative.  As it wears down, the protrusion would become shorter and thinner, making the nostril shallower and smaller in proportion to the rest of the nose, which would become bigger all around.  And, of course, that's exactly what we see.  Were it a plaster casting, we'd see larger than normal nostrils.

There's a good chance that a large part of the softening of the detail happened at Disney.  In a recent panel on the new Hatbox Ghost, it was revealed that the source mold of the head in the Disney archives was plaster.  Is that where the detail loss started? Maybe.  Maybe that original mold was treated as a master mold, and only a couple of castings were made from it so that production molds could be made of those castings to produce the heads seen in the attraction.  In that case, that original mold is probably is great shape.  But remember that it was hidden and forgotten in the vault for many years.  Meanwhile, there are hitchhiking ghosts in both parks that used the same head.  We know they need a replacement head now and then, because one of them was displayed at the Reagan Library not too long ago, and that fellow can offer up some further clues.

Notice how he, too, seems to have softened detail all around.  It may be a little better off than the head I got, but the teeth are definitely still much more rounded off than the original Hatbox Ghost photos indicate.  You see it a lot in the nose, too.  I'll bet the original mold was misplaced, and a worn production mold was forced to become the new master mold.  That would explain why it's not just the eBay head that's so soft, but also the actual hitchhikers on the ride.

Consider also that, if the only available molds were so degraded, it would indeed have forced WDI to do that resculpt for the 2011 Florida hitchhikers I mentioned in Part 1.  Remember that the new figures needed to be matched by digital characters for the second part of the effect.  If all they had of the original was as rounded off as the retired hitchhiker is, then there's almost no point scanning it, because there would be tons of cleanup work to do to make it look right when you want to open the mouth or blink the eyes.  Better to start from scratch, or at least a clay pour from what you have.  And that could very well be what they did.  I can't really say.

I briefly considered the possibility that the paint job on the original Hatbox Ghost could be fooling us into thinking that the sculpture is much sharper than it really is, but this photo, especially, reveals that the sculpture is, indeed, crisp and clear in those wrinkles that are round and shallow on the eBay head.

There's no doubt that more detail loss on the eBay head came as a result of the generation loss down the line to mine, but it appears that it did start all the way at the top.  There's an overall distortion, however, that almost certainly happened later down the line. The whole head has a droopy look to it, when compared to the original.  The eBay casting was not a complete head.  It ends just after the sculpture starts to curl under all around the head.  That was probably a choice someone made for easier molding.  Whether it was the eBay seller or the person they got it from, or even someone before that is hard to say.  But, the fact that the bottom of the mold is so open is keeping very much with the idea that the mold sagged.  No support on the bottom, and a bad or no rigid shell around the outside would allow a rubber mold (probably silicone) to droop and stretch outward.  It would be like if you made a bowl out of rubber and flipped it upside down.  It spreads outward under its own weight, and that's what seems to be going on in the eBay head.

UPDATE 12/31/2017:
I learned earlier this year that the hitchhiking ghost heads used on the ride are vacuum formed plastic.  Vacuum forming is a process by which a heated sheet of plastic is sucked down over a mold (the "buck").  You can see how I built a simple vacuum forming machine here and here.  As a result of the process, there's detail lost in the final product, because the thickness of the plastic smooths over the finer shapes of the original sculpture.  This explains the softened detail on the head copies that are out there.  Though the copies are resin, they were originally molded off of a vacuum formed head.  This also explains the plaster mold, as it is common for vacuum form buck to be made of plaster or stone. It is clear from the Hatbox Ghost photos, however, that he was definitely of a finer detail than the vacuum formed heads, so somehow he was a truer casting of the sculpture by different means.  I still believe the overall distortions to be caused by generations of remolding.

Return to Part 1, which introduces the project and provides an appreciation for Blaine Gibson's work on the Hatbox Ghost.
Part 3 covers my sculptural restoration of the Hatbox Ghost head casting.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

My Hatbox Ghost, Part 1: Sculpting Lessons from Blaine Gibson

Click for Parts 2 and 3.

The Project

I have long wanted my own Hatbox Ghost.  As Adam Savage says, it's something I "can't not make."  And while I've toyed with the idea of wholly making my own to various degrees in the past, if I could have the real thing in some capacity, of course that would be preferable!

For the uninitiated, your two sentence summary is that the Hatbox Ghost character was one of the original inhabitants of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion ride, but was evicted within a few weeks of opening because the effect didn't quite work.  His head was meant to disappear from his shoulders and reappear in the hatbox he carried in his quivering hand.  There are many thorough explanations, such as this one, for those who want to go deeper.  They've just recently reintroduced him to the attraction (rather masterfully, I might add), but I'm concerned only with the original ghost here.

Now, the story goes that, since he was removed from the Mansion in 1969, even Disney doesn't know exactly what happened to the original figure.  Fortunately, the head has lived on in the middle hitchhiking ghost, portraits on the walls, and an occasional popup ghost in the graveyard.  It is no doubt a result of one of those figures that such a head landed in my hands last month...sort of.  You may have seen a head parading around eBay as a copy of the actual heads from the ride.  It's usually available there.  A friend of mine picked one up, unsure of whether it was what it claimed to be, but happy to have something that at least looked like it came from the Mansion.  I'll discuss the probable origins of this piece later on in Part 2.

I've seen several attempts to sculpt this fellow from scratch, some better than others, but each has their own character, which is always at least a little bit different from the original.  It's a peculiar and tricky expression to strike, so it was immediately obvious to me that this was, indeed, sourced from the original sculpture, but considerably worse for wear after many generations of molding, casting, remolding, and so on.  All the forms are correct, just softened and distorted in places.

My project is to make something that is more accurate, but less authentic than this "eBay head."  More accurate because it will be, as far as I can tell, the most exacting replica of the original Hatbox Ghost sculpture by Blaine Gibson.  Less authentic because it will mean me meddling with the remains of Gibson's work to get there.  That will be Part 3.

Before I get into what I've done, I really want to take a look at what the master did here.

Gibson's Sculpture

You know Blaine Gibson's work.  If there's a head at Disneyland, chances are he's the one behind it.  Even after his retirement, he still art directed some of the newer statues for California Adventure.

But of all his contributions, none is more iconic to its attraction than the Hatbox Ghost.

I've come to the conclusion that this head was probably a one day sculpture.  Maybe two, but I'd be surprised if it were more than that.  It's not an unreasonable figure for someone who had just sculpted hordes of Pirates for another attraction you probably know.  A large part of my reasoning here comes from some unusual details that can only be explained as a sculptor in a rush.  I'm looking specifically at the teeth, and the first thing I noticed is the molars of the lower right side of the head.  Below is a shot of the raw clay copy I made of the eBay head.

There's a curious bank of space that appears unrendered.  It seems clear that it isn't meant to represent missing teeth, because he's missing other teeth, and those voids are carved fairly deep.  Here, it bows out just like the other molars, but it's as though three of them never got separated.  It doesn't detract from the sculpture in any way, especially as it's viewed in situ, but it can't have been a conscious decision, unless the decision were to prioritize the rest of the sculpture, because it needed to be done fast.

There's another dental anomaly that furthers my theory here.  Looking at the left molars, they've been sculpted with much more detail than the ones that remain on the right.  Notice how they  have clear peaks and valleys on the left, but none of the right.  I'll bet Gibson spent most of his time looking at the left side.  Perhaps he was putting his focus into getting that one big eye right, or perhaps he didn't have it on a turntable, and it was easier to get to the left, or perhaps it was just chance.  The takeaway here, however, is that these details don't matter.  Gibson focused his efforts on the overall design, and let the secondary forms fall to a lower priority.

Any professional sculptor will tell you the form is more important than the details.  It's especially true in the case of Gibson's character work, because audiences will never be close enough to appreciate anything but the primary forms.  Just look at how boldly it's painted.  Now, if it were done today, there probably would have been a stronger emphasis on details, mainly because of changing tastes and greater scrutiny.  In fact, when the hitchhiking ghosts in Florida were updated a few short years ago, the character that shares the Hatbox Ghost mold was resculpted and given finer detail.  Other slight design changes were made, as well, but that's another story.

What I really want to talk about, but have few words for expressing, are the features of this sculpture that really make it special.

When you think of the Hatbox Ghost, you probably don't think of his ears, but have a good look.  Gibson made them bent forward where the hat sits across them!  The effect relies on his hat and his hatbox, so emphasizing the hat in the sculpture of the head is just brilliant.

There's another big creative choice happening with the ears.  Gibson sculpted them much farther toward the back of the head than real ears are.  Just feel on your own head how close your ears are to your jaw bone.  I believe he did this to emphasize the boniness of the character, allowing the jaw bone to exist in its entirety, without disruptions, with a nice deep cavity behind it before the ear begins.

The Ghost is essentially a caricature of a skull, so I figured the easiest way to discern what choices Gibson made that diverted from reality is to set it next to a good skull model (like the one I sculpted-- hey, it was handy).  Note that the clay head is mid-restoration in these comparison photos.  Have a look at the proportions.  Overall it's about the size of a human head, but now see where the features fall.  The eye placement is about the same, but of course there's that fantastic brow lifted much too high for any real face.

The nose is not the defining feature.  This fellow's nose has withered away in his death to the point where it's much smaller than the space allowed by a real skull.  Now, think about when someone smiles really big, and their lips rise up and stretch toward their teeth.  It makes their chin appear pointier because the lips are pressed closer to the skull.  Here, he's sculpted the chin to a pointy extreme, with lines of tension showing the stretching of the lips upward.

Note the teeth, too.  The character is all about that grin, so the entire mouth, teeth and all, is raised with the lips, to really drive that home.  Notice, too, that the vertical section of the jaw bone is made much thinner than a real skull so that the toothy grin can be stretched wider.  The bone around the eye socket at the temple is also minimized to favor the expression over anatomy.  Cool, right?  I believe all these choices were made on the fly, in the sculpture.  And whether or not that was strictly the case, they do reveal a great deal about Gibson's artistic thought process.

But why do I think Gibson was making these choices as he worked?  To my knowledge, there is only one piece of concept artwork for the Hatbox Ghost, drawn by Marc Davis, and it doesn't really provide much direction for the sculpture.  I do think, however, that Gibson got the idea for the differing eyeballs from this design.  If you look at it up close, and remember Gibson probably would have seen it even bigger, you'll notice that the character's right eye is slightly smaller than the left.  Just enough to make you wonder, but not quite enough to appear to be the intention of the piece.

Now, Davis' artwork for the "Hatchet Man" does do the eye trick, and no doubt also influenced the Hatbox sculpture.  I'll let you read more about the origins of that fellow at this lovely blog here.  The expression is very different, however, so there's still a high degree of artistic license on Gibson's part.

At this point you might wonder if the hitchhiking ghost artwork was closer to the design of the sculpture.  After all, it's the same head on both figures.  But Davis' drawings of the hitchhiker seemingly all appeared as a "sheet ghost," so it leaves no doubt in my mind that the Hatbox Ghost came first, and lent his head to the hitchhiker.  And it's a good thing, too.  Because when a dimensional caricature is this strong, it would be a shame to have it only tied to the one character that gets hidden away as soon as he moves in.

In Part 2, I look at the specific problems with the head casting, and try to identify their causes.
Part 3 covers my sculptural restoration of the Hatbox Ghost head casting.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Tale of Two Eyeballs

I'm working on a larger post about Blaine Gibson's original sculpture of the Hatbox Ghost in Disney's Haunted Mansion attraction.  I couldn't talk about this design without commenting on how it's influenced me over the years.  Without going into the ways I've borrowed from looser stylistic elements of Gibson's work, I wanted to just give you the bullet points of where I couldn't help but use that one-buggy-eye design.

My 2008 Gravedigger:

2006 Groundbreaker (pictured in his 2009 refurb):

And a 2013 pumpkin carving:

I'm just now noticing that, for some reason, I've always done the eyes flip flopped.  Odd.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Ghoul! Mr. C's latest projection effect

Just in time for his ScareLA debut, here's the Ghoul!

Like Sybil the Clairvoyant, he's available as a professional type internally projected animatronic character (seen above), or as an externally projected DIY kit (see below).

Come meet him at ScareLA this weekend, and Son of Monsterpalooza in September!

Order yours here: www.chickenprops.com/p/ghoul.html