Saturday, 31 August 2013

My anatomist's head is all finished

Here it is, folks.

And in close up:

From the other side:

I'm very fond of the four horns.  This is something I think worked very well on this project.  My inspiration for this concept was these four-horned Hebridean sheep.

Here's the face from the front:

And the back of the head with all those nice corrosion cast veins:

The shiny surface is due to polyurethane.  I'm not usually a fan of shiny lacquer on my projects, but a mummified anatomist's specimen would be shellacked to protect it and would therefore have a varnished appearance.  I'll have a think about the polyurethane over the next few days, and possibly change the finish texture if I decide I hate it.  But I don't think I do hate it.  I think I'm just not used to making something shiny.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Turn in Your Grave: my review

Turn in Your Grave is available on DVD here

Well, I received the DVD that got me so excited a couple of weeks back, and in this post I'm going to tell you what I think about it.  I have done my level best to make sure there are no spoilers in the following review, because I'd hate to ruin anybody's fun.  I would have got this post up sooner, but I wanted to watch the film a couple of times and let it settle in my brain a bit before I reviewed it.  It's that kind of film.

This is also kind of a long post because, well, Turn in Your Grave isn't the kind of thing you can sum up in a couple of paragraphs.

I enjoyed Turn in Your Grave.  If you're a horror fan, I recommend it highly.  Forget Saw, forget Hostel, this is creepier.  Saw and Hostel are nasty, but they're not sophisticated.  They rely on shock value to get a reaction out of the audience, and that trick only works once.  I can guarantee Turn in Your Grave will continue to send shivers down my spine no matter how many times I watch it.

Turn in Your Grave is a subtle movie.  There's very little onscreen violence and so little gore that it could maybe get a PG 13 rating.  There's no CGI at all.  These things are absent because Turn in Your Grave doesn't need them.  Director Rob Ager laughs at such tactics, because he knows proper atmosphere and clever directing can achieve a level of disturbing scariness that no amount of computer generated blood splatter can ever hope to match.

Turn in Your Grave is not for everyone.  The enigmatic plot means that some viewers are going to walk away confused, unsatisfied, and wondering what the hell they just watched.  If you like a clear-cut narrative and want to have all the loose ends tidied up by the time the credits roll, you may not enjoy this film.  I watched it attentively, but I'm still not 100% sure what I saw.  I have a theory, and I look forward to re-watching the film and figuring out if my theory fits all the evidence.  Audience participation is very much a feature of Turn in Your Grave.  It doesn't tell you what it's all about; you have to work that out for yourself.  My favourite thing about the film is that you can interpret it in a number of ways, and I get the feeling that it was written that way deliberately.  Some authors get upset when people read meanings into their work that they didn't intend to be there, but I think viewers are supposed to interpret Turn in Your Grave in whatever way makes most sense to them.  I like that in a film.  I like to feel that I'm being invited to think about what I see and draw my own conclusions.

The surface narrative is compelling and the actors are pretty good.  The characters aren't a very likable bunch, but I don't think they're supposed to be.  Anyway, this didn't prevent me from relating to the characters or empathizing with them.  The characters are basically what you'd get if you grabbed an assortment of people off a Liverpool street (where the film was shot).  There are no Hollywood cliches, no hard boiled warriors with hearts of gold, no grizzled cops who are too old for this shit, and no action girls with improbably large breasts.  Ager's characters are believable, ordinary people.  The film's website states that "The usual dialogue = exposition method of communicating a story became less relevant...", and I really enjoyed this method of storytelling.  The character interactions felt natural to me, because the cast were concentrating on having natural conversations instead of conversations that explain the plot.

I've been a fan of Ager's film analyses for a while now, so I was looking forward to seeing him put his skills into practice and I wasn't disappointed.  The directing, camera work, and use of filters in Turn in Your Grave are first class.  I certainly wouldn't have guessed that this is Ager's first ever feature film if I hadn't already known.  I wouldn't have guessed most of the scenes were shot in one week, either.

I might have picked up on the fact that Turn in Your Grave had almost zero budget, but don't let that put you off.  Low budget, in this case, does not mean low quality.  The limitations imposed by the film's budget are incorporated into the story so they become a feature, not a bug.  The creature effects are the best example of this: the zombies look like people in masks, but that's A-okay.  They're supposed to.  It's part of the story.

So, to sum up, Turn in Your Grave is a great film and I strongly recommend you check it out if you're into horror films, films that give you something to think about, or films that don't follow the standard industry formula.  It's an independent release distributed by the director, so your local retailer probably won't stock it, but you can get the DVD from the film's website or through Ebay.  I paid 10 quid including shipping (that's about $20 in New Zealand dollars, or $15 in US dollars), and I consider it money well spent.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Skin: the final layer

Skin is the final layer of my anatomist's head.  In the photo up top I'm half way through applying skin.  As in, I've literally applied it to half the face so you can see what it looks like before and after.  Here's another photo:

It reminds me of Batman with the two little horns and the skin peeled away from the mouth area, so I think I'll call it Bruce.

I want to have the skin peeling away from the skull, which is already finished at this point and is quite a different colour to what the skin will be.  That's why, if you look at the left side of the face, you can see the edge of the skin already painted.  That's actually the bottom layer of skin, made from coloured paper.  The top layer is what you see on the right hand side.  By doing it this way, I don't need to try and get a paintbrush in between the skull and the underside of the skin, and there's no chance of getting paint anywhere it doesn't belong.  

The skin on old specimens like this tends to be quite dry and mummified, so that's the look I've gone for.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

More corrosion cast blood vessels

This time,  they're on the skull.  These blood vessels are so much fun!  They're also dead easy.  They're just paper mache snakes which are painted and glued into shape.

I've also added horn armatures as you can see, which should explain why the teeth aren't shaped like normal human teeth.  Eventually the skull will get a coat of polyurethane, which will improve the look of it, but that'll probably happen after I do the skin so that I can just go over with a big brush and shellac the lot in one go. 

Monday, 19 August 2013

Anatomist's head: corrosion cast veins

Doing the blood vessels on this thing is fun.  The preserved anatomical specimens I'm using for inspiration were made by injecting coloured wax into the specimen's blood vessels to make them keep their shape.  The wax also had antibacterial properties, due to the fact that the colouring agents were toxic, and so helped to preserve the specimen.  Corrosion casting is an important learning tool for medical students because it allows you to see what the blood vessels look like in three dimensions.  Today the technique has come a long way from the early coloured wax casts, and you can see some excellent modern examples here.

What I've done here may seem like a far cry from elementary school paper mache balloons, but these blood vessels are made using only paper mache.  So are the trachea and esophagus you can see in the photos, and in fact everything else except the teeth.

How do the veins get to be that colour?  Payne's grey and cadmium red with a coat of polyurethane to give them a bit of a sheen.  Works every time.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

I don't know how I get myself into these things, I really don't

For some reason I decided I wanted to cut away part of the skull on this head so the teeth would be visible inside the paper mache "bone".   There's only one problem with doing this, but it's quite a substantial one: making all the little teeth.  I like the satisfaction of having made lots of teeth, but actually making them is a chore I can do without.  

In profile

However,  here they are in glorious cutaway detail.  The teeth are made of polymer clay.  To be honest I really didn't think this jaw idea was going to turn out very well when I was making it, but I stuck with it and I'm happy I did.  This thing even creeps me out a bit.  Once I've added peeled away skin, the effect will be even worse.

Full frontal nastiness

This was a slow process.  It involved building up the tooth sockets in layers and then waiting for them to dry before starting the next layer.  This was because the sockets are delicate and easily damaged while they're wet, and they're superimposed on each other.  The teeth are made with roots and jammed into the sockets afterwards.  Here's what it looked like before having the teeth installed.  

You will have noticed that these teeth aren't human teeth, but don't let that fool you.  This is actually what teeth look like inside a child's skull.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The anatomist's head: step one

Remember this armature from a while back?  Well, it did finally dry and it's now on its way to being an anatomical model.  I've started by filling out the eye sockets,  cheek bones and jaws, and I've given it the beginnings of a neck.  I'm not very happy with the vertebrae at this point, but I'm not sure whether I'll bother to fix them.  I may put skin on the neck, in which case it won't matter that they look like crap.

If the eye sockets look a bit shallow to you, that will be because they are.  They'll be filled in later,  so it won't matter. 

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Painting zombie skin: a tutorial

Because there's nothing like horsing around with a fake zombie hand.

Toilet paper makes a great zombie skin texture, but isn't a very convincing zombie-type colour.  Happily, it's not very difficult to fix that with some acrylic paint.  Don't bother splashing out on expensive paints - cheap brands will do the job just fine.

I had some areas of bone showing through the skin, so I started by painting them off-white.

Then, it was time to do the skin.  This is really easy.  It's simply a case of mixing up ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, and a bit of burnt umber.  This combination gives you a really nice grey-brown colour that makes for great zombie skin.  I thin the paint with water and blend it with some burnt umber when I apply it.  I quite like to use a mixture of thin grey glaze and very thick burnt umber, for added texture.

I find this requires at least two coats.  The first coat tends to look pretty thorough while it's wet, but as soon as it dries I always see a whole bunch of places I missed.  It's particularly easy to miss painting under the fingernails, so pay close attention to this area and cake lots of paint under there.  Remember, acrylic paint shrinks as it dries.

It's also very important to put a very thin wash of grey over any bone areas, so they look like they belong with the rest of the hand.  If you miss this step, the project ends up looking fake and somehow disjointed (yeah, I know disjointed is fine for a zombie project, but you want it looking convincingly disjointed).

The photo below shows how I've put a grey wash over the exposed finger bone.  It's fairly subtle, but it does make all the difference.  This photo also shows how thinning the paint with water allows you to get an interesting mottled effect on the fingernails.  However, there's no reason why you couldn't give your zombie nail polish or acrylic nails if you feel like it.

One of the things I used to trip up on when I first learned to paint was ignoring the role blue plays in skin tones.  I used to think - I suspect a lot of novice painters think this - that blue isn't a skin tone and doesn't belong in skin colours.  Boy, was I wrong.  Adding a bit of blue really brings skin tones to life.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Whee! I'm excited!

UPDATE: The DVD arrived, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and you can read my review here.

...because I've ordered a copy of Rob Ager's 2012 zombie film/cinematic brain teaser Turn in Your Grave.   It's an independent film so you may not be able to find it at your usual retailer, but you can get it on DVD via Ager's website where I got mine for the very reasonable price of £10.00, including shipping.

Chris Honey make up test for Turn In Your Grave
Actor Christopher Honey did his own make up for this film.  Now that's talent!  Image from

I'm a big fan of Rob's film analysis work, and can't wait to see him put into practice all the surreal subtext he likes to explore in his analyses.  I don't normally buy DVDs, but I bought this one because I like to support independent artists as much as possible.   My opinion of Turn in Your Grave is likely to go one of two ways:  either I'll think it's okay, but nothing special, or I'll love it to the point of obsession and watch it a zillion times.

That's because Turn in Your Grave is a puzzle.  You don't figure out the plot just by watching it and following the surface narrative.  The film's real narrative is encoded in a complex system of background clues and images.  I expect to have to watch it several times with a pen and paper before I figure out what's really going on.

Turn in Your Grave begins with several people waking up to find themselves trapped in a warehouse.  Or maybe it's an artist's studio, since there are paintings stacked against the walls.  But why?  Is it a dream?  A reality TV show?  A crazy practical joke?  Have they died and gone to hell?  More importantly, will they be able to escape and avoid being killed by the mysterious enemies who also lurk in the warehouse?

The premise is not unlike Lost, except that Ager started with an overarching narrative in mind and wasn't making it up as he went along*.

Are you interested?  Mystified?  You will be when you check out the trailer:

In truth, one of the reasons I'm itching to see this film is that from what I can see Ager seems to have used art as a major narrative element.  The warehouse the characters find themselves trapped in contains enigmatic paintings and drawings that reveal clues about what's happening.  I can't think of very many films where art plays an important role that aren't either a) films about artists, or b) films that rely on special effects and/or animation.

That's not an indictment of the Lost scriptwriters, mind you.  They didn't know the show would run for six seasons and hadn't planned the story arc that far ahead.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Adam Nevill is brilliant, and here's why

Not many writers can ignore every natural law in the book and still send shivers down your spine.  Adam Nevill can.  I've just read his latest book, Last Days, and I highly recommend it.

Last Days
Last Days is available here, with free shipping worldwide.

Writing paranormal horror presents an interesting challenge these days, because modern audiences are (usually) scientifically literate enough to be well aware that the phenomena you're describing don't exist.  It's fundamentally quite hard to scare people with things they don't believe in.

Some writers get around that by providing a scientific explanation for the supposedly supernatural elements in their work.  The Rage Virus is more frightening to modern audiences than the idea that a witch doctor can reanimate corpses, because the concept of the Rage Virus lurks uncomfortably close to the borderline of what modern people think could happen in real life.  My favorite example of this method is probably Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining.   Steven King famously hated Kubrick's film, and I think that's because he turned what King intended to be a ghost story into a story of alcoholism,  insanity,  and domestic abuse.   But in my opinion Kubrick made the story exponentially creepier.

Another option is to make the story ambiguous enough that the audience must form their own conclusions about what really happened.   A good example here is John Harding's Gothic thriller Florence and Giles.  Yes, you could make a good case for including The Shining in this category, but personally I wouldn't.

Adam Nevill doesn't use these tactics.  His subject matter is unashamedly, unambiguously supernatural.  And yet, it's some of the most disturbing stuff I've ever read.

Vampire stories were a lot cooler before Hollywood and that woman with the glitter fetish ruined them for everybody, but fortunately Adam Nevill is here to fix that for us.  It's hard to put a name to the... entities featured in Last Days, but they're unmistakably derived from medieval beliefs about the undead.  Last Days is the story of a murderous cult, and the director hired to film a documentary about it.  The protagonist Kyle Freeman is a modern man who doesn't believe in malevolent presences from beyond the grave, but finds it hard to argue with the evidence of his own camera.

The imagery in Last Days is a large part of the reason it works so well.  Nevill has always been good with imagery and he's on top form here, making even the impossible seem real.  This book immersed me in a kind of dream logic;  it was bizzarre and insane, but that wasn't apparent until afterwards.   It seemed so real at the time.  

I think I will have to do some Last Days fan art soon.

Saturday, 3 August 2013


Zombies are fun.  Decayed skin and flesh is a great opportunity to try all kinds of interesting texture effects.

In my opinion, you can't go past toilet paper dipped in thin glue when it comes to zombie flesh.  This gives a stringy, slightly lumpy texture that I think works well for conveying the idea of partially decomposed soft tissue.  The photos here are of my current zombie hand project, before painting.  In a future post, I'll give details of how I achieve a suitably undead skin tone using acrylic paints.

Yes, I'm aware the proportions of the thumb are a bit off.  This is to accommodate the beer neoprene beer cooler that I'll wrap the hand around.  Fingernails are just fingernail shaped pieces of card glued to the end of the fingers.  The  "flesh" was then wrapped around them and shaped to resemble the skin around a person's fingernails.  The little finger ends in bone, and thus doesn't have a fingernail.