Wah Chang's Yawning Man

When you think of stop motion, the first thought in your mind might be foam latex or silicone puppets. When you hear about clay animation, the first thought is obviously that puppets are made out of clay.

Even when Willis O'Brien made King Kong, different sponge rubber materials, liquid latex and paints were used on a lot of the puppets.

George Pal

George Pal who created the Puppetoons puppets was known to carve complete replacement puppets out of wood. That's one carved puppet for two frames, and twelve complete puppets per second of animation! Obviously that is an insane way to do things, but the effect was very unique.

Wah Chang

One of the least materials you might expect to hear about with regards to puppet fabrication is wax. Wah Chang who immigrated to the United States from China was a multi-talented guy. When he worked was hired to work with George Pal, he streamlined the replacement puppet process by using wax.

The kind of wax he used is believed to be similar to the wax used by toy makers of the time. Wax is something you can melt in a croc pot, double boiler or oven and pour into molds. Wah found that this is perfect for making many replacement puppets.

What George Pal would normally do is sketch the poses needed as part of the puppets he needed. So every pose was similar to hand drawn cel animation. Then artists would carve each pose in wood. Wah Chang instead cast many similar puppets in wax, and modified the poses and forms. The end result is a lot of saved time with the same appearance or style as the outcome as if done using wood puppets.

I recently talked to Ralph Cordero from his studio called Toxic Mom Studios. Ralph has studied the use of waxes for toy prototypes, stop motion puppets and his own personal studies. He has re-formulated the same waxes on his own that were used by guys like Wah Chang. Here is a story he told me about one really popular stop motion puppet, the Pillsbury Dough Boy. "The type of wax I make has been used by doll makers for ages, who knows,maybe some heads are wax ? We had no idea the doughboy was made of wax{head} until someone dropped one, In slow mo, I was at my desk and saw the head slip from my friends grasp, NOOOOOOO O O O O I screamed out in slow motion....and it hit the floor. Hard wood floor.

Thunk......Well, I guess we get to see what this thing is made of. It only had a dent in it. I was shocked, a dent?

"we thought the heads were resin, for week Treated the suitcase of heads like royalty" and upon inspection of some chipped paint, wala really hard wax."

It turns out that Wah Chang was in fact involved in the puppet creation process of the Dough Boy.

So it is no wonder waxes were his choice since the heads were replacements. It is much less toxic then the resins at the time, it's quick and you can simply sculpt your final product using heated tools.

A Scene from the PJ's

Wax has been used on more modern puppets as well. Will Vinton's PJ's TV show used flat cast wax replacement mouths which were painted. This works a lot better then simple clay because it is flexible and holds the sculpted details really well. The wax can be formed to cast plastic heads without getting squished and out of shape as easily.

A scene from Fred Stuhrs Prison Sex Tool video

Another person who used wax (2013 correction - he used waxy chocolate) in a stop motion puppet was Fred Stuhr in his video for Tool called Sober. The main puppets head was cast in wax and painted. A heat gun melted the wax using time lapse to create a creepy decaying/melting effect.

Some of the benefits of wax is the fact that you can sculpt, carve, tool and melt it. You can literally place a block of wax on a lathe and make it to an exact dimension, down to a thousandth of an inch. So for mechanical puppets, it is a great way to sculpt robotic forms that have to meld accurately to an armature. A mechanical stop motion puppet like Robocop could have used a similar technique where tolerances are tight.

For puppets like Mrs Spider in James and the Giant Peach, or Jack Skellington in the Nightmare Before Christmas, registration of the replacement head parts is easily done in wax. If a metal aspect of a ball and socket armature needs to be plugged into a replacement head, the armature part can be heated and pressed into the wax casting of the head.

This leaves an exact impression on the wax, even if the metal armature part pressed into the wax is hexagonal in shape. Creating a hexagonal plug-in part in a plastic cast part would be extremely difficult using drill bits - If not impossible. The benefit with such a shape would make registration much more accurate for animation purposes then a basic round hole for example.

Once a replacement face of head is made from wax and tested on frame grabbers, the wax can be later cast in plastic for durability in animation. The same goes for making mechanical robotic puppets. Once you remove the junctions where the wax connects to an armature, simply cast those parts in plastic and re-attach them. Plastics can be painted more realistically and are more durable in animation under hot lights. It's really the best of both worlds.

A finished wax sculpt by Ralph Cordero, Copyright X-Concepts

Outside of the first benefits I mentioned in saving time and registration, wax is also ideal as a sculpting material for puppets. Nowadays films like Corpse Bride have a very polished look. The puppets are sculpted crisply with minute intricate details. Some sculptors of modern puppets seem to be moving more towards accuracy and sharpness unlike previous films. This is part of the reason the Corpse Bride looks almost like a CG film in some respects. Everything is sculpted as cleanly as possible, and is almost texture-less.

Now it's arguable if this is a good thing. To an artist under the direction of a studio, they might require a puppet to have just such a look. Sanded "after baking" Super Sculpey polymer clay and wax are the two main ways ways to achieve a clean look. Chemicals such as Citrusol, heat guns and mini torches can be used to smooth waxes to a high gloss. Sanded Super Sculpey is no match for the degree of smoothness wax can give.

From what I have read and been told, wax does not behave in the same way as clay for sculpting. Armatures are not always used since wax is hard and strong enough to hold up most sculptures. Another thing that is commonly done is to make simple sculptures in regular clay. Then alginate throw-away molds are made and melted wax "using double boilers" is poured into the mold. This saves a lot of time in what is a very slow sculpting process.

Heat is always a factor in sculpting with any type of wax. Toaster ovens, microwave ovens, alcohol lamps, light bulb and foil caves, butane mini-torches and hot water are the main ways to keep your wax sculpt-able.

The exact opposite method is used on waxes when carving fine details with burnisher and wood carving tools. To do this, wax is literally put in the kitchen freezer for several hours. This causes the wax to harden and you can scribe minute lines, eye ball iris details, fine hair and tiny mechanical features.

Smoothing is done with sand paper, heated 3M pads, citrus based solvents, lighter fluids, water, nylon and other fine fabrics, small torches and alcohol lamps.

The three main types of waxes used today in the industry are as follows:

Azbro Wax

 

Azbro Wax - Used a lot in the toy industry, works the same as Castilene

You can buy Azbro wax here.

Castilene Wax

 

Castilene Wax - Is slightly grainy, comes in three hardnesses. The common hardness to sculpt with is the hard consistency.

You can buy Castilene wax here.

 

Toxic Papa's Wax - Ralph Cordero reproduces the old forumula which is not as grainy as the other formulas. You need to contact Ralph at in order to get some, as he is not a manufacturer of the wax. He makes it in small batches.

Wax Sculpting Tutorials:

There are only a few places to find any real information about sculpting in wax. There is one really great site with a tutorial on sculpting with wax here.

 

Recently while searching information about using modern waxes such as Azbro and Castilene I came across Adam Beane's web site.

Adam gave me a basic run down on how it all works, and so I asked for his permission to post parts of his e-mails for our site. Here is Adams process for working with Castilene:

"Castiline comes in two colors, and three grades each; soft, medium and hard. The soft can be worked more or less like oil clay, except solvents don't work so well on it (like rubbing alcohol works to smooth out oil-clay) The primary means of smoothing out Castiline is with heat.

Heat can be applied precisely with tools heated in an alcohol lamp (a jeweler's lamp) or with soldering iron-like "waxers". Waxers have interchangeable tips and temperatures can usually be precisely controlled. Also a kind of sanding sponge made by 3m can be heated in an alcohol flame and used to smooth out large sections of a sculpture just as a solvent-soaked rag would smooth out sections of an oil-clay based sculpture.

When I begin a sculpture, I melt down the hard pink "not the soft pink" Castiline in a croc pot. The pink is stickier and less brittle than the green. I then work the warm clay as though it were oil-clay, using the hot sanding sponge as I go, until it is necessary to switch to finer tools.

 

When I am satisfied with the rough sculpture, I make a silicone mold of it and pour melted hard Green Castiline into the mold. I continue to work the Castings until I achieve the level of detail you see on the pieces on my site.

Trying to work the green Castiline (especially the hard stuff) from scratch- good luck! It can be done, but you will probably be scratching your head asking why the hell does anyone like this stuff?"

I then asked Adam what tools he liked to use most, and what basic tools are needed for beginners who venture into wax sculpting. Here was his reply:

"I will say that 99 percent of my rough is done with a medium sized knife tool and hot Sanding sponges. Then, for the cleanup and detail work, I do about 50 percent with a tiny flat spatula I made out of hardened steel and 40 percent with a tool on the waxer. The waxer is a dental waxer from Kerr. The remaining ten percent is one other handmade spatula/ pick tool- very small, for getting in between teeth and in corners of eyes. So, three tools- two spatulas and one knife. Plus a waxer and hot sanding sponges. Less than most people think. Many people think I must have a special tool for each part, like a tool for doing eyes and so on. Not so! The Kerr waxer is sort of the Cadillac of waxers. Way more than most people would need (or, at about $460.00, way more than most people would want to spend)

A simple jewelry waxer (basically, a soldering iron on a rheostat) should suffice. The alcohol lamp is very important and at about 6 dollars, very affordable. If you buy one, also buy a small fire extinguisher and keep it near by. In my 3 1/2 years sculpting I've never had a fire, but basically, an alcohol lamp is a molitov cocktail waiting to go. Very dangerous!

So a beginning tool kit might be: one medium knife tool (from Compleat sculptor?), one small flat spatula (which I had to make) and one very small spatula/ dental pick. One alcohol lamp and some 3m fine grade softback sanding sponges, one fire extinguisher. One small croc pot (or coffee can on an electric burner)"

I highly suggest anyone interested in wax to visit Adams site. Pretty soon he tells me he will be posting a section on his site with more details about working in wax. You can find it here.