Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Home Is Where The Heart Is

My jade Cthulhu idol enjoying it's new home:

I'm hoping to start working on his replacement in a day or two when the shoulder heals up. On the bright side, I'm actually feeling pretty great thanks to the daily stretching exercises. They're not only helping with my shoulder, but with a mysterious back pain that has been bothering me for a couple of years. It turns out the flaming iron spike that would occasionally impale me was probably caused by my hamstrings being as tight as guitar strings.

It's a revelation when you find out most of your health complaints can be solved by, literally, loosening up.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Oh, The Pain

Sorry for the lack of updates, but I blew out my shoulder joint again last week. Once the injury heals, helped along by the liberal application of ice packs and pain killers, it looks like I'll have to start doing a daily regimen of stretching exercises to prevent it from happening again.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Blank 1920's Era United States Pilot's License

This United States pilot's license was in use from 1926 to 1934. Just print it out on some manila cardstock and you'll have a reasonably accurate recreation of the original. Click through on the pictures for the high resolution versions.

License interior, with trimming guides

License cover

One of the source photographs, for comparison.

If you have any suggestions for improving the accuracy of this prop document, or additional reference materials that might be useful, please drop me a line.

Monday, March 23, 2009

We're Gonna Need A Bigger Boat

From the Office of Naval Intelligence's restricted files comes this specimen recovered during the raid on Innsmouth. Species unknown.

Sculpey over an aluminum armature. The tooth was burnished with a steel rod to bring out the shine of the enamel.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Typewriter Paper Source

For over a century onionskin typewriter paper was one of the most ubiquitous paper products in the world, but you won't find a single sheet of the stuff at a modern office supply store. For about ten years it's been impossible to find outside legacy packages discovered at garage sales and thrift stores. That's why I was excited to learn that there's one paper mill still selling it by the ream or the case. There's nothing wrong with off-the-shelf white bond printer paper, but for recreating 1920's era documents nothing compares to onionskin. It has a unique texture and crinkly sound that makes it ideal for high-immersion props from the period.

Friday, March 20, 2009

More Cthulhu Critters

Thanks to some helpful advice about locking the focus I was able to get some decent shots of this batch of critters. Click through on any of these to see the higher res versions.

A close-up of the worm-thing's mouth. This end of the little beast is only about 1" across. I'm satisfied with the level of detail, but it's still short of the insanely detailed work of professional miniature sculptors.

Another shot of the worm-thing. The additional ink wash is a definite improvement over the original. All of these critters are coated with two layers of clear acrylic because I wanted a "wet" finish.

A crawler-thing. The pale green paint job is a little spotty on this one, but I don't think it will be a problem once it's bottled up.

A much better angle of the crawler.

A tick-thing, missing the fourth claw that snapped off after I dropped it taking this photograph. ::sigh::

The problem with using Sculpey for tiny little monsters like this is that the fine detail, the teeth and tentacles and such, is so brittle. Even with a reinforcing wire there's still a good chance those projecting features are going to get damaged during shipping.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Cthulhoid Critter

This little nasty is about 2" long.

I probably need to give it an ink wash to bring out more details, but I was going for a subtle, bleached out specimen look. I don't think subtle works at this scale.

I've also come to the sad realization that I need to get a new camera. Out of over a dozen shots this was the only one that was even close to being in focus.

Update: A kind emailer pointed out that this little critter bears an uncanny resemblance to a prop parasitic worm that appeared in the "Cthulhu Live: Delta Green" supplement. I think the worm in the book is a project I did back around 2000 and posted to the Cthulhu Live mailing list. If anyone has access to that book I'd appreciate it if you could drop me a line, since I've never actually seen it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Making A "Thing In A Bottle"

There are a couple of tutorials for creating "Things in a bottle" floating around, but this is my approach. It's a relatively simple process that's designed to produce a high-quality prop from cheap, readily-available materials.

First off, you're going to need a "thing" to bottle. For this example I'll be using a tissue sample from one of the unknown creatures unearthed by the Miskatonic University Antarctic expedition of 1930. This particular chunk o' guts, tentatively identified as a ganglion-like structure, was made from an incredibly cheap and ugly Christmas ornament and some liquid latex:

The ornament's original coating of purple glitter has been removed with some soap and water. The green tissue was created by mixing liquid latex with some apple green craft paint and then applying it to the central core of the ornament using a cotton swab. You can find liquid latex in most craft shops in the sculpting section, where it's sold for making molds. If you can't find it there, don't worry. Just drive to your nearest home improvement store and pick up some liquid latex carpet adhesive or seam sealer, which just so happens to be a very thick version of liquid latex. If you're not sure you have the right kind open the cap and gently waft the fumes towards your nose- if it reeks of ammonia it's liquid latex.

Oh, by the way- DON'T SNIFF THE BOTTLE DIRECTLY. The high concentration of ammonia in the product is hideously foul and potentially dangerous. This is the kind of stuff you want:

With this stuff alone you can create all kinds of nasty looking tissue samples. Experiment with squeezing a blob onto a glass or ceramic plate, smearing it around, and then letting it dry. It'll turn into a rubbery, light yellow solid that readily sticks to itself. Use a sponge to evenly spread the liquid latex around and you'll create a sheet that, when dried, can be rolled up to create a very convincing umbilical cord or veins. Try mixing in some acrylic paint to color it. Try rubbing holes in a dry sheet and then applying more latex. Try sprinkling bread crumbs or coffee grounds into the wet latex. Just keep experimenting and you'll discover all kinds of nifty textures and effects that you'll recognize from dozens of horror movies. It's awesome stuff.

Er..unless you're allergic to latex, in which case it can kill you. Not sure if you're within the minuscule percentage of the population that's allergic to latex? Hit Google and find out how to do a spot test.

Now that you have something to bottle you'll need...uh...a bottle. I picked this one up at the Salvation Army for 50 cents:

You can download the Miskatonic University label over here. Print it, fill it out with a pen with waterproof ink, trim, and then stick it to the bottle with adhesive from a glue stick. I chose to age the paper for the label before cutting it out and gluing it on, but that's a matter of personal preference. Both the label and the cork were aged using a solution of walnut ink crystals, because the greenish tint in the resulting brown stain makes it look all dirty and nasty.

Now we come to one of the little tricks that most tutorials leave out- aging the label. We've already "aged" the paper by staining it, but now we have to reproduce the physical results of years of wear and tear. That means going over the entire label, with particular attention to the edges, with fine sandpaper. I used 320 grit wet/dry paper.

Compare the "before" picture above with this one "after" the sanding. The label looks really old:

Now it's time to stick our tissue sample in the bottle, add our preservative liquid, and seal up the cork with wax.

To keep any unwanted algae from growing inside the bottle I'm going to use rubbing alcohol, specifically 91% isopropyl alcohol, as my fluid. Since I want this bottle to look really, really old I'm going to tint it with food coloring and add some fine powder to give it a really cloudy, grungy look. In a measuring cup I pour two cups of rubbing alcohol, add two drops of green food coloring, and then one drop of red food coloring. That gives me a wonderfully foul greenish brown fluid. To this I add a pinch of baking cocoa.

That's right, cocoa. It's cheap, safe, and the manufacturing process used to make it produces an ultra-fine brown powder with a multitude of uses for aging and grunging up items.

After doing a test fit of my cork I pour enough of the alcohol into the bottle to come up about 5mm short of the cork. Then I'll put the cork in the microwave for about 30 seconds to help drive off any moisture that might be inside it. Why? Because the wax seal on the bottle has to be absolutely air-tight or the alcohol will evaporate in a week or two. Then I set the cork aside and start melting my wax.

Here's something you need to know before moving on to this step- NEVER, EVER HEAT WAX DIRECTLY ON A STOVETOP. Do that and there's a good chance you'll burn your house down. You need to use a double boiler. If you're not familiar with what a double boiler is use Google to find out.

I used an empty tuna can sitting inside an old beat-up pot filled with about an inch of water to melt my wax. The water keeps the temperature inside the can from going over the boiling point of water, so the wax gently melts without vaporizing. Almost any kind of wax will do, from old crayons to candle stubs, but I was lucky enough to score a block of candlemaker's wax from the Goodwill store for a buck. I broke up the block with a sharp knife and placed the pieces in the can, put the can in the water bath, and then turned on the stove. Once the water started to boil I turned the heat down to simmer and waited for the wax to melt.

Once it was liquid I used a cheap craft brush to apply a thin layer of wax all over my cork. Then I placed the cork, resting on a bed of paper towels, inside a microwave oven for about 30 seconds on high in order to liquefy the wax and get it to fill all the pores in the cork. This is an absolutely essential step in order to keep the fluid inside your bottle from evaporating. Once the wax has cooled a bit place the cork in the mouth of the bottle and start brushing on the liquid wax from your double boiler. Take your time and thoroughly coat the cork, the lip of the bottle, and the top of the bottle. Once you've built up a solid layer of wax you can invert the whole bottle and start dipping it into the liquid wax to build up the seal faster.

Here's what it will look like when your done:

Notice how the coloration of the water makes it difficult to see what's inside? Use that to your advantage. If you have a "thing" that's incredibly detailed use pure rubbing alchohol as your fluid so you can show it off. If your "thing" isn't a work of art for the ages use a colored fluid to hide it's details, or lack thereof. Here's a picture of my "ganglion" taken with a flash to make it more visible:

Click through for a higher resolution version. The "ganglion" looks a lot better than I thought it would, so I probably could have used pure alcohol to help show it off. That's a bit of a moot point, however, since I wanted to recreate the look of a really old, really foul sample bottle. That means there's one step left- the final aging treatment. This will be an overall coating of dust and grime created by spraying the entire bottle down with matte finish, drybrushing it with baking cocoa, and then applying another coat of matte finish to hold everything in place.

Here are the results. I switched to a white background to help bring out the details.

Now that it's finished there are a couple of things that, in hindsight, I would have done differently.

First, less food coloring for the fluid. A single drop gives a very intense tint to the alcohol, so next time I think I'll drop the dye onto a piece of paper towel and then dip the paper into the alcohol. That should give me better control over the amount of coloration.

Second, I would have skipped adding the cocoa to the fluid. The matte spray on the bottle surface provides enough cloudiness that adding solids to the alcohol was redundant.

Third, more dust and grime. I might go back and dirty up the wax a bit more by brushing on a paste of cocoa of paint and then wiping it off.

Finally, I need to be less anal about neatness. While I was sealing up the cork with wax a bunch of it dribbled down along the bottle. After going to the trouble of scraping it all off I realized it probably would have looked better with the wax left alone. It would have provided some texture as well as giving the final dusting treatment some crevices to nestle in.

All in all I'm pretty happy with the final results. More importantly, after seeing how you can get good results with a minimum of effort I hope you'll at least consider making one of your own rather than paying an ungodly sum for one on Ebay.

Addendum: In the vast majority of cases it isn't necessary to do anything more than what's already here, but if your specimen bottles are going to be moved frequently, or sent through the mail as a gift, I would strongly recommend that you apply a layer of silicone sealant to the bottle top before adding the wax seal. First, whether you're using a cork or conventional screw-top, apply a bead of silicone along the gap between the top and the glass. Then use a cheap craft brush or toothpick to smear a thin layer all over the top. Wait for the silicone to cure and then apply the wax as normal.

This accomplishes two things. One, it significantly increases the integrity of the lid's watertight seal. Two, it provides enough flexibility between the container, lid, and the wax that changes in temperature or air pressure won't crack it. Some minor fissures are inevitable, and even desirable from an aesthetic standpoint, but any major breaks will compromise the long-term integrity of the preserved specimen and it's fluid.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In The Pipe

I have a couple of things I'm working on that could be done later today.

First up are the Miskatonic University specimen bags that I briefly mentioned as part of the "From the Mountains of Madness" project. If you've purchased one of the ATMOM photo sets recently the bag that was included was part of my testing process. I tried a couple of different inks over the last few weeks and I've finally found one that doesn't stiffen the fabric and, more importantly, won't wash off. At a buck apiece I think they'll make fun little props, as well as handy dice bags.

I've also been working on a period United States pilot's license. It was tough getting decent reference material, but I was able to dig up some scans that are good enough to produce a reasonably authentic version. I'll post version 1.0 of the license later this week and would appreciate any feedback and criticism. I've come to the painful realization that one of the reasons I don't crank out more material is that I get too caught up in making things perfect when pretty-good will do. In terms of usefulness it's far better to publish something that's 80% accurate and then tweak it than to have the 90% accurate version sitting on my hard drive for months. Better to say "Good enough" and release it than to have it never see the light of day.

Finally, I'm trying to finish up some bottled specimens. The actual critters are all done, but I need to track down some corks, wax, and a double boiler to seal them up.

Update: I picked up all the materials for the bottled specimens today and I'll start putting them together tonight. Unfortunately, that means I won't have pictures or a narrative until tomorrow.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mad Science: The Accumulator

This intriguing scientific device comes from a dusty trunk found in the estate of Professor Gould Zaius.

You can see more of the Accumulator, and a number of other steampunk creations, at Cornelius Sagan's photostream on Flickr. What I really like about this particular one is that the found parts aren't readily identifiable. There's a lot of "steampunk" art along these lines that consists of just throwing a bunch of brass bits together, usually consisting of candlesticks and lamp bases, without any real thought.

Via Brass Goggles.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Jade Cthulhu Idol: Take Two

I decided to take some new pictures of this Cthulhu idol for two reasons. One, it's heading off to a new home soon and I wanted some snapshots before I pack it up. Two, my photography setup has significantly improved since I took the pictures in the original post. I'm still a crappy photographer, and I'm sure it doesn't help that I'm still using a Canon A-20 digital camera that I bought almost ten years ago, but the new light tent somewhat compensates for even those drawbacks.

The beauty shot. There are better Cthulhu sculpts out there, to be sure, but I like how "alien" this depiction is.

From the side. This view gives you a better feel for the proportions of the finished idol.

While there's a lot of room for improvement in my sculpting skills, I'm rather proud of how well the jade finish came out. After painting the whole idol with a base coat of dark green I stippled on two lighter shades of green to create the marbling effect, then coated the whole thing in a couple of layers of clear acrylic.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Period Telegram Blank

So a couple of weeks ago I bought a 1918 telegram off Ebay with the intention of copying the details for a blank prop. I scanned it as soon as it arrived, but I didn't get around to cleaning it up until tonight after dinner. After importing the scan into Illustrator I had begun the long, tedious process of tracing the lettering when my email pings. I open up Gmail and discover a message from Philip Obermarck asking me if I'd be interested in hosting a blank telegram form he's created as part of a project.

Wait, it gets better.

Here's the scan I was tracing just a few hours ago. I'd just finished the "P" and "O" in "Postal" when Mr. Obermarck's email arrived.

Here's the full sized .jpg of the absolutely gorgeous pdf file that he sent over.

Seriously, what are the odds of something like this happening? At the exact same time I'm working on a new blank telegram he just happens to send one over, from the same company and time period mind you, all formatted and ready to use?

I'm very grateful to Mr. Obermarck for the opportunity to host his work. Click through on the picture above for the full sized, CC licensed artwork.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Aging Paper: Brownish Green or Brownish Orange

One of the constant topics of paper prop creation is recreating the yellowing and browning of aged paper. For years I used a staining bath made from water and instant tea powder, but over the past couple of months I've been using a bath brewed from walnut ink crystals instead. Tonight I finally figured out why I haven't been happy with that approach- it's the color.

After a few experiments I've found that, at least to my eye, walnut ink crystals produce a shade of brown that has a green/blue cast while the brown produced by instant tea (Lipton Unsweetened Decaffeinated instant tea, in particular)has an orange/yellow tint. It's a subtle difference, but it helps explain my dissatisfaction with the walnut ink crystals. To me, brown with a greenish note denotes corruption and dirt, while brown with an orangish note conveys age and dissolution. That's an incredibly subjective judgement, of course, but one that's been subconsciously influencing my appraisal of documents produced with the walnut ink crystals from the beginning. In real life I have a severe aversion to dirt and grime. Having the staining process produce that effect, when I actually wanted an impression of age instead of dirt, helps explain my frustration.

On a related note, I'm going to try a few experiments using Diet Pepsi and Diet Mountain Dew as the liquid for staining baths. The first time the idea of using soda as the base was proposed to me I thought it was a joke, but it appears there may be some solid chemistry behind it.

Update: Tiffany over at Curious Goods has some more thoughts on the color shift:

"I don’t get the green tinge when dying with my inks – I switched to making my own ink a couple of years ago and it is a rich golden brown color. I did notice a green tinge on the walnut ink made by Making Memories, but I didn’t notice it on the ink made by 7 Gypsies. Perhaps it’s a brand related issue?"

Surprise, surprise...I just happen to be using walnut ink crystals from Making Memories, so it looks like it is brand related. After seeing examples of paper aged with walnut ink that did have a warm brownish-yellow tone I was beginning to think I was somehow screwing up the process.

Go read her entire post, because it has some great insight into the aesthetics of the aging process.

Doc also raised an interesting point in the comments that the artificial sweeteners in diet soda might promote mold growth. That doesn't trouble me too much, since I've always assumed that artificially aged paper has a shortened lifespan anyway. Nothing catastrophic, mind you, but I'd expect them to start crumbling after 20-30 years anyway. I have acid aged scrolls from 12 years ago that aren't showing any visible degradation. On the other hand, both the ones I have in my files and the ones I have displayed on the wall are shielded from UV light. I suspect the inevitable process of lignin breakdown would be significantly accelerated with even mild exposure.

Monday, March 9, 2009


Paperprop is an archive of printed material for theatrical productions, but you'll find a variety of items of interest to "Call of Cthulhu" gamers. Everything from adoption papers to scans of period passports can be found on the site, including a selection of the period ephemera like matchbooks, beer labels, and cigarette packs that I love so much.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Bioshock Syringe

"Bioshock" is an amazing game, notable not only for it's clever re-imagining of the survival horror first person shooter genre, but for it's amazing design work. Everything, from the architecture of the buildings to the wall posters scattered throughout the environment, was lovingly created by a team of artists that spent years polishing even the tiniest details. Now Harrison Krix has posted a detailed build log for his recreation of one of the game's most iconic props- the Little Sister ADAM Syringe.

"The Little Sisters from Bioshock are among the creepiest characters I've ever seen in a videogame. Their syringes, used for extracting ADAM are even moreso, with vials of genetic material in a glass that the sisters suck from dead bodies, then drink. ugh."

There's some great information there, including some helpful tips for anyone trying to create a "mad science" look.

Cover Me

Rev. Marx has another detailed tutorial on how to create a mouldering tome from an off-the-shelf paperback book over at MRX Designs.

I have had the idea of recovering these types of books for some time now. I have made a couple of aborted starts on other books, but this is the first of its kind that I have completed. I planned to build a hard cover around the existing book, and marry the existing soft cover into the new hardcover. I started by measuring the existing book, and figuring out the dimensions for my new spine and front and back book boards.

The relatively trivial material and time demands of the good Reverend's technique make it one of the most cost effective ways to create a great prop I've seen.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Dyer Sketches- Inside the City

The second of the Dyer sketches- Dyer and Danforth inside the city.

Another wonderful piece from Danny Cruz. I really like the way he's incorporated the Elder Thing obsession with multiples of five into the architecture of the buildings.