Shaun Johnston British, now living in Hudson Valley NY Email address
HOW I MAKE MY DUMMIES CHARACTER/DESIGN. I draw a line sketch of a dummy’s face, then print multiples at half size to paint multiple paintings to develop the character. I design in an extension of the image next to the lower jaw, a lock of hair, so the jaw pivots to one side less sharply. I design the head so the top and the eyes look front, and lower jaw is as seen from the side--talking with jaw hinged at one side then is reasonably natural. I design the head so the jaw of the dummy will open towards me. PAINTING. Final paintings need to have high contrast and emphasis because they have to compete with real life and dramatic (or little) lightning. I add many successive washes to skin to build contrast while keeping smooth graduations. I use a smooth paper so the image scans well. I scan the paintings and retouch in Photoshop, ending with filters surface blur, then noise. I paint the original image with mouth closed, but when the mouth opens extra skin, teeth and black open mouth will be exposed; I create that in a layer in Photoshop so I can print out two versions of the head, one with mouth open for the base face piece, the other with the lower jaw complete. A smooth horizontal cut across the jaw image will be best, cast less shadows and not catch side lights, so the painting should help mask the movement up and down of the lower jaw. --either have no image details where this cut will be or have details (hairs of a beard for example) run tangential (at right angles) to the direction of movement of the jaw. Cut across starting a little lower than corner of mouth. PREPARING TWO HEAD PIECES. Print final images on heavy matte paper. I heat seal a print of the face with open mouth onto black 1/8th inch foamcore, leaving the lower half of the head unsealed at first. I cut around the whole head. From this I cut the lower jaw piece, leaving on the face piece support for all the detail the face piece needs when the mouth is open, plus a little more for overlap. In the lower jaw piece I include its section of the hinge. In this cutting, I include in the face image the part of the lock of hair covering the lower-jaw section of the hinge area, which will hang unsupported behind the lower jaw, so that lock of hair won’t be seen to move when the lower jaw opens. Then I heat seal down the rest of the face image and cut it to final shape. LOWER JAW PIECE. With heat seal film I glue the lower jaw image onto mounting board to stiffen it--most of this image has to ride unsupported in front of the face piece. After I cut out the jaw image I paint the top cut edge to the color and lightness of the image and the back of it black. It’s important to allow a little air gap between the two image pieces, so I cover the lower jaw piece of foamcore with 2 layers (1 layer gives barely enough clearance) of double sided foam mounting tape (except for the area where the lower- jaw hinge area on the face image has to slide below the lower jaw when it rises). Then I lay the cut-out jaw image onto this adhesive, making sure it aligns with the face properly when the jaws are closed. Then I press it into place, but without crushing the foam, being sure to leave enough air space so the two pieces don’t touch or rub. Where paper surfaces will touch and rub I place shiny insulation tape on the back of one surface, to eliminate friction. I paint over face and lower jaw with gel medium (Talons Water color varnish matt--dries to a skin-like texture) to protect them against damage during performance and transport (except for the eyes, which are painted in acrylic). HINGE. I use small “strap hinges” I get at at Truvalue, with a 3/4 inch hinge length. I cut some green insulation board down to two pieces 3/4 inches high and glue them to the hinge flaps. For added strength I poke holes for the screws, put glue over the holes, and push in the screws. Good to do this ahead of time, so they’re rock solid when you need them. Check the two surfaces to be glued down lie flat together--can flatten by rubbing on sandpaper. I cut the two hinge pieces to fit the spaces available on back of the two foamcore pieces and glue them down--allow enough tolerance between the two face pieces so there’s no noise or resistence when the jaw closes. JAW CLOSURE. Three functions to be served: a post for forefinger to use to depress the jaw, hook for holding one end of a rubber band, and a stop to prevent the jaw opening too wide. Glue these down with adhesive foam mounting tape so they won’t rub against the back of the face piece when the jaw moves. For ease in operation, provide broad comfortable finger post. Use long weak-pull rubber band that just closes the jaw. Give the rubber bands as much length as possible, make them only as tight as needed just to close the jaw. The ideal is the jaw closing freely with no friction and needing only light presure to operate. Then jaw movement translates sentivitely to finger pressure. If the jaws close with the clack I chisel out some of the foam from the foamcore on the uper jaw and replace it with some softer foam padding--I used pieces cut from a green plastic-fiber pot scrubber pad. REALISM. I start with the disadvantage that my dummies’ faces are flat and the only feature that moves is the lower jaw. I found that for realism the dummy must have bulge-out eyes so it looks in the direction it’s facing, and the head must be fitted with a ball and socket joint so it is free to turn, tilt and rotate. 3D EYES. I cut discs or ovals from ping pong balls with scissors to make convex eyes that I paint over with sizing solution so they’ll take paint. I glue them in place and paint over them to match the face with acrylic paint-- acrylic because the eyes stick out and get a lot of wear; watercolor would wear badly. I keep adjusting them until they appear to stare directly at me when I look at them head on. GRIP SUPPORT. I use one-inch thin-wall PVC tubing for the pole. I create the pole as a number of sections. To join sections I get small plastic bottles that exactly fit, and glue one half into the upper end of each section. One section (3 - 4 inches long) I attach to pieces of insulation board glued to the back of the head leaving 1 1/2 inches clearance to the back of the face piece--1 inch might be enough for smaller hands. This acts as a socket for the 6-inch-long handgrip section, into the bottom of which I glue one end of the ball and socket joint (by Giotto), using firm padding and epoxy plastic glue to make it hold in place--tricky. The other end I glue into a 2 inch long section of tubing, to which I attach the clothing hanger. These sections together are the minimum needed for operating the dummy. BeIow them come longer sections, to support the dummy as needed for performance. I apply tennis racket handle tape around the hand grip area. HEAD. As mentioned above, I create support for the head-section of the pvc tubing and glue it to the back of the face piece. I cut away this support to allow free travel for the rubber band elevating the lower jaw. I gave the back of the head a “skull” consisting of a 7-8 inch sports ball, glued inside it a wire frame matching the shape of the head, To that “head” I glued a wig from a costume store. If the “skull” bounces noisily against the back of the “face” I tape a bulldog clip “arm” to the base of the “skull and run a rubber band from there around the pvc hand grip to the hold the “skull” in place. CLOTHES. I bought boy’s shirts from Walmart, size 10. I bent stiff wire into an upside-down hanger, attached to the lower ball joint section. To cover up my hand I made a tube of pink fabric 8 inches long and tapering from 10 inches around at the top to 16 inches around. It goes around the handgrip, attached to it at the top of the handgrip at the back. I added weight (a length of heavy coaxial cable) in the bottom hem so it wouldn’t ride up when I slid my hand up inside it to grasp the pvc tubing while I begin to operate the dummy. Interrupt the cable where it goes in front of the pvc tubing, safety pin it to secure it..
STAND. To make myself more visible while I sit I bought a Linon Keira Padded Back Folding Bar Stool, 30", keeps me as high as if I was standing, and folds for easy transport. I support the dummies on adjustable-height music stands topped with one of my plug-into-the-pvc-tubing bottles. Onto that I introduced a universal joint so I can tilt the pvc tubing in all directions without it rotating, so the dummies’ costumes stay facing front even as they tilt and the heads rotate on their ball joint. Phew! Getting complicated.