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How To Build a Life-Size Dragon

By Frank Ippolito

Frank Ippolito details how he and his team of artists made the life-size Gore Magala creature for Capcom's Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate booth at E3.

Norm's note: Frank first showed us his Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate dragon sculpt before this year's E3. Frank has since written up his build, which we wanted to share ahead of this week's Comic-Con--where the Gore Magala creature will be on display at the Capcom booth.

I love video games and video game culture, and last year was stoked to be asked to be a part of a team doing the Zombie makeups for Capcom's Dead Rising 3 booth at E3. It was there that I befriended the creative services team in charge of all of these cool trade show events and displays. Jump ahead to a few months ago, when I received a call from the team lead at Capcom to bid on the making of a display sculpture for one of their upcoming games: Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate!

The concept was to have a 20-foot tall backdrop with a huge image of one of the game’s monsters, and have the front third of it coming out of the backdrop. Big is sort of an understatement here; once I did some quick math to put it into scale, the sculpture I would have to create would be almost 8 feet tall, 14 feet wide, and 12 feet long. To bid on something of this size is really tough. Most trade show displays are carved or milled out of bead foam and then hard coated, which leaves very little finished detail. But this monster has a lot of detail. So I had to figure a solution that could provide that kind of detail while keeping costs reasonable. After that came an engineering problem: how would this thing support itself? Additionally, it has to be transported to multiple venues and be durable enough for the public to interact with. So it also needed to come apart. Not easy!

After some back-and-forth details of the deliverables and specifications, and some careful planning and budgeting, I was awarded the job, which would be guilt in my newly expanded shop. Here is what my team and I came up with for the design of this build.

First, we printed out a scale version of the backdrop at 20" tall, which would put the scaling at one-inch to one-foot. I hired my friend Alfred Peredes to sculpt a scaled maquette to match up with that printed backdrop. He used Chavant NSP medium clay, and cranked the model out in about a day. (Alfred is really talented.) I then submitted that initial sculpt to Capcom for notes, and Alfred spent another day making some changes to the pose.

Once this pass was approved, we needed to get a 3D model of it into the modeling program SketchUp. We put the maquette onto a little Lazy Susan turntable and shot a bunch of photos all around it and uploaded it into Autodesk 123D Catch, which spit out a rough wireframe that we could import into SketchUp. Mark Burton took all of this and designed a framework that would go inside the sculpture to support the weight. We also designed a huge cantilever of the head jutting out in front, coming apart at the shoulders, making the entire thing transportable in three pieces (head/neck, left arm, right arm). The whole frame was made from thin-walled steel square stock, and when it was done weighed a little over 100lbs.

While aluminum may have been lighter, it was out of my planned budget for this step. Along with the blueprint for the inner frame, Mark was also able to generate some foamcore ribs to gauge the thickness of the sculpture outside of the framework. He sent the outlines of these parts to his CNC router to give us sculpture guides, as seen below in the screenshot.

Next up was to order a bunch of slabs of 2 lb density urethane sculpture foam. With the sculpture guides and 3D model, I was able to estimate pretty closely how much foam and in what thicknesses we would need. I ordered 4 x 8 sheets in a variety of thicknesses ranging from 4 to 10 inches. I chose urethane foam over the bead foam for a few reasons, but mostly because of the ease of sculpting with traditional tools like rakes and loops. This helps to get that organic flow and, well, it’s just a medium that I’m comfortable working on.

The first step to blocking this out seemed to take the longest, which was gluing all those foam blocks onto the steel framework. We mostly used canned foam called Enerfoam to adhere the sheets to the steel, but occasionally would fill a large gap with Smooth-On's two-part foam, Foam iT 3. I had four people helping out for the foam portion of the build: Duncan Crawford, Brian Wade, Alfred Peredes and Carson Sciarrino. Once sections would get blocked out by Alfred and Duncan, Brian would start hacking away at it to shape it down. The first section shaped up was the head/neck, and Brian worked away at the sculpting while the arms were getting blocked out.

Once the arms were blocked on, it was all-hands on deck and foam started flying as everyone scraped, cut, and sawed chunks of the foam down until the creature started taking form. With subtractive sculpting, you have to sort of sneak up on the forms. If you carve away too much, you have to cut off the section and glue a new chunk of foam on that area and start over. There were a few times we cut sections off of the head to re-position its "eye line" and turn the head a bit more, even though this particular monster doesn't even have eyes.

Once we started taking the foam away and getting the general shapes we wanted, we went in with smaller tools to refine the forms further and lay out the scale patterns. We used every tool from saws to 20 grit sandpaper to kitchen knives--anything that would get the job done. Fortunately, we knew we were also going to be coating the whole thing with an epoxy clay to do the final details, so we mostly just had to get the forms and layout correct.

In my material search, I was looking at coatings and doughs to potentially cover this thing--to create its “skin”. Some options included spray-on hard coatings or flexible rubbers, but those wouldn’t really allow us to sculpt in the fine details that I wanted to get into this piece. There are a few epoxy clays out there, but some are difficult to mix and spread in big batches, some are too gooey, and some aren’t easy to use to sculpt fine details. So in the search, I also called my buddies at Smooth-on to see if they had any ideas for other materials, or even suggestions for other companies that had things that they didn’t manufacture. Smooth-On mentioned that they might have new material coming down the pike that I would be interested in trying. Turns out, it’s an epoxy system that is designed for building aquarium habitats. You can basically take this stuff and form it into coral and use rubber stamps to give it texture. Smooth-On sent me one of the first trial batches to see if it might work for, and it was perfect. It does have a bit of a learning curve to working with it, as its properties were a little different from the epoxies we were used to.

Here is how it works: you have a two-component epoxy that is a 1-1 ratio mixture, but it’s super gooey, like axle grease. But then you add a "folding powder" that is kind of like pizza flour, which gives it firmness. For the monster, we would weigh out every batch, so that there wouldn’t be the risk of an uncured batch or any wasted material, but you can also eyeball it for the most part. We got big mixing tubs and put a few scoops of the folding powder in the bottom, then pull out a glob with a couple mixing sticks and set it in the powder. Once we got a production line going, we would pull a few batches of the epoxy and leave the globs unmixed sitting in the powder on stand-by for when we needed to jump into the next batch. As long as our gloves and the container had powder on it, they epoxy wouldn’t stick to everything, and we could handle the goo to apply it.

The more of the folding powder that you add into the mix, the firmer the epoxy would be to work with. So for small or fine details we would make a firm batch, but if we were doing a large surface like a scale on the shoulder, we would mix in a bit less of the filler powder to help it spread easier. At this point, I brought on more people to cover all the surface area. Mike Cavanaugh would pretty much be the chef in the kitchen, mixing batches for everyone else, and then Nick Bonamy, Amy Vuong, Andrew Freeman, Lucy Mendoza and Kate Klein rounded out the residual team of Carson and Brian from earlier steps. This was really a team effort.

To lay this epoxy onto the foam, we would spray some water onto the foam then apply on a batch of epoxy. The water would dissolve the powder on the surface of the epoxy and make it sticky again; this would help the adhesion of the material. Then, with some powdered gloves, we would spread it into shape. We could then sculpt details like wrinkles or scales with sculpting tools and then use some water and a brush to soften the shapes.

The final touch was taking a terry cloth rag and pressing a bit of texture onto the scales or skin. This just breaks up the smooth surface a bit, and looks nicer. The epoxy has about a one hour work time, but if you left it balled up in a mass, it would get warm and set faster. So we would keep it spread out flat, as to not collect too much exotherm. The epoxy has about 16 hour cure time, and at that point is super strong, to the point that if we wanted to re-do a section the next day, we had to take an angle grinder to it.

When it came to the joint where the arms connect, I had to figure out a way to squish fit the parts together. We started by taking the grinder to the arm side of the shoulder and beveling it inwards, so that it would fit inside one of the scales and not have any undercuts. Then I wrapped the whole shoulder with plastic wrap and built up an overlapping scale. The plastic wrap acted like a release barrier, so the epoxy wouldn't stick to the section that I wanted to have overlap. This fit really snug and even had to be ground back to a looser tolerance a bit to help it slide in better.

As this whole sculpting process was going on, we would run quality control checks to the sculpture every day. That basically consisted of someone taking a large knife and stabbing the epoxy all over and in between scales to find thin spots. If we could stab a hole in it, it needed to be ground away and patched in. We would mark the holes or thin spots with wooden skewers, which made it looked like the monster was getting acupuncture!

Once we had the whole thing sculpted out it needed to be painted. The epoxy is luckily really dark--almost black to begin with--which worked for the way that I wanted to paint it. I started with an automotive primer and mixed in two parts black to one part grey to give a bit of a charcoal tone. After a bit of testing pigments and different paints to get the colors needed to make the sculpture look similar to the backdrop, I ended up using FW inks in various shimmers and colors. I painted the highlights and color streaks onto the black-ish surface to mimic the sheen of the reference artwork provided by Capcom. Then I took some black and crisped up some details and faked some textures. To go along with the durability of this epoxy, I wanted the paint to be equally as durable, so I pulled out the my Iwata W101 again and sprayed a matted-out automotive clear coat over the whole thing.

Boom, we were done. Now all that was left was to build some crates and ship it off to E3.

And here it is on display!

(Here's the video about the build from after E3, in case you haven't seen it yet!)