The Zoidberg Project, Part 1: Introductions

By Frank Ippolito

Over the next six months, Hollywood effects artist Frank Ippolito is going to create a lifelike Dr. Zoidberg costume from scratch. He'll be documenting every step of his build, from design to sculpting to painting, and you'll be able to follow along right here on Tested.

Norm here. This past year, we collaborated with Harrison Krix in The Volpin Project, a prop replica commission that afforded Harrison the opportunity to challenge himself and take on a build he's always wanted to do: a Halo Needler. Over the span of eight months and 16 build logs, Harrison guided us through the entire build process on Tested, the result of which wasn't just a beautiful prop, but valuable lessons in prop-making. It was our hope that The Volpin Project would be a source of inspiration and education for aspiring makers who have their own passion projects but didn't know how to get started. It's in that spirit that I'm excited to announce another collaboration with an extremely talented maker: Frank Ippolito. You may recognize Frank's work from his Admiral Ackbar mask he made for Adam and his appearances on the SyFy makeup show Face Off. Like Harrison, Frank works with sculpting, casting, mold-making, and painting, but instead of building props, he crafts masks and makeups--a side of the maker community that we haven't explored in-depth yet. We first met Frank at Comic-Con, and have been discussing this idea since then. It's going to be amazing, and I'll let Frank take it away:

I’m pretty sure every cosplayer, makeup artist, maker, or fan of anything has a personal bucket list of things they want to do costumes of. I’m no different. Often my ideas come from my ability to do cool prosthetic makeups. Things like transforming actors into other famous people--I’ve even done a George Lucas makeup before. One day I'd like to do a Redd Foxx or Bill Cosby makeup, too. Other ideas on my personal project list: making a real-life LEGO person (made to look like it has real skin, not plastic) and maybe someday a bad-ass Mr. Freeze costume from the Batman comics. Today, with Tested, I get to start on a costume idea that I've been thinking about for a while.

Lets back up a bit. I’m Frank Ippolito, and it's very nice to meet you. (You can find me on Facebook and Instagram.) I’m a makeup FX artist in Los Angeles, working mostly on movies and TV and commercials. I have a small background in industrial design and prototyping too, so that has opened up a lot of other industries to me, like toys (I was a mold maker at McFarlane toys for a few years in the late 90s) and making stuff for corporate clients like Mechanixwear. I have also been directing my own films with my partner Ezekiel Zabrowski since 2008.

So far we have made eight short films, a music video and a feature that we're trying to sell. I’m slowly plugging away to finish post production on a feature length documentary about motocross (my personal favorite hobby). As an effects artist, I’ve also competed on the SyFy show Face Off twice. I goofed around on the first season, and then came back on a mission to redeem my reputation in the current fifth season, where I made a bunch of makeups that I'm really proud of.

Having my own shop and a diverse selection of clients allows me to be very flexible with the kind of commissions I take on. That's where these little pet projects and my dabbling in cosplay comes in, like my Admiral Ackbar mask for Adam Savage that I made for this year's Comic-Con.

Today I get to jump into a dream project. Are you ready for it? It's Dr. Zoidberg. Yep, that Zoidberg. I’m a huge fan of Futurama, and I think there are a TON of cool aliens and characters that can be made from that show…but Zoidberg should be the most fun. That's because I'm not making a Zoidberg makeup in the exact style of the show--meaning, not a cartoon character. I'm going to make a Zoidberg costume that looks like he exists in the real world. It’s going to be a real challenge to adapt Zoidberg into real life. There's the challenge of taxonomy: is he a squid, a crustacean, or a Cthulhu? I don’t know. But whatever we come up with has to be real. As if he actually lives and breathes (well, more like heaves). Making a Zoidberg makeup also puts together a bunch of skill sets that I have accumulated over my career as an effects artist. It'll incorporate lifecasting, mold making, sculpting, painting, and hopefully even some animatronics. Yes, I’m planning on making his mustache-like tentacles move! And above all, I’ll get to collaborate on this with a bunch of my friends, and show you guys how we did it.

To adapt this cartoon character into a real life creature, I started off with a lot of research. I jumped to the internet and searched out all the incarnations people have done of Zoidberg, for inspiration. There are a bunch of really great designs and interpretations to the character, which gave me a bunch of ideas for what direction to take. Some of the designs I found showed great textures, and some had wonderful interpretations of the anatomy. It really is going to come down to adapting ideas of animal anatomy into a human-ish form and controlling the proportions of his features. Attributes like eye size, length of the tentacles and shape and angle of his head are at the top of my priority list.

Zoidberg concept by

After doing some research, I called up my buddy Rayce Bird (winner of Face Off's Season 2) and chatted with him about my ideas and thoughts for what Zoidberg should look like. We had the same ideas: not too monster-y, not too cartoony, not too crustacean-y, not too cephalopod-y…but somewhere in the middle. Rayce is a really good concept designer and super efficient in designing with his Wacom Cintiq, so he helped flesh out some of our ideas into design sketches, like the following:

He also did a super exaggerated version that is really cool…and maybe I’ll have to make it some day too.

Rayce also busted out a Zbrush design 3D modelling software so we could explore all sides of Zoidberg's anatomy, and how the different shapes interact. This will come in super-handy when I start the full-size model, as far as how to make the geometry work and open a creative dialogue on how to attack the anatomy. It’s really difficult to interpret a design like this when collaborating with other artists. Everyone is going to have an opinion--I'm sure plenty of people wont like it--but that’s just something that comes along with making art and being creative. It’s a subjective field, and this is just our initial ideas. Doing drawings and quick sketches really helps explore those ideas and communicate what's in your head with other people. A lot of times an idea will change a ton just in the sketching phase, which is important. When collaborating and trying to appease a client, it's a necessary step.

Once we had some drawings, I started sketching out in clay on some maquettes. Often times when I'm bidding on a project or trying to communicate a design to someone, a scaled-down sculpted version of it helps--these are called maquettes. My goal on this step isn’t necessarily to do a finished piece with tons of detail, but to explore various shapes and proportions. Some differences between maquette designs more subtle, and some are more extreme.

Being conservative and then pushing the boundaries really helps when "finding" a character in your design. Really exploring the ridiculousness or going to an extreme can help you form an opinion of how and why some attribute should be more conservative, and how to incorporate strange anatomy to this particular piece. Luckily for me, Rayce was recently in town (he lives in Idaho) and he got to play around with some clay too.

To make these maquettes, I took a small head form that someone gave me a long time ago, and made a quick silicone mold of it. The scale of the maquette doesn’t really matter, I just don’t have enough room for a bunch of full-size heads in my shop, and it's cost prohibitive to cast up full size heads and put that much clay on them for this type of project. Then we poured some Smooth-On Smooth Cast Onyx into the mold to cast up a few copies, and smooshed on some Monster clay around to flesh out our Zoidberg design ideas.

There are a lot of ways to go about sculpting, I like to move quickly with chunks of clay and get general forms going before I start smoothing or detailing. There really is no right or wrong way to sculpt, but I think for these maquettes, moving fast and just getting five or six ideas out quickly is more important than laboring over the details. When I get to the full size sculpt, I’ll worry about texture and little details. I'll also go more in-depth about my sculpting techniques when we get to that part to give you some tips!

But now that i have a full set of ideas, formed in our heads, put on paper, digitized as a model, and built out as sculpted maquettes, I can move on to the life-size design with some confidence of the concept. The Zoidberg Project is off to a running start, and I can't wait to show you what's next. Come back in two weeks for an update!

Thanks to Iwata-Medea and Smooth-On for providing materials and sponsoring this project. We also recently visited Frank's LA shop to shoot a few videos, the first of which is this tutorial on giving yourself a realistic-looking wound!