Monday, March 23, 2020

Tiki build-along, pt. 27

These tiki bar build-along posts may look pretty linear once I get them up, but you folks have no idea how convoluted and disorganized the process actually is on my end. Take today's entry, the Kakamoras. If you're into tiki, Disney animation or both, you've likely seen the 2016 film steeped in Polynesian mythology multiple times. In addition to some pretty great music, a solid story and excellent voice acting, the film had a number of dazzling, stand-out action sequences. The first of these was the attack of the Kakamoras. Described by Maui as "Murderous little pirates," the Kakamoras are tiny mythological creatures who wear painted coconut shells as armor. They're insanely cute, and as funny as they are vicious. When I saw them, I immediately thought Disney had a license to print money if they offered them as toys. Astonishingly, Disney did not. Oh, they put out a few diminutive PVC figures an inch or so high, but I expected them to manufacture, well, coconut-sized versions. Disney never did, that I'm aware of.

An incredibly talented ceramicist known as Tiki Robb made some spectacular Kakamora tiki mugs, but alas, $400-500 was too rich for my blood. To fill the Lagoon of Mystery with Kakamoras, I'd have to come up with a more cost-effective method. It didn't take me long to come up with the brainstorm of using real coconuts to depict the coconut pirates! Hey, I never promised you genius. I went to the store--several stores, actually--and gathered unto myself an array of coconuts to transform. I drilled holes in their ends to drain out the coconut water inside, sketched an oval face pattern on the hirsut shell, and used a high-speed cutting bit (the cylindrical kind) with my Dremel to grind it flat. Then I replaced the cutter with a sanding bit to smooth the rough cut out. This can also be accomplished with sandpaper and elbow grease, but if you have the power tools available, it saves a lot of time. All of this, I began in September 2018. Today is March 23, 2020. You do the math.

At this point, I had three coconuts ready to experiment on. Note that coconuts come in different forms. The two on the flanks are smaller, egg-shaped coconuts that I learned are a bit easier to work with for reasons I'll get into eventually. The larger, onion-shaped one in the middle is impressive, but more difficult to balance. It's shape also dictated more of a horizontal face area. I got each type from a different supermarket chain. I've not been able to determine if these different types of coconuts have distinct names, but it seems produce suppliers carry one or the other, not both. I've also seen "young, green" coconuts for sale, but these are mostly white and have had the bulk of their husk cut away, so they have an angular, trimmed look to them. I doubt they'd make very good Kakamoras, but if anyone's game to try it, let me know how yours turns out.

Next, I applied a base coat of white paint on the face area. I went with acrylic paint because 1) it's cheap and 2) being water-based, it's very easy to clean up. I see no reason why enamel or oil paints wouldn't work if you're more comfortable using those.

Next, I added a tan topcoat to two of the coconuts. This more closely matched the look of the Kakamoras from the film. The third I left white, so as to more closely match the look of one specific Kakamora from the film.

At this point, I looked at a whole bunch of different Kakamoras online and in the film (we've got it on DVD) and used a pencil to sketch out facial designs that I'd finish out with paint. When I first told my family of my Kakamora plan, my kids insisted I do a Baymax (from Big Hero 6), as he has a brief cameo as a Kakamora. Fine. Baymax would be simple enough to do. He could be my prototype, proof-of-concept.

I also decided to inject a bit of color into my Kakamora. In the film, the primary warpaint they use is red. For mine, I'd render them in different colors. Blue is the first I did, and I was quite pleased with the results.

Next came Baymax, which as I suspected, was very simple. The challenge was to get the eyes and connecting line in proper proportion. I think I got pretty close.

The big one I decided to do in red. Because it's the big one.

Then it came time to do the limbs, and do you want to know why it took me a year-and-a-half from when I started this project to when I finished (a few) of them? The limbs, that's why. I have no sculpting background. I played with Play-Doh as a kid, but that's it. I never tried to make something that served a purpose, and was meant to endure. I also got the idea that since I was doing different paint colors for the Kakamora faces, I would match that color with the limbs. I researched and discovered polymer clay, specifically Sculpey. The first few packets I got for Baymax were white Sculpey III, because what did I know? A lot. Turns out, Sculpey III is very soft and doesn't hold detail well. Poor Baymax's legs and arms were mashed back into balls time and again as my frustration grew. I set the stuff away for an extended period before picking it up again. Finally, I got one leg I found somewhat tolerable. In the film, the Kakamora have stubby toes and fingers. That kinda goes with the whole cute thing. Since my Kakamora would be free-standing and not animated, they had to be more substantial and balance-maintaining, so I elongated and splayed the toes. As for the arms and hands, let's just say I suck at sculpting hands just about as much as I do at drawing them. Then I baked them according to instructions. Note that Sculpey III singes easily, and my white arms and feet came out with a toasted look. To attach the limbs to the coconut, I picked up 1" hanger bolts. My idea was to secure the flat bolt end in the limb, then screw the pointed wood screw end into the coconut. That failed miserably. Once the screw is embedded in the limb, it becomes very awkward to work with, and it's impossible to apply serious force to screw it into the hard wood of the coconut. This is why we work with prototypes.

For the blue Kakamora I took lessons learned and applied them to an improved method of limb manufacture and attachment. The toes I made stubbier and attached three more closely together on each foot, with the fourth toe separated for added balance. I drilled pilot holes into the coconut and screwed in the hanger bolts first, then pressed the still-soft limbs into position so the attachment points would be established prior to baking.

Oh, I also switched to using Sculpey Premo, which, while slightly more costly, is a much firmer clay that holds its shape and detail better. It's not a fingerprint magnet. I found it much easier to work with. I used the tip of a burnishing tool to make indentations in the end of each toe, then took some of the blue Premo and mixed it with some of the white Sculpey III to get a light blue clay that I pinched into place to make distinctive toenails. It's the little details that count, after all.

Then I baked the limbs at 275F for twice as long as I baked the Sculpey III, and guess what? No scorching. The Premo takes heat a lot better than the softer stuff. I also tried something with the hands, which you'll see in just a bit.

Now, we switch to Big Red's limbs, fresh out of the oven, because I forgot to photograph the next steps with Blue or Baymax. Note that prior to inserting into the oven, I use a small, cheap acid brush (available from hardware or big box home improvement stores) to brush down each clay arm and leg with rubbing alcohol. The alcohol acts as a mild solvent, smoothing out little imperfections, fingerprints, etc. It doesn't take much to smoothing things out, and at the same time household rubbing alcohol isn't strong enough to do real damage if you overdo it.

After the initial failure with Baymax, the reverse approach to attaching limbs--that is, inserting the hanger bolts into the coconut and then attaching the limbs--proved to be the right way to go. I found that even the Premo shrinks and deforms slightly when baked, so the socket hole needs to be drilled out a bit to more easily accommodate the hanger bolt. In fact, as I'm using epoxy to secure the limb to the bolt, a snug fit would be detrimental.

I use a shard of bamboo to mix and apply the epoxy to the socket hole. I used JB Weld fast-setting epoxy, and have had good results with it. Slower setting epoxies may be stronger and allow for repositioning and longer working times, but my concern with the Kakamora is getting their limbs stabilized as quickly as possible. The fast-setting epoxy sets in 6 minutes, curing within 4 hours. I don't want to have to hold the arm in place for 20 minutes, only to come back an hour later to find that it's pulled away and hardened in an awkward position. Note that you really want to mix equal proportions of epoxy and hardener. Get too much of either component in the mix, and the resulting stuff is rubbery and easily broken. Ask me how I know.

Once a liberal amount of epoxy mix is applied into and around the socket, press into position over the anchoring hanger bolt.

Hold in place for six minutes, or however long your epoxy of choice takes to sit. After that, allow to fully cure before handling.

I also started using brown Sculpey III, with a bit of leftover white Sculpey III, to create various weapons for the Kakamora. Once I have the various blades/spear points shaped the way I want them, I insert the tip of a bamboo skewer into the side then build up the interface with additional Sculpey. Then I bake. For the "shark teeth" effect, I roll out a long string of white Sculpey then attach around the perimiter of the blade, pinching it into position. After that, I use and Xacto knife to cut out triangle wedges, leaving the "teeth" in place. This looks kind of dark here because it's Sculpey III and, as usual, I overcooked it.

And here's the finished versions. Baymax turned out okay, although I had to repaint his arms and legs white because they looked like toasted marshmallows. He's not perfect, but he served his purporse as a proof-of-concept.

Blue turned out quite nicely, I think. His spear is an effective touch that's simultaneously fierce and amusing. The hands differ wildly in size, and are on the wrong arms, but hey, I won't tell anyone if you don't.

Here's a little something I saved for the end: When I started this project, I bought extra coconuts for each member of my family. They all loved Moana and I thought they'd enjoy decorating their own custom Kakamora. Some were more enthusiastic than others. The Wife, to nobody's surprise, painted a kitty cat's face on her Kakamora. A pink cat face. After some thought, I just went with it, giving it four pink cat legs and a tail. Having struggled with hands and feet, I quickly figured out the best way to make cat paws was to carve toes into a flattened disc of clay, adding claws after the fact (again, I mixed the pink Premo with leftover white Sculpey III to get that lighter shade of pink).

Then I put Big Red together with his serrated ax things. In hindsight, I should've made the blades bigger. Remember, Kakamora are small and cartoonish, so the more oversized the weapon, the better the effect. Also, that seashell on his head is only a placeholder I pulled out out of our yard. At some point I'll replace it with a larger, more colorful specimin.

In conclusion, making your own Kakamora is a fairly easy thing to do, albeit a time-consuming one. The third set of limbs I made were far easier to do than the first two--this really is where practice does accelerate the learning curve substantially. I will also caution readers that because I wanted to keep the coconuts mostly intact, I drained them by drilling three holes in the three pores on the end. I did not open it further, which made extraction of the meat impossible. Over the ensuing year, this decayed inside the coconut shell, and black, sooty material drained from the holes on occasion. Now that my older Kakamora have fully dried out (they're way lighter than fresher ones I've started) I'll probably plug those holes to contain the minor, yet persistent mess. Also, check any coconuts you intend to turn into Kakamoras for cracks. I had one with a hairline crack I discovered when I drained it. By the time I started trying to grind the face, that crack had grown into several deep fissures that made the shell unusuable. Finally, if nothing else, my experiences in hand-crafting Kakamoras should show that this is a platform for fun, self-expression. Maybe you want to copy a favorite Kakamora design from the film. That's great--I've taken cues from the film for several of mine, but at the same time, put my own spin on those interpretations. And others, like The Wife's pink Kakamora cat, deviate wildly from anything seen in the film. I'm going to leave you with one final Kakamora-in-progress, which I started last week. It pays homage to the movie whilst simultaneously mashing up two of the most popular characters in a way the filmmakers never intended. I give you Kakamora Hei Hei! The chicken lives!

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