I got a real kick out of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit. Especially as a huge Tolkien fan who's been reading the books for years, I couldn't help but ooh and aah at the magic that Weta Workshop created for the movie. I knew after watching it that my next task would be to bring something from Middle Earth to life, and about 11 minutes in, I knew exactly what that would be. The Mirkwood elves on the cliff overlooking Erebor stood out to me above all, particularly their helmets. Sadly, they are completely computer generated in the movie and only appear for 10 seconds, so my first step was to rent the movie on iTunes and get a bunch of screen-grabs for reference pictures.
While making this helmet, I had to keep in mind that elven armor is meant to be very flowing, graceful, and elegant, and there are almost no straight lines.
The technique I used to make this helmet was very different from what I typically do with pepakura. I started off by creating blueprints for the helmet on paper and scaling it, using only these two reference pictures from the movie. There was much geometry and algebra involved. Boo.
The next step was to create a basic skeleton of the helmet out of MDF (medium density fiberboard, AKA hard wood) and fill it with blocks of XPS (extruded polystyrene) insulation foam, which were carved into a rough shape with a sharp set of box cutters and smoothed out with a rough sanding sponge. I ran into some problems cutting the MDF skeleton since it was so damn tough, so I switched to styrofoam instead.
The styrofoam and XPS were held together using hot glue. A total of 44 foam semi-circles were carved out.
After the basic shape was formed, the next step was to smooth the surface using bondo body filler. Bondo is basically a thick cream that hardens when mixed with a catalyst and is ideal for detailing and filling. Before bondoing, however, the foam had to be sealed in acrylic to prevent the heat of the bondo hardening process from dissolving it, as it is very solvent sensitive.
The first layer of bondo was standard bondo, the same kind that I've been using for years, but the second, third, and fourth layers of bondo were bondo gold, which is a little thinner and easier to sand. Many layers are required in order to make the surface as smooth and uniform as possible. Each layer is applied with a spreader/spatula and sanded down using 80 and 120 grit sandpaper, then another layer is added to fill any holes or raise any areas, and so on. When the shape was refined and I was satisfied with the smoothness and symmetry, the base was sprayed with filler primer and a couple layers of gloss for extra shininess.
Starting out rather rough...
Typically, when I make my helmets with the pepakura method, many of the details are already in the base and I just smooth them out with bondo. For this helmet, all the details were sculpted using Jolly King plasteline, which is basically modeling clay. The faceplate and crest were first sculpted on top of a cardstock template, then transferred to the base helmet and leveled with my fingertips. Other details such as the vine ornaments and the rim were long strands of clay that I rolled out and stuck to the helmet. In the sculpting business, toothpicks and exacto knives are your best friends.
The real challenge was making sure the entire thing was symmetrical. I had my $400 laser pointer help me with that. And calipers. Those are helpful too. Oh, and sharpies.
I passed the time sculpting by watching the Weta Workshop behind the scenes DVD that came with the Lord of the Rings extended edition. It was fascinating to watch how the masters made the props used in the trilogy, and it inspired me to go on.
Once I was satisfied with the helmet, I gave it another coat of gloss and started working on the two crests on top of the helmet that resemble antlers. After much deliberation, I decided to make the prototypes out of XPS instead of EVA foam mats or cardstock. I found it really easy to sculpt while working on the helmet and wanted more experience with it, so I figured, "why not?". Once again they were cut from my blueprints using box cutters, and refined with a rough sanding sponge. I had to seal these in acrylic also, since they'd be getting the bondo smoothing treatment.
I only had to use one layer of bondo gold to get these nice and smooth, and just sprayed them with filler primer to fill any tiny holes or dents. Details were added again using plasteline, and once they looked identical, I mocked up the helmet with the crests to see how it looked.
Of course, the helmet isn't wearable in this state, so the next step was to mold the three pieces individually. I started out with the crests, since making a box mold is easy. It is exactly what it sounds like; I made a basic box for the two pieces out of cardboard and hot glue, glued the crests to the bottom, and filled the boxes about 1.5 inches high with silicone. For those not familiar with molding, the basic idea is to create a negative of your piece out of silicone, a rubbery, flexible material, then fill the mold with casting resin/plastic in order to create multiple cast copies. The only thing silicone adheres to is more silicone, so it is ideal for mold making because you can use the mold over and over again.
40 fl oz. of silicone went into making these molds. I pulled two sets of crests because the first set was a dud, the crests had air bubbles and were too thick. Each crest was cast with a metal wire core for added strength.
The next, and most difficult step, was molding the helmet. I decided to try out a platinum based silicone for this process, rather than the tin based silicone that I am accustomed to, because it is stretchier and more flexible. Typically, single-piece jacket molds are very difficult to remove the cast parts out of once you’re finished, but since platinum silicone is so stretchy, I could save time by creating a one part mold and peeling the silicone off of the entire helmet, rather than making a two part mold that would mean double the work time making halves. Several layers of platinum silicone were applied using chip brushes rather than pouring, to make sure all the details were captured.
When the silicone had completely cured, a mother mold, or a hard shell, had to be made in order to ensure that the casts came out exactly like the prototype. In jacket molds, silicone is too flimsy on its own to keep a shape, so a firm outer shell keeps everything in place while pouring a cast. I also tried something new for this mother mold. Rather than laying fiberglass on the silicone to create the shell, I tried using plaster bandages and rondo, a combination of fiberglass resin and bondo. This method was more successful than my previous methods, because the material was just as strong, but demolded more easily, since the plaster bandages don't create a airtight seal with the silicone. In the past, this has given me problems when demolding. Two shell halves were made that could be easily separated. The lumps you see are registration keys that help keep the silicone in place with the shell.
With all the molding done, I was ready to pour the first cast. I used a rotational casting method, which basically involves pouring casting resin into the mold and slushing it around the inside in layers, as evenly as possible, until it hardens. For this helmet, I used six layers. Both the helmet and the crests were cast with Smoothcast 320, which has about a 10 minute pot life and a two hour cure time. Once ready, the helmet was demolded (pulled out of the mold).
The detail layer of the silicone didn't cure completely, leaving the helmet with many little imperfections on the surface, so I had to sand it down and fill the holes with more bondo. The helmet was trimmed with a dremel rotary tool to get it ready for painting, and the crests were mounted with epoxy putty.
In order to make the crests flush with the rest of the helmet, I bridged it together with bondo, then sanded it down until perfectly smooth.
With the helmet now trimmed and assembled, it was time for paint. I started by giving it a full layer of filler primer to rid any last imperfections, then sprayed it with bronze metallic spray paint, and hand painted the raised areas with gold, then sprayed it with gloss for extra shininess. The helmet was meant to be given bronze and copper and gold colors, slanting it more towards autumn shades. It is a subtle tip of the hat to the fact that the elves were getting ready to leave Middle Earth and were at the end of their years.
The final step was to give it slight weathering to add realism. This was done with acrylic paint applied over a large area then quickly wiped off with a damp towel to leave a blackwash in recessed areas.
Finally, the entire piece was sealed with a layer of satin clear coat, and voila!
Thanks for reading!