I have loved movies for as long as I can remember. While some people will spend hours getting lost in a book, I spent whole days watching movies. I grew up in a tiny village just outside of the UK’s Peak District in the 1990s. There were 2 buses a day to the local city centre and only 4 channels on the TV, so as a teenager there wasn’t much to do. That’s where my passion for movies began; in particular ones that were shown in the middle of the night on a Friday and Saturday… the classics!
Ghostbusters, The Godfather, Batman, I would watch anything I could get my hands on. Thanks to my mum’s love of movies, in particular the scary kind, I was introduced to all of the horror classics in my mid-teens. Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and Psycho all made a lasting impression on me in a very positive way and I noticed something else, in so many of these movies and many others the buildings play just as important a role as any of the characters. The image of Norman Bates’ mother sat in the upstairs window of the Bates house is one that has always stuck with me and when I had some free time from my career in stop-motion animation after having my first child, I knew I wanted to pay homage to it and it inspired me to create my own. As soon as I started to make that model, I was filled with so much joy and nostalgia that I knew I wanted to make more.
When starting a new piece, I first need to have a really close connection to the movie; I truly believe that you should create things that make you happy and in the words of Marie Kondo “spark joy!”. I always hope that other people will love my work as much as I love making it, but it is never my first concern. I try to find as many reference images as I can of the building, either from the movies themselves, in books or even Google maps; amazingly a lot of these buildings are real places.
Reference images really help me to be as respectful as possible to the originals, but also adapt it to fit with my style; after all my work is a type of fan art and inspired by the originals but never directly copied.
Now I can start making the diorama which is a miniature model representing a scene. I use styrene strips and sheets of different sizes and textures to represent the walls, guttering and complete look of a structure. I use a lot of model railway scratch building materials in my model making and although my dioramas aren’t an exact gauge scale I would say the closest size would be HO. The HO scale gauge uses a 1:87 scale which means that it is 3.5 mm to every foot and is one of the smallest scales created in the model railway world.
Once the piece is at a stage I am happy with, I use silicone to make a mould and polyurethane casting resin to form a solid piece. I mostly use a technique known as a 1-part-mould, this is when the piece has a temporary box built around it made from foam board or any rigid sheet material, using hot glue to hold it in place.
The silicone is then poured over the piece without any additional prep made for a second half of a mould which would make a 2-part mould. Before pouring the silicone into the box, a catalyst is added to the silicone and mixed together thoroughly. Then I like to get rid of any air bubbles that have been mixed into the silicone by placing the pot of silicone into a vacuum chamber and drawing all the air and bubbles out of the mix. Doing this means that when the silicone is poured over the piece there are minimal bubbles in the silicone to get trapped in the mould, improving its effectiveness at recreating the piece exactly as the resin is.
When the silicone has cured, the outer box is removed, and the original piece removed. The silicone I use is relatively stretchy for moulding silicone so even if the piece has undercuts that may snag when I try to take the pull out, I can usually just stretch the mould to release the obstacle. I usually ask someone else to help me doing this as you will need about 4 hands to stretch the mould open and pull out the resin cast, but it can be done solo with a bit of patience and practice. If I can’t get the model out, I will use a sharp scalpel and cut a jagged line in the mould, which allows for more room to pull the cast out. Using a jagged cut allows for the mould to nicely knit back together to be used again.
Now the piece is cast in resin. I can add any additional features to the diorama such as fencing, gingerbread trim and trellis that would not have been possible to mould. I then spray paint a primer layer over the entire piece which helps the paint to then adhere better. I use a mix of airbrushing and hand painting techniques with acrylic paint depending on what I feel works best. For weathering my work, I like to use soft pastels and a dry paint brush, I feel it gives a more matt realistic dirt texture. Finally, I spray 3 fine coats of matt UV protection lacquer over the painted areas to help seal and protect the paint job.
For grass I use a technique called flocking. Tiny fibres called static grass are passed through a flocking machine and negatively charged, they drop onto a earthed surface that has PVA glue coated on it and the tiny grass fibres are held in place by the glue, but stand on end because of the electrical charge making them appear to be growing like grass. It sounds complicated or dangerous, but it is an easy process to get to grips with and the charge using the battery powered handheld machines is so small that if you accidentally touch the charging mesh the most you will get is a little zap. I love this stage of diorama making as it is usually the last process and truly makes a piece come to life.
I have always loved movies and creating art in my personal time, but my professional background is in stop-motion prop and puppet making. When I graduated from University of Centre Lancashire in 2010 I was very fortunate to start working at world renowned puppet makers Mackinnon & Saunders. It was a place I always wanted to work at after discovering one of their very early short films The Sandman from 1991. I couldn’t believe that the first productions I got to be part of were two feature films, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Laika’s ParaNorman. I worked in the silicone and moulding departments casting and seeming (removing the join lines from the casting process) puppet parts and it was such an amazing experience. I was lucky enough to continue working at M&S for nearly 8 years, moving on to studio-based work as a prop maker and set dresser for their television series work. The crews I have been lucky enough to be part of have always been so friendly and talented and I learned so much from my time there.
I love working as a prop maker, of all the different roles I’ve had over the years it is definitely my favourite. Every day is different and working out new ways of making props is something that I love to do. I personally hate throwing things away, such as a broken toy or piece of packaging, that might be the perfect thing to turn into a prop. When I look at an animatic, which is a visual representation of the animation but in storyboard form, I use it to see what a prop needs to do. Does it need to move, fly or be duplicated?! Next, I work out how I’m going to make it. I try and view objects as silhouettes as this helps me to separate the visual look of something and what it is traditionally used for.
Polymer clay has always played a part in my work, it is so easy and fast to work with that it is so useful in prop making. I particularly love the microwavable super light clay; in stop motion animation to get 1 second of animation, 24 frames of individual photographs have to be taken, meaning that if a puppet has to hold an object or that object needs to fly through the air, it has to be helped by a rig (a rig is a device or a piece of equipment designed to hold something in place). Objects need to be as light as possible and that’s when the super light clay comes in very handy.
At the end of 2017 I had my first baby and with that I was able to take time away from working in the studio. After a few months away I started to miss the creative life and I started trying to find ways I could use the experience I had developed so far over my career. My love of movies and miniatures led me to start making my first diorama, which was based on Norman Bates house in Psycho. I posted the progress and finished piece on my Instagram page and was overwhelmed with the response, so I
decided to start my own Instagram page solely for my work called McKool Miniatures. The name was easy, it sounds a little unusual; my maiden name is Poole and before I got married my now husband and I joked that if we both changed our names and joined them it would be McKool and therefore we would be Team McKool, very cheesy but it’s always made me smile!
Social media has always played a massive part in my work. It’s a great place for me to self-promote my work and keep people updated on what I’m working on and when new pieces are available, but also it’s a great place to meet other artists from all over the world and form supportive units which are so important in the creative industry.
In the Spring of 2018, I was given an amazing opportunity when I was asked to be a guest lecturer at Hebei University in China. I was incredibly flattered to be asked and it is something I would love to do again. I was a little nervous at first as it was the farthest I have ever travelled for work, but I think if you ever get the opportunity to step outside your comfort zone in your career you should take it because you never know where it may lead.
After returning home I started to work at another highly accomplished animation house called Factory Create on puppet refurbishment and then puppet maintenance for one of their returning stop-motion TV shows. Animation puppets are made to very high standards but like any regular actor they need some TLC from time to time. Puppets deteriorate over time and things like the silicone becoming brittle and armature joints loosening all need fixing, so on productions there is a specific department called puppet maintenance which is sometimes called the puppet hospital and it’s job is to make sure the puppets look and work great for the run of the production.
Most of the repairs are done at my desk away from the sets, but sometimes puppets can break mid-shot which is when the animator is in the middle of a scene and the puppet cannot be removed for repair. When this happens, I must go onto set and fix the issue in situ, this can be stressful as nothing can be moved or knocked. Cameras, lighting and other props and puppets can be very close and I have to make sure to be as careful as possible not to disturb anything or it may ruin the take.
I love doing onset repairs as you must really focus and remain calm and sometimes become a contortionist in order to even get to the puppet without moving anything around it.