Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Big Steaming Pile

The Big Steaming Pile (or BSP for short), was the centerpiece to the Rogue Cthulhu multi-media production I like to call the "Really Big Show", from 2002-2004. It was one of those projects that I despised, but that everyone else seemed to love. Absolutely nothing went right on this build. The construction was a nightmare, and the final product was so far from my original concept as to be unrecognizable. I hated it. I was completely prepared to chuck it in the dumpster before it was ever unveiled. But, I have to admit, the old guy kind of grew on me (like the slime mold that grew on it).

It was my intention to construct one of those vinyl inflatable toys like you see in people's pools. Mine would be in the shape of Great Cthulhu, and would be about 8 feet tall. Of course I had no vinyl, and no experience with this sort of thing, but I got it in my head that it would be easily accomplished with heavy gauge black polyethylene sheeting and one of those hand held heat sealers you use to keep your potato chips fresh. The best laid plans...

I found out several facts, that I had previously not acknowledged, pretty quickly.
Fact #1. I have absolutely no talent for creating and cutting patterns. I guess that semester of Home Econ. I took in 9th grade just wasn't enough to prepare me for the big leagues.
Fact #2. Hand held heat sealers that you see advertised on TV suck! After scouring the internet and paying $20 too much for one, I came to find out just how ineffective and poorly constructed these things are. Getting a perfect air tight seal is very difficult. getting one over the hundred or so feet of seams that I was going to need to construct this monstrosity was impossible.
Fact #3. Polyethylene is porous. It doesn't look like it, or seem like it would be, but it is. Even with a perfectly air tight seal (which I did manage to get a few times on small test pieces), the air will slowly leak out through the pores of the material over time.

What I expected would take me about a day or two turned into five of the longest, most torturous, days of my life. It was hot that summer. Very hot. Like 95-100F hot, which is pretty hellish for Ohio, with the humidity and all. I couldn't work for more than 10 minutes without taking a 15 minute break, and I must have drank a gallon of water per hour while I was working on that thing. After a few hours of experimenting with the heat sealer, it became pretty obvious that my plan was not working. There was no way this thing was going to stay inflated on its own. So, I started looking for other ways to achieve my goal. I didn't like the idea of stuffing it, but what else could I do? Then, I got a stroke of luck. I was cruising through one of my favorite discount stores (Marc's) and I found a vinyl inflatable sofa (love seat) for a couple of bucks. Once inflated, it was about 6 ft. long and about 3-4 ft. wide and deep. It was just the right size and approximately the right shape for the body of Cthulhu. I could stuff it with something inflatable! I scavenged through the pool toys and found a giant (4ft. diameter) beach ball, and several cheap pool rafts.

My new plan was to construct a skin out of the black plastic sheeting and stuff it with the inflatable items. Should be easy, I thought. The hard parts (the air tight seals) were already done for me. but of course, nothing is ever as easy as I think it is going to be.

I continued to use the crappy hand sealer unit, up until the point where it broke. Then I had to switch to contact cement. Since the thing didn't have to hold air any more, it could be made in pieces (and would likely have to be). I had intended for the arms and legs to look like... well, arms and legs. But my limited skill at pattern making was a serious impediment. I ended up making both the arms and legs into tentacles. For those of you who remember my Cthulhu Snowman Sculpture, this is the same problem that plagued me with that project (with predictably, the same result). Actually, the BSP and that sculpture look a lot alike, largely for the same reasons.

The main body was going to be basically, a squarish cylinder. I inflated the sofa, stood it on end, and wrapped it with two or three layers of carpet padding (foam rubber) to even out the shape. Then I wrapped it in the black plastic sheeting. Tada, a rectangular solid. Doesn't look much like Cthulhu, but it's a start. The body would be disassembled and deflated for storage and transport. We used a small shop-vac motor, which was reversible and could be used as a leaf blower, to inflate it on-site.

The legs I decided to stuff with the inflated pool rafts. That sort of worked. However, the legs were an odd shape and far too big for one pool raft each, so, I ended up stuffing the remaining room in the legs with whatever I could find, news paper, packing peanuts, Kraft paper, empty milk jugs, foam rubber,.. anything. I was getting pretty desperate by this point, and didn't care much what it looked like. The legs wouldn't actually be attached to the body. They would just sit next to it, with the thighs pressed up against the hip area. It would look like it was attached. Obviously, these could not be unstuffed or deflated and had to be stored and transported as they were.

The arms were just smaller tentacles. I stuffed those with foam packing peanuts and Kraft paper. They were attached to the body at the shoulder with industrial strength sticky backed Velcro. They would also remain stuffed and sealed for storage and transport.

I made the head into a large sac, with four tentacles coming out of the mouth area. These were stuffed with foam packing peanuts and sealed off from the inside, so the peanuts wouldn't fall out. The rest of the sac, I would stuff with the giant beach ball (which was only about half inflated) to form the head. This would just sit on top of the body and be held in place by a piece of black gaffers tape at the rear. The head needed a lot of on-site finessing to make it look decent. It had no eyes, as I had another special idea in mind for those. I took two 4in. clear plastic globes (designed to be Christmas tree ornaments) and painted them red with translucent paint. Then I wired up a flashlight battery to a couple of AA batteries in a battery clip from Radio Shack. One of these would go in each of the two globes, which could be opened. Once the head was in place and finessed into shape, I would nestle the globes into folds in the plastic at the side of the head. To me, they looked like giant glowing cicada eyes, but they did look kind of cool. The batteries were good for about a day. The eyes weren't actually attached, and the beach ball could be removed and deflated for transport and storage. Only the mouth tentacles remained stuffed.

Of course, most people don't think of Cthulhu as being black, but I had a plan for that as well. I bought a couple of cans of florescent green spray paint, and just let it mist down over the whole thing. In the light, it just gave the black plastic a dusty green tint (though a fairly heavy one), but in the room, with the black lights on, it glowed an eerie green!

If you haven't guessed by now, I named it the Big Steaming Pile because I that's what I thought of it by the time it was finished. I never got a chance to fully assemble it prior to its introduction at Origins in 2002, and I fully expected that it would look so crappy that I would just abort the project during setup, and chuck it in the dumpster. In the full light of day, it looked a lot like an 8ft. tall pile of stuffed garbage bags in a roughly anthropomorphic shape. That wasn't far from the truth. But in the dim interior of the Rogue Cthulhu room, with it's colored floodlights and black lights, and the glowing eyes turned on, it didn't look that bad. Well, it looked bad, but not that bad. Of course, since no one else was doing anything even remotely like this at the con, everyone who came and gawked at it thought it was cool as hell.

In 2003, I made a modification and added some wings. I had always intended for it to have wings, I just didn't have time to make them on the original build, and given how disgusted I was with the whole thing, I considered it a miracle that it got finished at all back then. The wings were a separate piece, that could also be broken down into smaller components for transport and storage. It was constructed mostly of pvc pipe. The part that was visible was made from two 1/2in. pvc pipes, with 45 degree elbows in the middle of each. These were covered with foam pool noodles. The pool noodles were draped with black plastic roll table cloth. The kind they use at parties and wedding receptions. The trailing edge was cut in a scalloped pattern to make it look like the membrane of bat type wing. The two pvc pipes came together in the middle and attached in a T joint, which had screws added to it to keep the joint locked together tight. Then the bottom of the T was joined, with a reducing coupler, to a vertical 2.5in. pvc pipe. That pipe was about 4ft. long and was attached to a plywood base plate that sat behind the BSP.

The BSP was unique among Cthulhu props, in that it came with its own slime. Between seasons, I had to store the thing outdoors under my car port. Every year it would get wet, covered with leaves, infested with spiders, and get more and more mold growing on it. It all added to the authenticity, I thought.

In 2004, I had seen enough of it, and was tired of storing it, hauling it, and repairing it. I vowed to make something better, and to make sure that I didn't rest on my laurels, I vowed that the BSP would not be returning home with me after the show. I had intended to throw it in the dumpster at the convention center, but as my team was tearing down the room, and I was making one quick lap through the dealers hall, some convention attendees, who said they were from Toledo, expressed an interest in taking it home with them. They said they wanted to use it at BashCon, though I don't know if they ever did. We gave it to them, lock stock and barrel. I don't really regret giving it away, but sometimes I do miss the old guy.

UPDATE: OK, so I can't confirm this, but here is what I have been told. The BSP never made it to BashCon. In fact, he never made it home with his new owners. As the story goes, the new owners were on their way home from Origins with the BSP stuffed into their car, damn near filling every available space. On the way home, they got into a car wreck, and from what I am told, the extra cushioning of the BSP stuffed into their car cushioned the impact and may have helped save the driver's life. I don't know if it is true, but it makes a good story, and makes my memories of this big pile of trash bags even more precious.

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