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Stirring Up Trouble
By Joe Meils

We have all seen it in various shops, as the Halloween decorations start to appear. That little battery operated witch, who stirs her cauldron and cackles when you move past her motion switch. It is a cute little shelf item, something to add some interest as the centerpiece of a snack table or a small windowsill display. But, as Tim Allen would say on Home Improvement, we need "More power!" As simple as the mechanism for this toy is, there is really no reason why it cannot be scaled up to a full-size Haunt animation, or a porch display that will put the neighbors inflatable skeleton to shame!


How It Works
The materials for this unit are about as basic as you can get, and the guys on Junkyard Wars could bash one of these out in nothing flat. The mechanism is little more than a bent crank/axle powered by a BBQ grill motor. As the motor slowly turns, the rank moves back and forth. The figure's hands are attached to a stick, which spins freely around this crank. This motion pushes and pulls its arms, making it appear that the dummy is actually stirring the pot. In fact, it is the other way around; the stick is moving the figure. A very simple, very easy effect to build, and there are numerous "Sweeteners" you can add to give it even "More power!"

Materials:

  • BBQ grill motor
  • 12" - 16" length metal key stock to fit your motor
  • 12" length of smooth, UHMD plastic rod 1Ú2- to 3Ú4-inch diameter
  • 2 metal screws or half a roll of electrical tape
  • 24" - 36" long tree branch with a 2" - 3" diameter
  • Spade-type drill bit, the next size larger than the UHMD rod.

Standing figure for stirring

The Motor
As I mentioned before, this rig uses a BBQ grill motor. These can be picked up inexpensively at thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales. I got the one for my first unit from a surplus yard for $2.00. Most of these will spin at about 20 RPM, or about once every 5 seconds. There is some variation, but do not worry too much if the one you find moves slower. Oddly, a little slower actually makes the effect even more dramatic, as people have to stop and watch to make sure they are actually seeing the figure moving.


The Crank
Most of these motors have a square inset on the main axle, where the rotisserie rack would plug into it. This is perfect for you. Take the motor with you to the hardware store, and pick up a 12" length of metal key stock to fit your motor. Once you get it home, mount the square metal into a vise, and use a chunk of pipe as a lever to bend the metal into a rough crank shape. If you cannot make it perfectly straight, so much the better! Now, to be sure that the crank will not catch on the stick (which slips over it) you will need to attach a 12" length of smooth, UHMD plastic rod to the end of the crank. This is the same white plastic that they make cutting boards and even fake ice skating rinks out of. It can be picked up at plastic supply houses in scrap form. Any thickness over 1Ú2-inch will do, and should be at least half the length of the final stick. A pair of metal screws will secure it to the crank, or you can simply use a half roll of electrical tape.


The Shaft
For my stir stick, I wanted something a little more atmospheric than a simple dowel (Creatures of the night rarely shop at Sears for their cooking utensils). Hiking around some nearby woods, I found a branch that I thought had the appropriate look. Taking it back to my shop, I cut it to length, about 30", then mounted it in a vise on my drill press. Using a spade-type drill bit, I sank a hole into it lengthwise, about 8" deep. This hole was the next size larger than my UHMD rod. Testing it, I found that it spun very nicely n the plastic axle.


The Figure
I have built three of these little motor units for various haunts and displays. One was a medical skeleton (see photo) and the others were dummies of a witch and a wizard made from padded plywood and Halloween masks and gloves. Assuming that you will want to make a full-scale figure, here are a few tips on building one from scratch:

-If you are building a figure that will be standing behind the pot, do not bother building elaborate legs for it. The skeleton we used did not have a lower half at all. In fact, for both our witch and wizard, we built them atop a pair of old stools that we picked up at garage sales. Their dark robes covered their lack of legs very well.

-To get the right curve to the character's spine, have someone stand next to your cauldron in the desired position. Shine a light onto the wall behind them, and use their shadow to trace the curve. Then cut this "spine" shape from 3Ú4-inch plywood.

-The right width to the shoulders can be ascertained by simply using a coat hanger as a guide.

-When building up the torso, try to use something other than Styrofoam. Without fail, this material will squeak as the arms work back and forth, spoiling the overall effect. The only place you can use Styrofoam is in the head, in the form of a wig head to support a latex mask.

-Do not use any fancy joints or hinges on your arms or shoulders. Simply drill holes in each end of the figure's joint, and thread steel "bailing wire" through them. Then twist them around once or twice.

-Hands can be somewhat problematic. One solution is to build a rough armature out of wood, dowels or wire, then stuff them into a pair of formal gloves. Rubber monster hands, along with a bit of fiberfill padding will also provide the correct look. Then just wire or staple the hands onto the stick.


Sweeteners
Beyond the basic effect, there are a few things you can do to help this motor rig be even more effective.

-You can place the remote switch of a fog machine into the pot and rig it so that each time the crank turns it depresses the trigger. Simply tape a small inclined plane over the button (made from the top of a tin can, or small piece of wood or plastic) and glue the remote in a location where the crank would just barely hit it as it passed. The result was a pot with a full of "steam." It also helped hide the fact that there was nothing liquid in the cauldron.

-To add a little malevolent life to the figure, add LED eyes to it. Diffusing the eyes with a thin veil of cotton does a lot to kill the "pinpoint" look of the LED, and makes it appear that the entire eyeball is glowing.

-Lighting can add to the effectiveness on the scene. Place a small, green bulb in the cauldron and suddenly your pot is full of some sickly green goop. The harsh upward light also gives your figure a very evil look! (Same effect as holding a flashlight under your chin.) Lights can also be rigged into the "fire" below the pot. Place an orange and a red 75w party bulb under the cauldron, making sure that they are not touching anything (Party bulbs get very hot!). Then make the lights flicker using a "Color Organ" hooked up to the speakers playing the sound effect of the crackling fire.

-Speaking of sound, adding a loop tape of your favorite incantation can tremendously heighten the effectiveness of this sort of scene. You can lift one from a video of Macbeth, a commercially available tape or CD, or even a humorous one that you record yourself, "Hair of Don King…Eye of Newt Gingrich..." Even a simple bubbling noise from the cauldron will add to the scene.

 

Joe Meils is a lifestyle Haunter, having worked various Haunts in Illinois and Colorado since 1980. Currently he is living in Conway, Arkansas, where by day he is the technical director for the Snow Theater at UCA. At night he becomes the evil genius of "Goblin Grove," a five-acre Haunted Trail located on his property. Currently, he is preparing to start a small latex prop and decoration business, called "Boojum Studios, LLC." Contact Joe at BoojumStudio@aol.com

 

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