Handmade,  Pacific Rim

Pacific Rat Diorama Project


I can’t believe I’m making a post about a school project. While school is finally out for the year, my Human Anatomy class offered me the opportunity to put my hobby skills to creative use.

One look at it so far may yield some negative reactions along the line of “ewww!” or “gross!” or even, “animal killer!” but I’d like to point out that while rats were harmed during this process, neither myself nor my affiliates were the ones who actually committed the genocide.


So long story short, our Anatomy final was basically to dissect a rat. They came in all shapes, genders, colors, and sizes, but my group happened to get a particularly pink, slimy, pregnant female rat. I know, quite the combination. Most of the other groups had rat innards that were a dull gray, but ours was legitimately bright, fleshy pink. No pictures of that for fear of making someone hurl all over their computer screen.


Upon skinning the creature we had to stuff the skin, sow it back up, and put it together as a diorama. The actual diorama project part was very open-ended; there really were no guidelines other than to use the rat skin somehow (you could even chop it into pieces) and have a theme to the project.

One look at the empty rat skin and my first realization was that it was right about in scale with my 7″ Pacific Rim figures. And how better to relate a rat to giant robots than have it become a Kaiju?


I set about to recreate the opening prologue battle of Pacific Rim, with the Kaiju Knifehead facing off against the original Gipsy Danger off the Alaskan coast. Ironically, this was supposed to be a group effort, with my other three teammates in support, but none of them had even watched Pacific Rim and didn’t care to let me handle it on my own.

Kudos to them for actually insisting on helping, though I did turn them all down to control the results on my own. Classic case of bad school group project conduct, but in my defense they handled the actual dissection of the rat’s innards and filled out the lab paper work; I just shouldered my personal part of the load…that I happened to enjoy doing.


Before I came up with the idea of making Gipsy removable from this diorama, I actually considered making a Jaeger out of clay on my own. One look at my pathetic attempt at the head and you know I was never meant to sculpt mecha.


So with the rat itself, I had the task of transforming it into the Kaiju Knifehead. Technically the most practical way to go about this is to get an actual Knifehead figurine (that I don’t own) and butcher it for the rat parts, but I didn’t feel like shelling out $30+ for a figure that would ultimately be cannibalized. In light of that reality I chose to go with clay parts instead.


I’ve never really attempted anything of this sort before, making beast parts with clay. Turns out it was surprisingly simple and easy; given that this was a school project, I didn’t care for the quality as much as I normally would with one of my personal projects.

P1080378To the untrained eye (my peers and teacher at school) even the sloppiest work can look advanced. As a result, I powered through the clay bits of the rat pretty quickly; got everything molded in one night without too much attention to detail. I did go the extra mile to use my roughest sandpaper as a texture applicator for the parts though. Gave the molded pieces a rough, scaly feel, as it is on the actual Kaiju.


Shown above are the tiny arms, tongue, and eyeballs. All of them are burnt; I fired it in the oven for too long. Not that it really mattered though; I liked working with the Kaiju parts in that I really didn’t have to worry about keeping everything clean and smooth – the Kaiju themselves are very rough around the edges and look imperfectly organic. As such when air bubbles and charred textured appeared on the arms and whatnot, I didn’t mind so much.


Test fitting…appropriately creepy, no? Better than when it just had empty, gaping eye sockets though I suppose.


Both main arms done. I tried to keep them as accurate to the figure version of Knifehead as possible, though it wasn’t that difficult to begin with.


The turtle-back shell of the Kaiju. Textured with sandpaper like the rest, this piece is supposed to curve over the rat’s back…but needless to say it didn’t really curve well after being fired in the oven and hardened.


All four arms done. Learned my lesson the first time around when I burned the smaller arms.


And of course, the actual knife part of Knifehead. I was debating on making this piece at all at first, since I wasn’t sure if it would look good on the rat or not. But in the end I figured it was the Kaiju’s most defining feature, so it wouldn’t make much sense not to include it. But given this is a high school project, I knew I was digging my own grave by making anything remotely rod-shaped, let alone sticking it on my rat’s forehead. I steeled myself for the penis jokes that were surely incoming on project day…


All the main parts hot glued on and hosed down with its first coat of gunmetal gray. The actual Knifehead figure had this semi-shiny satin gray finish to its fleshy parts, and the closest I really had to that was gunmetal gray. Realistically a bit too metallic, but beggars can’t be choosers.


Those two blue balls on the left are meant to be the eyes, while that red mess in the right corner is the tongue undergoing some painting.


I ended up not using the original eyes though, as they were too large for the sockets; remade another set out of clay and planned to plug them into the rat cavity by having toothpicks glued to them to make insertion easier.


The sample projects my teacher showed us all had the dioramas in boxes, the most frequent variety being re-purposed shoe-boxes. I decided to be a little more specific with mine and grabbed some cheap foam board from the local Dollar Tree and cut it up to create my box. Needless to say I had to go through some minor work figuring out side lengths and the like.


The original drawn-out diagrams of the diorama display. The measurements were pretty arbitrary, as I didn’t really know how much space I would need to fit all the things I needed to fit. I didn’t want to make it too large, so I kept it relatively confined, and based the maximum height of the box on Gipsy’s overall height. Given that it was a 7 inch figure, I made the backdrop height eight inches to accommodate.


I had originally used hot glue to weld the pieces together, but that left some unsightly seam lines between the boards and occasionally some glue gunk spilling out. So I decided to cover the edges with some duct tape and then spray paint it all black for good measure…not a good call.


The black-sprayed duct tape was peeling off, and the paint pooled in some areas so it overall looked pretty damn ugly. In the end I kind of just gave up and wrapped the entire box in black duct tape. Not the smoothest or most professional finish, but it would do.


The actual display area would be a removable tray; it’s designed this way due to the water effects I planned to impliment and Gipsy Danger actually needing to be removable from this diorama after it’s completed.


The underside of the tray is pretty ugly – the farther hole is for the rat, while the two ovals are for Gipsy’s legs and feet. They’re so large because Gipsy has massive toes, despite its comparatively skinny ankles.


The parts of this project that would actually require graphics were handled by mother dearest. I worked some Photoshop magic on some of these photos to put together the Pacific Rat logo and that custom graphic of Hong Kong Harbor.

Anatomy Project Background copy

A better look at the harbor background I made. I used a nighttime panoramic photo of Hong Kong at night, and cloned it at the right (why the two buildings are identical). Then the sea water was a different graphic I added, and the final step was the storm effects, which were achieved by throwing a stormy picture in there and lowering the opacity so the clouds, fog, and rain seem “transparent”. Overall I think it turned out pretty well, and it looks even more blurred together after being printed so hey the foggier the better!


Everything cut out and glued on. To attach the graphics, I used some classic tacky glue and applied it to the photos via a brush. Not the cleanest approach, but it was effective.


The bottom of the water tray…sports a graphic of sea water. Given that the stuff I’ll be pouring in here will dry clear, it only makes sense to add to the realism by making it water under the water.


Cut to size, two sheets had to be used.


Holes now cut in the paper. Looks like a face, huh? I just used my exacto knife to poke through and slice the paper out, it didn’t have to be too exact.


And then some duct tape to cover up Gipsy’s leg holes. In case my plan isn’t obvious enough at this point, this tray is going to be filled with a clear substance that will dry and look like sea water. I still want to preserve my Gipsy Danger figure, so I’m making “cuffs” around the areas where its legs would go in, so as not to damage the figure itself; this way Gipsy can be removed from the diorama like a key from a lock if needed.


Test fitting Gipsy and Kniferat. I did cut a small hole in the back for my rat’s tail to poke through, and generally it seemed to fit quite nicely. I needed to get it secure in there though…


The bottom of the tray, with hot glue lining the inner edges and a whole mess of duct tape under the rat securing it in place. I was right about ready to pour my water, though little did I know my preparations were not sufficient…


For the “water”, I needed a substance that could be poured into the tray and dry thick and clear. Once that was done, the intent was to get some sort of gel to mold surface waves and ripples on the ocean surface. The cheapest and most local option for me was some clear varnish – it didn’t matter the finish, but these relatively large 8 oz. bottles were pretty cheap.


The “gel” that I was counting on to create the surface waves with. Turns out it was too liquidy to do the job, so it might as well have been another small bottle of varnish. I’ve worked with Sculpty’s Gloss Glaze before, and it worked extraordinarily well as a thick gel, but unfortunately only satin was in stock and it seems the varying finishes result in varying compositions.


I did order these from Amazon and they came in time for my project, but I only wanted to use them as a last resort. They are meant exclusively for what I’m trying to accomplish – realistic water effects – but the two of them run me over $40. Not worth for a school project, so I kept them in their original packaging, with the intent of returning them if not used. Turns out in the end I didn’t, and got my money back.


The first attempt with the varnish went horribly wrong though. Upon pouring it in, I was rushing it too much and didn’t think twice about the tray leaking. Given I was only two days away from the deadline on this project, I didn’t stop to think twice about certain precautions I really should have taken…like thinking how duct tape wouldn’t stop varnish from leaking everywhere.

In the end, I screwed up pretty hard and wasted pretty much the entire first bottle of 8 oz. varnish since it all leaked away, creating an absolute mess and making my room smell something horrid. I went through two giant rolls of paper towels just cleaning the stuff up afterwards.


It didn’t just leak from one area though – the sides of the tray, the area around and under the rat, and Gipsy’s leg holes that were insufficiently plugged by duct tape all leaked. After panicking and freaking out a fair bit, I managed to get it to a point where I could take the hot glue gun and just gel the crap out of everything. I literally took the glue gun and went ham on all the leaking points, including just glomping it all over parts of the duct tape. The dried glue was sufficient in stopping the leaks and sealed the tray for good, but the amount I used was insane. I swear I went through at least five of the large glue sticks…


So anyway, once that was sorted out, I could finally pour the varnish and leave it to settle and dry. The varnish comes out white at first, and it actually took much more than I thought to give it depth. I originally wanted the water level to go all the way up to the edge of the tray, but given that the substance actually shrinks when it dries, I would’ve needed five bottles of varnish to accomplish that. I ended up only using two.


I should point out that during the course of this project I learned that paint and varnish dries best in direct heat and light. Humidity and damp weather won’t do it any good, and will only slow it down. Since I was rushing to meet deadlines with this project, I needed the “water” to dry as fast as possible. It usually takes 24 hours for one coat to completely dry, but I discovered that I could have it mostly dry in 7 if I just leave it in direct sunlight all day, which seemed to be the best cure.


However, with a day’s worth of being in direct sunlight, the varnish was dry to the touch but not completely solid. A thin film of varnish on the very surface seemed to have dried, with the underneath still in an undried liquid state, which is why it still appears white. The undried varnish underneath could actually still be moved around, which was both funky and convenient, as I could redirect some of the substance where the concentration was weaker.

Also note the yellow patterns painted on Knifehead’s arms. Those were done by hand, much thicker than the original versions but distinguishable all the same.


As for the Kaiju, I went ahead and experimented with it a bit. For one, I removed it’s whiskers since they only got in the way and had some pretty thick gunmetal paint clogging them up. For another, I tried giving it the Kaiju beast eyes. The slit pupils that were meant to look predatory didn’t work; it just makes it look goofy, so I covered it up immediately.

I also received a few comments on how real the tongue looks and how inappropriately gross it is. Hey, the Knifehead figure had its tongue out, I was just trying to be as accurate as possible. Everything was stuck in and on with hot glue.


Coming up on the last leg of this project (pun intended). I had originally planned to integrate the area around Gipsy’s legs to look like there was water pooling around where it was standing in the ocean (similar to how it looks naturally around the rat) but that called for gel that I didn’t have.

The first stage of the plan followed as normal, molding the “cuffs” that would go around Gipsy’s legs and gluing them onto the base. They can be broken off later when I’m done with the project and want to take Gipsy back out. Unfortunately, by the time I got to these parts it was literally the eleventh hour before it was due, so I didn’t do so hot a job of molding the pieces to actually look like water surrounding Gipsy’s legs as I wanted to.


Painted the clay pieces baby blue to match the actual water in the box somewhat, and attempted to apply my Satin Glaze to make it look thicker and match the water of the tray. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out so well. As I pointed out above, the Glaze was far too watery, and only succeeded in giving the pieces a slight shine.


In the end the pieces around Gipsy’s legs turned out to be the biggest eyesore of the project, as it doesn’t look natural at all. I would’ve had no problems had I just glued Gipsy to the actual box and had the “water” pool around it naturally, but a price had to be paid to save the Jaeger itself and ensure it wasn’t permanently ensnared in the box.


And there it is, all done and put together. Admittedly it didn’t turn out as well as I hoped, but this was my first real attempt at a diorama, let alone one involving water effects.


For a school project I did certainly go above and beyond what was required or expected, and thankfully from what I heard my teacher took one glance at it and marked it an A+. Most flattering, but unfortunately I still got stick with a B in the class overall since 400 points isn’t enough to raise a letter grade…


The hell that I went through with the water aside, I’m actually rather proud of how the rat turned out. I’m kind of surprised your average acrylic paint worked on the fur, and I really think it came out with Knifehead’s likeness well.


By the time I turned the project in, the varnish still hadn’t completely dried. But the top had already formed the clear film, so there were only white splotches underneath that couldn’t be touched that still hadn’t cured completely. In the end it gave the sea a more stormy look, so I was okay with it.

All in all though, it was a fun experience, minus the pressure of a deadline bearing down on me. Knowing my work ethic though, an actual deadline is the only way I could get something like this cranked out in any reasonable amount of time, since I have a knack of leaving projects half done for months at a time.


I learned quite a few things during the course of this thing, and now know to be armed with a massive stockpile of hot glue gun ammo should I ever want to work with water again. My classmates and team members also received the project warmly, which was a relief, but I’m not sure how much of their praise was genuine and how much was pity. No penis jokes on Knifehead’s most prominent feature though, that’s a win for the day.

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