Gingerbread House 2009 - A How-To Guide

It's the most wonderful time of the year... well, for the most part... unless you are rushed to make a gingerbread house. If you think my pumpkins are crazy, just you keep reading.

People keep asking my mother and I how we do our gingerbread houses, so I decided to document our process as best as I could and post it here in all of it's glory. Some people may say that we are giving away our secrets, but I figure if you are brave enough (or crazy enough, most likely) to give them a try, then you can have some fun at it... or incredible amounts of frustration.

(Blogger's note: I may be editing this with corrections made by the technical director of the project, i.e. my mom.)

First of all, it starts with an idea. I like to sketch up a few ideas, drawing from different architectural styles. We've done all sorts of different styles before from gothic cathedral (complete with flying buttresses), to southwestern adobe architecture, to simple bungalows. I always have to keep in mind that for the most part, you are limited to flat planes for your construction:

This year we decided to go with some cues from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home. This isn't really an activity for kids, keep in mind, because unless you are insane, you spread it out over a couple of days. The first time my mother and I did a gingerbread house from scratch, we wound up starting at 5 PM and didn't finish until 1AM or later... and that one was a simple house structure.

The first thing I always do is to lay out the floor plan of the gingerbread house. Remember, the pieces you make have to be able to fit on a pan in your oven, so it can't be too big unless you want to create your own pan out of sheet metal. Also, creating the floor plan also gives you an idea of how big your base will be. We do a few crazy things with our designs and have used cardboard bases, styrofoam bases, and plywood bases. I think we like the plywood the best because it stays sturdy and you can mount hardware and lights to it.
The next step is to create all of the patterns for your pieces. I use the professional illustration software Adobe Illustrator to do my patterns because I can just line them up with each other and the floor plans to create exact measurements. Also, if your pieces are too big to print out on a single piece of paper, you can divide them up and tape them together later. I also like to do mine digitally because I can always print off more if I need them.

IMPORTANT NOTE: When designing your pieces, keep in mind that they will be around 1/4 inch thick or more when finally baked. It is the worst thing in the world to put your roof on only to find out that it is a half inch too short.

Next, you need some gingerbread. My mom and I have found a recipe that we tend to like the best out of the ones we have tried. To give you an idea, the gingerbread house we created this year was approximately one batch. We made two just in case we needed to make more pieces in case one broke, but usually one batch will do.

Gingerbread Dough Recipe:
  • 6 Cups All purpose flour
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 2/3 cups shortening
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 eight-ounce container of sour cream
  • 2 eggs
  • Parchment paper
To prepare dough: Into a large bowl, measure 3 1/2 cups flour and remaining ingredients. With mixer at low speed, beat until well mixed, constantly scraping bowl with rubber spatula. With hand, knead in remaining 2 1/2 cups flour to make a soft dough. Wrap dough in plastic bag and refrigerate 2 hours or until dough is not sticky and is of easy kneading consistency.

Next, after your patterns are created, it is time to roll them out. We typically roll the dough out onto parchment paper first, that way we can easily transfer them to the cookie sheet that they will be baked in.

Before you put the patterns on, spray them with a cooking spray to prevent them from sticking to the dough when you need to pull them off:

You can then place them in the pan to bake at 350° until the pieces are golden brown and are very firm when lightly touched with your finger. Remove them from the oven and place the cookie sheet on a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes. Carefully remove the parchment paper with the baked pieces from the cookie sheet and place on the wire rack to cool completely. You will want to use new parchment paper if you are going to make hard candy windows for your gingerbread house. It is at this time when you can use a small serrated knife to trim off any pieces that may have made your gingerbread crooked.

Next, we always create hard candy windows for our gingerbread houses because we place a light inside them and like for it to shine out. The light adds nice ambiance and also the smells of all the ingredients is great when the house warms up. We use a typical hard candy recipe that you would use for lollipops, just with a few things omitted. You can either do it on the stove or in the microwave:

Microwave Hard Candy:
  • 1 Cup granulated Sugar
  • 1/2 Cup light corn syrup
Thoroughly mix sugar and light corn syrup in a 4-cup microwave glass container. Cover with plastic wrap. Microwave on HIGH for 3 minutes and 15 seconds. Remove from microwave. Peel back plastic wrap, taking care to avoid the hot steam. Stir and then cover with a NEW sheet of plastic wrap. Microwave on high for 3 minutes and 15 seconds. Remove from microwave. After boiling subsides, feel free to stir in coloring if desired. (The natural color is a light yellow, so keep that in mind when mixing colors. We once tried to create a blue color, but wound up only creating green.) Carefully spoon into window areas and wait to harden. If you are using parchment paper, the hard candy shouldn't stick to it.

I believe this recipe can also be done on the stove, but requires the use of a candy thermometer. Heat ingredients to the 'hard crack' stage and spoon in.

After you have created your windows, one trick we have found is that it is easier to decorate them when they are laying flat, rather than standing up. This is a great time to do so without tearing your hair out later. Now it is time to create the icing.

A WORD ON ICING: Royal icing isn't like your typical cake frosting. When it hardens, it is close to the consistency of concrete and very sugary. It also requires using raw egg whites, so I don't recommend eating it because it can sit out for quite a while some times. The last thing you want is a case of salmonella ruining your holiday cheer.

Royal Icing:
(Makes 2 cups. You will probably have to make several batches)
  • 3 egg whites (We typically get the health food all egg whites in a carton or even powdered egg whites)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 sixteen-ounce box confectioner's powdered sugar
In a large bowl combine all ingredients. Beat 7 minutes with an electric mixer until smooth and thick. A good test is when a knife blade drawn through the icing leaves a clean cut. Store in a tightly sealed container if you are not using it right away. You can also cover the top of the mixing bowl with a wet paper towel to keep it from drying out:

It also helps at this point to have a good set of frosting bags and tips. I think we are using a set of tips that is older than I am, so they are a good investment if you like doing confectionary decorating.

You can also mix in food coloring with the icing to create different colors. We have typically mixed in green for doing trees and bushes. We have also found that small waffle cones work great as pine trees and marshmallows work great for short shrubs:

A WORD ON DECORATIONS: Let your imagination run wild. Typically, we try to get stuff from the bulk section of the grocery store. It's fun to walk through and imagine the things there are something else and see what you can come up with. We found a small can of these holiday cookie decorations and they worked great:

Once you have your windows decorated and dried, you are ready to put up your walls. This usually turns into a three man job, so make sure you have someone to help out: two people hold while one works the frosting. You should only have to hold the walls for a few minutes because the frosting dries out fairly quickly depending on your climate (In Utah it dries quickly, but more humid places, it can take a while unless you add more powdered sugar to dry it out.) Yes, we even put some trees up inside next to the windows so you could see them from outside.

You may find yourself accidentally cracking a piece. If that happens, don't worry too much because you can 'glue' it back together with frosting. I have this crazy personal rule that all construction materials have to be edible. It makes it more of a challenge. You may choose to deviate from that a bit, but remember, that Elmer's Glue is non-toxic and therefore probably edible...
Also, you may find that some of your pieces don't fit in their crevices and need to be trimmed. If this is the case, you can delicately use a knife with a small serrated edge to do your trimming. Just be careful because your gingerbread can crumble fairly easily.

After you feel confident that your walls are sturdy enough, feel free to put up the roof:

I like to let it sit for a bit to dry at this point, but you can still keep working from here. At this point there is no real prescribed order, but we typically work on the house, then the surrounding yard.

You can use different materials on the roof, but one of our favorites to use is Big Red gum. It gives the house a great fragrance as you walk by it and it also has great color. (Some other ideas include Smarties or Spree for terra-cotta tile or Frosted Mini-Wheats for a thatched-roof look.) You can do whatever pattern you like. This year, we went for a terra-cotta tile look, but you can also do a staggered asphalt shingle look using gum as well. Just to give you an idea, the roof on this house took approximately 73 pieces (cut into thirds) to cover it.

Another trick we learned it how to use gumdrops for your own creations. I typically use them for wreaths and ribbons. You can microwave them for about ten seconds to make them warm, then roll them out flat over some spread granulated sugar. Then you can cut them out to whatever shape you so desire:

From there, let your imagination soar. We did a lot of decorating from this point and finished the house for the most part:

Creating icicles in probably something you can do before working on the yard, although you could also save it for the end. This can also be a two-man job: one person works the frosting and the other cuts it off at the right length. We have found the best cut-off tool to be a simple toothpick, but with a bit of a trick. Between icicles, stick the toothpick in your mouth and slather it with saliva. It sounds gross, but it makes the end of the icicles not stick to your toothpick. After three or four in a row fall down, you'll see what I mean:

Every year we try and do something innovative that we haven't tried before. This year it had to do with the yard. Before we have either tried painting or using flock to cover the base to make it look like snow, but it either dries and shows the texture of the plywood or cracks and falls off. This year we decided to frost the entire base. We wound up also sprinkling decorative granulated sugar on top of the frosting, which creating the glistening effect of new-fallen snow:

Well, after many man-hours, we finally completed it:

I have to give most the credit to my mother. She is the technical skill here and I wouldn't ever be able to do it without her. All in all, it is a fun thing to do each year and I am glad that we get to do it. Hopefully my future wife, whomever she is, will be up for the challenge some year.


Mid-Tone Paper Drawings - Hands & Feet

Again, I'm getting a bit ahead, but I want to enjoy the holiday next week. This week we were focusing on using a medium value paper to draw on. This give you the advantage that you don't have to cover the whole paper in charcoal and smear it around to get your medium tones. This also means that you have to put in the highlights yourself with a white charcoal pencil or contè crayon. This week I also wanted to focus on just keeping the sketch lines and adding value that way. I usually use a paper stump to blend all the shades together, but I decided against that here. I guess it helps keep the sketchiness to the drawing rather than making it look too much like a photograph or something.

This week's focus was also on hands and feet. Compare these to the last ones I did and you'll probably see some improvement. It is nice to know that things are coming along, even if they come along slowly.


Walk Cycle - Meet Norman

I'm getting a bit of a head start on the next week's assignment so I can enjoy the Thanksgiving Holiday. This is the start of a three-week long assignment with a few milestones to show along the way.

We are now delving into a walk cycle with a 3D character. Essentially, the same principles apply as the 2D walk cycle with contact points, passthrough points, and weight points... except this is in full 3D! There are a few more things to check out and make sure they work. First things first, we were given Norman, a fully rigged model to work with:

Looks frightening to work with, doesn't it? Are you confused yet? Well, I'll help you out. All of the little shapes in space are controllers that help one move and manipulate Norman's body. They are all set up in a way that they are relative to one large control, that way if you need to move the character in the scene, you don't have to start all over again. (As a side note, rigging is one of the things I am going to school to learn along with modeling and texturing.)

Norman's limbs are set up in two different rigging styles: Forward kinematics and inverse kinematics. There are various advantages to both, but in this example his arms are set up as forward kinematics while his legs are set up as inverse kinematics. Forward kinematics means that you animate from the body outward. For example, if I wanted to move his arm, I would first animate the shoulder, then the elbow, then the wrist. Inverse kinematics is set up just the opposite so that you animate from the extremities inward. So if I wanted to move his legs, I would move his foot and the computer would interpolate where his calf, knee, and thigh would go.

So, where do we start? Well, the first place that major movements usually come from is the hips. which is the root controller for the entire character rig. It moves up and down and slightly front to back as one walks. It also pivots a little bit as well. One the base motion of the hips is figured out, then you start working on the legs, keeping in mind the same principles as a 2D cycle. After the feet pivot and move correctly, the next part is the front and back motion of the spine. After all, your spine is continually absorbing the shock of walking and therefore springs back a bit. After all that, you get something that looks like this:

Looks good from this view, but what about the front? As a person walks, their hips shift up and down depending on which leg is bearing the weight. In addition, the shoulders counteract the movement of the hips:

Voila! The legs and torso are animated. Now you can take a look at how it is in full perspective:

This is a complicated process but it is fun to see the end result. That's it for this week. Next time, the arms start swinging.


I hope to be able to do something like this some day

Human Head in Value

Thankfully we only had to focus on doing one long drawing of the human head in value this week. It is helpful to only have to focus on one drawing because I feel like I can slow down and really take my time on it. Last week I felt rushed to get it done and just did a sloppy job.


The Alive Ball: Now In Glorious 3D!

You may remember my Alive Ball assignment from earlier in the semester. Our assignment for this week was, again, to create a ball that moved and thought of it's own free will. After a bit of pondering on antics, I eventually came up with the Magnificent Balzini:

It's a sad day to be an animated ball in my world.

I'm lucky that I knew how to do a few things in other 3D programs, because I don't think my idea would have worked without that knowledge. Maya is still a huge learning curve for me and it makes my head want to explode on occasion, but I can see why it is so powerful. I just wish they would make it prettier.


Finally, some G-Rated drawings

This week we just had to focus on drawing the head, which was quite enjoyable. I doodle little faces in my sketchbook all the time, so it is nice to finally render one out. When doing shading on the head, you have to think of the head as divided into planes where the light will reflect off of one more than the others.

My proportions aren't great on these in relation to what they really should be, but I enjoyed it all anyway:

And this assignment is one that you can safely show the grandkids without censoring.


What Doesn't Kill You...

Apparently I misread some text concerning our assignment. The two balls were apparently supposed to touch at some point during the animation. A classmate pointed this out to me. Once again, I am thankful for computerized animation because making an edit is one hundred times easier than hand drawn animation. All I had to do was go into the graph editor, change a few values, move the keys in time, and I got the following animation:

I have an affinity for things going splat. It seems to be a common theme in my stuff.

They Might Be Deaf...

First came the pumpkins. Next came the concert.

Even though these have already been posted on Facebook, I felt like posting them here. The concert was fantastic and I had a great evening with my good old friends Jordan, Matt, and Philip. Matt was kind enough to take some photos with his iPhone:
Misters Flansburgh and Linnel.
I got to stand about this close to the stage the whole night. It was awesome.
You'll never see anyone rock on the accordion quite like John Linnel.
The band now consists of three other fantastic musicians that regularly tour with them: Dan Miller (guitar & keyboards), Dan Weinkauf (bass and wicked soul patch), and Marty Beller (king of the drums). Touring with them for the special Flood Show was Ralph Carney, the guy in the back of this photo who played various wind instruments.
For being a little bit of a portly guy, John Flansburgh can really rock on the guitar!
The most amazing part of the show is where they showered the audience with a steady stream of confetti for about twenty seconds straight. I've never seen that much confetti all at once in my entire life.
A fantastic time was had by all (even the drunk guy who bootlegged the whole concert on his Palm Pre). I hope to be able to see them again in the future.

Into the Great Beyond: Bouncing a Few Balls in Maya

Well, it's finally here! The time when we finally get to jump into the 3D realm and into (da da da daaaaaa) Autodesk Maya! Now I just have to figure out what to do with a whole ream of left over animation paper...

Maya is considered the industry standard 3D animation and modeling program for entertainment. There are other ones such as 3D Studio Max, SoftImage, Cinema 4D (my personal favorite), and Lightwave 3D, but pretty much all of them do about the same thing, just in different ways. I haven't ever used Maya before, but most of these applications are pretty much the same in their approach. That being said, the user interface for Maya is a ton more daunting to look at than anything I've ever done before:

Are you scared? Because I was petrified the first time I opened it up on my computer! However, after a few helpful tips, I was on my way to working on my first assignment. The first thing we were to work on was a 3D version of our previous assignment of two bouncing balls with different weights. This time, both balls had to be in the same scene, but the principles were the same.

One way to animate this would be the same way I did the stop motion animation, one frame at a time. The thing to remember about computer animation is that it is all on ones, 24 frames per second! I like to think of the computer as a big, expensive pencil. It can't think for itself (although it can run simulations...), so you have to do the thinking and use it to do what you want it to. However, I don't want to animate on ones ever again if I can help it. That's where the wonderful magic of the graph editor comes into play:

The first time calculus actually made sense is when I opened up one of these in Cinema 4D. This allows visual and mathematical control over all of your animations. In the above image, you can see that I have a graphical representation of the position of the smaller ball in Y-Space (the up and down direction) in relation to the origin. There are little tiny yellow dots, called 'keys', which are essentially your saved positions in time. The white line represents the transition from one key to another. You can adjust the little handles off the keys to change the slope of the transition. The steeper the slope, the faster an object will change in value; in this case it will affect the velocity up or down. In this case, I want the ball to continually bounce until the end of the animation, slowly losing energy after every bounce.

I'm so glad that I had a background in this area, because it made all the difference in the world in the end. One of the great things about computer animation in general is that your playback is instantaneous. You can immediately see the results of your work without having to set up and shoot all the frames in a sequence. The edits are just as fast as well! Don't like how a key looks? Just move it or type in a new value! It's that easy! Here is a quick preview of what it looks like in the animation editor:

Not too pretty, but you get the idea of the motion. Most animators won't see their work during production get past this stage because there are a lot more steps to get it textured, lit, and rendered out. Computer hardware has progressed fairly far to date, even to the point where you can get a general idea of what the textures and shadows will look like once something is rendered. Here is an example of what the above scene looks like with hardware accelerated textures and shadows:

It's getting a little better then. You can see if the balls cast strange shadows or not or tell if a texture looks kind of funky. This is about the level that most video games render to in real time, although things are advancing at a rapid rate.

The final step is to render it all out with full shadows, textures, and motion blur. This is one of the last steps in the pipeline and for a typical feature film, one frame can take from 24 to 48 hours to fully render. (So you can see why they want to get things right the first time!) I don't have to take things to this level for this class since we want to focus just on motion, but I'm an overachiever! I'm starting to get the hang of a few things in Maya, but I already know that I've got a lot to learn...