A first concept for Thor’s head

This entry is part 1 of 15 in the series Building Odd and the Frost Giants

For the next little while, I’ll be doing periodic posts about creating the puppets for a production of Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants at Stages Theatre in Houston Texas.  Most of these posts are actually going to be written for Rob Kimbro, the playwright and director of the show, as well as the rest of the design team but we thought that you might be interested in following along as well.

Because Odd is the son of a woodcarver and a pretty good hand at carving wood himself, my inclination is to use wood for the puppets.  At first glance, this didn’t seem feasible because wood is heavy and it is labor-intensive to create.  The weight is a serious issue.  While it is possible to paint something with very realistic woodgrain, that adds to the labor involved in creating the piece.  Because we will probably need multiple versions of some of the figures, I wanted to avoid a style that would be too expensive to make duplicates of.

The approach that I’m suggesting is to use Albrecht Roser’s paper folding technique with wood veneer. This should give us a beautiful woodgrain finish with very, very lightweight figures.  The style is also naturally stripped down and spare which I think lends itself to the Nordic landscape of the story.

As a trial, I’ve taken a stab at the bear’s head.

I was surprised when I started working on this to realize that Thor was a brown bear. Being in Norway, I was expecting a polar bear and I was so wrong. Norway has brown bears. One of the immediate problems are going to be those adorable ears. It will be difficult to avoid making them seem cute.

Thor is not cute.

I first start by drawing an actual bear head and then clean up the lines to a point that I think I can recreate it in paper.  You can’t see it but there was a lot of erasing going on with the page.

I’m trying to position the ears laid back against the head to make him a bit more formidable but am not happy with them.  I’ll probably wind up fiddling a lot when it’s in three dimensions.

Here’s a check to see if I can get the basic shape. This is only the top half of the bear’s head because I need a bigger sheet of paper. Still it’s enough for me to see that the form is possible with the paper-folding technique.

From here I’m going to move on to concepts for the full figure of the puppet before going back to work on Loki and Odin.

Thor’s body and playing with Loki’s face

This entry is part 2 of 15 in the series Building Odd and the Frost Giants

I’ve been researching material options today as well as looking at Thor’s body. I spent a little while also trying a couple of patterns for Loki’s face, so allow me to show you my progress and thinking to date.

The idea with this one is to create a lightweight rib structure of polyethylene foam and drape it with muslin dyed to match the wood. Over the entire structure, I’d stitch strips of PaperWood, which is a thin veneer backed by paper. I love the way this would look, but suspect that it would be unconscionably loud.

Pretty, but probably not actually viable. I’m going to look at cloth to see if there is anything with a wood grain look that might provide a similar look without the sound. Continue reading ›

Demo of Loki puppet for auditions

This entry is part 3 of 15 in the series Building Odd and the Frost Giants

I wrote this up for Rob Kimbro, the director of Odd and the Frost Giants. He is auditioning actors and needs a rehearsal puppet.

Loki is a very simple rod puppet. He has a rod in the head, a flexible foam body, and a rod in the tail.

The puppeteer stands in full view of the audience to manipulate the puppet.  Because the figure has no legs, it can play in the air without raising the question “What is it standing on?”  Or at least, this won’t be a problem if it is clearly established that the figure is “walking” by means of the movement choices. Continue reading ›

Odin’s concept and paper trials.

This entry is part 4 of 15 in the series Building Odd and the Frost Giants

Here’s the rough design concept for the Odin puppet for the Stages Repertory Theater production of Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants.

Odin was surprisingly difficult to design in this aesthetic and have him not look either cute or like Sam the Eagle. Really, I was annoyed by how hard this was.  You can see one of my failures in the upper part of the page.

What I finally came up with is a very stripped down bird.  Among other decisions, I’ve decided to simplify the body. I basically gutted the body so that Odin is a head, wings with only a reference to a tail.

Where the wings meet gives the impression of body, but there’s not actually anything there.

I also stuck him on a stick, which I think will work nicely.

The concept is that he’ll be on top of a staff which the puppeteer can treat as though Odin has alighted on a tree.  Odin’s neutral position will be in flight mode, so perpendicular to the staff.

When the puppeteer is performing him, he’ll use a rod on the back of Odin’s head to hold the puppet in an upright position and look around.  When Odin flies, the puppeteer will let go of the head rod and use the length of the staff to get the entire figure way up in the air.

Here’s my trial of the head in paper. I’m still not totally happy with this but it’s good enough to put something together for a rehearsal puppet while I continue to tweak the design.

I have one thing on here that I doubt I can do with the wood veneer.  That hard crease at the beak? Yeah… It’s likely that it will crack when I try to do the fold. But it has such nice depth from the front that I’m going to give it a try anyway. I’ll probably have to build that as two separate pieces.

There’s a saying in theater that if you can’t fix it, feature it. So I’ll probably feature this by using a different color of veneer for the beak.

And this is the blind side of Odin.  Incidentally, I was going to give a soft impression of eyes, instead of a strong focus.  Odin’s missing eye is the the reason that all the puppets will have eyes. You can’t show that an eye is missing on one character if no one has them.

Next up: Full scale drawings.

Odin assembly: Photos from Odd and the Frost Giants

This entry is part 5 of 15 in the series Building Odd and the Frost Giants

Sorry for the terrible photo. The pencil lines were too light to pick up and I was too lazy to go back and redraw it so you can see it. BUT this is the full scale side view of Odin as an eagle.  You can see that I use two different colors of pencil. The blue is what things look like in the standard operating position.

The orange is what I call “flight mode.”

Odin is attached to the end of a staff which can act as a perch or be hoisted into the air to get greater height.  When it’s in the air, the puppet will be unattended, so I needed ways to make sure that it stayed in a clean line but still had free movement when it was at standard operating height.

Interestingly enough, I wound up having to deviate from the plan a little once I got the puppet assembled. I couldn’t find some of the materials I’d planned on using so had to go with Plan B.

I had already worked out the pattern for the puppet’s head, so I lay it on a sheet of birch veneer. See the nice big open section of the grain at the top? I positioned the pattern on that so it was on the crown of Odin’s head and the pointing part was on his beak.

One of the things that is fun about veneer is playing with the natural textures of the wood. Continue reading ›

Assembling Thor for Odd and the Frost Giants

This entry is part 6 of 15 in the series Building Odd and the Frost Giants

On Friday I had two visitors from Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston to take a look at the puppets for their adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants. Rob Kimbro, the director and man who did the adaptation, and Jodi Bobrovsky, the props master for Stages, came to look at the rehearsal puppets and talk about plans for moving forward.

I’d worked with Rob before at McCarter Theatre on The Tempest: A Puppet Play and he’s remained one of my favorite people to work with. Jodi and I met for the first time this weekend and seem to be kindred spirits. At one point we were comparing the various dead dogs we’ve made.

Part of the goal of the weekend was to have Rob and Jodi help with the assembly of the rehearsal puppets so that if they break in rehearsal — which they will — they had an understanding of how the puppets worked so that they could fix them.

This is the downside of working remotely. I can’t be on hand to make repairs. Having someone like Jodi there is a luxury.

Anyway. I had done drawings of everything and had the eagle ready and Loki well on his way.  Thor, on the other hand, remained a drawing on the wall AND I’d lost the pattern for his head.

Due to various time elements, I wasn’t able to pick up the foam for Thor until the morning that Rob and Jodi arrived. We all knew this was the case, but it still made me nervous.

I gave Jodi the task of taking my drawing and turning cutting everything out of the foam.  I had the side view drawn but still needed to do the top and front views. Fortunately, she’s amazing and was able to work from my hastily drawn top.  It’s nice when I can draw something and say, “Like this, only symmetrical” and know it will happen.  We mocked the body up in cardboard first because I was nervous about size. I wanted it to be big, but I didn’t want the puppeteer to have to be working at full extension. Continue reading ›

Assembling rehearsal Loki for Odd and the Frost Giants.

This entry is part 7 of 15 in the series Building Odd and the Frost Giants

While we were working on Loki, we kept joking that he looked like an alien caterpillar.  Here is Jodi in front of the designs for Loki holding the naked puppet.  In her right hand is the basswood control for the puppet’s head, minus the head.

Her right hand is holding his hindquarters.

The puppet has vertebra and ribs made out of a polyethelene. Rob Kimbro cut those out using the bandsaw and an electric carving knife. You know, the type for carving turkeys. Continue reading ›

Odd – Set Model!

This entry is part 8 of 15 in the series Building Odd and the Frost Giants

Hello!  This is Rob Kimbro, adapter and director for Odd and the Frost Giants, guest blogging from Houston.  The peeks that Mary’s given us on the blog into the puppet design process have been very useful to us at Stages.  And now I get to return the favor a bit.  The show is now cast and we’ll be starting rehearsal on Monday.  Today I met with Mike Mullins, set designer, and Jodi Bobrovski, props master (who has appeared on this blog before) for an update on those aspects of the show.  And I came away with some digital pics of the “white model” of the set.  Which is just what it sounds like – a scale model, but without any color treatment.

One of the challenges in presenting the story on stage is how to present Odd’s journey.  He goes from the village to the woods to a frozen waterfall across the rainbow bridge to the forests of Asgard to the walls of the city itself to Odin’s hall and back to the village again.  Representing all that in a concrete way would involve a lot of shifting around of trees and walls and furniture (and magical rainbows).  Instead, we’re picking up on something Thor says at the very end of the show:  “When I tell this story, there will be at least a dozen [Frost Giants]”

Our concept is that the audience is in a Viking hall, hearing the story of Odd and how he drove the Frost Giants out of Asgard.  And we’re always in that hall, even when the story is in the woods or on the rainbow bridge.  So the space is going to be decorated with Viking shields and the prows of old dragon ships.  There’s one stone wall on the upstage side of this 3/4 round space.  In my mind, it’s the wall the hall shares with the outer wall of the Viking stronghold.  Of course, in the story, it becomes the Wall of Asgard.

Here’s a photo of the model.  The outline on the wall will not be nearly so visible in the real thing – it’s a seam that will be concealed in the lines of a rough stone wall.  The camera’s perspective is that of an audience member in the center section.  You can see the stage right seating area on the left side of the photo.  That round thing in the middle will be both Mimir’s Well and all the various fire pits in the story.

normal configuration

So what’s going on with that outline on the wall, you’re wondering?  Well, in a way, it’s the largest puppet in the show.  When the giant picks Odd up during their confrontation, the Wall transforms into the face of the Giant:

Giant configuration

This is a different angle – looking down on the set from above.  In this configuration, a section of the wall has folded down to reveal a “hand” wagon that Odd will stand on.  At the same time, the outline above has pushed out to create a craggy set of brows and a nose.  And we have our giant.

There’s more information about the show on the @Stages blog – I’ve done a couple of posts on the story.  The most recent explains the great advantage the Norse myths have over the Greek, from a storytelling point of view. There should be a new one soon about Thor as a character, including my retelling of Thor’s fishing trip.  I’m hoping to do a post like that for each of the three transformed Gods.  Maybe Freya, too.  And there’s information on the production at the main Stages site, too.  For those of you in the Houston area, tickets to the 3 Saturday performances are now on sale.  You can call the box office or order directly online here.


Loki’s face, take one

This entry is part 9 of 15 in the series Building Odd and the Frost Giants

Today I assembled Loki’s face for the Odd and the Frost Giants production and, unsurprisingly, it didn’t go well. He is the god of mischief after all.

I had the pattern that I’d worked out for the rehearsal puppets. When I cut it out of the watercolor paper, it looked slightly odd. so I decided to go ahead and assemble the face in paper to remind myself of what I’d done.

While I know that I’d made the decision to have an asymmetrical face, I was no longer happy with it so decided to balance the two sides and lay it out at a slight angle on the wood so that the grain would give the impression of a lopsided face without actually building it that way.  After I traced the main part of the face, I had some trouble getting the marks for scoring to show up. Normally, I press down on the line and it transfers to the paper.  Wood veneer is not so simple.

So I poked holes in the pattern with a small nail and then used a pencil to draw dots on the veneer.  Without the paper in place, it is easier to see what I mean about the slight angle of the grain.

Normally I score paper with a bone folder, but the woodgrain requires me to very, very lightly score the surface with an Exacto knife.  Even with that, I have to soak the skin in hot water to make it pliable enough to bend.  After the first soaking, Loki’s upper lip was too stiff to make a bend that I wanted so I had to toss him back into the water. He spent a lot of time bathing for this process.

To hold the head together, I used a combination of spring clips, tin foil and a vise.  The challenge is that while he is wet enough to bend easily, he is too wet for anything to adhere to. So I have to get him into approximately the right position and then wait for the surface to dry enough to take tape or glue but before it gets so dry that I can’t bend him.  It’s a very narrow window of time.  During the process of assembling him, I realized I’d gone through the snout with the scoring.  Although I was able to patch that spot, another tear happened on his right cheek that wasn’t repairable.

After looking at him, I think that the pattern is flawed. It’s a challenging set of folds to begin with and meant for a more pliable medium than wood veneer. I’m going to spend today working out a simpler paper pattern and then trying again with another piece of veneer.

Just by way of comparison, I worked out the pattern for Thor’s head with only two attempts. Odin’s head also took about two tries.  This will be my eighth attempt at a pattern for Loki’s head.  God of Mischief indeed.

Would you like to visit me and see some puppets?

This entry is part 11 of 15 in the series Building Odd and the Frost Giants

I will do process posts when I get home. Promise.  Right now though I have a small invitation for folks based in Houston.

Would you like to come see puppets Thursday?

I can host a small group (no more than 5 to 10 people)  for about forty-five minutes at 4:30. After that, I have to go into a production meeting.

So if you are curious about what I’ve been building for Odd and the Frost Giants, RSVP in the comments on my website.  I will email you with instructions on where to come.

Heading home, with pictures of the puppets

This entry is part 12 of 15 in the series Building Odd and the Frost Giants

I’m heading home after a very productive week working on Odd and the Frost Giants for Stages Theater in Houston.  I should note that if you want to see the show, most of the performances are for schools.

There are only three public performances.  It’s a small theater and I suspect the show will sell out. I’d recommend getting tickets early.

I alternated between doing finish work on the puppets during the day and rehearsal with the cast in the evening.  I’m very proud of the work the cast put in.

They had never worked puppets before and were really game about trying things.  We started with a very fast puppetry 101 session and then started working on how to use body language to express.

The rest of the week we worked specific scenes, refining their movement choices.  As the week progressed it was exciting to see them begin to apply the physical vocabulary from one scene into others.

As you can see, the puppets are very different in how they work, although they all use the same principles of puppetry to communicate through movement.  The biggest challenge at the beginning was getting them to take risks. They were afraid that they would break the puppets. By the end of the week, Thor was chasing Loki around the stage.

As I said, I’m very proud of them.

I think it is going to be a darn fine show and encourage anyone within driving distance to head over to see it.

A Peek at Odd rehearsal

This entry is part 13 of 15 in the series Building Odd and the Frost Giants

So, Asgard, City of the Gods . . .

While Mary’s off in Seattle, I thought I’d offer up a little content from Houston  – a peek at Odd and the Frost Giants rehearsals as we approach our May 3 opening.  Or, more accurately,  a peek at a photo shoot we did for the Free Press Houston last night before working on the first half of the show.


Loki’s costume was the most finished, so we shot Loki/Odd stuff.  Odin and I took these photos as the professional photographer was setting up and doing his thing.

What's that you've got there?

Conveniently, I’ve just added a post about Loki over on the Stages education blog – including my retelling of the story of how Asgard’s Wall was built and how Odin got his unusual steed.

We’ve missed Mary in rehearsal this week – it was so much fun working on puppets together last week.  But the cast continues to do great work.  I found myself last night giving notes directly to the bear.  He took them, too.  We’ve got massive technical rehearsals coming up on Sunday and Monday and then a slightly more relaxed few days of rehearsal while the show that makes up the other half of the rep previews and opens.  Then a little brush-up tech and dress and the first student groups arrive on May 3.

A reminder for those of you in the Houston area.  There are only 3 public performances – May 7, 14, and 21 at 2pm.  The rest of the shows are 10am weekday matinees for school groups and homeschoolers.  Tickets are on sale now at 713.527.0123 or on the Stages website.  If you’re interested in coming to a student matinee, contact Eva LaPorte at 713.527.0220 x223 or elaporte@stagestheatre.com
-Rob Kimbro, director of Odd and the Frost Giants

Tech rehearsal – just pictures

This entry is part 14 of 15 in the series Building Odd and the Frost Giants

I wish I were in Houston with the rest of the Odd and the Frost Giant team, but director Rob Kimbro has some photos to with you.

Too tired to provide any sort of commentary or context here other than to say that we have dress rehearsal tomorrow and the first student matinee Tuesday morning.

Since he’s wiped out, I’m going to just write down my reactions to the photos. This is the first time I’m seeing them too. SO excited!

First up, the Wall at Asgard

The Wall

To which I say, yowza, that’s some gorgeous forced perspective there. The hand also looks amazing. That’s when the wall turns into the giant. Such a cool idea. Continue reading ›

Odd and the Frost Giants – Up and Running

This entry is part 15 of 15 in the series Building Odd and the Frost Giants

Guest post by Rob Kimbro

We opened Odd and the Frost Giants on Tuesday morning with a great show in front of a wonderful crowd from Briscoe Jr. High.  This morning we had our first elementary-age audience – 150 or so first graders.  Definitely a different energy with that age.  Various jokes and moments in the show work differently.  The older crowds love it when the Frost Giant, disguised as a beautiful maid, tricks Loki into stealing Mjolnir for him.  The younger group loved it when Thor declares that the animals couldn’t have been arguing “because we can’t talk! . . . Oops.”  Every audience so far has loved the puppets.  You can hear the excitement when they appear at curtain call.  (Each puppet gets a quick bow, followed by a bow from the actor.)  We’re looking forward to the first all-ages show tomorrow afternoon.

If you’re in the Houston area, there are still tickets available for all three public performances.  You can get them on Stages’ website.  If Houston’s a bit too far away, please feel free to mention the show to your local young audiences theatre companies.  I’d love to see this script done other places.  And, in the meantime, here’s a gallery of photos from dress rehearsal and one from after today’s performance, when a young audience member got to chat a bit with the bear.

-Rob Kimbro, director/adapter of Odd and the Frost Giants