Posts Tagged ‘Puppetry’

UNIMA World Puppet Festival 2008

I know some of you are in Australia, but I’m not sure which parts. You must, MUST, take advantage of the Unima World Puppet Festival in 2008. UNIMA is the international puppetry organization. It is the oldest continually operating arts organization in the world. This festival will have shit-hot puppetry at it. Man, I wish I could go.

No need for wings, after all

The theater decided to move the dress rehearsal up a day, as in tomorrow. I explained that it was impossible to have the wings built and installed in the dress–which the designer also knew–by tomorrow. So, they are going to cut the puppetry wings.

le sigh…

Coraline’s torso

Base of shoulder patternOnce again, I return to the drawing. This is one of the places that I took a shortcut. Were I in a studio, I would have done a top-down view of Coraline in addition to the front and side to make it easier to delegate construction.

Using the front and side view, I get the measurements for the torso at its widest point. I then create a cross-section which will serve as the base of the shoulder piece.

Base of shoulderFrom here I have to piece the shoulder together, much the way a dress maker might drape fabric. I started with a simple band to define her chest.

Pieced together shouldersI tape and glue pieces together to get the shape that I want. I’ve built these before, so I knew roughly what I needed the individual pieces to look like. I will say though, that the watercolor paper is a heck of a late easier to manipulate than cardboard.

Size check with shoulder Once I had the piece I did a size check to make sure that the neck fit into it appropriately.

Cut apart shoulder to create patternThen I cut apart this thing I’d so laboriously created so that I could make a flat pattern. I spend a lot of time building things and then taking them apart to make patterns.

Tracing shoulderI cut the pattern in half and use that to create the final pattern for symmetricality. We don’t want Coraline to be hunch-backed.

Taped together shouldersI double-check to make sure that, yes, the pattern really does work by taping the unit together. And another hearty, whew. It does.

Adding Linden tape to shoulderIf the shoulders were going to be bare and in view, I would be using paper to seal the joints, the way I did on the face. But, that way is hard, time-consuming and isn’t any stronger than other options. It just gives the cleanest seam. Instead, I’m using Linden tape to tape the thing together. It gets tape inside and out.

Linden TapeLinden tape is normally used for mounting pictures. It’s very fine cloth tape. For my purposes it’s great because it drapes around corners well and is archival quality so I don’t have to worry about her turning yellow and brittle.

I Zap the tape to create a very lightweight and rigid seal.This is a trick I picked up from Marty Robinson, who might have invented it. I use Zap, though any super glue will work, to make the cloth rigid. It’s like mini-fiberglass–superlightweight and stiff. This gives me a really nice seam that won’t flex out of shape.

And yes, before I’m finished, I will have glued my fingers to at least one of the puppets.

My drying rackIf you try this at home, please for the love of Pete, use adequate ventilation. Most glues, no matter what they say, have some level of toxicity. This is my crappy drying rack where I’m attempting to push the fumes out of the room. I should be using a ventilator hood, but I don’t have one. When I build the whole set of these, because I’ll be using a lot of glue all at once, assembly-line style, I’ll head down to the Puppet Kitchen.

Linden tape on hipsI repeat the process on the hips. I didn’t take photos of the hip patterning because it’s a much simpler unit. That and I figure you get the idea.

Installing an aluminum rod in hipsThe hips do differ in one important way. Inside, where I will attach the legs to the torso, I put a small piece of aluminum rod. The legs basically get sewn to the hips and would pull right through the paper. By sending my thread around the rod, it’ll keep that from happening.

Aluminum rod zapped into placeI threw a piece of linden tap down and zapped it into place. See how it goes transclucent? Neat, huh.

Trimming the foam abdomenFor her abdomen, I’m using a reticulated foam. This is what Muppets are made out of. It’s lightweight, holds its shape and is easier to work with than the upholstery foam that you might buy at a fabric store. For the record? Upholstery foam sucks. Just so you know.

The type of reticulated foam I use is called Dri-Fast and it is designed for outdoor furniture. This means that, not only does it let sweat pass through it like rain, it also doesn’t oxidize and crumble as quickly as upholstery foam. The downside to it is that it doesn’t take dye, which is not an issue in this project.

Enough foam digression. I use a turkey carving knife to trim the foam. I love these things. They slice through foam like it’s…turkey.

The glues I useI glued the foam in place using hotglue. Just for kicks, I took a photo of all the glues I’ve used on this project. (I used the 3M 90 to glue the foam to itself to make the tube.)

Size check, sideMy size check for the side shows that Coraline has a little back fat, so I trimmed that with the carving knife.

Size check frontAnd the front checks out just about perfect. Incidentally, you’ll notice that she only have one hand on. I actually just taped that into place as part of the size check. I won’t attach the hands for real until after I clothe her.

You know how babies’ hands get stuck in their shirt when you are trying to dress them, because they don’t know how to keep their fingers together? Yeah. Dressing a puppet is a lot like that, but I have the option of taking their hands off and putting them on afterwards.

Coraline’s arms

I started making Coraline’s body. I’m going to walk you through the process to make an arm; the rest of the body follows pretty similar principals. To start with, I take the initial scale drawing that I did of Coraline and turn it into a technical drawing. Which is to say that I decide where the joints will be, how she will be jointed and things like that.

Coraline scale drawing
Coraline Scale Drawing
Coraline Body Pattern
Technical Breakdown

If I were working in a shop, I would get more detailed than this because I would be prepping it to delegate some of the tasks. Since I’m doing the entire build, I’m doing a bit of short hand here. This is a style of body that I build a lot, so the only real differences are in scale. Usually my puppets are around three feet tall, but Coraline is only sixteen inches. That scale difference means that instead of using cardboard reinforced with papier mache for the limbs, I’ll be using watercolor paper.

I did a test with a wood arm from a marionette that happens to be Coraline’s size. If this were a stage production, I would use the wood arm, because the paper will be too light for performance. While I strive to have very light puppets, at a certain point a puppet can become too light and reveal every tremor of the puppeteer’s hand. In fact, I first learned this paper construction from a set of paper marionettes my mentor (Peter Hart, at the Center for Puppetry Arts) used for training. If they were not manipulated exactly right, every error showed.

But, these Coralines are not for performance; they are for display and will be viewed up close. There’s a saying “forty feet on a galloping horse” which means that anything you wouldn’t notice from that vantage won’t show up to the audience. There’s no horse, and Coraline is up close. The wood arm looks so incongruous next to the face that it just won’t fly. She will be made almost entirely out of paper, except for her torso, where I will switch to a reticulated foam.

Arm patterns I made a copy of the drawing and cut out the front and side views of the arm pieces. From these, I created patterns of the pieces of the arms. Normally, I cut slots in the cardboard and fit them together like a paper doll’s stand. Slot A into Tab B and all that. The arms are so tiny that it simply isn’t an option, so instead I’m laminating the cross-members on with an extra tab. That means that each arm has six internal “bones,” instead of the usual four.

Scale check, head and arms

Once I had the upper and lower arm assembled, I placed them on my drawing to check for scale. Whew. This is the reason that one does drawings, by the way. Nothing sucks quite as much as making two beautiful body parts and realizing that they aren’t in the same scale.

Arm with joint half installedFor the joint, I’m using ribbon. Again, normally I’d be using canvas or nylon strap, but she’s wee. Each joint has ribbon in the front and the back. The goal is to have a clean bend, without restrictions, that doesn’t twist. You know, like an actual elbow.

Arm with joint and stop installedA flat piece of paper goes at the top of the arm to serve as a stop. I don’t want the arm to hyper-extend, so when the upper arm’s bone strikes the stop, it will stay at a natural angle.

Arm check for placementI put the assembled arm back on the drawing to make sure there aren’t any surprises. Woe. The angle of the elbow and stop doesn’t allow the arm to straighten quite enough. This means that I have to adjust the pattern.

Right around here, I did question myself because, as I’ve mentioned before, no one will perform with these. It’s hard though to see something that is not right and leave it.

Trimming the patternThis photo is just here to give you a sense of scale. See that tiny, tiny piece of paper next to my finger? That’s all I had to trim to make the arm hang right. Working at this size, every millimeter counts. When Bill Schafer approached me originally, he asked for ten inch dolls. I countered with sixteen, because, dang, that would have been hard.

Arm Her skin is also watercolor paper. You’ll note that one side of this piece is torn. That’s because I won’t be able to get inside the puppet to glue the pieces together with a scab as I normally do. By deckling the edge of the paper, I’ll be able to blend it a little. It’s like a single thick piece of papier-mache.

Bending the paperAnd thick is the operative word. To get it to bend smoothly, I use the bone folder, much the way you might use the edge of scissors to get a curl on a ribbon. If I tried to roll it into a tube without this step, I’d get ugly creases. I could also soften it with water to bend it, but then the glue wouldn’t hold because, well, it would be wet.

Attaching the skinI glue the cut edge to the interior of the arm. I’ve switched to hotglue for this.

By the way, not all hot glue is created equal. I use a really beefy hi-strength glue. The clear whitish plastic stuff is garbage. Don’t use it for anything that needs to actually hold.

Inner seamYou see how the paper sort of blends on the arm? I put the seam on the inner arm, because it’s the least likely to show.

completed arm
And here is the completed arm. Most of the skin won’t show, in fact, the upper arm skin is there just for strength.

I will now repeat this process with her legs.

When I get everything patterned, I’ll trace the patterns onto a sheet of watercolor paper. Then I’ll stack 6 sheets of the watercolor paper together, lightly tack them with glue, and cut all her limbs out in one go with a fine blade on the bandsaw.

I love my bandsaw.

Coraline in color

Coraline in colorI did a color test on the botched head. The painterly quality tends to hide the glue spots, which is a bonus. Unfortunately, the hard line under her mouth shows where I didn’t get the seam tight enough.

I’ll let you in on a secret. Coraline only has one ear. The way her hair is done, only one shows so there just wasn’t a reason to put the other one on.

Her paint is asymmetrical, partly because I want to match Mr. McKean’s art, but also because I don’t like symmetry in puppets. It is unnatural. Sure, people are mostly symmetrical, but not totally. For instance, my nose pulls to the left. One of my eyes is bigger than the other. If you look in the mirror, you’ll spot all the variations in your own face.

More importantly, though, creating an asymmetrical face gives the illusion of life to a character, because the audience thinks they see the face change expression. Most of the time a face can be wildly asymmetrical and the audience won’t notice — but they will respond to the “changing” expressions on the character’s face.

This is the last of the head posts for awhile. I’m moving to the body next and will come back to the heads when I’m building the finals.

Go see Stardust

I’ve returned from a preview screening of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust–tickets provided by the fabulous Livia Llewellyn. Since I got out of the theater, I’ve been wanting to go back. When was the last time that happened to me?

Princess Bride? Goya in Bordeaux? But since then… I can’t remember one.

I don’t want to gush too much, because part of the joy of the film is the discovery. The actors are all strong, particularly Charlie Cox as Tristan. Male ingénues are so hard to play and he is spot on perfect. Normally I link to trailers and what not, but don’t–try not to see a trailer before you go in to watch the film. And do go, tomorrow. Don’t wait. It’s not that there are enormous spoilers, but there are surprises and moments of wonderful ah-ha! waiting for you at every turn in Stardust, and yet it all makes sense and is inevitable. Oh, it’s just wonderful. Go.

I’ll see you there. Partly because I want to see it again and sink back into the world, and partly because I want this film to have a really strong opening weekend so that there will be more.

There’s a funny sort of symmetry for me about seeing this film while I’m making the Coraline puppet. The first time I performed in NYC, was with our production of Old Man Who Made Trees Blossom at Here Theater. The puppets are made out of paper–it’s a different technique than the one I’m using now, but still, it’s the first time I used washi paper on a puppet. One of the other performers loaned me a copy of the ARC (advanced review copy) of Stardust–and behold, here I was tonight at an advanced screening. Funny how things work out.

Edited to add: I forgot to mention that large parts of the movie were filmed in Iceland. If you want to understand, really, why I want to move back…

Coraline’s face

I mentioned that I am using a German paper-folding technique, created by Albrecht Roser, to create the Coraline face. As it happens, I have a pattern and instructions for a face up at my puppet company’s website. If you want to play along at home. It’s for Gerta from the Snow Queen.

Beginning curves I start off using some lightweight bristol board. The finished face will be made from Arches 140lb coldpressed watercolour paper, but as I’m trying to find the pattern, I use the cheap stuff. A t-cut up the bottom middle of the page defines the bottom of the nose. Two more cuts in from the sides help me shape the eyes. The important thing, at this point, is the line that I score into the face with a bone paper folder–yes, it is actually made of bone. This line defines the brow and line of the nose.

Rough draft head I cut and tape until I get a head pattern that I roughly like. In this case, I did about three versions, moving the line of the eyes down farther each time, before I got one that was reasonably close to the face I’m aiming for.

Rough patternAt this point, I cut the head apart on the lines. I then slice it down the middle and pick the side that is closest to what I want the finished product to be to use a my pattern. I trace the pattern on a new piece of bristol and then cut it out again. For this effort, I’m just taping it together inside, but the final one will have papier-mache on the interior to reinforce. I have touring puppets that I’ve made using this technique which are astoundingly sturdy.

Coraline illustration by Dave McKean
Coraline illustration by Dave McKean
Coraline 1st draft head
1st draft Coraline head

It’s not a bad head, but there are a number of things to adjust. The line of the brow as it wraps under the eye needs to curve up more. The chin is too pointed and overall, the face is too long. And of course, the mouth. I will probably scale this head up to sort out the mouth and then reduce it again. One of the beauties of this technique is that the patterns scale so very, very easily.

Yet more sayings from work

What we say.

  1. I think we’re going to have to rip their spines out.
  2. Want to try on my beaver?
  3. Man. That’s a seriously long rod
  4. The chicken lady isn’t safe around other puppets
  5. What am I supposed to do with this extra head?
  6. The beaver was too tight for him
  7. Look! Spanking the monkey works best.
  8. I can’t find his other leg
  9. I’ve done a lot of dogs.
  10. I need a better vice

What it really means.

  1. The monkeys for Serendib need to have the spring steel in their spines replaced.
  2. I made a beaver costume and was selling it
  3. A rod puppet with a six foot rod.
  4. A marionette was infested by bugs
  5. I was selling off stuff from my workshop and had a couple of plaster heads
  6. Same beaver costume
  7. We were trying to come up with the best movement for the Serendib monkey puppets and, indeed, spanking the monkey did it.
  8. After we moved, one of the puppets I brought with me was missing a leg.
  9. We were talking about roles, and I can generate almost a whole page of dog roles for my resume
  10. While bending some wire, I was coveting a colleague’s very hefty desk vice, mine is a small pony vice which is just barely adequate for work.

And the day started so nicely.

What a day. I’ll all in.

We started by having brunch with fab girl, her friend Leslie, Jodi and Jed at Cafe Deville. It’s a nice big open space with good food, but the service was questionable. We kept having to send water glasses away because they had floaters in them. Ugh.

After that, Rob and I spent a couple of hours tromping around to various paper and art supply stores looking for the paperwood I want for my laptop’s space bar. No luck. I finally picked up a piece of thin birch ply for model airplanes. I’ve found paperwood online, but there keep being minimum orders and, you know, I want to test it first. It’s very frustrating. If you know a store that carries it, do let me know.

Giving up on that, we headed to Home Depot to pick up paint for the living room and dining room. While I’m all for shopping locally, I just can’t plunk down $45 on a gallon of paint. Can’t. And that’s what the paint costs in my neighborhood.

In between painting, I wrestled with a couple of different computer programs trying to crank out an ad for Shimmer, because my software is still in the boxes coming from Iceland. All the trial versions of other software have expired, leaving me with nothing very useful. Again. Frustrating. So I went back and forth between that and the walls, which are also frustrating because they are just a wee bit uneven. It’s impossible to get a clean edge, even with tape, at any point. I do it better freehanding, really.

I’m heading off to shower and bed now. I’ve got a job interview for a temp position as a receptionist tomorrow. While I’m here to do puppetry, it usually takes a year or two to establish oneself in a new community. Gotta keep food on the table and paint on the walls while that’s happening, eh?

In Coversation with a Bunraku Master

You’ll hear a lot of American puppeteers referring to Bunraku or Bunraku styled puppets. Bunraku was originally the name of the theater company, while the puppetry style was called ningyo joruri. Which is part of why I, personally, have a pet peeve when people say that they do bunraku puppets, because it seems like saying “I do Hitchcock movies.” Be that as it may, the Bunraku masters work for years at their art. They say that it takes 35 years to become a master. You spend five years sweeping the stage; ten years doing the feet; ten years doing the left arm; ten years doing the head and right arm and then, finally, people think that you know what you are doing.

Here’s a clip of a demonstration with Kiritake Kanjiro, a Bunraku master. Normally you only see the master’s face, but in this clip everyone is unhooded. Note how the other two puppeteers are never referred to and that all of them remain expressionless while working. Actually, there is one point where the left arm man is asked a direct question and he looks distinctly uncomfortable. Fascinating stuff.

Spotted on PuppetBuilding

Basement dregs

We’re sorting the basement for the yardsale. Here are some of the things which will be in the sale.

CyclopsI built this cyclops head for Mt. Hood’s production of Odyssey. It has since been in Jack and the Beanstalk and then sat in my basement for years and years. It’s papier-mache and quite light.

Turtle shell I have no idea why this turtle shell is in my basement. I think it’s the Mock Turtle’s from Alice in Wonderland, but I was also fairly certain that we built that one out of fiberglass and this is papier-mache. So many shows, so long ago.

Beaver costume Beaver costume, anyone? It includes mask, body and a very fine tail.

I wish there were a way to discuss beavers without sounding dirty.

Puppet zombies This is the saddest thing in my basement. These are puppets with insects living in them. I can’t save them because they are a danger to other puppets as well as being fairly gross. It is still painful to have to throw them out.

The Lawyer and Audrey II

I met with a lawyer yesterday about the continuing saga. He looked over the documents that I have on the case and said that Carlile was blowing smoke. His advice was to go ahead with the claim. If they deny the claim, then we’ll talk about sueing.

Meanwhile, I contacted Marty Robinson, the man who built the original Little Shop of Horrors Off-Broadway pupepts as well as the Broadway puppets. I’ll need an invoice, but since I built my set, I don’t have one. The lawyer said that an appraisal by the world expert on Audrey IIs ought to hold up. Marty said, “HOW CAN A SHIPPING COMPANY ‘LOSE’ SOMETHING THAT BIG?”

My thoughts exactly.


Rogue Artists Ensemble's production of THE TRAGICAL COMEDY OR COMICAL TRAGEDY OF MR. PUNCH.Wow. Talk about the perfect blending of my worlds. Rogue Artists Ensemble has created an adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s graphic novel ‘THE TRAGICAL COMEDY OR COMICAL TRAGEDY OF MR. PUNCH.’
The production photos look stunning. Alas, it is in L.A., so I can’t go, but I seriously want to.

Based the graphic novel by internationally acclaimed artists Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (creators of the Sandman comics, and Henson Pictures’ MIRRORMASK) and adapted for the stage by Hyper-theater mavericks Rogue Artists Ensemble, Mr. Punch features a dizzying array of puppets, masks and sounds that will make you feel as though you have stepped into the pages of a graphic novel.

Mr. Punch is a twisted tale of murder that explores the oft-fragmented nature of memory, the innocence of childhood and the pain of adulthood. This dark fable set in a rundown sea side arcade, blurs the line between what is a puppet show and real life. There every man becomes enamored with a mermaid and only Mr. Punch can destroy the Devil.

As Judy, dear Judy herself says, “…it’s started now, and it can’t be stopped, not even if the DEVIL and all his crocodiles came up from HELL to stop it.”

Opening Friday April 27; continues through May 27
Fridays at 8 pm: April 27*; May 4, 11, 18, 25
Saturdays at 4 pm and 8 pm: April 28; May 5, 12, 19, 26
Sundays at 4 pm: April 29; May 6, 13, 20, 27