20 Nov 2012 Hey, make believer - the puppets
Go watch the video again of Brett Winterford’s latest musical number, come back and read the explanation of the puppets that were used in it. Also, because there’s not enough room here, I’ve put a picture slideshow of all the puppets (and their various angles) at the bottom of the post, but I’ve also added some of them throughout the text itself. I’ll note here and now most of the pics suck due to crappy lighting and blurriness. You’ll want to click on the photos to view them larger as a lot of the detail can’t be seen in the small thumbnails. It may also help to go back/down to the video premiere announcement and view the behind-the-scenes pics the producers have posted - it gives you a better idea of sets/props. I’ve also been told that the blooper reel will be added to Vimeo in due course, so I guess I’ll be coming back and revisiting this whole thing when it’s online. There’s now a behind-the-scenes video posted here.
As you can see from the video the design has a very handmade look to it. That’s what Lisa wanted, so when we talked about the puppets, she was fine with rods being visible and it being very low tech. She discussed wanting four puppets, and fortunately when she approached me (well, Lee - the producer - coincidentally sent me some info because he was looking for puppeteers; I replied saying I’d be interested in helping) she had a mock-up design available to view of the video. This was basically a sketched animation of important scenes or movements. She laid out four puppets she wanted making, and I’ll discuss them individually. Suffice to say however that most of the work was me and her conversing via email, nutting out details, talking on the phone, and mostly her describing the rest of the set to me. Basically I worked out what she was doing and fit myself/the puppets into that. It worked out extremely well, since all she had to do was tell me a size that would work for her, and I’d rebut with “yeah, I need it to be a little bigger” and she’d say “no problems, we can work with that".
I think communication in this case was what made the whole thing work really well. It wasn’t just a matter of her telling me what she wanted, but I’d explain my ideas, she’d comment, I’d edit and then I’d mock up the patterns for her to approve. I explained how everything would work in the real world, so she knew exactly what she was getting and how it would fit with her sets; and she explained her end of things so I’d be able to accommodate it in the design.
It’s worth mentioning that everyone was a volunteer on this video, and that Lisa and Stu edited it themselves. The materials I used were ‘donations’, if only because it was mostly scraps that I was never going to use anyway. As for ‘how’ I got these puppets to look like Brett, I was fortunate enough to receive numerous photos of Brett himself, in various poses. Lisa specifically wanted a realistic silhouette. Despite her protestations, Lisa was pretty organised and had photos available for me to use even before I had come on board.
Lisa initially wanted three puppets, but then asked for a ‘quickie’ fourth. It just had to be a black silhouette for an underwater scene. We’d already talked about materials, and when I mentioned I was using polpropylene plastic, she wondered if it was water resistant. It is, so that’s what I ended up using. This puppet is the one seen at 2 min 8 sec in the video.
A picture of the underwater puppet on set. There were lots of crew and equipment, so it was hard to get a shot of it at all. You can see the lovely blue-lit backdrop, the camera, a crew member, and the tank of water (with real fish!) in the foreground. If you thought there was any digital effects there, you’d be wrong.
As you can see, it’s not really a shadow puppet. It’s on strings! Actually, none of the puppets ended up being shadow puppets - more like your average rod puppet. And this is the one case where communication proved to be problematic. Lost in translation somewhere was that it was going to be used in the video: I thought it was just for publicity shots. This was probably my own fault, I must have misunderstood somewhere. I recommended using rods, because the other puppets are on rods. Then we talked about weighting the puppet so it could sit nicely in the water - I added ‘weights’ made out of small pieces of a breakable wire bracket (for shelving, it has puncture holes in it so it can be easily broken apart. It was for some random project I forgot about and never used). I think probably the photos show the weights attached incorrectly, as I changed their location later to just at the back - they were attached with proper theatre-strength gaffa. (Not the crappy cloth tape gaffa film crews use, which is nowhere near as industrial as theatre-strength)
The problem was that when it came time to filming it, the puppet had to be dunked ‘into’ the water. Because of the rods, we had to pretend to dunk it by moving the puppet up and down behind the glass of the tank. That didn’t look natural enough, so we put it on strings. I’m also incredibly crappy at performing, and too short (the tank was huge and sat high up off the ground), and well, weirded out by film crews and chaos…. so in the end, Brett performed it. Brett’s very very tall.
The puppet hanging up against a wall outside the set. You can see the strings from the head and hands. Three strings were used to keep the puppet stable underwater and prevent it from twisting around. You can see a shot of the rod/strings in more detail in the slideshow below.
So to sum: it’s an 8cm tall black silhouette (single piece) made out of polypropylene sheet. It had small weights on the back of its legs/body, was attached to a stick via three strings, and was performed by the musician himself. – I left this with the crew and Lisa informed me later Brett had stuck it in his guitar case as a mascot!
This is the puppet at 1 min 25 sec (the puppet that jumps off the mountain) in the video. As you can see, this too is a fairly basic puppet. It’s about 8cm tall, white cardboard single-piece silhouette on a rod. Basically the only thing it had to do was jump off the mountain, so nothing fancy at all.
The mountain puppet. Sitting on Lisa’s kitchen table surrounded by ’stuff’ for the shoot. Note the long handle for the rolling puppet is pictured at bottom (more on that below).
You’ll notice that the smaller the puppet is the less detail it has. I found that cutting out the detail with both scissors and scalpel to be just too damn difficult, so made it as realistic as possible without breaking the puppet (I did a couple of times with this one, getting the nose/mouth was tricky).
The fancy stuff is actually done with the set: as you can see, it rotates! The castle and mountain are actually mounted together, like one big circle and a different design on each half. On the back the whole thing attached to a giant spool which was threaded onto (I’m assuming) a tripod of some kind. Very very low tech: two crew members rotated the spool manually, with aid from a couple of markers and feedback from the director; at a certain cue, I would simply ‘pop’ the puppet up from below/behind. It’s fair trickier to do than it sounds.
Surprisingly enough, I’m going to come back to the rolling puppet as ‘best for last’.
The puppet at 1 min 57 sec. This is a black silhouette made out of cardboard, 15 cm tall. You can clearly see the puppet is jointed, and uses rods for operation. This is a fairly simple, if deceptively complicated puppet. It’s made no different than your average shadow puppet: overlapping pieces that represent body parts, jointed together. What makes it unusual is the way I jointed them.
This photo shows the back of the puppet. It’s waiting just outside the room with the set, and I’m in the middle of attaching rods to it.
In talking with Lisa, we decided we wanted to go with a puppet that had slightly loose joints. We wanted him to have more dangly body parts than taut ones, and we used Little Dragon as inspiration. String joints were decided as the best way to go. Initially I was going to use thin elastic - like what you use for birthday party hats - but the puppet was pretty small, and too delicate to use elastic with. (This puppet is bigger than the others due to the scale of the hands - only a few cm big each - and to size it down to 8cm would have made it impossible to attach rods to)
A photo of my work ‘desk’ - aka, dinner tray. I like cutting stuff out in front of the TV, so a dinner tray was perfect for putting on my lap while I worked/watched. Left-hand side are pieces of black cardboard ready to be used. As with the scouts, ‘be prepared’ is the best motto and so I made spare parts in case of breakages. Each piece was cut out and taped to the tray along with its pattern. This was so I could keep track of which bits were made, what part of the puppet it related to, and how many I’d done. Top right you can see the scraps, at the bottom you can see my scalpel, and bottom right is the elastic I didn’t end up using.
However on experiment whilst building the puppet, I didn’t do normal string joints. Instead of knotting them off after threading it through the pieces, I instead taped each string to the back of the body part. (Ie. the foot connected to the ankle, so the string went through a hole in the foot - knotted at this end, through the hole in the ankle, did this another time for security, made sure the string was somewhat loose, then taped the other end of the string to the back of the leg) This made joints that were not only loose, but adjustable so that if something was too taut or too loose, I could fix it on the day. I wasn’t sure how dangly Lisa wanted it, so this method was a good compromise. It turned out to be a fairly stable method, assuming that the tape stickiness didn’t wear out: no problems though, since masking tape is easy, cheap and replaceable.
The other thing you’ll notice is that the puppet is operated from both the feet and the hands. Initially Lisa and I talked about how best to operate the puppet from behind the tunnel (two large pieces of cardboard, each with a curve cut into one side), and it was clear she didn’t want people’s hands in the frame. So we’d have to be puppeteering from the side, behind one side of the tunnel. On looking at the set the day before filming, I realised it was going to be tricky for two people to easily stand behind the same tunnel piece; so each of us stood behind a different side. Hence the different directions of the rods.
This photo shows the puppet being put together; view from the front. Note the string joints, and thread just visible along the right side of the pic.
As for my assistant, this was one of the girls from the art department, who happened to be helping out on the day painting stuff and making things. We didn’t rehearse very much, and with some fairly basic puppet concepts (who leads the movement, keeping the puppet taut but not too taut, how to hold the rods, etc) we didn’t have much trouble coordinating ourselves.
We did on the other hand, have trouble with the set. As you might notice, the tunnel is fairly narrow and has very acute turns. It’s hard to get a puppet to turn naturally down such tight corners. I’m hoping a blooper reel will be posted because it shows just what I mean. We also had a couple of ‘getting caught on twigs’ moments, and the last turn in particular had to be fudged because it was near impossible to get right. If you’re wondering: I was doing the feet!
By now you’ve worked out that this was the most complicated of them all. Kind of: getting to the solution was hard, the solution itself is so simple it’s silly. In my first talk with Lisa, once she described what she wanted I thought (well, literally said) “I don’t know how to make it yet, but I’m sure it’s do-able". A few minutes later I realised a pinwheel is exactly what I needed. Making it was tricky though.
Diagram of the puppet design for the rolling puppet; more info below. I didn’t end up using a reel on the shaft - it was just an unnecessary piece and made things more complicated for no benefit.
The issue is that I had to both move and spin the puppet from below/behind. That photo of Lisa with the measuring tape is the set. As you can see, I had to work underneath the table. A pinwheel though doesn’t allow you to turn the head of the toy outside of using wind. So I had to add a rod to move the puppet, whilst having one to hold the puppet up in the air from below.
Immediately I thought of a crank handle, and went about looking for ideas. I’d never made anything cable-control or complicated in terms of rod puppets, so I went and dug out a book I’d bought years ago but never read: Cabaret Mechanical Movement. It’s about automata, but describes a lot of useful things like cranks, cogs, and so on. I experimented with a couple of crank ideas but hit on a problem: a crank is a 360 degree mechanism. The handle has to go right-down-left-up, or vice versa. Now try doing it below: it doesn’t work. Why not?
Because the crank, despite its 360 movement, only moves horizontally or vertically. It has no ability to transfer the direction of movement. This is hard to describe in words, so let’s put it into a visual.
Photo of the rolling puppet, face on. This was before the final touches were added, such as white paint over the hot glue, and the painting of the handle - read below for more info.
The puppet is a flat silhouette (white cardboard again) and it sits vertically. The shaft however is horizontal. Stick a crank on the back of it. Now turn it. That works, right? That’s because the crank is also on the same plane - horizontal - as the shaft. Now extend the end of the crank so it’s long, and is vertical - at 90 degrees from the shaft. It sticks, because now the crank wants to turn vertically, but can’t because it’s attached to something on a horizontal. … Boy, I hope that makes sense. Anyway, get out a scrap piece of wire, insert it into a piece of cardboard. Turn it; it works. Now bend the wire so it has a 90 degree angle. Turn it; it should still work. Hold the wire so the cardboard is above your head. Turn it; it’ll get stuck.
Anyway, this long detour into nowhere had me baffled for weeks. And then I realised I was trying too hard. It was time to get back to basics. I remembered that for my show City Head, I’d come up with a fairly simple method of creating a waterfall effect. (Excerpt of show here; behind-the-scenes video of how it all works here, here and here) The waterfall is basically a piece of ribbon, one half blue, the other black. It runs through a slit at the top of the box, down over the front of the box, and back into another slit at the bottom. It’s a very long ribbon, so all you need to do is pull the ribbon at the bottom to make the waterfall ‘flow’. Pulling the ribbon from the top makes the ‘flow’ go backwards, allowing for a re-set for the next show.
Armed with this, and the info from my book about cranks, I came up with what is my most favourite mechanism ever. It’s so simple, you’ll slap yourself when you realise how it works.
Rolling puppet pictured from the side. This too is before the final touches. From right to left: the hot glue on the front of the puppet; the puppet itself, the cardboard; another dab of glue to prevent the puppet from hitting the main rod; the main rod/handle; the shaft with a ribbon rolled around it. We ended up using black ribbon instead of white. More info below.
The diagram above is the design I sent Lisa. I figured a diagram would help explain things to her, so I’ll use it here too. There is a main rod/handle. This is what keeps the puppet in the air, and allows me to move the puppet right-left on the set itself. The main rod is a piece of thick dowel, about 1 or so cm in diameter. At the top, there is a small hole drilled through. Through this hole sits a shaft, basically a piece of bamboo skewer. One end of the shaft is glued to the puppet (more on that in a sec), with the middle of the shaft inserted into the hole, and the other end acting as a counterweight/pivot - see the diagram for clarity. The puppet end of the shaft is just the pointy part of the skewer, pushed through the cardboard, and then a dab of hot glue over the point for security - the hot glue has been painted white.
The other end of the shaft has a dab of hot glue on it too, just near the hole on the main rod. This prevents the shaft from wobbling too much inside the hole and from the whole thing sliding off the main rod. You’ll notice that the shaft is longer on the counterweight/pivot end than the puppet end; this is because of my ingeniously simple idea.
The puppet, finished, as seen from the side. Also Lisa’s kitchen floor.
Around that counterweight end I attached and wrapped a long ribbon. I let the end of the ribbon hang down to the end of the main rod - it’s basically two parallel lines, the main rod and the ribbon. In one hand I hold the main rod, which holds the puppet up in the air. In the other hand, I hold the end of the ribbon. When I pull the ribbon, it rotates the shaft. The shaft is attached to the puppet, so that rotates too. When I want to reset for another take, I just re-wrap the ribbon around the shaft and ensure the puppet is upright. Simple, huh? It’s like a crank, only much much easier.
It’s worth mentioning that placement of the shaft on the puppet was important. I had to find the right location for inserting it otherwise the puppet’s weight would cause it to tip. I wanted the puppet to remain still when only holding the handle - and be upright, so ‘Brett’ is sitting - so the shaft was inserted at exactly the right place for the weight to be balanced. (I tested this with a spare cut-out) Hence the shaft goes through his neck (see pic above) and not somewhere else on the body.
I made up a prototype to test the idea and it worked, so I pitched it to Lisa and made the whole thing properly. Two issues with it in practice: the hole in the main rod that accepted the shaft was drilled just bigger than the shaft itself. This worked perfectly, until we got to film it and I discovered the puppet was getting stuck. Even the millimetre gap between the hole and the shaft was enough to cause wobbling - fortunately, a small wad of blu-tack inside the hole prevented further problems. And surprisingly didn’t cause any of its own.
The rolling puppet, as seen from the back. If you’re wondering about the length of the ribbon, there wasn’t really one. I tested my prototype and guessed at the length, then doubled it. The faster you pull the ribbon, the more of it you need in order to get the puppet rolling from one side of the set to the other. So whatever amount of ribbon we had, we attached to the puppet, and then only used as much as was ‘pulled’.
The second issue was that I was getting to the film set (Lisa’s place) by public transport and didn’t want to break the whole thing. Fortunately, because the puppet was so low tech, it was no problem to make the pieces (shaft & puppet, ribbon, main rod) and then put it all together in a few minutes on arrival. It was so low tech, it didn’t break down for more than a few seconds, worked every time, was easy to reset, easy to fix, and easy to use.
Of course, this isn’t just what made it tricky. I had used an extra long piece of dowel because I wasn’t sure of the height of the tables I was going to perform behind. The combination of a very small room to perform in, lots of equipment to navigate, a long handle, and sadly, my own knees getting in the way, made for an overly tricky thing to get right. Coordinating moving right-left, up-down, and the ribbon-pulling was too much at times - and we had many many retakes. You can see me failing to get the last hill right, as I struggle to get the puppet facing the right way, at the right time, without banging into stuff. – Like I said, I’m extremely grateful to Lisa, Hugh and Stu for being so patient with me.
Plus, if that weren’t enough: I couldn’t do it without getting my head in shot. Why can’t you see it? No, it’s not digitally masked. I had the foresight to bring my bunraku hood with me, a black velveteen (hot) hood that I got to wear throughout the shoot. Yes, seriously, my head is visible, if only barely.
This video has been the funnest thing I’ve done all year. Nothing broke down in the middle of the shoot - despite minor hiccups with rods, shafts or lack-of-rehearsal. Everything worked the way it was supposed to, in coordination with sets and props the way they were supposed to. And despite my sincere hatred of performing, it was enjoyable to do. - It helps that the people I was working with were kind, friendly and willing to wait while I worked myself out. I’m a bit unsure of the performance, but only because I’m aware of the minor imperfections in it. I think the puppets themselves came out really well, and I love the shot of the underwater one. Stu and Lisa are to be commended for editing all of it; digital effects and handmade props like the city look amazing, and it really shows that they did months of hard work on it. I’m really grateful I got to be a part of this music video!