The puppet workshop can produce anything from a miniature suit of armour to a two foot high model giant, writes David Jefferson.
All around the puppet workshop evidence of fine craftsmanship can be seen. On the workbenches are plaster moulds and rubber animals in various stages of construction. A miniature suit of armour caught my eye. This was worn by Toad in an episode of Wind in the Willows. It had been cast in aluminium at Cosgrove Hall and stood about ten inches high with immaculate detail right down to the small rivets. The model maker explained some of the production methods used.
Each part was first modelled in wax. A plaster cast was made from each and when it was set the wax was melted out. The metal was poured in and finally the mould was broken to get the part out. These were then assembled by a member of the staff who had trained as a jeweller. The only part of Toad the armour could contain was his head, there was no room, or indeed any need to put in the puppet body.
When they make a rubber puppet containing an articulated armature the first step is to produce a solid metal cast of the armature. This is done by making a plaster cast of the armature, the armature is removed and metal is poured-in. The puppet is modelled in plasticine over the metal cast of the armature and a plaster cast is made of this. It is made in two or more parts so it can be opened and the plasticine model removed. The metal cast of the armature is put back in the plaster mould and foam rubber is cast. When it is removed from the plaster cast the rubber is rolled off the solid metal armature and put on the original armature.
Puppets are often cast in sections such as an arm, leg or head. These are glued together. If the armature needs adjustment after the puppet is assembled the foam rubber has to be cut at the joint and re-glued afterwards. Spare parts are cast so that the puppets can be repaired.
Peter Saunders Senior Puppet Maker
Interview by Ken Clark.
KC: How do you make the puppet joints?
PS: Our weasel skeleton is a faithful reproduction of a weasel anatomy and we have just started making pre-etched weasel hand parts. These were drawn four times larger than required and then reduced to the miniscule dimensions needed for the puppets. After etching the unwanted surrounds away, the tiny parts can be pushed out of the sheet and carefully assembled. There is no way we could have cut out these very small parts with a hacksaw either accurately or in such large quantities. This type of hand is far superior to the old wired hands and digits, and they last a lot longer. The etch system allows us to mass produce 9 rows of 14 hands, a total of 126 per sheet. It is a very elegant system, ideal for big crowd scenes. The Eiffel Tower seen in Superman was made in a similar fashion.
We have a second technique which is giving excellent results. Marcia is a trained jeweller, she is casting parts in brass using the lost wax method. Except for the hands she made everything for the weasel.
About eight years ago Roy devised the joint we use in the skeletal frames. It consists of a tube with a spring loaded ball pivot. These are superior in every way to the basic hinge joint, giving far less problems in use. It is small, lightweight and strong and, like all good ideas, changes only slightly to suit the application.
Everything can be controlled from this room, the mould making etc. the actual sculpting in plasticine can be done with the end result in mind. Quite often, if the master has been made say with an arm across the body it has to be levered away, but if you start with an actual skeleton in mind, the sculpting can be designed to accommo¬date the framework with moving parts arranged in a neutral position. It is a lot easier this way. We have encouraged the two lads engaged to do the sculpting to make simple skeletons so that they appreciate the problems the animators are likely to encounter. We are trying to familiarise everyone with the other persons contribution to the whole, and it works very well in practise.
Colin Batty Sculptor
Interview by Ken Clark.
KC: What is your technique for sculpting a model?
CB: You take the design and form the basic shape from aluminium wire. Aluminium wire is very ‘dead’ – it holds its position. I start with an inverted U which goes up the leg round the body and down the other leg, a loop of wire is wrapped round for the arms and the idea then is to block the whole thing in with plasticine. Then you must refine it and commence putting in the detail, checking the look of the figure all the time from different angles. Some of the time I am making defined figures such as the BFG – he was pre-designed, but there are the occasions when you are design-sculpting from scratch and that takes a lot longer. Not all our sculptures are made into puppets. The figure of the BFG I am working on at present will be placed in the show cabinet in the Studio’s entrance hall. Others are required by the animators of the cartoons.
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