Making Puppets for Stop-motion Films
COLIN DUNN TELLS US HIS METHOD OF MAKING PUPPETS WHICH IS BASED ON TECHNIQUES USED BY PROFESSIONAL ANIMATORS WHO HAVE DEVELOPED THEM OVER MANY YEARS.
At their simplest, puppets to be animated might be buttons, match sticks, or the perennial angle-poise lamps. We have all seen how the most unlikely objects can be imbued with real character by an imaginative animator. But if your project requires puppets that bear some resemblance to the human or animal form, you will run up against the problem of puppet construction, and for many beginners it is a real problem. You cannot animate well if you have only a poor puppet to work with.
I shall concentrate on how I made my last character, a little boy, the design of which was influenced by those ivory and metal cast figures of the Art Deco period.
I used a great deal of photographic reference when working out what I wanted the puppet to look like, not only relating to those figures, but to real children, as I was trying to get a certain amount of authenticity about the anatomy.
The most important thing about any animation puppet is its flexible core, skeleton, or armature. I used to think that for a puppet to approach professional standards it was essential for it to have a ball and socket, friction jointed, metal armature. Wire, I thought, was quite inadequate, lacking accuracy, or durability in use. In fact there is nothing at all wrong with wire, and some of the best animation on TV is done with puppets based on wire armatures.
Accuracy and durability are the key factors. The problem of accuracy is overcome if you use the right wire. I use an aluminum wire – it comes in a variety of gauges – which stays exactly where you put it, i.e. there is no stiffness, or spring-back, yet it is strong, and supports the puppet.
It is useful to visit a wire factory, if you know of one, and examine what they can offer to see if it fulfills these requirements. The factory I use is helpful enough to be interested and cooperative but it would be unfair to give their address here and let them in for surprise callers.
The other problem, durability, isn’t a problem at all. If your film lasts only a few minutes, the armature won’t have time to develop fatigue breaks. You can therefore epoxy glue the wire into the non-moving chest, head, hips and feet sections of the puppet. If however the film is longer, rather than epoxying it to these sections you may keep the wire in place by having it held tight between sandwiches of plywood, or if the puppet is small, hardboard. That is, two layers of ¼ plywood, cut to the shape of the body with a hole drilled through the two sections so that a nut and bolt may hold them and the wire between them fast, so that if a fatigue break should occur the nut can be wound off the bolt, which should be epoxied to one half, and now wire fed into the limbs in place of the broken wire, to be secured once more by tightening the nut. Access may be gained to the armature of the puppet by Velcro strips on the clothes.
The body can be built up on the epoxied bolt side using plastic wood, but on the other side, where the nut is, the shape of the body should be trimmed out of foam and fastened to the plywood with Velcro. Leather should line each half of the sand¬wich, both to grip the wire, and to prevent it from bending as soon as it leaves the body. The limbs should of course be hollow, basically a felt tube, down which the wire is fed. The shape is built up round it using foam rubber.
There is no room for a sandwich in the hands, so the wire leading from these should be wound around the replaceable arm wire. The hands can be felt over a thin wire core.
I modeled the head using plastic wood on a balsa basis, with doweling for the neck. Acetone was used as a lubricant. When dry, this was sanded, given an aerosol undercoat and airbrushed with Pelican Plaka.
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