Interview by Ken Clark in the puppet workshop.
KC: There is obviously a specialised technique in making these miniature costumes. Which materials do you prefer?
NC: I try to use a lot of plain cotton and dye and print it ourselves so that we can keep it all to scale. It is very difficult to find the correct patterns in the shops; you can put in all the detail you require by doing it yourself. It is a lengthy process but it pays off in the end.
Some materials are more likely to ‘move’ under the camera, aren’t they?
Yes, ‘crawl’ is a constant problem, you have to select a material heavy enough to avoid ‘crawl’ yet light enough to allow the animators to move the puppets. Restricted movement must be avoided at all times.
Do the embellishments give you trouble?
Occasionally. We try to fix things whenever possible, stiffen them, wire them, and this enables the animators to animate the costumes too, for follow-thru actions. It looks very effective and brings everything together. We did an episode a while ago featuring a barge woman who had a wide bonnet. As the barge chugged along, the bonnet was flying in the wind – it looked lovely! There are many different ways of controlling that effect but the obvious way is to run a wire around the hat brim and along the ribbon and the scarf, that’s all we would need.
What about cleanliness? – I’m thinking of the repetitive handling.
The animators do not wear gloves, unfortunately, and we find the costumes do not last very long. Under the lights, hands perspire and they leave their mark on the clothing. It is for that reason we try to avoid white or very light coloured materials. We try to clean them but by the end of an episode a shirt has to be replaced with a brand new one. Dust on the set does not help either. Although it doesn’t seem to show up too much on film, it is a nuisance where soiling is concerned.
The main danger is excessive dust on the sets. Early on we were filming close to the workshops and we had dust and sawdust in the air and settling everywhere, all the time. It is better now we have moved location. We simply have to be as careful as we can be, putting puppets back in their boxes and covering up the sets when not in use. It sounds easy, but it is just as easy to forget when you are working to a tight schedule.
It takes me about two weeks to complete each costume, but that is because they are more complex than they appear. Take buttons for example, you cannot run out to the nearest haberdashers and buy a set. Working to this scale, they all have to be made. We have to make the shoes here too, and it all makes for a lengthy process. We have to exercise great care with the detail because on-screen it looks life size – mistakes are magnified. It is unlike dressing humans when you work on this scale, you cannot simply slip things on and button them up, some things have to be sewn on. So, it can actually take up to half a day to do a costume change. The other problem arises when a puppets mechanics break and you are obliged to get inside to correct matters – that disrupts everything!
Printed in Animator Issue 17 (Autumn 1986)