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Master Of Puppets

I was asked recently for a portfolio of the puppets that I have made. Having looked at the sets and production design of two of the short films I’ve worked on, I want to briefly talk you through some of the puppets I’ve made for my animations. Above is a quick showreel I put together to show my puppets in action.

My two favourite puppets are the Wolf character from The Hunger and the Rocking Horse from Elysium.

The Wolf has a special place in my heart because he was the first puppet I ever made. I constructed an armature using wire, styrofoam and wooden dowels. I modelled a muscular torso out of styrofoam and rather than attach a neck at the top, I sank it into the chest to give the wolf a hunched and imposing figure. I had to give the armature really big feet to support the weight of the upper body. Stop motion puppets generally need big feet to support their own weight and to accommodate pins and supports which attach your puppet to the set as you animate.

Once I completed the armature it was covered with grey fleece, which gave the wolf a texture that I really liked. Traditionally the wolf is supposed to be a fearful figure in folklore, but our inversion of the story turned the wolf into Red Riding Hood’s prey. I liked the way the fleece softened the wolf’s image and made him less threatening.

We used paper to provide the wolf’s facial features – teeth and eyes were either glued or pinned on and then swapped between shots to change his expressions. We also used red cloth to create a tongue which was cut to different sizes as we animated it. We used the same method for Red Riding Hood’s facial expressions. I like mixing my media so it was nice to borrow these techniques from paper cut out animation. This swapping technique is a really simple way to create effects in animation and one I employed a great deal on later paper animations, such as Happy Cloud.

The next ‘puppet’ on my showreel is the clippers which Red Riding Hood uses to shave the wolf. I like to think of these as a character in their own right. I’ve already talked about the construction and animation of the clippers in my earlier post about The Hunger. It is common in stop motion animation to build larger scale versions of your puppets, or parts of your puppets to use for close up shots, it makes it much easier to animate small details.

To create the shaving effect we used large pieces of grey fake fur, which we trimmed between each frame and then manipulated the offcuts to make them travel around the clippers. For the close up shots of Red Riding Hood with the fur flying around, we moved clumps of fur up her arms and over her body whilst also sprinkling more clumps of fur in the background each time we captured a frame. We had to experiment a bit to get it to look right, but those experiments and little challenges are one of the things I love about animation.

Next came the reveal shot, that underneath his fur, the wolf was actually a man. The naked man was a fun puppet to make because we knew that revealing him would be the biggest twist in the story.

He still has a wild edge to him with his body hair and the fact that he doesn’t speak and still makes animal noises.

The next puppet on the reel is Chris from Elysium. The challenge with Chris was in trying to make him look like Evan Locke, who plays Chris in the live action segments of the film. We learnt the hard way on this film that plasticine doesn’t retain much detail under lights, as it melts in the heat. Most of the resemblance was achieved through the costume. I remember spending a lot of time trying to model Evan’s face in plasticine but I think a lot of this detail was lost as soon as we started filming the puppets.

Elysium also saw a change to the design of my armatures, as I began using plastic tubes in the place of wooden dowels to create the puppet’s limbs. This enabled us to have lighter, slimmer puppets, which looked great but made them much harder to animate! We had a lot of broken limbs on this production, but we put the puppets through a lot, expecting them to climb stairs, fight and fall over, none of which are as easy to animate as you would imagine. I also chose not to use paper for the facial features on this production and set plastic eyeballs into the skulls of my armatures instead. I then created the pupils using a small ball of plasticine that I could then move and widen as and when I needed to.

One moment I particularly like from the film, is when Chris’s tie blows in the wind. I achieved this effect by lining the tie with wire that enabled to manipulate it into position shot by shot. It’s these sorts of tiny details that I really like to take my time with in animation.

The next puppet on the reel is the Rocking Horse. This is one of my favourite puppets because it is so different from any of the other puppets I have made and I spent a really long time trying to get the details just right. As the horse moved on rockers the armature only contains one joint, which is at the neck. The horse’s body and rockers are constructed out of styrofoam which was cut and then sanded. I spent hours sanding the horse’s legs and body to make it look authentic. I sank shiny black beads into the horse’s skull to give him his eyes, then the whole armature was coated in plasticine.

It took a long time to get the details of the horse’s face right. It was important that the character, though mysterious, came across as a benevolent and protective figure. As it doesn’t speak this all needs to be conveyed in the look and the movements of the character.

The final puppet on the reel is Doppelganger Chris. The puppet needed to look like an aged and monstrous version of Chris. I constructed the armatures for both at the same time so as to keep them in proportion to each other.

Doppelganger Chris was given yellow eyes instead of white, and we used a dirtier skin tone for him. His fingers were thin and spiky, his features more severe and I etched lines into his face to give him a grizzly, wrinkled look. Unfortunately Doppelganger Chris didn’t survive the shoot as we ended up using various parts of his body and costume as replacements for the Chris puppet.

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About Evan Wilkinson

Community Filmmaker, Animator, Workshop Leader and Video Editor.

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