Sunday, 13 May 2012

Preproduction for specialist study- puppet creation!

Thanks to my recent infographics project swallowing my time for a few weeks, my work for Richard Whillock in third year has taken a little longer than expected. Thankfully, he was very understanding, and kindly allowed me an extension to our agreed deadline so that I could get everything done properly. The 'ranting preacher' puppet is now complete- and looking all the better for it!

As promised, here is my walkthrough of how I made him:

Thanks to Richard for taking the above high-quality photos!

Firstly, I gathered materials and printed out my final design to use as a reference.

With Richard having provided beads to use as eyes, I decided to begin with the head- the most detailed and time consuming part of the puppet to complete. I used a polystyrene ball to bulk out the inside with a lightweight material, before adding clay over the top. The eyes were pushed into the clay, with more added afterwards to seal them into the face shape. With sculpting tools, the baggy eyes and chin were roughed out.

Adding more clay, I formed the beard and hair, using modelling tools to smoothen the surface.

The crooked nose was created by rolling a small amount of clay into a sausage shape, before bending the end and pinning the nose onto the face with a small section of wire. Smoothing the clay here was tricky, as I needed to work within the confined area between the eyes, careful not to squash the existing details.

A fine sandpaper was used to further smoothen the clay once it had dried. A selection of small modelling files was used for the more intricate areas, such as around the eyes (where the risk of scratching the eye beads was too great).

The eyebrows were created to match the design used frequently by Richard, which consists of a single wire bent into a ‘T’ shape. A small blob of clay was added to form the main body of the brow.

With the sculpting complete, I painted the head with a basecoat of acrylic. To create the fuzzy beard, I planned to flock the beard/hair area with a fake miniature snow (which, from experience, can be painted afterwards using a watered-down paint or ink wash). Because the flock is so fine however, the colour underneath just about shows through, hence my decision to paint a darker tone as a base.

Watered-down PVA glue was applied to the head, before flock was sprinkled liberally over the top. With the excess tapped off and the glue dry, the result was fairly decent. As is a common issue when flocking however, the coverage was slightly patchy and inconsistent. For this reason, I usually apply two layers of flock- the second generally evens out the coverage and makes for a far cleaner, softer appearance.

As mentioned previously, it is possible to paint the flock once dry. This has some advantages- firstly, it seals in the flock to prevent any looser areas rubbing off, and secondly (if this effect is desired) it can make the flocked area appear to be finely sculpted. In this case, I took the opportunity to apply a painted gradient, as seen on my final design, to show through subtly beneath the second application of flock.

With the second flock coat applied (above), you can definitely see a difference! The furriness is far more even and appealing than before, and the gradient (darker beard, lighter hair) is visible adding a nice detail to prevent the head from looking bland.

In the images above, two other additions have been made; the pupils of the eyes have been painted black, and the eyebrows have been flocked with a single layer of modelling snow, for they needed only to be solid white in colour.

For the purposes of animating, Richard had decided to utilise the technique of replacement mouths to give the impression of speech for the puppet. Each mouth would be pressed onto the surface of the beard. Richard decided he would create the mouths he would need himself, though nevertheless I decided to make a temporary ‘display’ mouth from painted Milliput, attached via a tiny pin, to be able to hand over something a little more ‘complete’. With a mouth added, the character of the puppet began to shine through!

A very fiddly part of the model-making process was the creation of the priest’s glasses. I have made tiny glasses before for a personal character project in the past which worked very well, and so I decided to employ the same technique here. Above left, you can see a pair of glasses made from small sections of wire and rectangles of clear plasticard. This turned out to be a test pair, for attaching the wires to the ‘lenses’ proved problematic. Even a small amount of glue seeped across the lens, drying a murky grey colour which could not be removed. Rather than settle for something second-rate, I began again, this time attaching wire to plasticard with small Milliput blocks. This approach worked much better, and proved a far more secure method than before. Once the glue was dry, I painted rims on the placticard, and painted the bridge/arms of the glasses black too.

Akin to the final character design, the bridge of the glasses was positioned to balance on the priest’s nose. The arms of the glasses actually fit into small, pre-drilled holes just in front of the puppet’s ears, ensuring they were secure yet capable of being removed should they ever need to be repaired.

With the head complete, it was time to begin armature construction. Following my usual armature design, I twisted two wires together into a double-helix shape, increasing strength and durability. Lengths of wire for the arms and spine were cut and screwed into electrical pin connectors, ensuring they can be removed, again as a precaution in the event that something breaks.

An improvement over my regular armature design was my decision to make use of aluminium tubing as opposed to brass tubing, to strengthen the ‘bones’ of the arms. From my previous work with brass tubing, I can say that it is notoriously difficult to cut, and due to its strength, subsequent filing/sanding has little effect. In short, it is difficult to work with. For this project therefore, I chose to try out aluminium tubing instead. Whilst aluminium tubing is obviously more pliable and ultimately weaker than its brass counterpart, it is plenty strong enough to support the requisite sections of the puppet armature. The real advantage however is that it is extremely easy to cut, and very workable. Analysing this trade-off of material properties, I decided that a slight reduction in strength was a small price to pay for something which performs almost identically to the brass tubing in practice, and is much easier to work with. It seems that from now on, I shall favour the aluminium tubing.

A further modification to my regular armature design arose from necessity. Early on whilst generating concepts, I was wary of the material clothing hanging awkwardly over a pure wire frame, conscious that the puppet needed to be padded out. For a sense of believability, it was essential that the robes conformed to the contours of his body- and as such, I would need to create the body underneath. Of course, this would never be seen. Just the rough shape blocked out would more than suffice for the task at hand.

For this, I used a pink Styrofoam that I amassed a good quantity of through my Product Design course in Sixth Form. This material is very versatile, and can be used in a wide range of contexts. It, akin to the clay and Milliput that constituted the sculpted elements of the model, can be sawn, cut, filed and sanded. Furthermore it retains quite a solid form, and so proved the perfect choice for the body. By shaping sections of foam, I created the body padding in component parts, later assembled and attached to the wire frame using super glue.

At this point, I learnt something unexpected- super glue dissolves Styrofoam. Thankfully, the damage done was minimal and did not compromise the structural integrity or the shape of the foam components. From this point on, I attached the foam parts using Milliput to seal the gaps around the wires.

The foam actually worked very well, providing a basic body shape upon which the puppet’s clothing would hang naturally. Though confident that my armature was strong and durable, capable of withstanding far beyond the animations that would be required of it, I felt it was important to be able to make repairs should the unfortunate scenario occur where they are necessary. As a result, I made certain that the puppet could be disassembled as easily as possible. As per my usual armature design, the arms and legs were screwed into electrical connector strips, which meant that the screw holes needed to be accessible through the foam padding. Small holes were added before the back foam plate was attached, the final result being an armature somewhat robotic-looking, and altogether far more professional than my previous attempts. I am personally very happy with the results, and intend to apply these new techniques to my own work next year.

You will notice from the previous images that I decided against a simple block for the lower half of the model. The legs did not need to move, and would largely be out of view with the intended camera angles, however Richard expressed interest to me in having shoes included nonetheless, since they would complete the model when on display in the graduate show.

In addition to this request, and in a similar vein to one of my earlier concerns, I was concerned that a flat block would have a very odd angular shape, visible beneath the priest’s robes. For the believability of the puppet as a whole, it had to appear he had legs, regardless of whether or not he was to use them in the animation. These two factors swayed my mind, and ultimately I decided it would be much more appropriate to make the lower half of the armature in the same way as the torso- albeit in a simpler form (you can see that there is no allowance for the legs to bend at the knee due to the foam padding).

The feet were blocked out with Milliput as it is heavier than clay, giving better balance to the puppet, and I was able to affix small metal nuts to the soles so the puppet can be screwed onto a base as an effective tie-down mechanism. Once the Milliput had set, I proceeded to add a layer of my regular clay to smooth things over and add detail, such as definition between the shoe tops and the soles.

A further element Richard and I had discussed was the shirt and collar that the preacher wears. There existed the possibility to create this from material, though I was unsure as to whether such an approach would work as intended. What would prevent the collar from collapsing? I realised that to use material would mean having to glue it in place, which could look messy, and attaching any extra rigid materials to prop up the collar would undoubtedly prove an issue.

The solution I devised was to craft the shirt and collar as a solid clay ‘plate’, almost a shell of sorts over the top of the foam padding. Drying hard, it provided a suitable base on which the robes could sit nicely. Furthermore, the clay could be painted the correct colours, and details such as buttons and seams could be sculpted in. The collar is solid, meaning that movements from the head and neck (made later out of plasticine) do not distort the shape, adding not only to the durability and longevity of the puppet, but also to its exaggerated cartoon appeal.

For the preacher’s clothes, I was able to use an old white t-shirt that Richard had provided along with some other materials. The robes needed to be rather loose and baggy, which was a pleasant contrast to the tight and fiddly garments for my previous stop-motion puppet (which had incredibly thin sleeves and trouser legs).

Taking the armature as a guide, I took measurements and designed a template on paper. The white material was folded in half, and the desired shape was marked out in pencil, using the template as a stencil. I made sure to leave a little extra on the edges to fold and sew inwards, preventing the edges from fraying.

Taking into consideration once again the precautionary need to disassemble the puppet in the event of a break, I designed the robes to open at the back (which would not be seen in the animation), making the connector pin screws easily accessible. With some advice and help from my mother, who is far more skilled than myself when it comes to sewing, I was able to attach some small press-studs to the back, creating a neat way to close and open the robes on demand.

The pleats on the front of the robes were created by pinching the material together and adding a few stitches on the inside. The priest’s green sash was far simpler to create, consisting of a tube of material, flattened, and with a series of small cuts made either end to form the tassel details.

Something I have wanted to try for quite a while (though prior to this project I had still to find the time or opportunity) is creating stop-motion characters from a mould using latex. Having made plenty of models over the years with plasticine, I know all too well the horror when the model squashes and loses its form. For this reason, I have been excited by the way latex puppets are durable and retain their shape, yet are still (through use of an armature) capable of moving and being animated- the idea of something with all the capabilities of a plasticine figure, yet altogether more ‘permanent’.

For the task of creating the puppet, Richard provided me with a box of materials insisting that he provided everything I would need. He had already created the model’s hands for me from his personal mould, which proved incredibly useful when judging scale. These hands represented my very first experience making models involving latex.

The hands were left until last, so that they could be slotted into the open tubing on the arms once the robes had been added. The first thing I noticed was that it is much tougher than I had anticipated! To fit the priest model, I needed to trim the forearms down. Attempting to cut the latex with a blade was pretty useless, for it is malleable and resists the pressure from the cutting edge. Instead, I succeeded using wire clippers, though the chance of accidentally cutting through the wire inside was great. All in all, this is something to learn from.

Still on the subject of latex, Richard has kindly offered to show me how to use it within the next couple of weeks. Over the course of his third year, he has learnt a lot about using the material and I look forward to acquiring this knowledge and experience for myself.

(Above: the final priest puppet)

I am very proud of the final puppet, which represents my most professional and functional stop-motion model to date. Of course, there have been some minor changes to the design over the course of this project (for example the need to match the head skin tone to the hands, the slightly larger eyes due to the size of the beads, and the variation in robe colour from the cream seen on the design). Overall though, I feel the final puppet is as close a representation of that final 2D design as I could have made, capturing the look and feel of the character in a puppet fully fit for purpose, that meets all requirements set for it.

I believe that I have improved on every level throughout the course of designing and physically creating the character, and have had the opportunity to try new techniques and perfect older ones. The experience garnered here will undoubtedly prove essential for my stop-motion practices next year.

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