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December 29, 2005

little black tears

by sven at 1:05 am

My poor puppet "moon baby" has broken!

I worked all day on finishing my new puppet... And then his left arm snapped off. This setback would be devastating -- but I'm trying not to let the hurt in too deeply; I need to believe that I can still save my baby.

And everything was going so well...

body made of unbaked Sculpey

The first thing I did today was paint Moon Baby's eyes black. I'd been intending green, but time's at a premium, and this was simpler. It reminds me of the eyes of your stereotypical "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" alien -- and of a great white shark -- and of the tree spirits from "Princess Mononoke". I like it.

I thought maybe I could cut corners by encasing the armature in unbaked Sculpey. When I did so, it turned out that the puppet became too heavy -- the ankles couldn't support the extra weight. Still, it was a good exercise: it helped me get a better sense of the physical dimensions I was after.

body made of poly foam

So, I went back to my original plan: to cover baby's body with poly foam. It's probably for the best; it's better to put in extra time making a good puppet up front, rather than be cursing the puppet later while you try to animate it.

A week or so ago when I went out shopping for foam, I found something wonderful: "Poly Foam Weatherseal Self Stick Tape" from Frost King. I want to strongly recommend this material to stopmo puppetmakers who are using the build-up method. This tape is 3/4" wide, 1/4" thick, and came in a 17' long roll. It's intended for insulating windows, and I found it in the hardware section of Fred Meyers (our local department store). It cost maybe $3.00.

...It's the kind of foam that you would normally use for bulking out a puppet -- but because it comes in tape form, you don't have to deal with messy, toxic sprayment! It's also good for creating a symmetrical body mass; you layer small, precisely measured pieces of foam -- rather than having to whittle down a huge block. Really, it was a joy to work with.

working on the costume

For Moon Baby's costume I wanted a sort of black burlap muumuu. I had some tan burlap on hand, so I dyed it black with india ink. It did the job -- but also rubs off on the hands over time, which leads to smudging baby's head. I thought it would be a good idea to paint the back of the fabric with liquid latex. It had a loose weave that I wanted to seal, and I figured a stiffer fabric would move less randomly when I was animating. This was probably a mistake; the stiffness impairs the armature's ability to hold its shape, somewhat.

I created a pattern for the costume by trial and error using pieces of paper and tape. When I thought I had it right, I tried out the pattern using burlap -- but not the burlap I'd treated with latex yet. Looking at the burlap, I made some further changes to the pattern, which I now drew onto graph paper. I cut these templates out, and using a yellow watercolor pencil (because it was at hand), marked out my cut lines on the black stuff, and cut.

At this point I realized that I should deal with the wrists, ankles, and neck before going farther. These bits (I gather) are always difficult to construct. I decided that with the look I'm going for, it would be adequate to just wrap them with string. I thought about painting the string with latex, but then decided it wasn't really necessary. The string for the ankles was dyed black using india ink again. The ends of the string were fixed in place with a dab from the hot glue gun.

Now I started attaching the muumuu. A while back I read that professional costumers in the theater have a trick for quick clothing construction: they use a hot glue gun to make their seams, instead of a sewing machine. Perfect! I hot glued the arms of the costume directly to the body...

...At which point I realized that the arms weren't bending as easily as they should anymore. The poly foam "muscle" combined with the costume was just too springy, and baby couldn't hold a pose without it slowly sliding out of place. So I tore open the sleeves, and tried cutting through the foam -- incising rings down to the "bones", so the joints could move more easily.


That's when it happened. The arm just snapped off.

At first I thought I must have nicked the wire -- which is death for an armature. But now as I look at it, I see that the wire broke right where it goes into the epoxy putty. Maybe the arm was working as a lever, and all the strain was put on that one point. I've read about people reinforcing the entry point with silk thread... Maybe that's what I should have done.

...I'm hopeful that I can still salvage this puppet. I've already put at least twelve hours into him, and have grown fond of the character. I think maybe I can drill new holes into the epoxy and replace the wire. But it will be difficult.

I'm left with questions about how other puppet makers deal with musculature. Replacing the wire will fix the problem, but what should I have been doing with the foam in the first place? Was incising the foam at the joints the right way to create mobility? What if I tried wrapping string in these areas, too?

My next step is going to have to be writing a sad post to the forum...

posted by sven | December 29, 2005 1:05 AM | categories: movies, stopmo