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January 7, 2007

2006: my first year in stopmo

by sven at 11:50 pm

December 7, 2005

I mark my entry into stopmo puppet animation from December 7, 2005.

I was taking a class in Super8 filmmaking. I'd worked in digital animation before, but really wanted to get the experience of cutting actual celluloid. The class' final project was my opportunity to live out a childhood fantasy: using a remote shutter release cord to snap off shots of KONG, one frame at a time...

On Dec. 7 I threw together the wholly unsatisfactory armature you see above. And I thought to myself: "Huh. I wonder if there's maybe anything on the internet that could help?"

That night I discovered -- and everything changed. I've been possessed by a blinding fever to learn this artform, puppet animation. Now, here we are, exactly 13 months later. Time for a progress check.

[Yeah, I would like to have written this post a month ago... But -- oy! -- December!?]

1. armatures

Of all the skills involved in making an animated film, this has really been the year of learning how to make armatures. Prior to February, I'd never cut metal before! Now I'm working with a mill and lathe, and using a torch to solder ("braze") things together at temperatures up to 5300 degrees Fahrenheit.

I've made six ball-jointed armatures. Three at home using brass and steel, three at Bent Image Lab using stainless steel.

the Ambassador, aka the Ambassature

For my first armature, I made a big batch of generic joints, which allowed me to get a feel for proportions. "The Ambassature" made a trip down to California, so Shelley Noble could try giving a ball-jointed armature a test drive.

[Note: The elbows and knees aren't double-jointed. For each of those joints, I used solder to freeze one ball in place.]

the Ambassador II, aka the Diplomat

For the second armature, I used lead-free solder and made long sandwich plates with individualized proportions. The revised design feels more streamlined and intuitive in an animator's hands.

I wrote up a massive step-by-step tutorial on how to build one of these. Anthony Scott accepted it for inclusion in the handbook -- but then he got hired to work on Coraline, and hasn't had time to get it up online.

the man of steel

The man of steel duplicates the physical dimensions of the Ambassador II -- but working with steel is nothing like working with brass, and it required a completely different approach. This was my first big project using a mill and lathe.

Irritatingly, after finishing this project, I discovered a design flaw: the arms can't raise up from neutral to a "zombie sleepwalker" position without the shoulder joints getting in the way. An easy fix is to make a bend in the upper arm rod.

Regis Philbin

On the merit of the previous three armatures, I got a job at Bent Image Lab doing armatures for a music video where Regis Philbin sings "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." I'd studied armature design enough so that I was pretty well prepared... But I did have some trouble with soldering flat surfaces to flat surfaces that took me a while to figure out.


As I understand it, Gelman is Regis Philbin's producer. My fifth ball-jointed armature was for a puppet of him. [And just to be clear: I only made the armatures inside these puppets -- not their exteriors.]

The Regis and Rudolph clip showed on national TV on Nov. 16, on the Live with Regis and Kelley show.

little girl

I made my sixth and final armature of the year as part of the same contract at Bent, for the little girl character in a music video of the song "Dirty Laundry" by Bitter:Sweet. This was the most sophisticated of all: with jointed feet, and a mere 6 5/8" tall. Additionally, time constraints meant that the sculpt and the armature had to be being made concurrently -- so I was responsible for drawing up a master blueprint that would be adhered to by everyone involved.

2. puppets

With my focus on learning armature building, there were surprisingly few puppets that I took to actual completion.

Moon Baby

Poor Moon Baby -- my first attempt at a wire armature puppet -- broke before he was even completed. The first mistake was using foam insulation tape for musculature. The wire wasn't strong enough to force the bulk into a pose; it would all immediately spring back into neutral. I tried to cut seams into the foam... Mistake number two. That's probably when I nicked the wire, spelling doom for the poor babe.

Percy 5

Percy 5 was begun February 5th and finished March 5th. This time I used spray adhesive and sandwiched the wire armature between thick blocks of cushion foam, which I then whittled into shape with cuticle scizzors. Paranoid about the armature's ability to hold a pose, I left big gaps between the blocks of foam... Consequently, when Percy bends over, his shirt lifts up and you can see his metal spine.

I did a few animation tests with this puppet -- but I was really frustrated by how difficult he was to work with. This is what spurred me to dive into making ball-jointed armatures.

Jimmy and Dad

Almost seven months later, after having done the six ball-jointed armatures, I returned to wire armature puppets. For Jimmy and Dad, I cut long strips of 1/2" thick foam and wrapped them mummy-style. Then, I covered the foam with a layer of athletic underwrap. Much to my relief, this strategy for musculature -- at last -- worked very well.

3. films

I got three short films done this year -- only one of which is true puppet animation.

click on image to play movie (4.0 MB)

I put Do You Like Me? online a year ago today. The characters were just blocks with faces -- but it has a story and runs 1min 20sec. I'm still fond of this one...

click on image to play movie (10.9 MB)

Explorations in Super8 was the final project for my class in Super8 Filmmaking at Radius Studio. I spent countless hours trying to come up with a story idea that would utilize Moon Baby and/or similar puppets. Ultimately though, I decided to give up on that and instead do a storyless sampler of different animation techniques: sand on glass, paint on glass, shadow puppets, digital animation transfered to analog...

click on image to play movie (6.8 MB)

I finished The Great Escape on Dec. 31, just in time for the "stopmo haiku challenge" deadline at For this project I intentionally worked "quick and dirty" -- taking the story all the way from concept to completion, rather than getting hung up on getting any one part of the process "perfect."

When I watch this one, I see room for improvement in just about every area... But I'm very proud of it, and see a lot of life shining through the rough-hewn pups and their animation.

4. work

This year I did paid work in animation for the first time.

click on image to play video

Back in July, the amazing photographer Grace Weston (a friend of Gretchin's via Job Club for Creatives) recommended me to Bent Image Lab. Thank you Grace! Because of her, I got a job casting cobblestone tiles out of hydrocal for the Lux soap commercial. And thus I was "in the door."

click on image to play video

When that first job was done, I made sure to give photos to my producer to distribute -- so all of the producers at Bent would know the breadth of what I can do. At the end of September I got a call about maybe doing some armature work. I brought Percy and my three ball-jointed armatures to the interview, displayed in a "The Evolution of Man" tableau. And I got the job!

The first task they gave me was to build an armature for... (gulp!) ...a Regis Philbin puppet. Then they had me do a Gelman armature. They hired a second person to do the Trump and Kelley armatures. Luckily for me, I'd had a chance to study armature maps from previous puppets built at Bent -- because there was no one on site who could train me. Trial by fire!

click on image to play video

As part of that same contract, I got the job of making the armature for the little girl puppet in the "Dirty Laundry" music video. Very proud of the work I did on her. The director was really pleased with my work, too; it sounds like he wants me onboard for the next project he gets. Yay!

Henry Selick's parking space

Another fantastic photographer friend of Gretchin's, Serena Davidson, got hired to take portraits at Laika on the Coraline shoot. Knowing my interest in Coraline, she invited me to be her assistant. Thank you Serena! On Dec. 13 and 14 I got to play sherpa, carrying around Serena's equipment... And boring into every detail of the Coraline shoot with my hungry eyes. I got to meet Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman (with whom I discussed my niece -- he's very fond of her). I got to see sculpts and puppets and costumes and sets.

It was a wish come true, just to get a glimpse inside of Coraline as it's being made.

5. thanks...

To quote Julia Cameron, "Creativity flourishes in a place of safety and acceptance. ... Creativity grows among friends, withers among enemies." And so, I'd just like to say:

Thank you to Anthony Scott, Marc Spess, Lionel Orozco, Nick Hilligoss, Eric Scott, Jason Gottlieb, and Mike Brent for your roles in creating and leading the online stopmo community!

Thank you to Grace Weston for getting me into Bent!

Thank you to Serena Davidson for giving me the chance to peek into Laika!

Thank you to stopmo buddies Alejo Accini, Mike Brent, Mark Fullerton, Grant Goans, Michael Granberry, Shelley Noble, and Jeffrey Roche for the constant support and encouragement!

And most of all, thank you Gretchin -- for connecting me with Grace and Serena, for being a fantastic artistic advocate and studio partner, for supporting me in my every ambition (and every obsession). "The greatest recognition I could ever receive is your love."

posted by sven | January 7, 2007 11:50 PM | categories: stopmo