'The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation': Building Puppets: Part 1

In the latest excerpt from The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation, Ken A. Priebe begins his lesson on building puppets.

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At the 2006 Ottawa Animation Festival, I had the rare privilege to meet stop-motion filmmaker Kihachiro Kawamoto and hear him speak on a panel. Knowing that he had studied the craft under the legendary Jiri Trnka, I asked him which lessons were the most important he had learned from Trnka. His reply was that Trnka had told him, “A puppet is not a miniature human. He has his own world.” In my first book, The Art of Stop-Motion Animation, Chapter 7: Building Puppets, there was a basic overview of character design, doll armatures, ball-and-socket armatures, wire armatures, foam latex molding, latex build-up, and clay puppets. This volume’s chapter will go into a bit more detail about some of these methods and introduce some new ones, from plug-in wire armatures, face armatures, and silicone molding/casting to cable controls, rapid prototyping, and replacement puppets. The end goal of these methods is the same when the cameras start clicking: to bring these carefully crafted figures to life in that other world on the screen.

Let me re-iterate one of the most important principles to follow: design your puppet based on what is required of it, in terms of its character and movement. Which parts are hard, flexible, replaceable, heavy, or light will have a direct impact on the animation of your puppet, so design everything with this in mind. Also remember that your puppet will be touched continually throughout the animation process and will need to be strong enough to hold each position between frames. The decisions you make regarding which methods or materials you use will also depend on your budget, skill level, available space, and time allotted. Often, the simplest solutions work best. Other times, things can get more complicated, but if you build with the end goal in mind, things will fall into place with a little practice.

You may find that whatever related art forms you have experience with will influence which puppet-building techniques you prefer to use. If you have a sculpting or painting background, you may find latex build-up a satisfying technique to work in. If you are very technical and like building things out of metal, wood, or hardware materials, you may gravitate toward wanting to machine ball-and-socket armatures. The possibilities for making puppets are as infinite as everything else in the universe; there is really no wrong way to sculpt a face, build an armature, or design a way to combine different materials together (although some materials don’t tend to mix well). You just find whatever works for you and go crazy with it!

When building puppets, a universal rule is to have a table-top space to work with that can be dedicated to the process for a considerable length of time. If all you have is your dining room table, go with that, but it helps to cover it with cardboard, sheets of brown paper, or wax paper to help materials from sliding around, getting lost, or damaging any of your furniture. Be aware of the mess that can and will be created, and which items close to your workspace, including your clothes, can be permanently soiled by the materials you’re using. Take this from someone who has spilled latex everywhere and ruined his clothes on a few occasions. But hey, it’s all in the name of art, right?

If you build your own puppets, some of the methods described in this chapter are written in a tutorial fashion that allows you to treat the text and pictures as a guide. You should feel free to deviate from the text once you become more confident and come up with your own ideas based on the foundations provided here. In other cases, some of these methods are merely an overview of the process and can be complemented by other sources of guidance. One additional disclaimer: When dealing with chemicals like epoxy glue or putty, silicone, plastic, or other toxic substances, this chapter will describe the process for you, but always read the safety instructions that come with these materials. These advanced puppet-building methods should be done in a controlled environment with plenty of ventilation and kept isolated from situations where pets or small children could get into them. Good art often involves pain, but it’s nice to avoid trips to the hospital if you can. Materials never behave the same way twice, and you will always be fighting with them, but this is all part of the process. Above all, do your research, ask for help, let yourself make mistakes, and enjoy it!

Plug-In Wire and Sockets Wire armatures are great for producing simple characters at relatively small sizes and provide a good range of movement at a relatively low cost. A simple wire armature is typically built of 1/16-inch aluminum wire that has been twisted into double strands and is held together with epoxy putty for any rigid parts. The biggest disadvantage to wire armatures, of course, is that they will snap and break eventually, even if they are built really well. If your wire armature is covered with detailed latex build-up or has a casted foam latex body, it doesn’t have much of a future once it breaks. This can be frustrating, especially if it happens in the middle of a long stop-motion scene that takes you several days to shoot. By whatever methods are in your means, it is in your best interest as both a puppet-builder and an animator to prolong the life of your puppet as long as you possibly can. As you plan everything else, plan for eventual breakage of your puppet and balance this with how much animation you need to shoot.

One way to create a wire armature that hopefully will last longer is to design it with sockets that allow you to remove and replace certain body parts if and when they do break. Being able to remove an arm or leg and replace it with a new one can save you from scrapping an entire puppet or hours of animation. The following pages will show some very simple and more advanced methods for building your own armature from scratch, implementing wire and sockets. Some people refer to these types of armature designs as “plug-in” armatures, meaning the replaceable parts are plugged into their corresponding sockets.

[Figure 3.1] A diagram to follow for the puppet design, with doll armature piece and K&S tubes.

[Figure 3.2] K&S tubes lined up with the diagram for

measurement purposes.

As always, you should start your puppet’s design and its corresponding armature on paper. On a regular sheet of 8½ by 11 paper, draw a diagram of your puppet standing in a generic standing pose. You can use larger paper depending on the size of your puppet, but keep in mind that the larger the puppet, the more important the issue of top-heaviness becomes. Depending on the design and materials used, the size of your puppet can easily move it beyond the point where a wire armature will support it, and you may need to consider other methods. For a simple wire-and-socket armature, a small to medium size is best and will typically work for any puppet ranging from 6 to 10 inches in height. Draw your character diagram in a generic pose with arms slightly fanned out from its sides to give you plenty of space to work around. In the example shown in Figure 3.1, I’ve designed a basic human figure. The diagram shows some additional movement I wanted to incorporate in the shoulders, using the sockets to give him the option of shrugging by shifting them upward. Some added sketches of the shrugging arms help me visualize this a little bit for scale purposes. For the spine, I used a piece of plastic beaded doll armature, and cut some pieces of brass square K&S tubing, which will be used for the sockets (Figure 3.1).

[Figure 3.3] Hammering a dent into the K&S tubes.

For the K&S tubing, you should purchase at least two different sizes from your local hobby shop. (If you don’t have a hobby shop or hardware store in your neighborhood that sells K&S tubing, try ordering from http://www.ksmetals.com.) The idea behind the two different sizes is that the smaller size will slide into the larger size and fit together. In this case, I used K&S stock number 153 for the larger tube, which is the 3/16″ size, and K&S stock number 152 for the smaller tube, which is the 5/32″ size. A twisted strand of 1/16″ armature wire is meant to slide into the 5/32″ tube, so this is the right size for it to slide in snugly without wiggling around.

For the two shoulder sockets, the large tubes are attached to the armature, so the small tubes can plug in from the top. For the hip sockets, one tube is attached the armature horizontally on the bottom, so the small tubes can plug in on each side. The small tubes should not go all the way through to the edges of the large tubes, but should have a tiny bit of space sticking out. To help keep the tubes in place, not pushing too far in, you can plan for punching a dent in the large tube at the point you want the small tube to stop and essentially lock into position. With this configuration in mind, lay the K&S tubes over the diagram and make marks with a felt-tip marker to determine the sizes to which they should be cut (see Figures 3.2 for a closer look at the measured marks.)

To make the dents in the tubes, simply line them up in a mitre box; place a small Phillips screwdriver, a nail, or a center punch on the exact spot; and give a few small taps with a hammer (Figure 3.3). Then, cut the large tube pieces and slide the small tubes in to make sure they lock into position properly. An alternate step to this process is to slide the tubes into each other and then punch a small dent into both of them. This will provide a notch for the smaller tube to fit into and lock strongly into position. The double dents will keep the plug from slipping out, but it also might make it harder to pull out if needed, so experiment to see what works best for your design.

[Figure 3.4] Lining up the tubes with the diagram.

Next, you can cut the small pieces. As you progress, keep lining things up with your diagram to make sure you are staying on track with things in terms of size (Figure 3.4). To get the small pieces out of the larger sockets, simply use a small Allen key to push them out from the other side (Figure 3.5).

Once all of your pieces are cut, attach the large socket tubes to the armature in the proper place with hot glue (Figure 3.6). This will not be the ultimate solution for keeping them affixed because it’s not strong enough for all the pressure you’ll eventually put on the puppet. It’s just a temporary measure for keeping the pieces in the right place. Next, for the arms and legs, cut and twist some aluminum wire pieces and slot them into the small tubes. Continue measuring against your diagram, and put the whole figure together to make sure it’s working for you in terms of proportions (Figure 3.7).

[Figure 3.5] Pushing the tubes out with a small Allen key.

[Figure 3.6] Hot gluing the socket tubes to the armature.

[Figure 3.7] The various pieces and limbs slotting together.

[Figure 3.8] Mixing the two-part epoxy glue.

[Figure 3.9] Dipping wires into the epoxy glue.

The next step is to permanently glue the wires into the small tube pieces. Use a tube of two-part steel epoxy glue, squeezing out equal amounts and mixing them together on a piece of cardboard with a Popsicle stick until they are an even color (Figure 3.8). You only have a few minutes to work with the epoxy until it sets, so dip the wires into it right away (Figure 3.9) and then slot them into the tubes (Figure 3.10). Let them sit for at least 45 minutes to 1 hour to ensure that they are firmly set inside. While that’s going on, you can affix the large socket tubes to the doll armature with some epoxy putty (Figure 3.11). When everything is dry, you have the essential elements in place for a simple plug-in armature with removable arms and legs (Figure 3.12).

[Figure 3.10] Gluing wires into the K&S tubes.

[Figure 3.11] Affixing the socket tubes to the armature with epoxy putty.

[Figure 3.12] Completed armature with plug-in arms and


[Figure 3.13] Plug-in armature for “Little Bronwen”

puppet. (Courtesy of Bronwen Kyffin.)

At this point, you can add a removable head if you wish, using more K&S attachments, or just permanently attach a Styrofoam-ball head to the top bead of the doll armature with hot glue. You can also begin working on building the arms and legs, with corresponding hands and feet (removable or not) as separate pieces. An armature like this can be covered with clay, latex build-up, fabric clothing, or a combination of these materials. With all of these particular materials and more, a wire-and-socket armature is especially handy. A clay puppet, for instance, needs to be re-sculpted constantly while being animated. The nice thing about being able to take the puppet apart is that it allows for re-sculpting or replacement of different limbs without the need to put pressure on the entire puppet on set. It is particularly useful if you create a puppet, for example, with clay or latex limbs and short-sleeved clothes made of fabric. Fabric clothing is a relatively forgiving covering in terms of working around it, and if the limbs are skinned with a different material, there is no need to hide any seams where the plug-in sockets are.

Another advanced method for building a plug-in wire armature is presented here thanks to professional stop-motion puppet builder Bronwen Kyffin. This method combines wire limbs with chest and hip plates made of aluminum blocks (Figure 3.13). The blocks have been cut to shape and drilled with holes for the limbs to plug into on the sides. Everything on this puppet can be taken apart, including the arms, legs, chest, waist, and feet (Figure 3.14). In addition to holes for the plug-ins on the sides, the front of the block has additional holes that have been tapped with threads to accept tiny set screws that hold the limbs in place. The end of each aluminum wire limb is covered with a small brass tube and inserted into the plug-in hole behind the threaded holes. Brass is used because the aluminum wire is too soft to have screws embedded into it and would likely snap inside rather quickly. Set screws are put into these threaded holes to fit snugly into notches in the brass to lock the limb into place (Figure 3.15). In the event that the limbs break, the set screws are removed and a fresh limb can be inserted back in its place.

[Figure 3.14] Plug-in armature with all limbs taken apart.

(Courtesy of Bronwen Kyffin.)

To help prolong the life of the wire limbs, they are covered partially in electrical shrink-wrap tubing. The tubes are slid over the twisted wire and blown with a hot-air dryer to shrink their form around the wire and make them stronger. The wires used for the torso/waist area are a bit thicker at 1/8 inch, while twisted 1/16-inch wire is used for the arms and the wrists. The fingers are made of threaded 24-gauge floral wire, which is even thinner. The logic behind using different gauges of wire is simply to work out the tension of the puppet from the inside out.

A similar principle is applied to the other puppet, which uses the doll armature for the body and wires for the limbs. When animating either of these puppets, it is likely that most of the pressure from the animator will be placed on the torso. One hand will grip the body tightly, while the other hand moves an arm or a leg, for instance. Ideally, you want to have less tension on the limbs so that they can be moved without putting too much pressure on them. At the same time, the waist should be stronger so that it can take more abuse from the animator and not risk being moved while the limbs are animated. Even with a very strong armature, any of these wire puppets might only last long enough for about 1 to 3 minutes of screen time before needing replacement, repair, or retirement. Think and plan ahead for just how much animation needs to be performed and whether those movements are broad or subtle in order to get the most mileage out of the building methods you use.

[Figure 3.15] Close-up detail of plug-in limbs and threaded holes for set screws to hold them in place. (Courtesy of Bronwen Kyffin.)

For any armature you build, another element that can be added is an extra socket for plugging in a rig. If your puppet has any moments where it needs to jump, fly, dance, or defy gravity in any way, you can suspend it in mid-air for as many frames are necessary by attaching it to a rig (Figure 3.16) or even an anchored piece of strong wire. The rig can remain visible in the shot and can be removed later in post-production. Once again, K&S tubes work well as a possible option for assembling this socket for the rig to plug into. In the example shown here (Figure 3.17), a 3/16″ tube has been glued to my armature on his backside, so a 5/32″ tube can slide into it and be held in place by a helping hand rig. Dents have also been punched into these tubes to help lock them into place. The helping hand rig, found at most hobby shops, is a great tool for holding puppet parts when building and works great for jumping rigs. The joints on the rig are the made of the same pieces as a ball-and-socket armature, so it can essentially be animated itself. (You can even buy several of them and cannibalize their parts to make your own ball-and-socket puppet armature, if you wanted.)

[Figure 3.16] Puppet armature on a rig for flying or jumping shots.

[Figure 3.17] A simple plug-in attachment for attaching the rig.

Hands and Feet

Once you have your arms and legs built, the next step is to build some hands and feet. If you are covering your wire arms with clay, it is best to avoid an armature for the hands and extending wires into the fingers. In most cases, the wires will constantly poke through the clay, which can usually be posed to hold its shape for tiny fingers without the need for wire inside. If you plan on creating hands in a mold or using the latex build-up process, it will be important to create an armature for the fingers with some form of posable wire.

To create some hands, I used single strands of 1/16″ aluminum wire and laid them out in the proper position at the edge of the arm, which had its end loop folded over (Figure 3.18). It’s best to cut them a bit longer than necessary because this ensures that they will be long enough (they can always be trimmed down later). A little masking tape helps to keep them in place. Epoxy putty is applied to the arm to create rigid bone shapes in proportion to the rest of the body, and more is applied around the fingers to create the base of the hand. Using needle-nose pliers helps to pinch the epoxy tightly around the fingers, and rolling their shape between them helps to ensure that they will harden with the right shape around the wire (Figure 3.19). If the epoxy is sculpted too loosely over the wire, the fingers can come loose and will need reinforcement with more thin layers of epoxy in the space between the fingers. This shape of the hand should be finessed as much as possible before the epoxy hardens completely.

[Figure 3.18] The beginning of constructing hands for a wire armature.

[Figure 3.19] Sculpting the base of the hands with epoxy putty.

For the feet, the ends of the legs are cut and twisted to fit snugly around a nut for creating a tie-down (Figure 3.20). A little dab of hot glue may help keep it in place initially and can be trimmed away once it dries. From this shape, epoxy putty can be placed in one slab over the tie-down to cover it and another piece sculpted behind it as a heel piece (Figure 3.21). Leaving some wire between these two epoxy shapes creates a bend in the foot that will help in creating some realistic foot posing in any walking animation. The important thing with these shapes is to keep the bottom of the foot flat the whole time. This is a tricky shape to sculpt using epoxy putty because it must be done quickly before it sets and can get rather messy, but once the battle is won, it works. One thing to watch for amid all the scrambling to get the shape right is making sure the tie-down hole doesn’t get filled in with putty (Figure 3.22). Once it hardens, you won’t be able to get the bolt into it. This will inevitably happen when applying the epoxy from the top of the nut, so while it’s starting to set, I typically push the eraser end of a pencil into the nut to push the epoxy back in, and screw the bolt into the tie-down to help ensure that it will screw into it (Figure 3.23). When it’s all finished, the epoxy should be flat on the bottom, with the tie-down empty and flush to the sole of the foot (Figure 3.24). As this process unfolds to include both legs and arms, compare the proportions back to the armature to ensure that they are level, not crooked. The last thing you want is to have one leg much longer than the other one. If they are part of a plug-in armature, all of these limbs are still removable and can be worked on independent of the torso (Figure 3.25).

[Figure 3.20] Placing nuts for tie-downs into the foot pieces.

[Figure 3.21] Sculpting epoxy putty around the tie-down to make a basic foot shape.

[Figure 3.22] Epoxy can get into the tie-down hole, which is not good.

[Figure 3.23] The epoxy can be pushed into the hole using the bolt that will go into it.

[Figure 3.24] The completed foot with a flat bottom flush to the tie-down.

[Figure 3.25] All four limbs finished and laid out.

[Figure 3.26] Start the latex build-up process by

dipping the wire hand into liquid latex.

As an alternative to tie-downs, you can use earth magnets embedded into the feet for the purpose of attaching to a metal platform on an animation set. Magnets are common on TV stop-motion productions, where animation scenes must be churned out quickly and the time-consuming practice of drilling holes into the set and covering them up would be inconvenient. Having a magnet in the foot can restrict the design choices because those strong enough to hold up a puppet are usually a bit large. Television characters in stop-motion (like Bob the Builder or David Pilkey’s Dragon) often are designed with large feet as a result. A character with medium-sized to tiny feet cannot likely be held up by a magnet alone, so tie-downs are a better choice in this situation.

To apply latex build-up to the hands, start by dipping the hand in a thin layer of liquid latex (Figure 3.26) and then applying tiny wisps of cotton to the base of the hand and around the fingers. The fingers are covered by applying a wisp of cotton to the bottom, allowing the latex to create some tack to it, and just rolling it around the wire with your finger (Figure 3.27). Applying more latex with a brush, the wrapped cotton will adhere itself a bit more. To create additional layers and a smooth shape to the fingertips, dipping them into the latex also helps (Figure 3.28), but not so much as to create clumps and fat fingers. Working over the hand and fingers with a small brush and continually building it up with tiny pieces of cotton will eventually create the desired thickness and shape of the hand (Figure 3.29). It is important to continue smoothing it out as much as possible with a brush or fingertip, and keeping plenty of space between the cracks of the fingers. This area in particular can easily collect clumps of cotton and latex, which can result in a stubby look to the fingers if not kept separated. Eventually, the latex may become too wet to work with, without falling apart and getting clumpy. It is best to know when to stop and let the latex dry a bit because it can still be easily tweaked, sculpted, and finessed when it is semi-wet but not yet dry (Figure 3.30). With hand designs as well, keep in mind the aesthetic quality of varying the lengths of the fingers. Whether or not you create a realistic hand (four fingers and a thumb) or a stylized hand (three fingers and a thumb), keep in mind that the middle finger is longer than the others, and the pinky is smaller. Creating all fingers the same length tends to make hands look more like rakes or forks.

[Figure 3.27] Wrap cotton around the fingers.

[Figure 3.28] More tiny dips into the latex smooths and shapes the fingers a bit.

[Figure 3.29] Continue to shape the cotton and latex around the hand with a brush.

[Figure 3.30] Completed latex hand before it dries completely.

The same technique of building up small pieces of cotton and latex can be applied to the feet and any other parts of the puppet. Even little details like toes, the ball of the foot, warts, bones, and knuckles can be created with little rolls and wisps of cotton and applied carefully to blend in (Figures 3.31 and 3.32). It is best to start with thin layers and build up places where the body needs more bulk, keeping it a bit thinner around the joints, where the puppet should bend. One of the hard things about latex is that it dries very tough and gummy, with a rubber surface that is hard to penetrate. Layers applied too thick can cause the wires to spring back while trying to hold animation poses. Therefore, it’s important to use latex sparingly and avoid adding too many layers. For any parts of a puppet that require more bulk, try to use more cotton under a thin layer of latex applied with a brush for the outer skin. Wash your brushes often with soap and water; in most cases, the latex will simply peel off the brush. Sometimes, the latex can be difficult to clean off, so it’s best to use cheap brushes that are easily disposed of after they are used.

[Figure 3.31] Applying latex build-up for a puppet foot.

[Figure 3.32] Dried latex foot and hand parts.

[Figure 3.33] The entire puppet armature,

half-covered in latex build-up.

The latex build-up technique is a fun way to create skin for your puppets (Figure 3.33), and it is relatively simple to get used to. The way the skin bulges and stretches over the armature is really fun to play with, and offers a quality and texture that can work for many different design styles. Like any method, latex build-up does have its drawbacks. In particular, it generally works better for one-off puppets and can be challenging when trying to create duplicate copies of the same character. Having replaceable limbs does help with this because you can create a bunch of back-up arms and legs to replace when they break. They won’t be exact replicas like what you would get by creating molds and casting them, but they can be pretty close if you try hard enough to replicate the proportions as closely as possible.

When painting the latex skin in whatever color your puppet is, you can use regular acrylic paint or any other special acrylic paints you can find that work specifically with latex. A good tip is to mix the paint with a very small amount of Pros-Aide, a special adhesive used by special effects make-up artists. Depending on where you live, you can likely find it at any stores that sell these products, or at http://www.pros-aide.com. Pros-Aide helps thin the paint and allows it to stretch over any bends and bulges in the puppet’s movement as you animate it. Be sure to use a tiny amount; if you use too much, your puppet will be tacky and sticky to the touch, picking up dirt from your fingers pretty easily. For a smoother matte finish to your puppet and to reduce any tackiness or shiny appearance, you can apply a layer of baby powder or corn starch to the skin, by brushing it on or mixing it into the latex as it dries. Overall, play safe and have fun with it— the possibilities are endless. In fact, going back to what I said earlier about clay arms and hands, if you do want to use clay for the skin of your puppet, you can cover your wire armature with latex build-up first, and then apply a thin layer of clay over it once it dries. The latex build-up provides a solid shape over the wire, including over fingers, and can alleviate some of the re-sculpting needed when using solid clay.

Ken A. Priebe has a BFA from University of Michigan and a classical animation certificate from Vancouver Institute of Media Arts (VanArts). He teaches stop-motion animation courses at VanArts and the Academy of Art University Cybercampus and has worked as a 2D animator on several games and short films for Thunderbean Animation, Bigfott Studios, and his own independent projects. Ken has participated as a speaker and volunteer for the Vancouver ACM SIGGRAPH Chapter and is founder of the Breath of Life Animation Festival, an annual outreach event of animation workshops for children and their families. He is also a filmmaker, writer, puppeteer, animation historian, and author of the book The Art of Stop-Motion Animation. Ken lives near Vancouver, BC, with his graphic-artist wife Janet and their two children, Ariel and Xander.