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Coat Hangers for Armatures — Making Your Own Model

From Susannah Shaw, this is the first in a number of adaptations from the new book Stop Motion published by Focal Press.

All images from Stop Motion by Susannah Shaw. Reprinted with permission.

All images from Stop Motion by Susannah Shaw. Reprinted with permission.

This is the first in a number of adaptations from the new book Stop Motion published by Focal Press. Written by Susannah Shaw, this book provides the first truly practical introduction to the craft skills of model animation, This month we delve into character design.

I really admire all Ray Harryhausens work. I did try to emulate him when I started with my own home movies. In the attic I remember making a model dinosaur, which was bendable wire coat hangers as armatures I didnt know anything about the right wire or the right rubber, materials or anything. I used foam rubber on the body but I didnt know what to cover it with what would make leathery skin so I used my mums old nylon tights and spray painted it. I never got to make that movie I had big plans for it: live action/animation movie but it never came off.

Nick Park

Practice and experience lead you to your own favorite materials. I hope to give the beginner a basic route toward making their own puppets and some idea of the choices. The puppet used in this book is a relatively cheap example of a professional puppet. It is strong, flexible and versatile and should require a minimum of maintenance. A variety of techniques have been used in making the puppet. There are many simpler ways of making an armature and covering, however, for the purposes of this book, I feel that a naturalistic looking puppet with a natural movement of limbs will be generally more helpful to the beginner.

Wallace and Gromit. © Aardman/W&G Ltd. 1989.

Wallace and Gromit. © Aardman/W&G Ltd. 1989.

Character Design

I very much liked making the puppets for The Pied Piper (Cosgrove Hall Films) which was a film that we tried to do in the style of a Jiri Trnka film. The style of the puppets was very simple, but they had highly articulated armatures, so they could do an enormous range of movements. It had been done in the past, in Czechoslovakia and in Russia, but it was not something that had been seen on British television. For animation at its best, the one character I would choose from all the puppets Ive worked on is the Pied Piper himself. He was very light, had a lot of articulation, the spine curved, but the look was very simple. A similar, more recently made puppet that had those qualities was the Periwig Maker from the film of the same name.

Peter Saunders

Just a few tips on character design as with everything: keep it simple. Dont be constrained in your ideas by technical considerations, but when you are designing your characters, think about how they will relate to each other in size and style. Only when you have your ideas on paper and you start thinking about materials and structure, might you need to modify them. If you are designing and building your own model, you will need to draw it to scale on graph paper and it is always a good idea to get some advice on feasibility, materials and costs from a professional model making company.

Range of modeling clays. Back left: Lewis Newplast (English clay), in front left: Sculpey, back right: Van Aken, middle right: Plastalina, front right: Lewis Uro, front center: Fimo. Photo credit: Susannah Shaw.

Range of modeling clays. Back left: Lewis Newplast (English clay), in front left: Sculpey, back right: Van Aken, middle right: Plastalina, front right: Lewis Uro, front center: Fimo. Photo credit: Susannah Shaw.

You will need to think of how your character will communicate: is there to be dialogue? If there is how do you intend to animate that? Chapter 8 deals with lip sync (mouth movements in dialogue). You need to decide whether to have a plasticine head, a head with replacement parts (a removable mouth), or a head armature (skull) incorporating a moveable mouth. Or no mouth at all!

Its very difficult to say what makes a good character. Keep it simple you can make it as simple as you like as long as you put eyes in! You do need eyes. Having said that, of course in the Polo ads (commercials made at Aardman), there werent even eyes! Just polo mints bobbing around but with a lot of emotion!

Luis Cook, animation director, Aardman
Model in relaxed pose. Courtesy ScaryCat Studio.

Model in relaxed pose. Courtesy ScaryCat Studio.

Nick Park developed a wonderful character design with both Wallace and Gromit with the brow being the device to portray the emotion. Sure, Wallaces mouth is undeniable as a huge part of his face, but the eyes and the brows seem to do all the expressing, and in Gromits case, being a silent character, they do it all.

The voice you use for your character is as important as the look. Of course, you might choose to work without dialogue and use only sound effects and music, but if you are thinking of a voice, take some time to choose the right one. The voices you choose will help shape your character even more. You have an idea of the look of your characters, but what of their size, proportions and weight? The scale needs to be decided on for the set at the same time all the props need to be to scale. What materials would you be making them from? If you go for the cheaper materials, the general rule is that it will be harder to animate. The more expensive the armature, the more responsive the model, the better your animation. Puppets can be made with a combination of materials: wire, clay, foam latex, silicone, wood, resin, leather, fabric, insulation board, polystyrene (Styrofoam), fiberglass.

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Drawing of armature (left) and built armature. Courtesy ScaryCat Studio.

You will want to take the following into account when designing your puppet/model:

1. How much does it need to bend?

This will dictate how strong your armature needs to be, what to make it out of and where the weak points may be.

2. Whats a reasonable scale to work with?

The scale for a human figure of average size seems to be about 20-25 cm, although puppets can range from 15-35 cm. If you need to go to close-up it would be worth making something on a bigger scale so that textures look good on camera.

3. How subtle will the movements need to be?

You may need to make or have made a ball and socket armature.

4. How robust does it need to be?

Do you intend to use it for a long film? A series? Will you need to make copies?

5. How will it stay fixed to the floor for each shot?

Do you need tie-downs (screw the foot to the floor to stop it falling over) or magnets and therefore need a perforated steel base for your set? Or are the puppets light enough to just need double-sided sticky tape?

6. Do all parts need to move?

Maybe certain parts of the body could be made with hard materials. Take this into account when preparing moulds.

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If you have the funds, you can take your designs to a model making company. If you decide to make your own models it will be a process of trial and error, there are certain rules, but there are just as many new ways to try out and compromises to make. You need common sense, creativity, adaptability, but above all patience. And by doing it yourself, you will learn a lot more about the animation process.

To read more about craft skills for model animation, check out Stop Motion by Susannah Shaw, Burlington, Massachusetts: Focal Press, 2004, 206 pages with illustrations. ISBN 0-240-51659-1 ($34.95).

Susannah Shaw is program development manager for the Animated Exeter Festival. She as head of Bristol Animation Course from 1996 to 200 at the University of the West of England and former camera assistant at Aardman (working on A Close Shave among other films).

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