Search form

Coat Hangers for Armatures -- Making Your Own Puppet

In this months excerpt from Stop Motion, Susannah Shaw continues her look at character design with making your own model.

Stop Motion by Susannah Shaw. Reprinted with permission.

Stop Motion by Susannah Shaw. Reprinted with permission.

Making Your Own Puppet

The best way of controlling the models shape and movement is to give it a skeleton, or armature. A basic armature can be made reasonably cheaply, with wire. The best wire to use is aluminum, which comes in several thicknesses. Twisting two or three strands together in a slow drill can prolong its use. If you cant afford aluminum wire, you could use tin wire, but tin is more springy (has more memory) than aluminum, and will therefore make animation much harder. There are many ways you could choose to design your armature.

If you are making an armature for your puppet, it is best to keep it to the sizes mentioned above. Anything with an armature cannot be made much bigger or smaller because of the sizes of the parts you will be using. Plan your armature by drawing it out. The model described below has been designed with low cost in mind its the same model weve used throughout for the animated sequences, so her flexibility is demonstrated. She is made with a variety of materials each dependent on a different model making process. This puppet should cost between £150-£200 to make. In Chapter 6 I go into more detail of professional processes; it may be worth referring forward.

First of all get three lengths of 1.5mm wire twisted together by holding them in a drill running on slow, to make the limbs and the spine and a single strand of 1mm wire for the wrists, looped round a washer for the palm, and twisted. If an armature for Plasticine is too strong, when trying to animate the puppet you will simply poke the wire through. Because of this, our puppet only has wire in the wrist and not the fingers. It makes animating the hands a lot easier and less restrictive.

Glueing wire armature. All puppet making images courtesy ScaryCat Studio.

Glueing wire armature. All puppet making images courtesy ScaryCat Studio.

Its always a good idea to be able to remove head, hands and feet, as they often need extra work so glue on a section of square brass sleeving K&S of sizes that will slot into each other for arms and hands, and head and neck. K&S is square brass tubing that you can buy in any model shop. It comes in different sizes allowing a smaller size to fit into a larger, giving a firm, well-located joint. (K&S is only available in imperial sizes.) An M3 nut is soldered onto the larger piece of K&S at the wrist, neck and ankles. This allows the grub screw to be used to hold the smaller size of K&S in place. This in turn holds the wire in place. The strands of wire are then epoxy glued into the relevant pieces of K&S to form the armature. Washers are epoxy glued to the wrist wire to form the palm of the hand.

To keep definition of the elbows and knees, strengthen the upper and lower arms, and the thighs and calves of the figure by feeding the twisted aluminum through a short length of brass sleeving. Leave enough space for the wire to bend so that the strain is not always on exactly the same spot. Too small a gap between them will make it easier to break.

Steel plate cut with a junior hacksaw, is soldered to the three pieces of K&S on chest piece using silver solder.

Finishing wire armature.

Finishing wire armature.

Head

For the head, it is useful to be able to remove the head and hands for sculpting, leaving the figure in position. It also means less wear and tear to the puppet. So neck joints should have K&S to slot into the head, i.e. 5/32 on the neck and 1/8 in the head. If you are using a clay head, always model the head with a lightweight core to the rear, to allow for eye sockets and a recessed mouth. Too much clay will make the head heavy. This head core is made with coat hangers for armatures textured Milliput, to help the Plasticine key to it. Inside the Milliput head is a piece of K&S for the neck and a piece of K&S for the hair. The head can be removed, as can the hairpiece.

If you are making an animal you might want to add a moveable wire snout and ears to the head core. And if the animal is on all fours, you will need to design it a little differently.

Hair

Resin cast hair is useful especially for series work, because the constant removing of the puppets head to animate its mouth would mess up Plasticine sculpted or theatrical or dolls hair. Our puppets hair has been made with Milliput, with a Plasticine-covered wire attached for the ponytail

Eyes

The easiest way to make eyes is using white glass beads, using the hole as a pupil that can be manipulated with a toothpick. Be careful if youre using a pin or paperclip, as it could scratch off any paint on the eyeball. Painting the irises can be done with a toothpick holding the bead, held by a slowly rotating drill hold your brush steady and fill in the color around the hole. You can also buy eyes from specialist manufacturers (very expensive) or cast them yourself out of resin.

Mixing Plasticine.

Mixing Plasticine.

Hands

Hands can be just made with Plasticine on its own, or, if you want to make it stronger, over an armature of fine aluminum twisted wire fingers stuck in a resin palm. Plasticine will allow a fist to bend convincingly, and a firm connection with an object. However, endlessly having to resculpt and clean fingers is a drawback. An easier alternative may be silicone; however, that can be springy in comparison to Plasticine.

A square brass K&S tube joint is glued or soldered onto the wrist to fit into a tube on the arm. Spare hands are also useful as during filming hands invariably become worn and grubby and if they do have wires, they often break.

Feet

Feet can be made with flat metal plates, or aluminum blocks. It is best to make feet with two plates as a convincing walk is very hard to achieve with a solid, flat foot. Hinged metal plates for your feet can be made with holes drilled in so that the feet can be screwed down to the floor and locked with a wing nut on the under side, or pinned down. This is a slow but reliable method known as tie-down. A more flexible and quicker way of holding feet in place is to use a thin perforated steel tabletop with rare-earth magnets under each foot to hold your puppet steady. These magnets are expensive, but very powerful and should be treated with care they can give you a nasty pinch! Make sure the magnets are kept well away from your computer and video equipment as they can interfere with their magnetic fields.

British animators are, on the whole, more used to working with magnets, while American animators tend to be more used to the tie-down method. Their armatures are made with tighter armature joints making it harder to keep the rest of the puppet still while you move one leg, unless its firmly tied down.

The shoes for this model are made with silicone: the shoe is first sculpted in a hard Plastiline. To smooth the Plastiline, you can use lighter fuel because Plastiline is much harder than other modeling clays, it doesnt get slimy. The sculpt is set into a bed of ordinary potters clay which will come half way up the boot. The Lego blocks make a wall around the sculpt so that plaster can be poured in and left to set. This will make the top half of the mould.

Sculpting Milliput head.

Sculpting Milliput head.

The process is then repeated, making a mould for the other half of the boot. Then you will have two halves of a mould into which you can place the foot armature. (See section on mold making for more details about the process.)

Once the two halves of the mould are clamped together, you can pour in the silicone (see Chapter 6, section on casting silicone). In this case the model makers have used a colored silicone. Once the silicone has cured, or set, it can be removed from the mould. There will be a little excess silicone around the joins of the mould these are called flashlines and will need trimming, either with fine nail scissors, or fine sandpaper.

To cover the body, we have chosen snip foam. Other choices could be to cover her fully in Plasticine a heavy choice; or with foam latex, a process explained in Chapter 6. Snip foam is cheap, easily shaped and light. It is basically upholstery foam, snipped into shape and glued on with a contact adhesive.

Clothing her involves a hunt for fine-textured fabric that will nevertheless be robust with constant handling. Cat Russ used a fine jersey for her jumper and cotton for her jeans. Once covered with fabric, you have an individual, highly expressive looking puppet.

List of Materials Used to Make This Model

Armature K&S (square brass tubing, comes in different sizes; we used 5/32, 3/16 & 7/32 of square brass K&S tube)aluminum wire; we used 1.5mm and 1mm thicknessesepoxy gluesteel plategrub screwsMilliputnutsvicewashers for palmssoldering equipmentjewelry saw

Hands and Head English Plasticine mixedlatex glovessculpting tools

Eyes white beadspaintbrushesenamel paint

Hair MilliputPaintbrushesacrylic paintsculpting toolsPlasticine for ponytail wire for ponytail

Shoes PlastilineLEGO bricksK&SPaintbrushesclayVaselineplastercasting siliconesculpting toolssilicone paint basesilicone pigments

Snip Foam upholstery foamscissorsEvostick gluePins

Clothes fabricsewing equipmentfabric dyesiron/ironing boardwonder web for pocketspatterns

Susannah Shaw.

Susannah Shaw.

This puppet would be strong enough to last for a short film. There are many cheaper and easier ways of making puppets. But in order to practice subtle, naturalistic movement, you will need a puppet at least this strong and flexible.

To read more about craft skills for model animation, check out Stop Motion by Susannah Shaw, Burlington, MA: 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 was 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 Close Shave among other films).

randomness