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