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