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'Stop-Motion Armature Machining' Book Review

Peter Saunders reviews what he calls a long overdue book on how to make stop-motion armatures.

Its a courageous publisher who publishes a book on model animation in todays CGI-dominated industry; its an even greater act of courage when the book in question deals not with some populist, mainstream topic of model animation but one very specialized discipline within it.

Tom Briertons Stop-Motion Armature Machining is one such book, and McFarland & Company is the intrepid publisher behind the enterprise. The book is, as the title plainly states, a manual on how to make stop-motion armatures and in spite of its somewhat anachronistic timing is long overdue. Quite what level of readership it will attain, however, I dont know. Model animation has suffered badly since the advent of computer graphics, and nowadays many would-be practitioners of the art have, out of necessity, chosen to develop their skills via computer rather than learn the craft-based skills of the puppet workshop.

Assuming that Tom Brierton was faced with no such dilemma at the outset of his animation career, one thing would have been for certain: the lack of information, text books or college courses to guide him on his chosen path. As Tom writes in his preface, one must peck through 20 to 30 years of publications in order to find what is wanted and even then most of the information that is found in them does not go into any great detail on the technical processes of creating a stop-motion armature. The great inspirational animation wizards Willis OBrien, Jiri Trnka, Ray Harryhausen, et al, kept their tricks of the trade a closely guarded secret like their Magic Circle counterparts. We all knew the principles of their wonderful illusions, but how they actually made those exquisite puppets, and what lay beneath the surface of their models, was only ever alluded to, never revealed.

In the absence of readily available information, those with sufficient curiosity, resourcefulness and enthusiasm found their own answers. Tom studied human anatomy, then replicated the human skeleton in miniature with tiny, metal, ball and socket joints. He came up with his own solutions and techniques to create his own armatures and puppets. Its the creation of the armatures that is the central topic of the book, and Tom gives a very methodical account of how to go about making them.

Thirty years ago, when I first started to be involved in model animation, but was at a complete loss on how to make my own puppets, this book would have been invaluable. Things that took me months of trial and error (mostly error!) to fathom out are systematically explained and illustrated in Toms book.

He assumes little of the reader and carefully describes tools, techniques, processes and machinery as he guides you through the various stages of making the skeleton. At the back of the book there is a glossary, list of suppliers and bibliography which (given the very specialist nature of the work) is invaluable.

The book starts with a chapter entitled, The Importance of Anatomy, in which Tom recommends any would-be armature maker to study anatomy and the figures of some of the great sculptors, such as Michelangelo and Rodin. Sound advice indeed, as, in order for a character to be animated convincingly, it is essential that the puppet is articulated where you would expect it to be, i.e., an elbow joint should be located half-way down an arm, not high up close to the shoulder. (This is true virtually no matter how the puppet is styled.)

Chapters 2 and 3 introduce the reader to the basic tools of the trade and two significant pieces of workshop machinery the lathe and the milling machine. The latter two items are not cheap pieces of equipment even at the more basic end of the market. I hope that any potential reader will have given consideration to this fact, or at least sourced access to such equipment. If they havent, they could hardly blame Tom for the impasse they would find themselves in, given the books title!

Chapter 4 and so to business! This chapter deals with the construction of a ball and socket joint, the most useful and used joint in all its different guises in puppet making. If the reader gets no further than the end of this chapter, then they should still be able to make themselves a respectable and highly moveable puppet. As with the earlier chapters, no previous metal working experience is assumed of the reader.

The construction of the joint is taken right through from drawn design to finished article, with clear and comprehensive instructions and plenty of useful work-in-progress photographs. The ball and socket joint is a deceptively difficult component to make well, but I believe that the reader should achieve good results if they followed Toms instructions to the letter.

In the ensuing chapters (5 - 8), the machining of various other types of joints is described, so by the time the reader has worked their way through to Chapter 9 they should be well able to tackle an armature of their own. A gallery of Toms previous armature constructions is at hand at the end of the book to inspire any would-be puppet maker to action.

Stop-Motion Armature Machining is a really useful and unique book for those students/enthusiasts interested in this type of work. Ideally, I would have liked to see a little more information on how the puppet armature relates to the sculpt of the character and how the armature is locked down in its mould prior to foam latex being cast round it. The latter point usually has to be taken into consideration at the machining stage, so is relevant to the book.

I also thought the price tag of $49.95 was a bit on the high side, given the size of the book and the fact that many of the people who might be interested in the books are likely to be students. Still, I hope it achieves the success it deserves and who knows it may inspire a whole new generation of puppet builders.

Stop-Motion Armature Machining: A Construction Manual by Tom Brierton. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002. 102 pages. ISBN: 0-7864-1244-5. $49.95. To order, contact 800/253-2187 or visit

Peter Saunders studied animation before joining Cosgrove Hall Prods. where he became head of puppet making. He has created highly sophisticated puppets with fully articulated heads capable of subtle expressions and lip synch. His company, Mackinnon & Saunders, makes models and puppets for commercials (including Brisk, Puffs) TV shows (including Bob the Builder, Hamilton Mattress) and feature films.