As you may have noticed, articles on this blog have been appearing a little less frequently than before. I have decided to drop down to only two posts per week, rather than three. New articles will now be appearing every Tuesday and Friday. I have some ongoing family issues that take a lot of my time, and this seemed like a good way to ease the pressure without just totally dropping the blog altogether.
That being said, on to the links!
Volpin Props has a step-by-step guide up for his latest prop creation, a Magister’s staff from the Dragon Age video game. I’ve been following the progress of this piece on his Twitter and Facebook, and it’s great to see the whole thing finally come together. And, it’s a nice introduction to matrix molding.
I don’t know the source of this, but this video showing the inner workings of animatronic heads recently surfaced on the Internet. I find it fascinating to see all the mechanisms and bits that go on the inside, and how it all comes to life when the skin goes on top.
For the holiday show at Triad Stage in Greensboro, we remounted the production of Snow Queen we made last year. I had built a number of puppets for the show which only requited minor adjustments and maintenance, but I wanted to completely rebuilt the crow puppet. He went through so many iterations and modifications last year as we tried to discover what worked best, so the end result was a hodge-podge of cobbled-together parts and mechanisms. He was difficult to maintain and he broke frequently. When I knew we were remounting this production, I budgeted in a complete rebuild of the crow.This time around, I was able to order more appropriate and precise materials, rather than assembling it with whatever I could find at the Home Depot.
I made a video showing the inner mechanisms of the puppet and how it is operated:
You can compare that to the puppet I made last year. The rod is now two pieces of aluminum which sleeve together, rather than two pieces of PVC pipe which bend and wobble. I abstained from using any string this year, which always stretched and lost tension, or broke completely. Most importantly, I planned the construction out so the parts were completely modular, and everything could be taken apart with bolts, screws or Velcro. The crow last year was a bit of a nightmare when it came to maintenance, because a lot of the pieces were permanently attached to each other, so it practically required laparoscopic surgery to fix anything that broke.
My major project for the past few months involved engineering and constructing a number of animal puppets for Triad Stage’s production of “Snow Queen”. I wrote about the white-tailed stag last week. One of the most complicated puppets in terms of motion and movement was the crow. He also had the most stage time out of all the puppets, appearing on his own in several scenes. I began work on him shortly after beginning the stag, so that I could have plenty of time to develop the means to have a single puppeteer perform all the actions he needed to perform.
You can see a bit of the “evolution” of the puppet’s mechanisms in this video.
The major difference between the prototype puppet in the video and the final puppet was that I switched the pole to connect on the side rather than from behind. It gave the puppeteer much more control over the puppet by letting him manipulate the orientation of the crow’s body by twisting the main control pole, rather than having to stoop and squat.
As you saw in the video, the head and neck were controlled by an inner pole which was free to rotate on its own. Strings ran inside which could turn a bar that held the head.
At the other end of the control bar was a similar bar that held the other ends of these strings. The puppeteer could both swing the bar back and forth and rotate the inner pole with just one hand. The other hand was free to flap the wings.
If you look closely, you will see the wings were actually attached to mousetraps. Pulling a string moved the wings down, and the springs in the mousetrap moved the wings back up when the string was released.
The pattern for the crow’s body was developed in a small prototype by the puppet designer, Bill Brewer. I enlarged this pattern and cut it out of black EVA foam sheets. I came up with a pattern for the head and beak to match the look; like the other puppets in the show, the appearance was not meant to be realistic, but was stylized to make the crow look like he was cut and folded out of sheets of paper.
The solid black crow tended to disappear when on stage, so he was given a final paint job by the scene designer, Howard Jones. He accentuated the flat planes and folds on the crow with white and silver paint, helping make the crow “pop” against the background.
The majority of my time this past autumn was spent working on puppets for Triad Stage’s production of “Snow Queen”. The play is an original retelling of the Hans Christian Anderson tale, set in the Appalachian Mountains with bluegrass music.
The animals (other than the two birds) were designed to look like they were constructed from cut and folded paper. Bill Brewer, the puppet designer, came up with the range of motions he wanted the puppets to have. Each puppet only had one puppeteer to operate it, which is tricky when the puppets are this large and manipulated by actors rather than trained puppeteers. We worked together to distill their movements down to the simplest motions so their moments on stage would be evocative and magical.
The stag had the most logistical challenges, so I began work on him first. The main challenge was that the lead actress rides him around on stage, so it needed to support her weight and remain comfortable for the operator to carry her while still working the puppet. I used a marching band snare drum harness to attach the puppet to the operator. We used these out at the Santa Fe Opera this past summer for a similar purpose, so I already knew it was the best option for comfortably distributing the weight over the operator’s body while keeping a strong and stiff connection to the puppet.
You can watch the evolution of the skeleton and mechanisms in the video below:
It took me about a month and a half to get the movement right (I was working on the other puppets at this time as well, and we produced a whole other show within that time frame as well). My goal was to have this skeleton ready for the first week of rehearsal so the actors could begin working with it and discovering what it could do.
When the puppets were not being used in rehearsal, I took them back to start adding the three-dimensional bodies. It was vital that the actors used the puppets in rehearsal; the evolution of the puppet scenes was shaped dramatically by the discoveries of how the puppets moved and reacted.
For the solid parts, I attached chunks of EPS foam and carved them into shape.
To get the “folded paper” appearance, I laid some pieces of Wonderflex over top of the foam. Wonderflex is a plastic sheet which becomes formable at a very low temperature; you can let it drape or fold it like fabric, and when it cools, it retains that shape.
For the neck, I needed a much more flexible material, and after some experimentation, found a type of fabric which matched the appearance of the rest of the stag, but would allow the puppet to retain its full range of motion.
The head itself was carved by Brewer. We played around with a few designs for antlers, and ended up making them out of several interlocking segments. The ears were cut and shaped from more Wonderflex.
By that point, we were already loading into the theater, so the long task of filling, sanding and priming was done there. After base-coating the puppets to a uniform white color, they were shaded with grey and silver paint to accentuate the flat plains and folds. Most of this was done by Howard Jones, the scenic designer on the show.
Last fall, I did the props on Crazy for You. For those unfamiliar with the show, there is a scene were a cowboy shoots his gun off in the saloon. The bullets hit various objects in the room for comedic effect, including a cuckoo clock that explodes.
I have not shared any photographs or information on the clock yet because I was actually writing an article on it. The full details and pictures are now up in the latest issue of Stage Directions magazine in an article called “Don’t Go Cuckoo.”
I also shot a short video showing the action of how the clock cuckoos, explodes, and how long it takes to reset it for the next performance.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies