Category Archives: Puppets


I have already introduced Abigail in a previous post, but thought I would show her again, in her new outfit.  Abigail is the main character, Sabela’s, little sister.

My talented friend Alli Easson made this costume for her.  We had a blast discussing it.  She is supposed to be wearing her favourite outfit — a stretchy jumpsuit which she’s outgrown — and rollerskates.  She’ll be sitting at the dining table, swinging her feet gleefully (though she’s not allowed to wear rollerskates at the table, who could say no to this little face?)  After many attempts, using different fabrics, Alli ended up using this orange jersey fabric, edged with a silver ribbon.

I am just so in love with this little character:

As I took the pictures, I had the strangest feeling that I was looking into her soul…

Groovy New Clothes and Dolly.

I don’t know what it is about the holidays — the non-stop eating, visiting, socializing, languishing in PJs til noon every day, or what, but it’s been extremely hard to get my butt back in gear this past week or so.  Not so long ago I used to get up at 6 or 7 am and work pretty hard all day, getting lots done, and feeling pretty accomplished.  Lately I’ve been dragging myself out of bed no earlier than 10:00, and my brain does not wake up fully until later in the afternoon.  The simplest of tasks takes three times longer than usual.  I feel like I’m in a bit of a daze.

I’m hoping to get back to my usual schedule and frame of mind soon.  It’s been a very sad week — we found out that our cat, Nova, has lymphoma.   Her health has been slowly deteriorating, and there’s not much we can do other than try and keep her comfy and give her lots of TLC.

In film-related news, here’s what’s been happening:

Alli has finished two of the puppets’ clothes.  Here’s what Sabela’s mom and dad are looking like:

So this is Liberdade and Xosé Luís, clothed in their 70s-inspired grooviness.  I’m particularly fond of the velvet pants on Xosé Luís — I could not stop laughing when I first saw him in his outfit, he was just so adorable.

These guys will be sitting, along with Sabela and her sister Abigail, at the dining room table in the final scenes of the film.

So that’s what’s happening with the puppets.  There’s also been lots of rigging and planning going on for the upcoming couple of shots.  Marcus has spent hours and hours building dolly tracks and rigging his 3-way geared head with scales for tilts and pans…

The tilt scale, above.

The base of the geared head, with rigging for the pan scale.

Here’s the pan scale, which is sandwiched between the head and the dolly.

The dolly, with geared head attached.  Marcus built this mostly of plywood, with a box housing the geared head that slides on two 5/8″ aluminum rods.  The rods are slightly bendy, which isn’t a problem with this shot, but may be later on.  The dolly is strapped onto the arm of our studio stand, extending beyond the arm into a diving board, which has been stabilized by several 2x4s screwed into the floor.

The next scene of the film involves a track back with the camera, which uses the entire length of the dolly.  The setup for this shot takes up most of the studio, so it’s hard to capture on camera, but here’s a glimpse of what it looked like a couple of days ago.  It’s 99% done, so once it’s done, I’d like to figure out what Marcus is doing here.  There are about 10 lights, and 20 little cards scattered everywhere on grip stands, either flagging or bouncing light.  I’ll take a series of pictures, trying to capture the setup, and draw out a diagram / map of what each element is doing, as best I can, in my next post.

This setup was complex — this is a continuation of the previous shot, looking over Sabela’s shoulder, towards the opposite side of the window.  We see a reflection of her face, as well as the theatre set in the window, and some sparkly stars beyond the window.  Lining up these three planes for the camera was quite a task…  this setup has taken close to a week to do.

The little window opens up via a piano hinge, so that I’ll have access to Sabela (who’s standing behind the window) while animating.  The last shot was difficult, because she was standing so close to the window, and surrounded by gear, so I couldn’t access her face at all to add her eyelids when she blinked.  I had to reach delicately through a forest of arms and cables and lights to blindly place her tiny eyelids.  I was so scared I would drop them into her dress, or somewhere that would be unretrievable!  But thankfully it worked out OK.

(This image is taken with the house lights on — I’ll have some pretty “lighting” shots with the next post…)

We also had great news about our lighting and equipment rental, which we’ve been given a huge break on — thanks, Dan at White’s!

We Have Hairdos, Yes.

My friend Loretta came by last week to cut and style all the puppets’ hair.  There are no hairdon’ts here.  Nosir.  I think they’re looking great.

First of all, this character absolutely slays me.  Is she not insanely cute?  She’s not the main character though — she’s her sister, Abigail:

Here’s the Dad, Xosé Luís.  We’re not 100% sure yet about his long 70s shag haircut; this might be cut shorter and more traditional once he’s wearing his costume…

Loretta gave the Mom, Liberdade, just the right type of look, I think.  Not 100% sure about the wire at the back; I might paint this to knock it back a bit.  Have to wait and see, again, once she’s in costume:

Finally, there’s Sabela, with her new ‘do.  Similar to the old one… it’s meant to look like she did it herself.  It’s a little-kid-ponytail.

And here’s Loretta’s fancy toolkit, and Loretta at work.  She’s brushing boiling water on the puppet to try and hold the nylon hair in place.  We later fixed the hair with some glue called “scenic cement” that’s intended for model railroad foliage.  So the up-dos are not coming down — they’re rock solid.

Thanks Loretta — you are a genius!

How to Instal the Hair

Instal?  Hair?  Well, I don’t know how else to describe this process.  I did this with both practicality and aesthetics in mind, as usual.  So it’s about 1/10 rooted strands of hair, and 9/10 glued on.  Rooted where you could see the roots, and glued everywhere else.

  1. I used these nylon hair extensions made by Easihair.  Nylon works well because it’s heat-resistant, which means you can iron it and style it with boiling water.  (Ouch, poor puppet!)  Real human hair extensions would also work, but of course they’re much more expensive, and somewhat gross, in my opinion.  So to work with these extensions, I had to take out the elastic that the hair is stitched to, splice the lengths of hair apart (they came sewed into 2 layers of hair, one shorter than the other), and iron each length of hair (on the lowest heat setting!) so that it’s straight and easier to work with.
  2. Next I painted a “cap” on the puppet’s head where the hair would go, to fill in the scalp with the colour of the hair.  I mixed about 2/3 acrylic paint with 1/3 liquid latex so that it’ll be stretchy, and won’t peel away from the scalp.
  3. Here’s what the length of hair looks like once it’s peeled away from the elastic and its other half…
  4. I hold the length of hair up to the base of the scalp, and mark the length I’ll need for the base of the scalp.  I stick the trimmed piece on with liquid latex, and work my way up the scalp, one layer at a time… letting the latex cure in between.
  5. Here’s the first layer of hair, stuck in at the base of the scalp.
  6. Then I add layers about 1 cm apart, wrapping in a horizontal semicircle around the head, to fill in the painted area.  There are about 3-4 semicircular layers on this puppet.
  7. Once I get to the top, above where the part would go, I divide the head into 2 halves, adding smaller strips of hair on either side of the part.  I.e. now the strips aren’t semicircles around the head, but rather 2 lines parallel to the part.  I build these layer by layer until the 2 strips are about 5 mm apart, surrounding where I want the part to go.  So for Liberdade, the part is on one side, so there’s one side that has more strips of hair glued in.
  8. Now comes the rooting part.  First I made a hair rooting tool out of a medium sized needle.  Using a Dremel tool, I file off the tip of the needle’s eye, making it open at one end, so that it forms a Y shape.
  9. I carefully cut apart the strips of hair into strands using an Exacto knife.  Thankfully the way these hair extensions are made, the hair is already in perfectly sized strands, looped at the sewn end.  I carefully insert the loop of hair onto the Y needle tool.
  10. Then I jab the hair into the head, strand by strand.  This is pretty hard to do… both because it’s kind of gruesome repeatedly jabbing hair into a human-like head…  but it’s also a delicate task.  I carefully hold the needle in place, with the eye side pointing towards the head, holding the strand of hair, and use pliers to force it into the scalp.  It takes quite a bit of force, which is why I learned to use plumber’s epoxy to reinforce the puppets’ head armatures.  Otherwise the head will lose its shape here.
  11. The rooted hair will stick straight up.  As mentioned above, the best way to make nylon hair take on a specific shape is to use heat — in this case, I just pour boiling water over the head (!) and smooth it down into place.  At the end, I do some paint touch-ups, making sure any latex-glue areas are painted over with the hair colour, to mask any strange gobs.

Here she is, with newly rooted and glued hair.  Later she gets a haircut and a special stylin’ ‘do!

Xosé Luís

Finally!  I’d like to introduce Sabela’s Dad, Xosé Luís.

OK, I’m still getting the hang of this sculpting with nylon stockings.  It’s not as easy as it looks!

I’m just thankful that the little dude will be wearing very heavy clothes to cover up the seams and oddities.  I’m honestly not too sure why I seamed his legs up the front, when he’ll be sitting in a chair…?

I’m very pleased with how his face turned out though; note that he will look a lot less like Geddy Lee once his hair gets cut to a short new ‘do.

And… I’m still sewing her, but here is the Mom, Liberdade, in progress.

I sure hope I haven’t broken any rules of puppetmaking by taking photos of her BEFORE she has eyes!  I realized after that I might be going against the flow here.  But I just couldn’t wait.

Meet Abigail

And, here she is with her big sister, Sabela:

Abigail is going to be sitting at a dining room table for the whole film, thus the bolt in her bum.  She’ll be wearing a jumpsuit and rollerskates.  She will be getting her hair cut and styled eventually; it’s not supposed to be quite this crazy (though I like how it looks like they’re little troublemakers, with their messy hair!)

Here’s where she was getting painted:

I’ve just cast the mom and dad, and will be working on the dad, Xosé Luís, next.  His head cast looks pretty awesome, if I do say so myself.  Which is a relief, because the first cast failed.

More soon!

How to Cast the Legs

The process I used to cast the legs for Sabela is pretty much the same in theory as the one I used to make the head.  Basically I created a latex skin, and filled it with soft Urethane Foam.  You can read all about that final foam casting process for the head here.

Step one to making these legs, which is creating an armature with rare earth magnet feet, is here.

I made the legs a little differently than the head, though.  First, I found the leg mold cavities too narrow to coat with latex while closed, as I had done with the head casting.  So I brush the latex into both halves of the open mold instead.

  1. First I added a third strand of armature wire (1/16″) to the 2 that were there before, and twisted them together.  Then I inserted a bit of that 22-gauge jewelry wire (pictured in the rare earth magnets post) into the heat-shrink tubes, and wrapped it around the 3 strands of armature wire.  I’ve learned to add this jewelry wire to all my armatures as a backup for when the main wires break… so I’ll have a little more time with the puppet before I need to replace it.  After the armature’s done, I set it in place inside the mold, and mark off where the heel ends, either side of the knee, and the top of the thigh.  These markings give me an idea where to leave the armature wire free and bendable in the next stage.
  2. Once I have the knee, ankle, and hip joint marked off, I fill in these spaces (basically the tibia and fibula / femur bone areas) with plumber’s epoxy, providing solidity to where I don’t want the leg to bend, but leaving the joints open.
  3. I remove the armature from the mold, and brush 5 thick coats of liquid latex into the leg cavities.  Each coat needs to dry fully before applying the next.  I try to be careful in the feet, not to build the latex skin up too thickly, or else the armature won’t fit into those areas.
  4. Finally, I place the armatures back into the mold.  I brush a very liberal amount of latex on the edge of the molds, onto both halves… making sure to cover both inside the edge AND outside the edge.  This will create a pretty heavy seam on the legs when they’re demolded, but that’s OK — the seams will be removed.  The heavy edge coats just ensure that the halves of the skin will meld together.

Then I bundle it all up with the elastics and that nice yellow strap, and let the whole thing sit for a few days.  There’s not much airflow going into the mold, so this one takes longer to cure than the head does… 3 or 4 days is usually pretty safe.  Then I do the urethane foam casting as described here.

C’est tout!

Process… the Parts.

Here’s what I’ve been working on the past couple of days, and where things are going.  I’m back into crazy detail mode!

I’ve made a set of hands for each character.  After wiring them up and filling the palms with Milliput, I dip them in some slightly-watered-down liquid latex.  Like tiny candles, I hang them up to dry vertically, so the fingers form the right shapes.

I found this awesome electrical wire (right) at Active Surplus.  10 cents a foot!  So I bought 6 feet.  This 60 cent length of wire will make about twelve thousand tiny hands.  Woohoo!

I also plan all my hands to the finest detail (left)… measuring out each tiny length of wire insulation… not so much because I’m particularly obsessive when it comes to these types of details, but so that I can remember how I did them when I make duplicates.  Huzzah!

And, last but not least, I’m planning the colour palette for the dining room set.  Most of the set has already been constructed, but it’s all sitting nakedly in its pale balsa wood form right now.  Soon I will paint everything in these bedazzling colours…  Kapow!

Note how I’ve cleverly changed the numbers in the “Total Parts Needed” column to make myself feel like I’m more ahead.  I can build the backups once I know everything’s working perfectly — in other words, once I start animating.

In my estimation, the first 4 puppets will be finished sometime next week — painted, assembled, finito.  Then I can hand them all over to my friend Alli, so she can finalize the costumes.

Then: dining room, wiring up the practical lights, final set touch-ups, animatic tweaks, test animation, meetings with Marcus about the lighting, setting up rigs, renting fantastical lights, and we’re ready to shoot.  Whoopee!

Making Rare Earth Magnetic Feet

I read a few threads over on about tie-downs vs. magnets (if you search “magnets” on the message board, over 100 threads come up — it’s quite a debate!)  I also chatted with a couple stopmo animators about their preference for magnets.  Many people on the stopmo forum prefer tie-downs…  though I respect their advice, I decided not to go that route.

The main reason for my choice of using rare earth magnets can be explained by this one picture:

Not the metal button shank… but the floor.  I put a lot of work into the floor of my set, and there’s simply no way I’m tearing it apart with little holes.  I thought of using magnets only when you can see the floor in a shot, and using tie-downs for everything else on scrap pieces of wood clamped to the floor, but what’s the point of overcomplicating things?  In the end I just put my faith in the magnet system.  I can’t be 100% sure that it will work, but the animator friends that I spoke with use (and love) rare earth magnets, and gave me solutions to some of the problems raised on debates.  As a safeguard I also built the puppets to have a removable bolt in their upper backs, in case they need upward support while walking (and I’m pretty sure they will).

Anyhoo, here’s what I’m doing with the feet:

I used:

  1. 5-minute epoxy
  2. 1/16″ armature wire
  3. very flexible and durable 22-gauge silver wire, used for jewelry making
  4. 1/8″ x 1/8″ and 1/4″ x 1/10″ rare earth magnets (one of each per foot)
  5. 1/4″ diameter heat-shrink tubing pieces

I got a whole bunch of magnets from Lee Valley.  They have a great rare earth collection, as well as a handy guide to using them.  (Those things are strong! You can actually hurt yourself handling the larger magnets… as I found out.  So it helps to read the guide!)  I used 2 magnets in each tiny foot — hoping that Sabela will still be able to bend her foot in the middle while walking.  There’s one 1/8″ by 1/8″ magnet in her toe, and one 1/4″ by 1/10″ magnet in her heel.  Her feet are so small that there’s only about a 2mm gap between the 2 magnets, so it might be tough to bend her foot in the end, but at least it will still bend a little.  I might need a shot where she gets up on tip-toes, so I’d really like her foot to have some flexibility.

  1. I formed the armature wire into a loop in the middle, shaping the equal ends smooth and flat.  The loop is just large enough for the 1/8 x 1/8 inch magnet to fit into, and the entire piece of wire, when folded in half like this, is about 3 inches longer than the length of the puppet’s leg.  Then I epoxy the magnet in place at the end of the loop, making sure it’s facing the right way (all magnets need to be consistent with their direction, so they pull rather than repel each other.)  When the epoxy’s dry, I squeeze the loop tightly around the magnet with pliers.  The magnet is flush with one side of the armature loop — this flush part will be the base of the foot.
  2. Then I bend the wire at a 90º angle in the shape of the foot.  I measure the length of the foot and test to make sure the plaster mold can close around it before continuing.
  3. The second magnet gets epoxied to the heel of the foot, fitting into the corner groove made by the wire.  Again, the magnetic force has to be facing the same way as the small magnet that’s in the toe.  (I usually put dots on the “tops” of the magnets with marker so that I know which way’s which.)  Epoxying this one in place is really tricky — the magnet will want to flip over onto the other magnet.  So basically I need to hold it firmly in place by hand until the epoxy is dry… which can take a while.  There’s no way to clamp it, unless you have a non-metallic clamp… all the clamps I have attract the magnet, making it impossible to clamp in the right position.  (If I figure out a better way, I’ll update this post…)
  4. I then cut a piece of the heat-shrink tubing to the length of the foot, and slide it over the foot.  This is extra insurance that the magnets are held firmly in place.  I heat up the tubing on the stove, turning the burner on high and holding the foot up close to it until the tubing shrinks down to a tight fit over the foot.  This stuff is great, because it stays flexible and allows the foot to bend, but is strong enough to hold the magnets in place.

So with the 2 magnets in place in each foot, the legs will stand up (even with such tiny feet!) on their 1″ x 1/8″ magnetic disc pedestal.  I’ll do another post on how I finish off the legs, and make the magnetic base, another time…  Oops, the 22 gauge fine wire listed above gets used in the next stage, when I add more wires to the legs.