Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Scary Bear Soundtrack Concert


On October 20, the Abstractions will be performing at a Scary Bear Soundtrack concert at the Shanghai Restaurant on Somerset Street.

Scary Bear Soundtrack is an Ottawa-based indie synth pop band fronted by my friend Gloria.

Several songs will include my puppets as vocalists or musicians. But one song in particular will feature my first foray into live projected visuals, which are becoming a big thing these days. I'll be making use of some ideas developed for the bear play, which now seems to be on permanent hiatus.

Here's a sneak peek preview. If you know the circumpolar constellations, you can guess what's going to go in that empty space in the middle.

The concert will actually be our second collaboration. Way back in 2010, I performed with Gloria at what I believe was Scary Bear's first public performance, back when they were still acoustic (and I still had hair):

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Meet Mumford

I built the original Mumford at Mermaid Theatre's Animotion. We were given a bunch of empty containers of various shapes and told to make something. As a result, he was the first puppet I ever built that I didn't design first -- I just started building and saw where it took me.

I made a big mouth out of yogurt containers and a fat little body out of a milk jug. With those features, I thought maybe he should be an opera singer, which is why I gave him a bow tie and permanently closed eyes. His springy arms were inspired by Tom Servo of Mystery Science Theater 3000. When I started performing him, he developed a nonsense dialect, and his character fell into place more easily than any other puppet I'd made.

It was my wife Julie who suggested his name, after I mentioned that we'd listened to a lot of Mumford & Sons while building our puppets. (There's a Muppet with that name, but what the hell.)

The original Mumford is a tabletop puppet, performed from behind. At Mermaid Theatre, I developed a routine for him where he's trying to eat a piece of cake, but the phone keeps ringing. Here it is again, because I think it's really good:

Flash forward to now, and I'm working on a routine wherein a puppet watches TV and things fly out of the screen at him. The audio will be a collage of real clips from television, the crummier the better. Originally it was going to feature Moss as the unlucky protagonist, but I quickly realized that it should be Mumford instead, the poor hapless guy that stuff just happens to.

This meant that I'd have to build a new version of Mumford, one that could be manipulated from below, Muppet-style.

I wondered if the new Mumford should be built out of more "proper" materials than milk jugs and yogurt containers. But both my wife and Mike Petersen (of Mermaid Theatre and Fraggle Rock fame, who loved my cake/phone routine) agreed that I should keep the materials the same. (It occurred to me much later that it's appropriate that Mumford is constructed from trash, because so is this routine.)

So, I set to work. The new Mumford's hands included two features I'd never used before: removable arm rods and poseable fingers. For both, I took a lot of inspiration from Kim McFarland's amazing Fraggle puppets. I cut a hand shape out of a piece of foam, then sliced it down the middle to create two halves. On the inside of one of the halves, I glued a long piece of wire, twisted and bent into four fingers. I also glued in a short piece of plastic tubing, the right width to accommodate a piece of coat hanger bent at an angle.

For his arms, I bought a spring and stretched it out slightly with pliers. As with the tabletop version, his hands needed to be weighted so that his springy arms wouldn't just stick out to the sides. I used three washers per hand, gluing them to the inside of one half, and cutting a depression into the inside of the other half.

Once I'd glued the two halves of the hand together (leaving a gap at the back of the hand so that the arm rod could be inserted and removed), I used scissors to sculpt the hands into a more refined shape. Later on, I would add another piece of plastic tubing, in the same orientation as the vertical part of the arm rod, but with a slit cut in the back for inserting and removing the rod. This prevents the hand from twisting around the rod's axis. You can see this tube protruding in the picture below; I ended up trimming it to be shorter than this.

I actually had a hard time finding a 4 litre milk jug -- in (Upper) Canada, milk comes in bags! -- but once I found one, I attached the arms, the bow tie (made of cardboard and a pop bottle lid), and the legs (made of cardboard and crumpled newspaper). I discovered that working the arms with rods from below meant that they needed to be longer than they were in the tabletop version; I would later move the legs lower on the body to accommodate these proportions.

Mumford's head was probably the most difficult piece to figure out. As with the tabletop version, the head was made out of yogurt containers:

But while the tabletop head was controlled from behind, with holes in the back of both the upper and lower jaw to stick my fingers in, the head in the new version had to be controlled from below. It needed a natural-looking neck, yet I wanted to still be able to open the mouth as wide as possible for the sake of expressiveness.

So there was lots of experimentation (and many wasted yogurt containers) as I tried to figure out the best place to put the hinge and holes. (Luckily, I got a lot of yogurt for free from my job at the Herb & Spice Shop.) For help, I reached out to Michael Schupbach of the Puppet Kitchen, whom we met while honeymooning in New York City. Taking his advice, I made the upper part of Mumford's head longer by combining two containers of the same size, extending the head backwards to cover my hand completely. This way, my hand entered the upper jaw from below, so there was no need to put a hole in it, only in the lower jaw. This looked a lot more natural.

I used foam to make hand grips on the mouth plate, which is made from the lids of the yogurt containers.

For the neck, I used a white sweatshirt sleeve, taking another suggestion from Michael Schupbach.

I attached the neck to the body at the bottom of the body, giving the neck freedom to move at the top. As with the tabletop version, I sculpted his eyelids out of foam with scissors.

I removed the handle from the back of the milk jug and did some reconstructive surgery, supplementing with bits of an empty vanilla jug I got from work. I put some foam on the inside of his back to adjust the position of my arm, and I made the neck hole a neat oval.

The structure completed, I then covered his head and body with two layers of hockey tape, a wonderful material I learned about at Mermaid Theatre that takes paint very well. I painted his head and body white and his bow tie red. Here he is hanging upside down so that I can paint his legs.

And here's the completed Mumford, with a (still unpainted) prop TV that I made from a Styrofoam cooler for the skit I'm putting together.

When Mumford walks across the stage, I plan to grip one of his legs with my left hand and use that to manipulate his body in a walking motion. This will help create the illusion of a floor underneath him. For years, I was obsessed with the idea of trying to manipulate the legs of a puppet that was visible only from the waist up, figuring that even that barely visible movement of the legs would enhance the reality of the puppet (an obsession which culminated in Moss' legs walking on a carpet). Since Mumford started out as a tabletop puppet, this kind of movement is already built in.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Me and My Shadow

Lately I've been trying to find ways I can improve my children's puppetry workshops.

When I talk about the different kinds of puppets, I explain how shadow puppets work, and I show the kids this picture of a Javanese wayang kulit puppet:

But as with Mr. Punch a few years ago, it occurred to me that I ought to have a real shadow puppet to show them. Why pay me to show them a photograph?

I enlarged that picture (identified as Sita from the Ramayana) and cut it out. Then I traced it onto card stock and cut out the body, the two upper arms, and the two forearms/hands.

In my research, I came across this picture from GreenerBali.com and saw that these puppets have a lot of internal detail. Some things, like the eye, I cut out myself, along with holes in the shoulders, elbows, and wrists to create joints. But for the rest, the solution (as suggested in this post by blogger That Artist Woman) was to use paper doilies. I bought some that were the right size to have the same curvature as the relevant parts of the puppet. I cut out the parts of Sita's body that needed detail, leaving a narrow border around the edge to maintain the proper shape. Then I placed each doily in the position where the holes in the doily corresponded best with the edges of the cut-out area. I glued them in place with PVA glue.

One nice thing about being married to an artist is that I almost never have to buy my own paints. Once the doily pieces were all in place, I painted the puppet black and gold, and then (taking another suggestion from That Artist Woman) sprayed all the pieces with three coats of Mod Podge, the sealant beloved by Pinterest crafters everywhere. I used the spray kind so that it wouldn't gum up the doilies and block light from getting through the holes.

I attached the body parts together with joints I cannibalized from a shadow puppet kit that my friends Charles and Pixie got for me in Turkey. The control rods were made from my old standby, coathangers. I used pliers to bend the rod for the body into the proper shape and hot-glued it into place. I epoxied the ends of the arm rods to the wrist joints so they could rotate a full 360 degrees, as is typical for these puppets. To make the other ends of the rods easier to hold on to, I bent them around and covered them in electrical tape.

And here she is, along with the photograph I started from:

Nailed it.

At the same time, I built a stage to perform her on. It was good that I built the puppet and the stage concurrently, because then I could tailor them to each other, continually adjusting the height of the shadow screen and the length of the puppet's rods until they worked perfectly together.

My bear colleague Katya Vetrova, who has done a lot of shadow work, suggested a shower curtain as the screen. I was going to use a big cardboard box to make a more traditional shadow puppet stage, but since portability is essential, I came up with a stage that could simply be rolled up for transportation.

The screen is supported by two vertical pieces of PVC pipe, leftover from some abandoned project. I tried a few things to hold the pipes up, but ended up going with my Dad's suggestion and getting some heavy pieces of metal designed for plumbing. The PVC pipe fits snugly inside the brass piece, which I've permanently screwed into the galvanized pipe flange. No danger of this falling over!

I got a white vinyl shower curtain, cut it to size, ironed it flat (with a dishtowel between the iron and the vinyl!), and hot glued its left and right edges to the two pipes.

In this picture you can see the stage in use. Sitting on the table between my arms is a plastic cell phone stand, on which sits my cell phone with its flashlight function turned on to provide the illumination. When not in use, I slip the pipes out of their metal bases and roll up the screen like a scroll.

Photo by Andrew Gwyn

And now I'm all set. With the lights off, the picture at the top of this page shows what the kids will see. Much better than a photograph.

Saturday, 22 October 2016


About a year and a half ago, I shared the trailer for my friend Pixie Cram's short film Joan, an impressionistic retelling of the story of Joan of Arc.

Well, the whole film is now online! Check it out:

Joan/Jeanne from Pixie Cram on Vimeo.

Pixie made Joan during an artist residency at DAÏMÔN centre de production in Gatineau, Quebec. The whole film is stop-motion animation, even the parts with live actors (a process called pixilation). The visual style was inspired by paintings.

I assisted with a few of the shots, including the candle flame and the pomegranate, and I played the role of the cleric.

I also made one other special contribution. It was winter, and one day on my way to the studio, I slipped on the ice and cut my hand. When I arrived, I asked Pixie if she had a Band-Aid. She said "Yes, but first, can I film your bleeding hand?" I said sure. So when Joan has her vision of stigmata, that's my hand -- and that's real blood!

For more behind-the-scenes information, check out this great interview Pixie did with Ottawa Indie Fest.

This past summer, Pixie shot her next film, the post-apocalyptic Pragmatopia. I didn't help out with that one, so I can't wait to see it!

Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Other Eric Carle Favourites

This blog has been silent for a while because it's been a crazy few months, which culminated in us buying a house!

One thing I did recently was to attend Mermaid Theatre's touring production of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Other Eric Carle Favourites. It's a black light show featuring three stories -- Little Cloud, The Mixed-Up Chameleon, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Photo from Mermaid's website

The audience was, of course, full of kids who know the books backwards and forwards. So when the caterpillar appeared, the audience went so wild it was like a rock star had stepped out on stage. ("Oh my god, it's THE very hungry caterpillar!")

One effect I really loved was the chameleon's tongue shooting out to catch a fly:

Photo from Mermaid's website

I couldn't figure out how they'd done it; it looked like animation. Turns out the tongue is painted onto a conveyor belt (unconnected to the chameleon's head), which the puppeteer pulls from the far side to make the tongue shoot out. Meanwhile, the fly is a two-dimensional rod puppet painted on both sides. The puppeteer "twiddles" the rod between his fingers so the two sides of the fly rapidly alternate, like a thaumatrope. It looks really cool.

The show was also a reunion for me, as my classmate Simon from Animotion was one of the puppeteers! It was great to see him again. Check out this terrible selfie I took.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016


The bear play continues to move forward, albeit very slowly since everyone involved has multiple projects on the go. This past summer I did a couple of experiments, both based around the idea of wearing a bear on my hand like a glove.

For the first one, I tracked down a black bear Beanie Baby and dissected it. (Some might call this sacrilege, but our country's economy went off the Beanie Baby standard years ago.) It was almost exactly the right size, though I had to safety pin a few things to get it to fit my hand exactly. The top hat is a mock-up made of Bristol board.

The second experiment was a variation on the cave painting bear puppet I'd made the summer before. It still has an uninterrupted outline, this time made of glow-in-the-dark plastic string (the kind you make bracelets out of at summer camp). The bear's two-dimensional body parts are made of black craft foam, and they aren't attached to each other, but they're all attached to a black glove I'm wearing. The constellation Ursa Major is painted on it in glow-in-the-dark paint so that it looks like a constellation come to life. (It looks even better in total darkness, but the camera couldn't pick that up.)

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Atlatl's Legs

In the last couple of weeks, I've made a lot of progress with Atlatl's legs.

When we last left our heroes, I'd built his feet, and I'd made them the biggest I could, figuring I could trim them down later. I'd also started to build one of the legs.

Well, I tossed out the leg I'd started and made something different. His new lower leg started with a straight cylinder of one-inch foam.

As always, I used GIMP a great deal to superimpose images of the foot I wanted over images of the foot I had so I could figure out what I needed to do. Referencing a lot of photos of elephants, as well as a tutorial by Monika Zagrobelna, who has an amazing series of tutorials on drawing various types of animal, I decided that I would indeed make the feet smaller.

I wanted to keep the back of the foot at the same point, so I started by hacking off a chunk at the front, as seen above. Then I redrew the oval in the new, smaller space, and cut it out. Here's the bottom of the foot now:

The foot is going to get narrower as it goes further up. The red oval in the picture below shows where the circumference of the foot will be at the top of the thick piece of foam. It looks like I'm cutting my own toes off, but the edge of Atlatl's foot will actually pass through the piece of foam that sits above my shoe.

I also bought a pair of pyjama pants that fit over my regular pants; I'll be building Atlatl's legs around them. I safety-pinned the big cylindrical foam leg to one of the pant legs, and that's as far as I've gotten for now.


Update, three days later: I've now sculpted the foot further, so it really is narrower at the top.

I started by drawing a green line around the side of the foot, to mark the level at which the foot should hit its largest size. Then, I stuck a metal rod into the foot at a point on the red circle, and out again at that green line, so I knew where the diagonal edge of the foot should be. Then I cut through the foam until I reached the rod.

Then I removed the rod and did the same thing at a point slightly further along the red circle, cut down until I reached the rod, and then cut across from the first point to the second point.

Then I did it many more times, until I'd gone all the way around the foot. I then used the scissors to neaten up the new edges I'd made.

It now looks much more like an elephant foot, and it's easier to walk in it too. You'll notice that I also trimmed the bottom of the leg. Below the cut is where the leg will curve outward to meet the foot.

 Before and after