Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Super Simple Puppets

For almost a year now, I've been a contributor to the children's website Super Simple. They produce a ton of kids' content for the internet, especially animated YouTube videos. My job has been to create blog posts, mostly about science, with activities that preschoolers can do.

Two of my posts have been about puppets, with templates that kids (with their parents' help) can print out and assemble.

Here's one that went up today: a puppet of Peekaboo Cat, a character from one of their most popular videos. I'm really pleased with this one; I designed the puppet so that it can actually play peekaboo!

And back in June, for Super Simple's dinosaur week, I modified my blackbird puppet once again to make a puppet of the German pterosaur Pterodactylus. It was really important to me that it be accurate, so I actually consulted with some paleontologists and paleoartists to make sure I had all the shapes and proportions right.

(In the picture below, the eyeball is much higher on the head than it's supposed to be. That big bump is actually the pterosaur's soft tissue head crest.)

Super Simple does a lot of great work, and I'm proud to be associated with them! Their video series "Sing Along With Tobee" features the puppetry skills of Trish Leeper, who was the body performer of Ma Gorg on Fraggle Rock.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Blue Light Special

My supporters on Patreon paid for a blue bike light, which I'll be using as a special effect in my puppet show, "Channels".

Here's a little video showing how it will work:

You can see all my video updates for as little as a dollar a month by becoming a patron!

Sunday, 21 January 2018


I've just started a Patreon page for my puppetry projects. If you enjoy my work and want to see me make more of it -- and if you can afford it -- please consider becoming a patron. Thank you!

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Live Visuals for Scary Bear Soundtrack

I created the live visuals for Scary Bear Soundtrack's song "My First Northern Lights" at their concert at the Shanghai Restaurant in Ottawa on 20 October 2017. (The video above was edited by me from footage shot by Julie Cruikshank and Mabe Kwan.)

Most live concert visuals are created digitally, but I made mine by pointing a camera at a small-scale puppetry setup, then connecting that camera to a projector. This gave my visuals a unique kind of tangibility.

The bear constellation puppet was inspired by a Paleolithic cave painting from France. It's made of cardboard body parts, covered in material cut from a pair of black tights, then attached to a black glove worn on my right hand. The outline is a piece of string, and the stars are punched out of paper.

The stage is a piece of Plasticore, covered in more black tights and punched-paper stars. It has a hole in the middle to poke the bear through, and it's held up by PVC pipe stuck into the bases I created last year for my shadow puppet stage.

Illumination was provided by a lamp mounted on the camera tripod. I fiddled with the camera's settings to crank up the contrast while at the same time deliberately underexposing. This had the effect of "crushing the blacks" -- making the subtly different shades of black all look the same so that they all blended together.

Doing a performance like this allowed me to combine the best elements of live and filmed puppetry. Since I really was performing it live in front of an audience, I could respond to the music in real time, and the performance had a spontaneity that wouldn't have been there if I were just showing a prerecorded video. But since I was using a camera, with a single, fixed point of view, I could work with the lens to play with depth in a way that wouldn't normally be possible on stage.

The northern lights themselves were created with the device shown above: the two pieces of wire looped around two of the fingers of my left hand, and the green ribbon, held so close to the lens that it was out of focus, formed the aurora.

If you're a musician, and you'd like to hire me to create live visuals for your next concert, send me an email!

Photo by Jim Dooley

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 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.