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.

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

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Puppet Hand Mechanism (2006/2010)

I'll be taking down my old website soon, so I'm converting some of my old pages into blog posts so they don't vanish from the internet forever. This is one of them.

Palm of hand:
Back of hand:
This is the mechanism that gives Moss his working left hand. It's very low-tech, made of cardboard, drinking straws, elastic bands, masking tape, and invisible thread. The mechanism is based largely on this activity from Canadian children's science magazine YES Mag.

Below is a video from 2006 of the mechanism in action:

The red trigger seen in the video is from one of those "snapper" toys with a plastic animal head on the end of a stick.

In 2010, I replaced the trigger with the arrangement seen below: the four threads run through a hoop (made from a paperclip) on the arm rod's dowel and tie onto a plastic ring, which I pull to close the puppet's hand. This method gives me more control and a wider range of motion.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Puppets Up! 2015

Last weekend was the eleventh Puppets Up! International Puppet Festival in Almonte, Ontario. It was also the eleventh one that I attended.

The highlight act of the festival for me was Big Nazo's Intergalactic Creature Band. The show was presented as a rock concert being put on by extraterrestrials in the hope of drawing more of their kind out of hiding. The aliens were all larger-than-life puppets and costumes with latex skin that looked like they stepped out of my fever dreams. Creatures came and went, and the lead singer went through multiple physical transformations, all while playing catchy rock music. Not pre-recorded, either -- they really were playing guitar, drums, and bass while wearing these ridiculous outfits. It was delightfully bizarre.

In the picture below you can see Cornea the Astro Troll (left) interacting with the lead singer (right, in one of his many incarnations). Cornea is a walkaround character whose head takes up most of her height. The performer inside can wiggle her arms and nose, open and close her mouth, and even stick their arm (clad in a red sock) out of her mouth to be her tongue!

I also enjoyed Bernd Ogrodnik's Peter and the Wolf. We'd seen Bernd at Puppets Up! back in 2009, when he performed this amazing piece, among others. Peter and the Wolf featured beautiful tabletop puppets that borrowed elements from marionettes. Using a clever control on the back of the head, the puppeteer could work the head, arms, and legs of a character, all with one hand!

We weren't allowed to take pictures during the show, but here's a picture of the set. It had magnets strategically positioned around it to hold characters in place when the puppeteer's hands were occupied elsewhere.

Saturday night was the festival's adult-only cabaret. I did a tabletop puppetry act based around the song "Nice Legs Shame About Her Face" by The Monks, featuring Moss and my new character, Lexi. If you can't tell, Lexi was built specifically for this act. Her legs are from a Barbie doll knockoff, and my middle and index fingers go inside them, enabling her to walk around. I might do a post about her design and construction sometime later.

Atlatl made his work-in-progress debut in the parade on Sunday. He got a pretty good response from the crowd, and I was able to keep my arms up inside his head for the entire seventeen minutes that it took to walk the route. In the picture below, you can see the title character from Tanglewood Marionettes' The Dragon King on the left.

Also on Sunday, our friends Nicole and Stef came to the festival with their four-year-old and ten-month-old. For all the times I'd been to the festival, I'd never gone with kids before. It was great fun -- we took them to Tanglewood's aforementioned Dragon King and Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers' The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. We'd seen both shows before, and both of them are great. We're also friends with both troupes, so they let us take the kids backstage afterwards. Cedar, the four-year-old, thought that was really cool; she'll probably insist upon it at every puppet show she goes to from now on. Here we are goofing around with Frogtown's sheep puppets.

A terrific festival all around. See you in 2016!