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!

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Modifying Mr. Punch (2011)

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.

In my children's puppetry workshops, I explain that there are many different kinds of puppets, ranging from shadow puppets to marionettes. When I talk about simple hand puppets, the example I always use is the centuries-old character of Mr. Punch.

I never actually had a puppet of Mr. Punch to show to the kids, and I'd never been able to find one for sale. So at the 2011 Puppets Up! festival, I bought the rubber-headed puppet seen above from Joanne Bigham of Open Door Designs. He wasn't exactly Mr. Punch -- he seemed to be intended to represent his German cousin Kasperle -- and so I set about modifying him.

I discarded the body altogether and kept the head. I rolled a piece of card into a cylinder and glued it into the hole in his neck, reinforcing it with pieces of foam inside the head, so that it would fit more snugly over my finger and give me more control during performance.

The nice thing about a character like Punch is that everyone has a slightly different interpretation of how he should look, so I was able to pick and choose my favourite elements from all the versions I've seen. For example, I wanted his hat to be shaped like Richard Doyle's illustration for the cover of Punch magazine. I still had a plastic banana left over from my video "Viewer Mail #1", and it was just the right shape. I cut a hole in the top of his head and glued the end of the banana into position; this would form the internal structure of the hat.

My girlfriend [now wife], artist Julie Cruikshank, repainted his face for me, as he looked far too kindly. Our inspiration came from the Punch illustrations of George Cruikshank (her ancestor?), and the grey hair was based on Richard Coombs' amazing Punch and Judy show (a tiny portion of which can be seen here).

Now he looks like the kind of guy who would throw a baby out the window.

I ordered a pair of plastic doll hands from Etsy seller "The Pattern Guy" and glued them to some rolled-up pieces of card that would fit snugly over my thumb and middle finger. I made sure to make them both big enough to fit over my thumb, so that I could wear Mr. Punch on either hand.

After some trial and error, I successfully made a pattern for his hat by draping a paper towel over the banana and trimming.

I based the pattern for his body on the puppet's original body, purposefully making the neck, sleeves, and "skirt" longer than necessary in order to fit my hand, reasoning that I could always trim them back.

The shape of Punch's extremely stylized hump was based on a couple of different sources, and the fabric pattern was built around a piece of corrugated cardboard to give it the two-dimensional look seen in the Cruikshank illustrations.

I attached the head and hands to the body by tightly sewing the fabric around their narrowest points. The hump was attached by simply sewing it onto the back of the body, and the hat was glued into place at a few spots along its base.

His collar was made by sewing a piece of lace to a piece of white fabric along their edges, cutting into an appropriate shape (roughly along the dotted line seen above), and then sewing it around his neck. This had the added advantage of disguising the messy attachment point of Punch's head to his body.

The tassel on his hat came from a bookmark, and lining the base of his hat with gold trim was an idea taken from Jan Svankmajer's Punch and Judy film. Additional trim was sewn around his sleeves, around the base of his hump, and in two parallel lines down his front. The baubles on his hump were again based on Cruikshank, and were simple dollar-store gemstone stickers, three on each side.

And that's it! Now I've got my own Mr. Punch to show to the kids at my workshops. Comparing this picture to the one at the top of the page, they don't even look like the same puppet.

Moss admires a portrait of his great-great-grandfather.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Curse of the Puppet's Tomb

My friends Mat Kelly and Vic Thepmontry just posted their latest retro puppet movie, Curse of the Puppet's Tomb.

That's me as the mummy Amon Ra, doing my bad Orson Welles/Vincent Price impression.

We shot the movie last summer at Cannamore Orchard, a farm outside Ottawa that hosts a spooky wagon ride at Halloween. The Egyptian tomb set is part of their "House of Terror".

Photo by Elise Tarrant

Friday, 1 May 2015

A New Technique for Shooting the Legs of a Puppet (2011)

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.

A New Technique for Shooting the Legs of a Puppet
By Grant Harding
Published in the Summer 2011 OPAL, newsletter of the Ontario Puppetry Association

Films and television shows that feature hand puppets will occasionally enhance the realism of the characters by cutting to a shot of a puppet's feet walking along the ground. The classic example is the shot of Kermit the Frog's feet, clad in cowboy boots, as he walks out to confront the villain at the climax of The Muppet Movie.

Kermit the Frog. Source: Muppet Wiki.

I have never found these shots to be convincing. For one thing, the movement of the legs is unrealistic, mostly because the knees do not bend. This leaves the legs locked in one position and only able to move from the hips. A second problem is that the movement of the legs does not match the movement of the puppet as it is seen in other shots. Hand puppets have a distinctive way of walking, with a considerable amount of bobbing and swaying; shots of the legs do not reflect this, making the cut from one to the other extremely jarring.

Other techniques, like switching to a shot of the puppet controlled as a marionette or manipulated bunraku-style, solve the first problem but not the second; the walk is more realistic, but the style of movement remains fundamentally different.

Figure 1

Here I describe a new technique that eliminates both problems. In this setup (Figure 1), one puppeteer controls the puppet's feet from below, using rods that extend through two long parallel slits in the wooden "ground". (This idea was based on the Sy Snootles puppet in the original Return of the Jedi, whose dancing feet were controlled this way in full-figure shots.) Meanwhile, a second puppeteer holds onto the puppet's hips, supporting the legs from above and imparting the necessary bobbing and swaying motion. The legs are jointed not just at the hips, but also at the knees, so that they bend when the feet are raised.

Sy Snootles. Source:

The slits in the ground are hidden because the ground is covered with fuzzy carpeting (an idea inspired by Arthur Ganson's kinetic sculpture Inchworms). At the correct camera angle, shooting over the head of the first puppeteer, the rods that control the feet are hidden by the feet themselves.

Inchworms. Source: Arthur Ganson's Machines.

I designed removable foot controls, each consisting of a popsicle stick glued at a right angle to a piece of balsa wood (Figure 2). The popsicle stick served as the rod to control the foot; it was thin enough to pass easily through the slit in the ground, and broad enough to always keep the foot in its proper orientation. The balsa wood, attached to the sole of the foot with two pins that extended up into the puppet's leg and held tightly in place by a piece of rolled-up duct tape at its front edge, reinforced the foot and kept it from bending or twisting; the toes were unsupported by wood and thus able to bend. The popsicle stick was attached to the balsa wood on the far side of each foot so that it would always be hidden from the camera.

Figure 2

It was essential that my puppet's walk be both realistic, and consistent with established movement. I consulted biomechanical references, including the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, and took observations and measurements of the puppet's own usual style of movement. This would have to be repeated for any other puppet.

Hand puppets often lean to the left and right as they walk, and this is an exaggeration of a natural human movement: our upper body tilts down toward the foot that is being placed on the ground. At the same time, our hips swing up to the opposite side, the side of the leg we are lifting. Thus, as the first puppeteer moved the feet, the second puppeteer swung the hips in a smile-shaped arc away from the foot that was on the ground.

I determined the puppet's stride length -- the distance between two successive placements of the same foot -- by putting the puppet on my arm over a piece of Bristol board, "walking" it forward, and marking where its left foot fell at each step. I found that a hand puppet, with its side-to-side swaying, is actually taking very small steps, its stride length only slightly longer than the length of its foot. This stride length was adhered to by the puppeteer who manipulated the feet.

I plugged the puppet's stride length and leg length into an equation that palaeontologists use to estimate an animal's speed from its footprints. This yielded a step frequency of two steps per second, which agreed with previously shot footage of the puppet. A metronome was used when shooting the legs to ensure that the pace remained constant.

Taking small steps means that the feet do not have to be lifted very high. Scaling the numbers in my references down to puppet size revealed that when the heel is at its maximum height, the toe should be barely off the ground, and vice versa. In the middle of the foot's forward kick, the whole foot should barely clear the ground.

My references indicated that the puppet's feet should be shoulder width apart, which in turn dictated how far apart the slits in the ground should be. The slits themselves were five millimetres wide, small enough to be easily hidden by the carpet. The whole carpeted area was about eight square feet, but only about half of it appeared on camera.

The final shot can be viewed above. I welcome anyone who wishes to build on this technique to do so. Special thanks are due to Gordon and Suzanne Harding, Julie Cruikshank, and Frederick Blichert.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Birds at the Museum

Cousins reunited. Photo by Xander Stobbs.

My paper bird puppets started out as a project for my wedding, but they've turned into an activity that I can take to places. I provide the bird cutouts, and people can assemble them and decorate them any way they like.

After a successful test run at last year's Chinatown Remixed festival, I was keen to take the activity to a museum. The Canadian Museum of Nature holds a monthly nighttime party called Nature Nocturne, where adults can eat, drink, dance, and wander the exhibits child-free. Chinatown Remixed was in charge of running the Nature Nocturne on January 23, around the Lunar New Year. They included me and my birds as one of the activities.

They put me in the dinosaur hall, which made sense to me -- after all, birds are dinosaurs! My table was right at the front of the exhibit, under the watchful eye of Daspletosaurus and Chasmosaurus skeletons.

Photo by Don Kwan

I'd made a few modifications to the design since the last time I'd done this. In addition to the original blackbird shape (which also works as anything from a thrush to a finch), I made an eagle shape, a duck shape, a cardinal/bluejay shape, and (most popularly) a heron/crane shape.

To simplify things, I also replaced the metal coathanger, which I'd been using as a control rod, with a popsicle stick. This eliminated the need for a glue gun and for time-consuming rod straightening.

I'd planned to use a laser cutter to cut out the birds; I created vector files for all the shapes and got certified to use the cutter at the Makerspace at the Nepean Centrepointe library. Unfortunately, by the time I got the go-ahead from the museum, the laser cutter was all booked up, so I ended up cutting out all seventy birds by hand. Next time, I guess!

It was a great success. People loved it, all the birds I made got used up, and I had a big grin on my face the whole time. This is clearly the kind of thing I was meant to do. I also took plenty of notes, so I can do it even better next time.

Photo by Don Kwan

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Joan Trailer

My friend Pixie Cram has uploaded a trailer for her latest film, Joan. It's an impressionistic seven-minute retelling of the story of Joan of Arc, done using stop-motion animation -- including pixillation, or stop-motion with live actors.

Joan Trailer from Pixie Cram on Vimeo.

I helped out on some of the shots, and I actually appear a couple of times in the film as well.

Joan has had a couple of screenings in Ottawa already, and I'm sure there are more to come. Check out Pixie's website for information on where you can see it. In the meantime, here's a really cool interview that Pixie did about the film.