Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Daytime Ottawa, 9 October 2013


Here's my appearance on Rogers TV's Daytime, hosted by Derick Fage and Lois Lee (photo above by Reid DeLong).  Thanks to Sean Augstman, the director, and to my friend Paul Donnelly, who taped it for me.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Abstractions on TV!

This Wednesday, October 9, I'm going to be appearing (with a puppet) on Daytime, the community events show on Rogers TV (cable 22) in Ottawa. 

I'm usually a volunteer on this show (it's crewed mostly by volunteers), but this week I'll be in front of the camera, performing a skit I developed at Animotion.

The show is usually broadcast live from 11 AM til noon, but it might be preempted by coverage of the City Council meeting.  It's always repeated, though, at 2 PM, 5 PM, and 11 PM.

I'll share the video on here if I can, but may not be able to for convoluted copyright reasons.  So if you live in Ottawa, check it out!

Here's a video of my previous appearance on Daytime.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Atlatl takes shape, part two


Something about the fall air seems to make me more creative and productive.  Maybe it's the memories of going back to school.

I printed out a couple of photos of Atlatl and drew on them to figure out what changes needed to be made. A gourd-shaped body seemed to be what I should be going for.


On the basis of the drawings, I adjusted, replaced, and eliminated some of the hoops, then went outside again.

This time I didn't have to change too much.  Moss was able to sit on his back quite comfortably.

Photo by Inta Dreijeris.

The most difficult part was the bottom hoop, since the body needs to be long enough to cover my crotch when standing or sitting.  If the hoop is too narrow, it constricts my legs; if it's too wide, it trips me up when I run.  I may end up replacing this hoop with elastic.

Photo by Julie Cruikshank.

I'm now confident in saying that the body shape is tentatively finalized.  I'll have to adjust it more anyway once I've built prototype legs, which is the next step.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Atlatl takes shape

One of the things I brought to Animotion was Atlatl's head, in the hope of getting some feedback and direction.  Here's what Atlatl's working prototype looked like before, with my right hand working the head, and the body formed by a dome umbrella mounted on a backpack:


As I've mentioned, our teacher was Jim Morrow, the Artistic Director of Mermaid Theatre.  Over the years, Jim has honed an extraordinary ability to watch you perform a half-built puppet for a couple of minutes, and immediately pinpoint what you need to change to make it work better: put a hole there, lengthen that rod, etc. We learned this when we showed him the puppets that we'd been building in the first week of the course, and I asked if we could do the same with Atlatl.

The first thing he pointed out was that since my right arm was working the head, the neck was coming out of the right side of the body instead of the centre.  So he had me put both hands on the head.  Then he told me to raise the head up above my own head instead of holding it out in front of me.

The effect of this was immediate.  Now, when I moved the head or walked, my whole body got into it, which it never had before.  It was also less tiring because my head was helping to support the weight.

Still from a video taken by Ryanne Chisholm.

Jim recommended that I get rid of the umbrella (which was, admittedly, quite awkward) and instead make the body from a series of hoops hung from the head.

For help with this, I went to see Deb MacLean, Mermaid's Production Manager. She let me check out the giant dinosaur marionettes from their show When Dinosaurs Dine By Moonlight.  The dinosaurs' various body parts are made of fabric supported by hoops made of plastic tubing.


Not only does this keep the puppet light, but it also means that the pieces can collapse into almost nothing for easy storage and transport.


I started work right away, buying some tubing at Home Hardware (and borrowing some hula hoops from the theatre) and building in the theatre's loft in the evenings.  I began hanging hoops on strings from the head and from each other, so I could adjust their positions as a prelude to actually putting on the fabric.


Although it was coming together, I really needed to be in two places at once -- inside the puppet performing it, and outside the puppet working on it.  Jim suggested that I mount the head on something so I could move back and forth between the two without the puppet collapsing when I got out of it.

When I got home to Ottawa, I overlaid some images in GIMP to try and determine the best positions for all the hoops.


I decided that the head needed to be another 40% larger.  In case I changed my mind again, though, I didn't completely rebuild the head in the new size -- I just made a cardboard cutout.  I mounted this cutout on my camera tripod with cable ties.  My ceilings were too low to accommodate Atlatl's full height, so I set it up to work on my knees.

After considerable time both inside and outside the puppet -- adjusting the length of strings, adjusting the diameter of hoops, looking in the mirror -- here's what emerged.


The white hoops, made of plastic tubing, are his neck, and the blue hula hoops are his body.  Note the small object taped to the front of the second blue hoop.  This is a weight made of a bag of coins; it's there to keep the front of his body a straight vertical line.  Without it, gravity would tend to center the hoops relative to each other.

The whole setup put me in mind of this photograph of the old T. rex skeletal mount being assembled at the American Museum of Natural History:

Thanks to my friends at the Dinosaur Mailing List for helping me track down this photo.

A distinct advantage of using a tripod was that the whole thing could be folded up and stuck in a corner when I wasn't working on it -- a necessity in our tiny but busy apartment!


Once I had the basic shape down, I took it outside (where there was no ceiling in the way) and actually wore it.  I walked around, performed a little bit, looked in a mirror and made a lot of further adjustments.

Photo by Inta Dreijaris.

The shape isn't quite finalized yet -- it needs a bit more work -- but I'm really happy with it.  It was a beautiful day, too!

Video taken by Julie Cruikshank.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Words, words, words

You know, I never noticed before. But most of the puppet shows I've seen, whether in a theatre or on a screen, have been incredibly dialogue-heavy.

I mean, I've always known that puppets don't need to speak.  Indeed, that's something I demonstrate in my workshops by manipulating a teddy bear to show various emotions: he can communicate happiness, sadness, and fear purely through gesture.  But it wasn't until I attended Animotion that I realized just how much talking goes on in most puppet shows.

The puppets are constantly talking about how they feel, talking about what they've done, talking about what they're going to do, cracking jokes. Yak, yak, yak.  Even my beloved Fraggle Rock is guilty of this.

Not that it's necessarily a bad thing.  But now that I notice it, I can't un-notice it.

It probably happens because these shows start with a script. All the dialogue is written before anyone actually picks up a puppet. Conversely, Jim Morrow taught us to develop a play with gesture alone, and then layer text on top of it.  Most of the bits we created at Animotion had no talking at all. Those that did only used dialogue to convey things you couldn't with gesture ("Honey, will you water the flowers?"; "Is she there? Put her on!"). Sometimes they'd have dialogue at first, but with further rehearsal the words would drop out as we realized we didn't need them.

(Edited to add: To put it another way, the writing and the rehearsal were the same thing. Writing was a physical action.)

Aaron Diaz, creator of the webcomic Dresden Codak, did a blog post about how he puts a comic page together, and he said something really interesting. He knows what has to be conveyed in a scene, but he doesn't write the actual dialogue until the images are almost done. The text doesn't lead the image, it augments it.

Like comics, puppetry is a visual medium. I'm not saying puppets should never speak -- indeed, it's quite possible that you couldn't sustain a half-hour show with gesture alone.  (Then again, ballet does it!)  But so many puppet web shows consist of puppets talking to the camera, and I can't help but wonder if there are other ways to do it.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Animotion Rules!

I'm back from Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia's three-week intensive puppetry class, Animotion.  And what an amazing experience it was!

To begin with, this is the sight that greets you when you walk in the door.


The building is filled with puppets from past shows, from Just So Stories to Goodnight Opus.  So right from the start, it was incredibly exciting and inspiring just to be there. It also came in useful: whenever we got stuck creatively while building our puppets, we were encouraged to wander around and be inspired.

The class itself was taught by Jim Morrow, Mermaid's Artistic Director, and Struan Robertson, a Production Associate who does a lot of their puppet building.  It was held on the stage of the 400-seat theatre that's part of the Mermaid complex, which also includes several workshops and rehearsal spaces. There were five students in the class, which was a perfect size.

Big Dough Boy in action. Photo by Struan Robertson.

Every day began with exercises like juggling and sandbag balancing, and drama games like keeping a ball in the air.  Over the three weeks, we worked with various different types of puppets: hand puppets, little Dough Boys that took three people to operate, big Dough Boys that took five people to operate, found objects, tabletop puppets, and live-handed floor puppets. We also worked with puppets that we'd made during the evenings of the first week, and got the benefit of Jim and Struan's insight into how to make them work better.

Through it all, we learned to divide motion into beats to give our puppets thought; to move our bodies along with our puppets instead of planting our feet; to keep our own movements elegant and efficient to avoid stealing focus from the puppets; and so much more.

 Jim helps Ryanne put her old lady puppet through its paces.

Two of the biggest lessons I learned weren't officially part of the curriculum.  The first was that puppet building is supposed to be fun.  This sounds obvious, but the truth is that when I'm building puppets, I tend to get very tense and irritable.  When we were building our puppets at Mermaid, we were chatting, listening to music, and sometimes having a drink -- it was a relaxed atmosphere.  This is something I'm going to try to keep up now that I'm back.

The second lesson was that I am capable of generating material. Once we'd gotten the hang of performing a certain puppet, we were handed a prop -- a lemon, a watering can, a telephone -- and told to create a routine or a story with it. And every time, we did it! I had no idea I could do that. And I certainly never would have thought of using a prop as a catalyst. I'd always tried to start with dialogue, which never worked.

Struan and me with the puppet I built. Photo by Wendy Elliott.

I would recommend Animotion to anyone who is serious about puppetry. I presented a workshop at Westfest yesterday and can already tell that Animotion has made me a better puppeteer. On top of that, it was made clear to all of us that we now have a relationship with Mermaid Theatre -- this class was only the beginning.

I also got a lot of insight and new directions for my full-body puppet, Atlatl.  Watch this blog in the weeks to come!

The Animotion 2013 gang: Jen, Jim, Ryanne, Simon, Struan, Alanna, and me. Photo by Margo Gesser.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Nova Scotia Bound

In just two days, I'll be flying to Windsor, Nova Scotia, to attend Animotion, a three-week intensive puppetry class at Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia.

Mermaid first made a name for itself doing puppet shows based on Mi'kmaq legends, and now largely does adaptations of children's books.  I've seen a number of their shows over the years -- I saw The Red Ball, pictured below, when I was in nursery school -- and they've all been terrific.


Needless to say, I'm pretty excited, especially since this will be my first formal puppetry training. I can't wait to see what I'll learn!

(In other news, I've attached the wiper mechanism to the Heart of Gold, and it... sort of works.  I'll make some adjustments when I've returned to Ottawa.)

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Naomi's Arc

Naomi doesn't just bob up and down when she walks.  She also moves side to side with each step, moving her body in an arc but always keeping her head vertical.  This is a style of puppet walking that Tim Gosley taught me; he called it "the Mokey walk".

The windshield wipers on the buses here in Ottawa do the same thing.


Special thanks to the bus driver who turned the wipers on for me so I could film them for this GIF.  Note how the wipers move in an arc, but since they're constructed of two parallel bars pivoting independently, the short bar that connects them always stays horizontal.

This was the basis for the head-bobbing mechanism of the Naomi robot, which I built out of Meccano about a year ago.

I wanted the movement of the mechanism to match Naomi's normal movement as closely as possible, so I needed to measure the arc that she follows when she walks.  I attached a ten-by-ten-cm grid to Naomi's face for scale, put her on my arm, and walked her in place for several steps in front of the camera.

Then I took still frames of each "extreme" pose -- the leftmost point, the rightmost point, and the highest point that she reached in each cycle.  The GIF below shows three typical extremes.


I used GIMP to mark the centre of the grid in each extreme, then used the grid itself to measure how far she moves vertically and horizontally.  The average distances were 2 cm vertically and 5 cm horizontally -- in other words, a 2.5625-cm arm describing a partial circle.


I got incredibly lucky with the placement of the holes in the Meccano.  Putting a distance of one hole between the two pivot points gives an arm length of 2.55 cm, which is pretty much perfect!

Here's what I built:


The red piece remains stationary while the two long green bars in the lower half of the photo move back and forth like windshield wipers.  The horizontal green bar, and the vertical one at the top, remain in that orientation, and will ultimately support Naomi's head and body.

This is why the moving part of the Heart of Gold had to move 5 cm to the left and right. The vertical green bar of the Meccano is going to attach to it in such a way that it will get dragged left and right, while the "wipers" constrain its motion so that it travels in an arc.

That's the plan, anyway.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Bring me the head of Atlatl

When I first designed my full-body puppet character, Atlatl, he wasn't going to have a head, just a large beak poking out from his shaggy body.  But at some point I realized that that wouldn't be very expressive, so I decided to merge him with another idea I'd had, to create a puppet based on a potter's rib.

A rib is a wooden tool that potters use for shaping and smoothing clay, and I'd always been intrigued by its shape.  I liked the idea of a birdlike head with a hole going straight through to represent both eyes.


I didn't want to copy the shape exactly, but it was one of those situations where I couldn't quite picture the shape I wanted, but knew that I'd know it when I saw it.  For almost a year, I doodled endless variations on the shape of Atlatl's head.  I can't tell you how many I ended up drawing, but I finally nailed it.


On August 24, 2012 -- the day after Jerry Nelson died -- I cut out a copy of this drawing and built a paper maquette, the first time I've ever done that before building a puppet.


Above are the two references I used when building the maquette.  The shape of the mouth plate was largely based on the Ritual Master Skeksis from The Dark Crystal.  The ring around the eye came from Tsimshian artist Bill Helin's depiction of a Raven on astronaut Bob Thirsk's ISS mission patch.  And the shape of the lower jaw was based on my index finger!

The completed maquette looked like this:


I imported a photo of the maquette into GIMP and superimposed it on a photo of myself with a foam cylinder on my arm to represent the neck.  Moss was in the picture too, because I plan to build Atlatl such that I can, from the inside, perform Moss riding on his back.  Then I adjusted the size of the head up and down until it looked right.


Now that I knew how big I wanted the head to be, I used my library's photocopier to enlarge the pieces, then cut them out of thick, strong cardboard from the box my laptop came in.


Then I assembled the head.  I used foam to create an internal "mitten" to hold the mouth tightly around my hand.  In the picture below, taken from behind the mouth, you can see a pocket for my four fingers on the upper jaw.  On the lower jaw, there are two thumb holes, so that I can wear the head on either hand.  I'll usually be performing the head with my right hand, but when Moss is on his back I'll need to switch.


I later replaced the simple hinge of the jaw with a band of fabric that will allow him to move his lower jaw from side to side and chew like a cow.  The rest of the head was mostly hot-glued together.  The cylinder that joins the two eyes is made of Bristol board.

A little while after I'd put the head together, I realized that it wasn't quite as big as it needed to be.  So I went back to the photocopier to make the pattern 24% bigger.  I didn't have enough cardboard left to rebuild the pieces from scratch, so I had to add on little bits here and there to bring everything to the proper size.  And here it is!


Eventually, the whole thing will be covered with papier-mache.  Exactly how, I'm not sure yet.


Looking at the head again now, several months later, it seems to me that it needs to be a bit narrower.  Further modifications are currently in progress.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

So far so good


My Dad, pictured above, has been awesome about letting me come over and helping me work on the Naomi robot.

The motor came with threaded holes for putting screws into, but none of the hardware stores I visited had screws that were small enough.  But the gentleman at The PC Room, a computer repair shop on Gladstone in Ottawa, let me look through his jar of odd screws, and we found some that were the perfect size.  He let me have them for free.

Dad and I drilled two holes in the masonite and screwed it to the motor.



Then we mounted the rotating arm on the motor's shaft.


We needed to anchor the ends of the metal dowels somehow.  We decided to cut some little blocks of wood and drill holes that were just barely big enough to fit the dowels into.  We had to place the holes carefully, because the dowel had to be held high enough off the masonite that the moving part would be free to move without rubbing against the masonite.


We hammered the first dowel into one of the blocks, slipped on the spring and the moving part, and then hammered a block onto the other end.



Then we glued the two blocks to the masonite with Gorilla Glue and clamped them in place for a couple of days to dry.  The dowel isn't technically "attached" to anything, but the blocks fit on so tightly and are glued so close together that there's no way it could ever wiggle out.  Once the glue was dry, we stuck the second dowel through the moving part, put a spring and two blocks onto it, and glued those blocks to the masonite as well.


Notice how the two springs hold the moving part nicely in equilibrium when the motor is at rest.

At some point in the design process, I'd started referring to this part of the robot as the "Heart of Gold," after the improbability-powered spaceship in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The motor is powered by eight AA batteries for a total of twelve volts.  Depending on which wires you attach to which leads, the motor can be made to turn in either direction.  I discovered that it needed to turn counter-clockwise, because otherwise the moving part bonks into the black screw that holds the rotating arm in place.


And does it work?  Behold!


There are no frames missing from this animation -- that's actually how fast the moving part bounces back.  I cannot believe that this actually works.

At least, it works so far.  Next we'll have to see if I can transfer motion from the Heart of Gold to the other part of the mechanism.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Puppet Workshop Promo Video



Just finished a promotional video for the puppetry workshop I offer to schools and day camps in Ottawa, Ontario.  Full information can be found here at my website.

Camera: Shiva Ponnampalam.
Special thanks to Phil Hoyeck and the staff and students of Bayview Public School.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Building an Animatronic

In one of the special features on the Corpse Bride DVD, the stop-motion animators describe the process of animating a character whose dress extends all the way to the floor.  The character is built without legs; instead, she is supported by a rig underneath the dress that can be adjusted minutely up and down.  This allows the character to be given a vertical bouncing motion that simulates walking.

When I saw this, I immediately wondered if a similar thing could be done with a puppet in real time.  One of my characters, Naomi, also has no legs, and also has a dress that extends all the way to the floor.  If she were placed atop an animatronic rig that was itself mounted on a small remote-controlled car, Naomi could seem to walk across the floor all by herself.  Unlike the Corpse Bride characters, she would need to move side-to-side as well as up and down, in order to better mimic the way she walks when I'm actually puppeteering her.

I've never made an animatronic before, so there's a lot of experimentation involved, and it's entirely possible that even once it's built, it won't work at all.


The part I'm working on right now is what you might call the "powerhouse" of the animatronic -- the motor and the attendant mechanisms that turn rotational motion (circular) into translational motion (side to side).

The problem I ran into right away is that every mechanism I could find that did this, slowed down as it changed direction from right to left and from left to right.  But a puppet needs to bounce with each step -- she needs to speed up as she changes direction.

The solution came from this TED Talk, in which Robert Full explains that the basic movement of any animal limb is, essentially, that of a pogo stick.




Clearly, the answer was springs.  Using this mechanism as a rough guide, I created a design that had springs at each end.  A single pinball-flipper-like rotating arm would push the moving part all the way to one side.  Once the arm rotates far enough that it is no longer touching the moving part, the spring will cause the moving part to bounce back toward the middle.

None of the hardware stores I visited had springs with the properties I needed, so I ended up buying two of these squirt guns:


...And taking out the springs inside them.  I bought a motor from Hong Kong on eBay with a speed of 60 RPM; I'd previously calculated that a hand puppet takes approximately two steps per second when walking, and one full rotation of the motor will equal two steps for Naomi.


With help from my father (and his power tools), I cut out a piece of masonite that will serve as the non-moving part of the rig.


For some reason, Blogspot insisted on rotating the above image 90 degrees when I uploaded it, and I can't figure out how to change that, so imagine that it's on its side.  The hole in the centre is for the shaft of the motor to poke through, and the vertical lines I've drawn on it (which here appear horizontal) indicate how far the moving part (which supports the puppet) will move from left to right.  I'll explain how I calculated this later.

Here's the moving part, showing where it will sit when at rest:


It consists of a smaller piece of masonite glued to two blocks of wood with holes in them.  These holes are for two metal dowels, slightly smaller in diameter than the springs, that are not yet connected to anything but will eventually be anchored at both ends.  The squares on the green cutting board are each one centimetre, so you can see how small the whole thing is.

The rotating arm was a challenge, but I found one at Great Hobbies that fit onto the shaft of my motor and had a screw for tightening it against the shaft's flat edge.



Another auto-rotated picture.  On the "left" you can see what the arm looked like when I bought it, and on the "right" is what it looked like once I cut it to the appropriate size with wire cutters and a nail file.

So here's my "parts list" as it currently stands:


The next step will be to attach all of these together.