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.