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.