Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Ten Years!

Today is the ten-year anniversary of the first puppet video I ever put online. "Static and Josh" was completed and uploaded in the wee hours of November 25, 2004.

It was my second year at Mount Allison University; my friend Josh VanMeerveld and I shot the video in my dorm room with a borrowed digital camera.

Static was the ancestor of Moss. He was a "Knuckle-Bopper" practice puppet made by Trish Leeper that I dressed up in a Hawaiian shirt I'd gotten off a dollar-store toucan puppet. I bought a pair of baby pants and tailored them to be half their size, then made a pair of foam legs and stuck the toucan's feet on the ends. (A couple of years later, when I decided to only use puppets that I'd built myself, I kept the shirt, pants, and legs I'd added and rebuilt the rest from scratch.)

When I made this video, YouTube didn't exist yet. In those crazy days, if you wanted to put a video on the internet, you had to upload the file itself to your webspace and try to persuade people to download it to their computers in order to watch it.

The video and audio quality are poor, and the attempts at "comedy" are just embarrassing. The real point of the video was to use a split-screen effect to hide the puppeteer. We shot the video with me fully visible, crouching behind the music stand. Then, without moving the camera, we shot the music stand with nothing behind it. The bottom left quarter of the screen was then replaced with footage from that second pass.

A lot has changed in the last ten years. Since this video first went up, I've done over eighty puppet workshops for children, I've studied at Mermaid Theatre, I've met a ton of people in the puppetry community, and I've built more and better puppets and made more and better films. I can't wait to see what the next ten years have in store.

By an incredible coincidence, since I hadn't even met her yet, today is also my wife Julie's birthday. In fact, we're on our honeymoon in New York City right now. So if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take her out to dinner.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Just Married (a month ago)

Photo by Kristin Ireland of Mondays With Mac Photography

On September 20, 2014, Julie and I tied the knot. The wedding went beautifully, and the blackbird puppets turned out great.

In the end, we made 104 of them, with a lot of help from our friends.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Two puppets at once

A short test of how I'll be able to perform Moss riding on Atlatl's back.

The song is "Sunshine" by Matt Costa.

Clearly needs a lot of work, but I think it looks pretty neat.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Atlatl progress

Puppetry projects are on hiatus as wedding preparation kicks into high gear, but here's what Atlatl looks like now, covered in white broadcloth.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Cave Painting Bear Puppet

Two theatre people in Ottawa, Jake Smith and Katya Vetrova, are developing a play that will involve some puppetry, and they've brought me in as a collaborator. I don't want to give too much away, but it's about bears.

One of our sources of visual inspiration is cave paintings. I recently built a mockup of a puppet that's designed to look like a cave painting come to life. I based it on a real painting of a bear in Chauvet Cave:

Image yoinked from here.

The substructure is made of cardboard and brass fasteners and controlled with three small rods. But the outline -- the part you'll actually see -- is made of one continuous piece of string. It's only glued down in a few areas, so that no matter how the bear moves, it will still have one uninterrupted outline.

For the full effect, imagine that it's much larger, that the cardboard is black, that it's in front of a black background, and that the outline is made of electroluminescent wire.

Who knows if this puppet will actually make it into the play... The story and format are still quite nebulous, and change a lot with each meeting!

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Making a Stand

Most of the work I do on puppet projects ends up being not the work itself, but the work that has to get done in order that I can do the work.

For example: I'm in the process of attaching fabric to Atlatl's body, in a preliminary way. But once again, there's the perennial problem of how to hold the puppet up from the inside while I work on the outside. He's too heavy and complex now for me to use my old camera tripod technique. And it's not enough that the puppet is held up, but the neck also has to jut out at a 45-degree angle.

Julie managed to talk me out of buying a mannequin. (She's right, we don't have room.) So instead I decided to modify a big metal stand that I'd inherited from my friends Allison and Chris when they moved to the Yukon.

The stand separates into three pieces, so I had to convert the joint between two of the pieces into a 45-degree bend, while still keeping it solid and secure enough to support weight. And the best way to do that would be to support it from both the inside and the outside.

To support it from the inside, I used two pieces of skinny PVC pipe connected with a 45-degree elbow:


I kept the pipes long so that even without any adhesive, there would be a severe limit on how much the pieces of the stand could wiggle.

For the outside, I used a 1 1/2", 45-degree copper elbow:

I epoxied everything together at the joint. None of these pieces fit very tightly against each other, so I laid the epoxy on thick, and put most of it on the underside, where gravity would tend to make the pieces touch each other.

After I let it dry overnight, the attachment was really solid.

Just to make sure it wouldn't budge, I wrapped the joint tightly in duct tape.

So here's the completed stand:

And I can't believe how incredibly well it works!

It holds Atlatl up perfectly, freeing up both my hands to attach and adjust the fabric. And although one of the stand's attachment points is now permanent, it still separates into two pieces for easy storage.

Now that all that work is done... I can start working.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Against Gravity

Last weekend I went to see a puppet show called Against Gravity at the Ottawa Fringe Festival. It was created and performed by Mind of a Snail, a shadow puppet troupe from Vancouver consisting of Jessica Gabriel and Chloé Ziner. They'd contacted me before coming to Ottawa, so after the show we hung out as well.

Photo from their website.

In a departure from most shadow puppet shows I've seen (and, it turns out, a departure for them as well), the performers were in front of the screen, fully visible to the audience. Jessica did most of the puppeteering, while Chloé provided the dialogue, music, and sound effects with her voice and a guitar. The audience was encouraged to join in with any sound effects we felt were appropriate. (They later told me that they'd once performed this show at a rave, where most of the audience was on drugs. The sound effects they created were unreal.)

The show was an expanded version of a piece they originally created for a puppet slam. The story itself was pretty loose, more focused on experience than narrative, which is perfect for a medium that has so much potential for wonderful weirdness. It was generally concerned with the adventures of the human figure pictured above as he(?) literally followed his heart. The journey took him to varied locations, from under the sea, to a decaying urban environment populated by anti-gravity protesters.

These ladies are adept with an overhead projector and they pulled off some neat tricks. The first scene involved a backdrop of lace. To transition to the next scene, they slowly pulled the piece of lace downwards, creating the effect of panning upwards, but stopped when it was halfway off screen. The ragged edge of the piece of fabric then became a field of grass, the setting for the next scene. Some other transitions were achieved by physically lifting the backdrop off the projector's base, bringing it closer to the lens and thereby out of focus, and bringing in the next backdrop in the opposite way.

My favourite part was close to the end, when Jessica suddenly broke the frame by standing up in front of the screen and becoming a character in the show herself. Chloé then used a transparency and a dry-erase marker to draw "on" her! The effect was like watching a film that combined live-action with animation, except it was happening live on stage.

A still from their promo video.

Against Gravity was really neat and a lot of fun, and Chloé and Jessica are really cool and fun to hang out with. Right now they're putting together a new show about crows, called Caws and Effect. They showed me some photos from the development process, and it looks like it's going to be awesome. Check them out!

Sunday, 11 May 2014

ERTH's Dinosaur Zoo

The other day I had the pleasure to see the Australian puppet show ERTH's Dinosaur Zoo at the Ottawa International Children's Festival. I'm extremely interested in dinosaurs as well as puppets (for many years I had ambitions of being a paleontologist) so this show was doubly interesting for me.

The host tends to a female Leaellynasaura, while her mate peeks out from behind a curtain.

The conceit of the show is that an animal handler is bringing out various Australian dinosaurs to show them to the audience. Unlike the Walking With Dinosaurs arena show (which, they were proud to tell me, ERTH's show predates), it's a small, intimate performance. They really sell the idea that these are live animals; at one point, the host brings a child volunteer onstage to help calm a dinosaur while he administers eyedrops, and the puppeteers give the creatures a faked unpredictability that feels very real -- and sometimes scary for the kids.

The puppets, built by Bryony Anderson and others, are terrific. The dinosaurs' skin looks like latex but is actually painted fabric, which is much lighter. From a paleontological standpoint, they're extremely accurate -- not a pronated hand to be seen! -- although the Leaellynasaura puppet doesn't reflect the 2009 discovery that its tail was three times as long as the rest of its body. Leaellyn possesses an elegant leg mechanism that the puppeteer operates with one hand. It consists solely of joints, string, and counterweights, and it moves beautifully.

The big showstopper, Australovenator. Puppeteer Miron Gusso is standing at his full height inside the beast.

Thanks to their tour manager, Rachael King, I had the opportunity to meet with the three-person cast after the show and talk shop. They were very friendly and encouraging, and emphasized the importance of really building a puppet around the puppeteer's body for maximum comfort, ease of movement, and direct control. Guys, if you're reading this, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me!

Friday, 25 April 2014

How to Make Big Puppet Feet

I'd always planned for Atlatl to have elephant feet. This was inspired by the Tromble, one of the creatures from Dougal Dixon's speculative evolution book The New Dinosaurs:

Unfortunately, I'd never made wearable puppet feet before, so I had no idea how to go about it.

Mermaid Theatre to the rescue once again! When I was at Animotion, Production Manager Deb MacLean showed me the dinosaur feet from their show When Dinosaurs Dine By Moonlight, and I used these as the basis for Atlatl's feet.

First I traced my own feet (in sneakers) onto two large blocks of thick foam I'd gotten from my friend Nicole. I stuck a bamboo skewer through the foam at various points in the outline so I could reconstruct the same shape on the bottom.

Then I cut it out.

I traced a line on the inside of the hole to mark where the top of my shoe reached. Then I took the front half of the piece I cut out --

-- and trimmed the bottom of it to match that line. I glued it back into where I'd cut it from, and I now had something that would hold my foot in.

I wasn't sure exactly how big (or precisely what shape) I wanted the foot to be, so I started by drawing the largest oval I could, figuring I could trim it down later. I drew the same oval on the underside, too, and cut off the corners of the block.

Then I cut along the outline of the oval on the top and bottom.

Then I took my scissors and made a zillion tiny little cuts on the sides of the block until it was as smooth and round as I could reasonably get it.

To make the sole, I traced the foot onto a sheet of one-inch foam that my friends Allison and Chris gave me. I cut it out and glued it onto the bottom.

And there it is! I put both feet on and practiced walking around, feeling like I was wearing giant bedroom slippers. (You can see that I've added a cylinder of one-inch foam to the top of the right foot to start building the lower leg; I'm not sure if I'll keep what I've got or rebuild it differently.)

I found that because of their size, the only way for the feet to not trip over each other is for me to take big, galumphing steps. I'll have to decide if that's right for the character, or if I want to make the feet skinnier so they can move more easily past each other.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Atlatl takes shape, part three

So, remember last September, when I said that Atlatl's body shape was tentatively finalized? Lol!

After properly enlarging the head and reattaching it to the body, I realized that there were still more changes I wanted to make. I added two more hoops to the neck, to give it a smoother curve and more "points of articulation," as action figure makers say. Based on a sketch I'd done, I also decided to make the neck thicker -- which made him look much more like a real animal -- and to re-add one of the body hoops that I'd previously taken out.

Pictured: Not Atlatl.

I'd been having trouble figuring out the right size and position for the bottom hoop. But why reinvent the wheel when I could use Big Bird for reference? The picture above is from a video posted by the makers of the upcoming Caroll Spinney documentary I Am Big Bird. (Did you donate to the Kickstarter? I did!) Without the bird legs on, it's easy to see how big the bottom hoop is, and where on Spinney's legs it sits. I based my own bottom hoop on that.

Pixie helps me adjust the hoops. Photo by Suzanne Harding.

It's incredibly hard to adjust the hoops from inside while I'm wearing the puppet. So once I'd gotten things about 90% of the way there, I asked my filmmaker friend Pixie Cram to help get them exactly where I wanted.

Photo by Pixie Cram.

And here it is. Looks better, doesn't it? Now the body shape is tentatively finalized.

For now.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

A Bouquet of Blackbirds

Julie and I are hard at work making red-winged blackbird rod puppets for our wedding in September. Instead of throwing confetti, every guest is going to have one of these, to jiggle and "fly" as we walk back down the aisle.

Thirteen down, lots more to go! We're going to enlist our friends to help at a crafting party sometime before the wedding. I'll also be teaching kids to make their own in a craft tent at Chinatown Remixed this May.

"big bird and little bird"