Sunday, 13 November 2016

Me and My Shadow

Lately I've been trying to find ways I can improve my children's puppetry workshops.

When I talk about the different kinds of puppets, I explain how shadow puppets work, and I show the kids this picture of a Javanese wayang kulit puppet:

But as with Mr. Punch a few years ago, it occurred to me that I ought to have a real shadow puppet to show them. Why pay me to show them a photograph?

I enlarged that picture (identified as Sita from the Ramayana) and cut it out. Then I traced it onto card stock and cut out the body, the two upper arms, and the two forearms/hands.

In my research, I came across this picture from and saw that these puppets have a lot of internal detail. Some things, like the eye, I cut out myself, along with holes in the shoulders, elbows, and wrists to create joints. But for the rest, the solution (as suggested in this post by blogger That Artist Woman) was to use paper doilies. I bought some that were the right size to have the same curvature as the relevant parts of the puppet. I cut out the parts of Sita's body that needed detail, leaving a narrow border around the edge to maintain the proper shape. Then I placed each doily in the position where the holes in the doily corresponded best with the edges of the cut-out area. I glued them in place with PVA glue.

One nice thing about being married to an artist is that I almost never have to buy my own paints. Once the doily pieces were all in place, I painted the puppet black and gold, and then (taking another suggestion from That Artist Woman) sprayed all the pieces with three coats of Mod Podge, the sealant beloved by Pinterest crafters everywhere. I used the spray kind so that it wouldn't gum up the doilies and block light from getting through the holes.

I attached the body parts together with joints I cannibalized from a shadow puppet kit that my friends Charles and Pixie got for me in Turkey. The control rods were made from my old standby, coathangers. I used pliers to bend the rod for the body into the proper shape and hot-glued it into place. I epoxied the ends of the arm rods to the wrist joints so they could rotate a full 360 degrees, as is typical for these puppets. To make the other ends of the rods easier to hold on to, I bent them around and covered them in electrical tape.

And here she is, along with the photograph I started from:

Nailed it.

At the same time, I built a stage to perform her on. It was good that I built the puppet and the stage concurrently, because then I could tailor them to each other, continually adjusting the height of the shadow screen and the length of the puppet's rods until they worked perfectly together.

My bear colleague Katya Vetrova, who has done a lot of shadow work, suggested a shower curtain as the screen. I was going to use a big cardboard box to make a more traditional shadow puppet stage, but since portability is essential, I came up with a stage that could simply be rolled up for transportation.

The screen is supported by two vertical pieces of PVC pipe, leftover from some abandoned project. I tried a few things to hold the pipes up, but ended up going with my Dad's suggestion and getting some heavy pieces of metal designed for plumbing. The PVC pipe fits snugly inside the brass piece, which I've permanently screwed into the galvanized pipe flange. No danger of this falling over!

I got a white vinyl shower curtain, cut it to size, ironed it flat (with a dishtowel between the iron and the vinyl!), and hot glued its left and right edges to the two pipes.

In this picture you can see the stage in use. Sitting on the table between my arms is a plastic cell phone stand, on which sits my cell phone with its flashlight function turned on to provide the illumination. When not in use, I slip the pipes out of their metal bases and roll up the screen like a scroll.

Photo by Andrew Gwyn

And now I'm all set. With the lights off, the picture at the top of this page shows what the kids will see. Much better than a photograph.

Saturday, 22 October 2016


About a year and a half ago, I shared the trailer for my friend Pixie Cram's short film Joan, an impressionistic retelling of the story of Joan of Arc.

Well, the whole film is now online! Check it out:

Joan/Jeanne from Pixie Cram on Vimeo.

Pixie made Joan during an artist residency at DAÏMÔN centre de production in Gatineau, Quebec. The whole film is stop-motion animation, even the parts with live actors (a process called pixilation). The visual style was inspired by paintings.

I assisted with a few of the shots, including the candle flame and the pomegranate, and I played the role of the cleric.

I also made one other special contribution. It was winter, and one day on my way to the studio, I slipped on the ice and cut my hand. When I arrived, I asked Pixie if she had a Band-Aid. She said "Yes, but first, can I film your bleeding hand?" I said sure. So when Joan has her vision of stigmata, that's my hand -- and that's real blood!

For more behind-the-scenes information, check out this great interview Pixie did with Ottawa Indie Fest.

This past summer, Pixie shot her next film, the post-apocalyptic Pragmatopia. I didn't help out with that one, so I can't wait to see it!

Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Other Eric Carle Favourites

This blog has been silent for a while because it's been a crazy few months, which culminated in us buying a house!

One thing I did recently was to attend Mermaid Theatre's touring production of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Other Eric Carle Favourites. It's a black light show featuring three stories -- Little Cloud, The Mixed-Up Chameleon, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Photo from Mermaid's website

The audience was, of course, full of kids who know the books backwards and forwards. So when the caterpillar appeared, the audience went so wild it was like a rock star had stepped out on stage. ("Oh my god, it's THE very hungry caterpillar!")

One effect I really loved was the chameleon's tongue shooting out to catch a fly:

Photo from Mermaid's website

I couldn't figure out how they'd done it; it looked like animation. Turns out the tongue is painted onto a conveyor belt (unconnected to the chameleon's head), which the puppeteer pulls from the far side to make the tongue shoot out. Meanwhile, the fly is a two-dimensional rod puppet painted on both sides. The puppeteer "twiddles" the rod between his fingers so the two sides of the fly rapidly alternate, like a thaumatrope. It looks really cool.

The show was also a reunion for me, as my classmate Simon from Animotion was one of the puppeteers! It was great to see him again. Check out this terrible selfie I took.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016


The bear play continues to move forward, albeit very slowly since everyone involved has multiple projects on the go. This past summer I did a couple of experiments, both based around the idea of wearing a bear on my hand like a glove.

For the first one, I tracked down a black bear Beanie Baby and dissected it. (Some might call this sacrilege, but our country's economy went off the Beanie Baby standard years ago.) It was almost exactly the right size, though I had to safety pin a few things to get it to fit my hand exactly. The top hat is a mock-up made of Bristol board.

The second experiment was a variation on the cave painting bear puppet I'd made the summer before. It still has an uninterrupted outline, this time made of glow-in-the-dark plastic string (the kind you make bracelets out of at summer camp). The bear's two-dimensional body parts are made of black craft foam, and they aren't attached to each other, but they're all attached to a black glove I'm wearing. The constellation Ursa Major is painted on it in glow-in-the-dark paint so that it looks like a constellation come to life. (It looks even better in total darkness, but the camera couldn't pick that up.)