In August I was contacted by the Port Phillip Eco-Centre, an environmental group based in St Kilda in Melbourne. They had secured some grant money for a new project and required a set of custom made puppets by the end of September. Four glove puppets and four finger puppets in the likeness of some of Port Phillip Bay's local wildlife.
Having just arrived back in Australia, I was very interested in being involved, however financial restraints on the side of the Eco-Centre and time restraints on my own meant some compromise needed to be reached. Unfortunately the Eco-Centre's budget was set, there was no wiggle room there, so I took the job on the proviso that I retain the rights to the design and also with the mutual understanding that with time and money being tight, the quality of the puppets would unfortunately reflect those constraints.
Prior to beginning construction, I had a lot of questions. What would the puppets be used for? Would they be operated by puppeteers? Would they be handled by children? What is their purpose? The puppets were going to be operated not by puppeteers, but by environmental officers. They would be using the puppets as a teaching aid during children's workshops and school visits. The children would not be operating the puppets but may be touching them. The last important piece of information was regarding the aesthetic; they wanted something close to realism. With the aforementioned constraints in mind, as well as the fact I had never done anything like it before, this was going to be an excellent challenge for me.
In the midst of moving house and attempting to re-set my life here in Melbourne, I set to work on this challenge. The glove puppets were to be a rakali (water rat), a weedy sea dragon, a little penguin and a tawny frogmouth. The finger puppets were sea weed, a gastropod shell, a biovalve and an anchovy. I tackled the glove puppets first, deciding the best way to begin would be to model each character out of clay. I had recently seen a YouTube tutorial by Philip Stephens (see link below), about creating your own unique puppet patterns from a small scale clay model. I had never tried this before but found the technique to be very effective. After modelling the basic shape of the character, you cover the clay model in layers of masking tape. Then, marking the tape where you think the pattern needs it, and cutting each one out using a craft knife, you should be able to lay your pattern flat. In the tutorial Philip then uses a scanner and computer to re size his patterns, however for me, with time and technology limited, I quickly rode my bike to the local Office Works and photo-copied my patterns to the correct size. From here I cut the pattern out of foam, and after gluing them together, my puppets were beginning to take shape. Now, this whole process, for the four characters, was quite time consuming, but worth it for the end result.
I had decided early on that I would work on all four glove puppets simultaneously rather than one at a time. The reason for this was mainly to avoid gratification. Completely finishing a puppet, if I am happy with it, will give me a feeling of completion and success, making it very hard to go and work on the others. I wanted, if possible, to finish them all at the same time. The next step was to get them functioning as glove puppets; the arms, a bit of flexibility in the neck and making sure it will fit a hand comfortably, but still snuggly enough to allow control of the head. Luckily my hand is an average size, not particularly big or small, making it a good base to build from given that I had no idea what size hands the environmental officers would have. Making four identical gloves, and after cutting out some holes for the arms, each puppet was fitted for manipulation, some requiring more attention than others, extra padding etc. Something I hadn't considered was how restrictive the foam would be on neck movement; this issue was easily resolved by detaching the head from the body and using the glove itself to create a more flexible neck.
The final piece of the puzzle for these four characters, was their outer layers and final detailing. Some were more complicated than others; the rakali and little penguin were quite straight forward requiring a variety of furs and felts, some doll eyes and a nice long tail for Rocky (the very unofficial name I gave to the rakali). The tawny frog mouth was harder to cater for given the nature of their feathers. I found this absolutely amazing fabric shop in the South Melbourne Market, run by a lovely woman named Monica (I think the shop might actually be called Monica's Fabrics) and it was here that I found some fantastic fabrics to suit the tawny, some blonde and brown feathery fur and some beautiful brown feathers that I could use for the wings. This was probably the biggest challenge for tawny, sourcing the materials, from there he was not too complicated. So with three complete glove puppets, the final pièce de résistance was the sea dragon.
The sea dragon was the most challenging task of this entire project. If you have not seen a photo of one, I urge you to google a "weedy sea dragon" now. They are absolutely stunning creatures. Vibrant colors, amazing shapes and beautiful patterns. I was in awe, and also a little lost. How on earth was I going to create this character. When creating the underlying foam layer, I will admit I had three attempts before getting it functional. The sea dragon has such a slim figure I had to make the puppet quite long in order to fit the operators hand in without it being incredibly fat. The Eco-Centre had requested the puppets be around 30cm in height/ length, hence some of them ended up a little round in the belly. A chubby rakali is plausible, a round bellied little penguin... that ok, but a fat weedy sea dragon? Not a chance. Once the foam layer was complete, it was on to the next challenge; airbrushing. After consulting with Chris Wylie, one of my tutors from the London School of Puppetry (where I graduated earlier this year), we decided the best way to proceed would be to airbrush on to fleece.
If I am going to be completely honest (and I am), I had never used an airbrush before, and so the prospect was quite daunting. One borrowed airbrush and a dozen you tube tutorials later, it was time to give it my PB. I tested it out on paper and then on the fleece I had used to cover weedy. Eventually I couldn't stall anymore and I started to work on the puppet. After a couple of hours, the results were clear... I had done a terrible job. With the deadline drawing ever closer, I could not hesitate... I ripped weedy's skin off! (sounds a bit morbid doesn't it!) and tried again. The upside of this, was that the sewing job I did on the fleece was much neater second time around. There's always a silver lining folks! Second time around, I did a much better job, finishing off some of the finer details (a billion yellow dots!) with a mix of latex and acrylic, painted straight on with a fine brush. Though far from realistic, I was quite pleased with the result.
A funny looking character, she does have a sweet charm about her. Given that a weedy sea dragon doesn't have arms or legs, her fins became the glove, and as the human hand can only bend so far, her fins are technically backwards. Her shape is fairly spot on, but as much as I tried, she still does look mildly chubby for a sea dragon. Her "weeds" were made from some feathers from Spotlight's fascinator section... the ladies behind the desk were very impressed that I was preparing for the Melbourne cup already!! I can never be bothered explaining what I am doing haha, it's just easier to go along with their story!
And so, the day before the deadline, all four glove puppets were complete. All that was left was to make some awesome finger puppets!! These did not take long at all. Fairly simple characters, I whipped them up quite quickly and even did a little bit of airbrushing to finish them off... you know, now that I'm a pro! I would really like to learn more about airbrushing and try to hone that skill. I think I will look in to special effects make up courses. Could be very interesting. So here I was, late at night, the day before and the puppets were ready to be delivered. Was I completely satisfied with them? Absolutely not. There was plenty of room for improvement and that is as it should be. I am so early in my career, I would be disappointed if their wasn't. I have so much more to learn and that honestly really excites me. I learned a lot through this project, and of course I would do a lot of things differently if given my time again. But it really isn't my opinion that counts in this instance, it is the clients.
I delivered the puppets to the Eco-Centre last Friday and the reaction I received was wonderful. Ooooh's and Aaaah's as the puppets got shown around the office. They were delighted with the result and insisted I stick around for a quick photo shoot with some of their team. I have requested copies of those photo's and will post them as soon as they come through! The tawny frogmouth was the clear favorite among the staff, everyone commenting on how realistic he was.
A really interesting project for me, though stressful at times, I really learned a lot. Plus, after a year abroad, it was so nice to arrive home and so quickly have some work. I am quite proud of how I approached the task and look forward to hearing about the puppet's ongoing adventures at the Eco-Centre.
Next weekend I am attending a masterclass with Duda Paiva, an incredible performer from the Netherlands. An amazing Dancer and Puppeteer, I saw his one man show "Bastard" in London last year and was absolutely blown away. I am really really really looking forward to working with him. Stay tuned for more.
Fore more information about the Port Phillip Eco-Centre visit: http://www.ecocentre.com/
For the Philip Stephens Tutorial see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ee7reSBVtBI&feature=youtu.be