Thursday, 5 May 2016

Reflective Evaluation

When I first entered this project, I had ideas of wanting to make a large roaming puppet, because it is something that I have become increasingly interested in - particularly examples where the wearer has a set of fake legs, and their real legs operate the puppet’s feet. Initially I wanted to make a horse or unicorn because of their majestic movement and size, but I wanted the costume to be operated by one person only - helpful when roaming around a festival - and it’s very difficult to make a horse’s four legs look good when the wearer only has two. This lead me on to consider two legged animals; kangaroos, ostriches, emus, penguins and many other birds. With such a selection of animals, it seemed like it’d be fun to make something quite comical, and with a shape that would translate well to being ‘ridden’. I also wanted to make an animal that comes to mind when people think of a bumbling, friendly creature - naturally, a Dodo came to mind.

The neck of the puppet was possibly the most challenging part of this entire project, and because it was intimidating, naturally I made it my first priority to get sorted out. I started with making a tentacle-style neck with styrofoam vertebrae and foam board plates after a small prototype worked so well, but it was clear upon being scaled up that a large form of this wasn’t good at supporting it’s own weight without a huge amount of tension between the plates, which would compromise the longevity of them and encourage snapping. My second experiment was the anglepoise lamp because of its pleasing aesthetics and smooth movement. However, it was very frustrating that after rigging up a plate for it to spring off of, welding it all together and testing it out - the lamp base just couldn’t handle the weight involved with putting a whole bird’s head on it, and simply drooped. This would have been ok with a puppet where the user holds the weight of the puppet’s head, but it must be considered that with a roaming puppet the performance time can range on average from between thirty minutes and two hours, and this simply wouldn’t be viable whilst carrying a whole head away from the body. One of the things I learnt from this was that simplicity was a key factor in making moving or weight-supporting puppet parts; upon further research, it seemed apparent from a similar style of roaming puppet that perhaps the head only needed to animate at the head-neck join in order for it to look effective. Upon encouragement from my tutor I stepped this up to having a PVC tube which hinged side-to-side at the base where it attached to the body frame, and then using a flexible attachment for the head made it have a good, organic range of movement. I also used a small section of PVC pipe in making a prototype moving jaw, and when cut down the middle it functions as an excellent spring. It was again a simple solution to a problem I had been making some very elaborate plans for, and was a huge relief, considering I haven’t done many moving parts of this type.

Bending the PVC pipe using the pipe bender seemed like a good solution to getting curves in the tubes for the neck and body at first, but after some time it became very tedious. After making all the different parts of my drawn out body frame plans, when I went to assemble them underneath the foam body shell it was apparent that it just wasn’t going to fit - it is hard to translate two dimensional front, side and top down technical drawings into a three dimensional frame that fits into a separately sculpted shape. I spent around five days bending pipe which I only used half of, but I’m glad I realised this before spending any more time on it. The saddle I made was just far too big to fit in the gap between the inside and outside of the bird’s body where the user stands, because the one-inch thick pipes were very difficult to get a tight bend on without folding. My method of combining bent pipes with sleeve-type joints secured with pop rivets was good for low-tension areas, but when I applied more force and heat to try and fit the frame inside of the foam shell, the pop rivets came out from the pressure. I ended up changing my plans for the saddle and making the inside of it out of a simple bar between the two main side braces of the frame, then adding 20mm pipe with right-angle elbows to form a back brace, which was then covered in upholstery foam to give it the organic shape that I was looking for.

Transferring the 1:5.7 scale sculpt I did of the dodo’s body on top of the mannequin to full scale was something I’d never done before, and it was an enjoyable and satisfying process that I hope to revisit in the future. It was very pleasing to make a tape pattern over this bird, trace it onto funky foam, and see the shape come to life in 3D with added wings. I then scanned this pieces and sized them up to full scale, printed, joined together and traced them onto my 1.5” upholstery foam. These pieces were then joined with high strength contact adhesive, which was a potent smelling but very strong glue which I had never used before this project. The bond remained fairly flexible which was very important for the ‘bobbing’ movement of the bird.

I initially planned to have two ‘plates’ in the bottom of the bird with holes in, which the user would put their legs through when putting the costume on. However, as I was assembling the puppet I noted how helpful it was to have more access to the inside of the puppet from underneath, and how it would be very tricky to get the puppet to sit on a mannequin with a central stand if the leg holes were two separate entities. Instead, I ended up leaving the port open, and adding bulk to the top of the feet. A fur cuff that matched the bottom of the bird’s fur filled the gap, and was held up with a sewed tube of stretch black hose, offering an elegant solution that meant the wearer wouldn’t have to change their trousers, just pulling the leg sleeves over the top of their clothes.

One of the main points in the design process was deciding what to cover the bird with. The obvious option was real bird feathers, but this project whilst being humorous also intended to look into conservation and ethics, so taking feathers from a bird didn’t feel right. My next port of call was making synthetic feathers, but this didn’t feel like a good use of a lot of my project time. The next place I considered was using materials which mimicked the appearance of Dodo feathers. Upon researching further, this seemed viable as the Dodo didn’t have defined feathers according to a lot of the artworks of it, and instead was covered in a downy fluff. The Mongolian faux fur samples were perfect and I’m really pleased with the result; they allowed me to spend more time on developing the movement and characterisation of the puppet instead of repetitively making feathers, or sticking real feathers onto a base. The tail of the bird was made out of a more ‘typical’ faux fur, and gave the impression of being a soft, fluffy ball which was pleasing to touch. I used dimple fleece on the feet which had the look of plucked chicken skin, and worked very well.

I started to make a fur covering for the head as the seam between the two pieces of vacuum formed plastic, but had issues shaving it down to a short length where it looked less like fur and more like peach fuzz. It was also challenging to make it look right over the rigid plastic base, as it’s very difficult to make a perfect fit when sewing a non-stretch fabric to fit a hard base. At this point I reached out to an online community of puppet makers who were both pleasantly complimentary on my progress so far and also helpful in suggesting that painting would be the best way to go. I tackled the hurdle of filling the gap with body filler and a lot of sandpaper, and some very useful advice from a friend about using acetone on a paintbrush to smooth out the filler as it is applied. I’d hated using body filler in the past but this little tip really revolutionised the way it could be used for me. After this, finishing the head was a simple case of priming, painting with acrylics and sealing. I had considered airbrushing but I find the airbrush very temperamental, often unreliable and as such only used it for small areas like the tongue. The airbrush also has a lot less personality than a brush or sponge because it is so soft and consistent; personality is something I definitely wanted this project to have so it was a better fit.

The final assembly of this project took a lot longer than expected but I still managed to finish in time to have a great outdoor photoshoot, and took video footage to show the personality and movement abilities of the Dodo. I feel my organisation on this project was much better than the last one, and unlike my last project I completed everything I had set out to do from the beginning. Although not doing as well as I’d hoped in the last project was a huge blow to my confidence, it also spurred me on to push myself to the limit on this project and I’m proud of what has come out of it. I hope the Dodo will impress the puppet companies I hope to show it to, and I learnt a lot about not only large scale puppetry, but also time management and commitment. At times this project was exhausting and frustrating but I feel I could very happily do projects of this sort for the rest of my life.

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