big puppet build

As promised, the giant puppet "tutorial" in one giant post. Are you ready?

There are lots of ways you can make a big puppet, and lots of ways you shouldn't. I discovered a few of both during a recent build. I also found some fixes to my mistakes, so you can use this as a companion guide to your own build. For more thorough resources on the web try the Puppeteers Cooperative's 68 Ways to Make Really Big Puppets, and the Hillsborough Arts Council parade puppet instruction site. Most importantly, like all puppets, you can start with traditional methods, but it usually comes down to doing what works for that particular puppet because with so many variable factors, they all have a unique mind of their own. Puppet building takes a willingness to experiment and make mistakes, and the ability to change course depending on what unfolds.

I've built giant animal puppets for large groups of puppeteers to operate together, but I'd yet to build a traditional upright human puppet with the back pack system for one person as famously used by Bread & Puppet, and I've wanted to try one for a long time. I envisioned a fleshed out conical body, not just hanging fabric you often see on parade puppets. I wanted it over 10 feet tall.

With 2 weeks to build before the scheduled performance, I decided to use an existing big papier mache head I'd built spontaneously several years before. The head was a bit heavy, about 2 feet tall with a chicken wire armature and lots of paper layers (straight up flour and water and newspaper mix). But I'm strong and in good shape, so I figured I could take it for a 2 hour performance.

I'm also pretty bent on using existing materials. This is what I'd gathered up from around my house including the head:

OK, so half of this wasn't from around my house, including the walker and ratan. Let me tell you about the walker...

Ultimately, I wanted a metal frame backpack like you're suppose to use. I'd been trying to score one for years at the Goodwills, but no luck. In desperation this time, I looked around for anything similar. One thing that was plentiful were old walkers, and they too were light weight and super strong metal frames. And turned upside down, they had four hollow channels to insert poles into if desired. With a little padding and added straps, how could this not work? This was BRILLIANT! For six bucks I brought home a revolutionary idea in giant puppet building. (Well we'll see about that.)

The other acquired material was ratan. I'd seen my co-builder Jen on Luna's Sea use it for her seahorses and giant angler fish. I needed to stay as light as possible to compensate for the heavy head, so off to the ratan supply store, I picked up some bundles, and on the advice of the store owner, a 10 foot ratan pole for the spine instead of bamboo as is traditionally used. (Keep this point in mind.)

I began work, starting with the ratan torso. I'd watched Jen make elaborate and well planned jigs to shape her structures, by wetting the ratan and letting them dry around the nails. I, being not so planning-oriented, figured I'd wing it. Using cord and fabric strips I tied the wet ratan into basic S shapes. I measured nothing.

This did work, the ratan took on the new form beautifully. That was exciting. I began "sketching" out a torso by free-form gaffer-taping the ratan together. Again, no measuring. I ended up with something that looked pretty good and sturdy, though very flexible. It seemed the tape alone even was good enough.

Knowing I'd want something to sew the costume onto, I took eggshell bedding foam, and cut to shape over the ratan like skin, using fabric glue at the seams. I do not have a photo of this, because I quickly realized this was no good. The tightening of the thick foam over the ratan torqued it, because my ratan was too thin and not structured enough, and, I then realized, completely asymmetrical because eyeballing it was not enough. I ended up with a giant, lumpy gob of a torso. No amount of fabric could hide it, and it probably wouldn't fit in my car to transport, a factor I'd forgotten to consider.

Back to the drawing board and time ticking, I decided I didn't have time enough to learn proper ratan. I went to an old hoop skirt abandoned from a giant octopus project. This time I pre-planned out the steps starting with a solid foundation.

I got a wooden board for shoulders and drilled a big hole for the spine pole to fit through, and two more holes at each end where the arms would attach. I hung this from my ceiling with a pulley system, to make the work easier. This was a huge help. Then I draped the hoop skirt over the board. Not feeling there was enough volume in the chest this way, I added 2 white flexible PVC plumbing tubes, which I attached onto the boards by wiring them down through drilled holes, with wood glue for extra hold. Then I gaffer taped them to 4 spots on the hoop skirt. This also gave more stability to the hoop skirt which has a lot of swing. This time I measured everything, the length of the tubing, where they attached on the boards and the skirt, down to the millimeter.

Next, scraps of foam staple gunned down to bulk out the shoulders and hide the shape of the rigid board.

Then I sewed thin foam panels around the upper torso (not the bulky eggshell this time), just enough to prevent fabric of the eventual dress blowing against the hard shape of the tubing.

Here I put the head nearby to see how my head-to-torso proportion was doing. Another challenge in making a big puppet, especially when you're in a small space, is getting a complete view of the whole. It's probably best to build outside when possible. The puppet being taller then my room, I resorted to laying out all the pieces on the floor and climbing on a ladder to get a distant enough view to tell me how my proportions were, and that still wasn't always a good gauge.

Hoisting the torso up on the pulley, and getting to work on the ladder, I started draping some disassembled Goodwill dresses and other scrap fabric onto the form, using just pins as I continued adjusting until I got the effect I wanted.

Once all was pinned in place, I put the body over the ladder so it would be steady as I hand sewed the fabric on. The upper part of the dress sewed directly onto the foam and stapled onto the board at the top, the under skirt stitched onto the lowest hoop in the hoop skirt.

The body now well on its way, I went back to that walker.

The walker needed shoulder straps, to start. I'd tried some heavy cotton straps, but in order to put on, it needed to be lose to get into, then tightened once on. I realized an old regular back pack would do the trick, and just rebuckled its straps onto the walker. Then I added hollow foam pipe insulation anywhere the metal would contact my back. Then I gaffer taped the rattan pole on, just to see if it would work, and went for a test run outside with just the head on the top of the pole.

Terrible! The head was so top heavy, the rattan pole so flexible, and the walker so unsecured to my back that the whole structure kept bending and tipping side to side, nearly taking me with it. Modifications desperately needed. First, I shortened the rattan pole by a foot, (taking the full puppet from 12 to 11 feet tall), then drilled a piece of wood onto the walker as a third crosspiece to attach the ratan spine to. Then I gaffer taped the backpack onto the walker, and added 2 leather belts to go around my waist and chest, anchored onto the bottom 2 rungs of the walker with- you guessed it: gaffer tape.

But the second test run with the head was not much better, it still swayed far too much to be safe, and endangered my back. It was clear the ratan was not the material for the spine. Bamboo has far less flexibility and would have been the right choice. With just one 6 foot piece of bamboo at hand (too short to replace the ratan), I gaffer taped that to the ratan just up to where the shoulders would sit. That did it. The third test run was tolerable, though I still was in for a workout for my back during the 2 hour gig and adding weight. But I was out of time to replace the ratan altogether.

Now, how to get the body on, and keep it on the pole at the right level?

I found these two shelf brackets, thinking I'd use them temporarily for a test run with the body. But gaffer taped on, they actually did really well holding the shoulder board up, so they stayed. No need to even attach onto the shoulder board, it stayed right where it needed to because of the foam in the body, and could easily come off for travel. Just some foam taped over the sharp ends for safety.

And here is the full back pack structure. Almost as tall as my ceiling while sitting on the ground. Time to go out for another test run, but first a break to sit down and do some less intense decorating.

The giant white head as it was, with torn and tied cotton strips for hair, and a silver crown cut from an insulation sheet. As much as I love all white sculptures, this will need color to make a splash, and I'm going with a sea theme.

I got the hair simmering in a dye pot on the stove with blue and green mix Rit dyes. Then with acrylic and sequins, did up her face.

Then I rough cut 2 very simple hand shapes out of 4 inch thick blue foam insulation, with minimal low relief paper mache sculpting so it would dry fast, because time was ticking. Then outside for another test run. One clearly-too-long arm in place (simply 2 lengths of pool noodles thread with rope, thickened with bubble wrap taped around, and tied to the hole in the shoulder board.) BUT, it was all working this time, however scrappy so far.

Last I added the lower skirts, a patterned green sheer that would act as a scrim, so that I could see out but hard for people to see in. I left a window at face level, and lined the rest of the sheer with metallic silver to hide my body. Chopped some length off the pool noodle arms, and painted the hands. I stuck thin, 5 foot bamboo poles into the bottom of the hand, almost straight in, near where the rope is tied to make a wrist. I cut small slots in the underskirts for the poles to go through, from my hands to the puppet hands. This was always awkward, and I have to research more solutions. Or maybe this is just big puppet awkwardness.

And with some glitter seaweed added to her crown...

...we were ready to go! Jen's angler fish from Luna's Sea was going to be her companion, great because this was a street fair and not a passing parade, we needed a shorter and more agile puppet to connect to the smaller people in the crowd. Off we went, packed up good for the 1 hour highway trip to Torrington.

Here she is assembled and waiting in the alley. She'll get another 3 feet taller once I'm strapped inside. Getting her on takes a big wall like this, a strong helper like Jen, a good back, and roller derby leg muscles.

And here she is up and performance ready. My head is right at the top of the the lime green fabric.

The giant and the angler on the fair midway:

This was a challenging 2 hours inside the giant. I was lucky there was not a lot of wind, as on her own she was a constant fight to keep upright. My back was never not correcting side to side, and forward to back swaying. As I got more confident, now and then I'd lean forward and kneel down, to connect with kids, but this was an extravagant move my muscles paid for the next day. Having never been in one of these with a properly built back pack system, I don't know close this is to normal strain. But I'd definitely suggest trying to score a frame back pack! The walker I think still has a lot of potential for some other forms of puppets, but I wouldn't go with it for another one of these.

No matter how challenging the build (this ended up taking me a week of full time work), the reward is always in the performance. One more video, this time from the inside.