THE SMA HANDBOOK ARCHIVE
Low Cost, Low Tech Stop-motion Puppet-making : Part One
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to making a basic stop motion puppet is the technology involved in the various techniques. Not everyone has access to soldering or drilling equipment, and we don't all have the skills or studio space to make a two part plaster mould. I have put a lot of energy into finding a low cost basic approach to puppet making which allows the novice animator to begin to explore model-making for animation at their kitchen sink or sitting room sofa. This technique will provide you with a low cost puppet which will perform well, and with a few modifications could be repairable. However, it is essentially a disposable model, which will last the duration of a short film, and can be quickly and cheaply replaced.
This tutorial will cover :
1) Materials and suppliers
2) Basic armature construction
3) Skinning the puppet with nylon stocking and hollow fibre wadding
4) Basic guide to making simple tiedowns
1) Materials and Suppliers
The following is a list of the basic equipment and materials you will need to collect before you begin.
Tools and equipment
Good sharp scissors with a pointed tip is essential for snipping nylon
A packet of sewing needles and some dressmakers pins
White sewing thread
A glue gun
A kettle for boiling water, a bowl a small rolling pin and a fork for working with polymorph
A small pair of pliers, preferably one with a wire cutter
Two pairs of sheer tights (Pantyhose) in a flesh colour
Hollow fibre wadding. The cheapest way to get this is to buy an inexpensive cushion or pillow
A pair of glass or plastic beads for eyes
A supply of aluminium armature wire in at least two different gauges*
A tub of Polymorph or friendly Plastic. (See below for details)
A small section of Loc Line Plastic hose (See below for details)
A pair of matched screws, nuts, wing nuts and washers for the tie-downs**
*The size you choose will need to be appropriate to the size and weight of your puppet. (See below for details)
**The screws need to be appropriate to the size of the tie-down holes you wish to make.
Polymorph (UK) or Friendly Plastic (US)
It is essentially a low melt nylon plastic, which becomes soft in boiling water, and cools to form a very hard, light plastic material.
A tub costs £12.99 from Maplin, and it is re-usable. It can be purchased on the web :
In the US at this site :
Or in the UK at this site :
Aluminium Armature wire
This type of wire is soft, and has very little memory, or spring to it. It is the best type of wire to make armatures from, as it is easy to bend, and it has a longer life span than other types of wire. For a stop motion puppet armature, five or six thin strands are usually twisted together, and it is a good idea to have a few gauges, (or thicknesses) on hand, as the necessary strength of the armature can vary a lot depending on the weight of the skin, the size of the puppet etc. The puppet in the photographs was made using a combination of 1mm 2.5mm and 3mm strands.
The best supplier I have found in the UK is Flints. The following link will take you to the website, where you will find aluminium armature wire under "Prop makers Materials" in the "Painters and Props" section. They sell it in small coils, and will post it directly to you :
Loc-Line Modular Hose system
Loc-Line is the brand name for a product which was developed as a fluid distribution tool in industry. It is essentially a series of interlocking plastic cups which form a flexible, spine-like tube. It is completely modular, and can be added to, or shortened at will. In the context of puppet design, it is not very suitable for limbs, as it forms a fairly broad curve when bent, but it does make excellent spines, which can be popped apart, added to, or swapped over. It also makes really good tails or long necks for animal puppets. It comes in three different widths, and it is available from this website :
The armature is made using a Loc-Line section as the spine, twisted wire for all the bendable parts, and Polymorph as the "Bones" of the figure, to give it strength, and to make sure that it always bends in the right places. The wire can be twisted by hand, but it is better to use a hand drill or an electric drill if you have one. Simply loop one end of the segment to be twisted over a door knob, and secure the other end in the chuck of the drill, and twist away.
This is an example of a basic Human Armature. The pelvis and chest are simply made by modelling Polymorph around the joint between the leg wire and the end of the spine. I glued them together first, to make it easier to model the polymorph on the joint, but when the polymorph cools, it is strong enough to hold it all very firmly in place. The Polymorph bones are a little tricky to make. With the water as hot as possible, take a small blob of polymorph out of the water with the fork and roll it between your fingers to make a sausage shape. Dunk in back in the water to keep it flexible, and then quickly roll it into a flat sheet with the rolling pin. Using the scissors, trim it into a rectangle shape, making it as long as the bone needs to be, and wide enough to wrap around the wire with a bit to overlap. (Have a look at the shin, for example, on the puppet above) Then, re-boil the kettle, dunk the little section back into freshly boiled water to get it as soft as possible and wrap it around the section of wire. It may take a few attempts as the Polymorph sometimes loosens as it cools. If you get it wrong, dunk the leg back into the bowl, and remove the bone.
This is the Loc-Line spine. While the armature was under construction, there were five sections to the spine, when it was completed, I felt that the proportions were wrong, and that her back was too long, so I popped her apart, removed two sections, and clicked her back together.
The hand is made in the same manner, but what is difficult to see from this picture is what is going on inside the lower arm. The polymorph is actually joining two separate bits of wire. It was designed in this way to allow the hand to be replaced if a finger snapped during the shoot. In theory, all the bones could be designed in this manner, although this would make the construction very fiddly and there are other materials and techniques, which make repair jobs easier, such as :
Note the distance between the bones. If you place the bones at either side of a wire joint too close together, the wire will always bend at the same point, it will always rub against the hard surface of the Polymorph, and in extreme cases, will be stretched during extreme bends. This will really shorten the life expectancy of your wire, and consequently your puppet.
The head has been made by embedding wire into a large ball of polymorph. The eyes were eventually made from white glass beads, but I have used blue beads here to make the photograph clearer. The brow wire was not a huge success, and I actually removed it in the final puppet, The nose and upper palate section were added on while the polymorph was still very soft, and the eyes were nestled into place before it cooled. The jaw wire runs right up to the back of the skull, and the ends have been splayed out. The neck wire runs into the back of the head, and the ends of the wire have also been splayed out to really grip into the polymorph. It's a little clearer in the photograph below, as the Polymorph becomes a little translucent when it is hot.
A half completed hare puppet. Note the splayed open wire at the end of the legs. This is to help the Polymorph key into the wire securely when making the foot. The tie-down bolt will rest in the fork of the wire.
Polymorph is a wonderful substance, but it is not the most responsive modelling material. Be prepared for burned fingers, and lots of boiling water as it must as hot as possible in order to stick to itself.
Here, the section of nylon stocking was pulled up over the length of the puppets body fro the feet to just under the arms. Then using the sharp scissors, I simply cut along the middle up to her crotch. Note the extra material around the feet and up around her chest. Do not trim or remove any material at this stage.
Working carefully, pull the raw edges of the nylon stocking together, and sew a seam down the back of the leg, working from the crotch downwards. Take the opportunity to add more wadding to help the natural shape of the figure along. Here, I added a lot of wadding to the upper thighs. You can always further refine the shape by pulling the stocking in around the knee and ankle to slim the width down. You can clearly see that I have added even more bulk to her buttocks.
And here, her belly is way bigger than I want it to be. The next stage is to begin sculpting a shape by stitching a seam down her back, and by pulling the stocking material very tightly. If she is not over stuffed, she will simply turn out to be way too thin.
To start the process of shaping her torso, fold her back in on itself along her spine and stitch a seam from the nape of her neck to the base of her spine. Run your thread between her legs and pull tightly from the front, this will split her bum and form nice natural buttocks.
At this stage, I have stitched up her back, and slimmed her down. Her boobs were made by wrapping a wire around the torso, and securing it with polymorph. It works almost exactly like an under wired bra, except her boobs are glued to it . Unfortunately I didn't manage to photograph that bit, but you can just make out the wire running down the side of her boob. The shape was achieved by making two little balls in the wadding, wrapping them in little bits of nylon, stitching them up the back, then sticking them to the under wire. A thin layer of wadding was then stitched in place over her chest, and the stocking was pulled up over the top. Her nipples were made with sculpy, which actually burned in the oven, but wound up with a rosy glow, so I used them in the end.
At this point, I am preparing the shoulders and chest to be all packaged up. It's a real "Try it and see" situation with the stuffing at this point, adding some, removing some, getting the shape right. Because she is essentially an open tube, you can still modify her shape right down to her hips and thighs, stitching a bit here, adding a ball of stuffing there until you are happy with the shape.
This next bit is a bit difficult to explain, but here goes. As you can see from the previous picture, there was not enough nylon material left to pull up over her head. I needed to add a second piece, but I really didn't want a visible seam. What I did in the end was this I pulled the raw edges of the stocking up around to the back of the puppet, like a halter top, and stitched them in place.
I then covered her head in a new section of stocking, and pulled that right down and tucked it under her boobs, and stitched it to her under-wire. I then trimmed the loose edges from her arms, and using the smallest neatest stitches possible, I joined up the raw edges. I then ran a seam down the back of her head and neck, pulling the material as tightly as I could. The hands and feet are made in exactly the same manner, pulling the stocking material around the armature and stitching it into place.
This wax sculpture was made as a sort of sketch of how I wanted the character's face to look. To be honest in the end, the face was a bit ugly, but As she spent most of the film with her head down and her hair in her eyes, it didn't really matter that much.
Her face was completed by cutting a small slit where her mouth was positioned, and stitching the nylon back inside her mouth. Her eyes were glued back into the sockets over the nylon which I didn't cut. Her eyelids were made by wrapping a section of nylon around the eye bead and painting it with P.V.A. glue. When it was dry, I simply peeled it off, and shaped it with a sharp scissors. Her ears are made with nylon and wadding, stitched into a rough ear shape and sewn into place. Her hair is made by twisting thin wire, and dipping it into latex coloured with black ink. It's more of a dreadlock sort of style, but it suited the film.
Here, the puppet is hanging over a heater after a hair touch up. Notice that I have wrapped her up in cling film, and masked her face. You really can't afford to get paint on the puppet when it's made in fabric.
These images are stills from the same film .showing the other character which was made in the same way.
The hare armature was constructed with the same materials, and he was skinned in exactly the same manner, except all his seams run under his belly. His eyes and claws are made from sculpy. The following photos show him under construction.
If you look carefully at the back feet, you will see a threaded screw running through the Polymorph. Embedded in that blob is a nut, through which the screw is threaded. On the next page is a simple guide to making very basic tie-downs using the materials outlined at the start of the tutorial. This guide shows a very basic option. For a more sophisticated foot with a more realistic and natural walking style you would need to incorporate a joint in the toe, and two tie-downs per foot.
1) Twist the leg wire into a loop to form a foot in position.
2) Lightly glue a nut of an appropriate size into the loop. The glue is a temporary fix only.
3) Thread a wing-nut onto the screw, and firmly solder or glue it in place. Thread the screw up through the nut to the half way position.
4) Model a blob of the hottest Polymorph around the nut and screw, persuading it with your fingers to flow around the nut, screw and wire. It may take a few attempts to achieve this.
5) Dip the Polymorph back into hot water, and level off the base of the foot to create as flat a surface as possible.
The head is treated in the same manner. The eyes have been removed, and the wadding has been glued all over the skull and stitched in place around the jaw. Take care not to fill the eye sockets up with wadding, as we will be gluing the eyes back in after the skin has been added.
The first stage in skinning the puppet is to glue the hollow fibre wadding to the Polymorph bones. Here, you can see the uncovered head and torso, the glued on wadding on the legs, and the arms completed with their nylon skin. You need to make the limbs much thicker than the final desired result, as this technique really relies on a lot of tension inside the nylon stocking. At an early stage, you need to think like a sculptor, adding balls of wadding where you know you will need volume. If you look at the picture to the right, you will see that I have added a ball of stuffing over her buttocks, and high on her left calf. These have been roughly stitched in place with a needle and thread. At this point, stick with it ..it becomes much easier to control once you have added the nylon skin.
Skinning the Puppet with Nylon Stocking and Hollow Fibre Wadding.