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Overview of Puppetmaking Techniques

Written by Mike Brent

This is just a quick overview with links to more in-depth information, to help newcomers figure out what kind of techniques they might want to persue in their own puppetmaking endeavors. The info and links were collected from all over this website, in an effort to make some sense of the chaos and try to get some of this stuff ORGANIZED at last! It’s nice to have a single page you can go to for massive collected link-goodness! And if anyone knows of any other links, be it to threads inside this message board or outside sites, by all means, please add them below! The more the merrier. Also, corrections or additions to anything I said are welcome... I don’t claim to know it all (though I might sometimes act like it!).

ARMATURES

First up... what to put inside your puppet? There are several popular options and many variations... as with any part of our strange, eclectic hobby, it requires that you study various related skills and extract what knowledge you can from them, add in some ingenuity and good old seat-of-the-pants MacGuyver-ing, shake well and serve steaming hot.

The armature is the puppet’s skeleton... the framework on which it is built, and that allows it to hold a pose without collapsing or falling over. The only kind of puppets that don’t need an armature that I can think of offhand would be very short, squat clay puppets that have either very thick stumpy legs or no legs at all (snowman-style) and also very short or no arms. If you animate action figures, they essentially are plastic armatures, though might require additional support or various tricks to make them hold a pose well enough for animation.

Armatures can range from very simple homemade ones made of wire to jointed ones you can make yourself or kits that can be bought. They can also be custom built for a premium price... a good option if you’re working on a pro-level film and need the best armatures, or need them to fit your custom-designed puppets. Of course, one of the best ways to learn about armatures is to open the Puppetmaking forum and then Armatures and just start reading. Start with whatever strikes your fancy... but due to the random nature of posting on a message board, things frequently go off-topic, so often you’ll find great information under a seemingly unrelated topic... we recommend that you devote some time now and then to just random reading in the various forums.

ARMATURE KITS

Here are some suppliers who offer armature kits that you can assemble yourself, generally with a good degree of customizability:

WIRE ARMATURES

This is as easy as armature making gets, and you can go hog-wild in terms of your own custom designs. Useful materials to have on hand for making wire armatures include various types of epoxy putty, such as 5 minute or 20 minute Devcon or similar plumber's epoxy putties (available at local hardware stores), Magic Sculpt or Apoxie Sculpt (through art suppliers).

Here are some threads on this site with detailed description of techniques for making wire armatures using the untwisted method, with the wires wrapped and held together with silk thread :

HOME-BREW ARMATURES

This refers to home-made armatures, generally of the open-hole balljoint variety, which can be made in various ways using just a few tools most of you might already have in the basement, like a drill press and grinder, some hand files, and a propane torch.

Lionel Ivan Orozco's excellent tutorials :

HELPING HAND ARMATURES

Helping Hands..... yes, those little devices for solderimng with two alligator clips and a magnifying glass... they have balljoints built in. Lots of people have made armatures from them... here are a few helpful threads:

SWIVEL PEN HOLDERS

I'm not at all sure how you'd attach these together to turn them into a functioning armature, but here's one way to get some functional ball & socket joints. Swivel-jonted pen holders, like they have at the bank! I found a supplier that stocks some:

...And an assortment of random related links :

CUSTOM ARMATURE BUILDERS

CLAY PUPPETS

The vast majority of newbies seem to have the (wrong) impression that most or all stopmotion puppets are made of clay. We’re not entirely sure where this impression comes from, but there’s another Newbie Guide chapter called Claymation and Stopmotion - what’s the difference? This should help answer a lot of questions concerning what is and isn’t claymation.

We generally tell people that clay puppets are the easiest to make and the hardest to animate, since you basically have to resculpt the puppet slightly each time you move it, in order to remove fingerprints and/or tool marks, and just to make the clay move the way you want it to rather than squish all out of shape or tear. Clay puppets can range from the simplest ball or lump of clay scooting around on a desk to extremely sophisticated constructions like the Will Vinton or Aardman puppets.

Here’s an excellent article by Marc Spess on his Animateclay.com site, in which he reverse-engineers (takes apart, for the lay-people out there) some actual California Raisins puppets, examining their anatomy and you can see just what went into making these “clay” puppets:

URETHANE FOAM BUILDUP PUPPETS

Urethane foam is also known as cushion foam or upholstery foam. It’s generally done by gluing foam onto an armature and shaping with scissors. A skin can be made with liquid latex or the puppet can be covered with clothing sewn from fabric. Heads can be made from hard materials like polymer clay (Super Sculpey, Fimo) or wood, or cast from resin, and hands can be made by coating wire with liquid latex. This is a good simple way to make puppets, and much easier to animate than clay. It’s a great way to get started and develop the skills needed to step up to foam latex or silicone puppetmaking in the future, though these puppets are definitely suited to some great animation.

FOAM LATEX PUPPETS

Foam latex is great for making puppets... it features excellent compression and stretch properties, and can be cast in a mold to duplicate a puppet sculpt done in plasticene clay. It is commonly used in professional and often even in upper-end amateur productions, but is pretty expensive and requires a steep learning curve in order to master all the skills necessary. Foam latex comes in kit form, consisting of 4 components (latex base, gelling agent, curing agent and foaming agent). When you buy a kit from one of the suppliers listed in the links below, you’ll recieve instructions for mixing and baking. Required equipment for working with foam latex are a good quality scale, a dedicated oven (you don’t want to use the same oven you cook in) and a kitchen mixer like a Sunbeam or Kitchenaide. You can’t use a microwave, and the recommended type is a convection oven. You also need to buy moldmaking materials like Ultracal-30 or some other gypsum-based product (or some people use fiberglass molds) and some waterbased clay for creating your mold walls.

...You want what’s called white clay... not the WED clay. This stuff will dry out fast if you don’t keep it securely wrapped in plastic!

They also have UltraCal-30 on thier Gypsum Products page.

Suppliers for foam latex materials:

Michael Davy manufactures a simpler 3-part foam latex kit that is much more forgiving than the more complex 4-part kits, but I don’t think it’s quite as refined or supple in it’s finished form, meaning not as elastic or springy, and a little stiffer :

CAUTION!!! Do not use Michael Davy's FOAM GELATINE product for puppetmaking! It’s a prosthetic makeup FX material made for facial appliances that will be discarded after a short time and replaced. It’s gelatine... imagine trying to animate a puppet made of frothed Jell-O!!

Working with foam latex requires a considerable set of skills that must be developed over time... such as sculpting and moldmaking. Before diving in head first and investing in the expensive equipment and materials, it would be wise to develop these skills and familiarize yourself with some of the various techniques and materials involved. Links follow :

EXPANDING URETHANE FOAM

Not as good as the more complex 4-component foam latex, but useful for some aspects of puppetmaking. Cold foams are easier to use, generally only having 2 components and not requiring an oven for curing. Most cold foams are not self-skinning, meaning the outer surface will be porous rather than smooth when you take it out of the mold, but there are ways of combatting this. You can for instance make a skin of liquid latex (not as flexible or stretchy as foam latex) inside the mold first and then fill with the expanding cold urethane foam. Some people have made puppets from cold expanding urethane foams with some success, but note that it will generally wrinkle a lot worse than foam latex.

NOTE... MAKE SURE you get flexible urethane foam... there is also a non-flexible urethane foam product that’s good for making props or setpieces at times, but will not bend like rubber at all!!!

Max Winston did this as a college project, and on the Making Of page there are pictures showing the molds he made the girlscout puppet's arms and the old man's head in. You can see the liquid latex painted into the molds beforehand. In the film itself you can clearly see how the foam wrinkles a little, but it works in a stylized cartoony film like this.

NEEDLE SCULPTING - NYLON PANTYHOSE METHOD

This is an alternative method that we've kicked around a little bit on the boards, a completely different way to make puppets that doesn't involve sculpting (well, except with a needle and thread that is) and casting. Also included on some of these links is info on a related method called Felting - creating soft clothlike forms from wads of wool roving. Can be used for making thick cartoony clothing direclty on puppets, making hair (some characters in Wallace and Gromit have felted hair) or even for making faces for some kinds of teddy-bear-like puppets.

SILICONE PUPPETS

I was able to dig up quite a few threads about silicone, here are a couple of links:

And a brief bit by Mister J that I decided to just transfer here entire :

"...Silicone based "skins" stretch a lot better than they compress, so foam latex still has the edge in that category.
i personnally would not use dragon skin for stop mo its a liitle on the tough side i would go with ecoflex30 and slacker to deaden the silicone, to be honest the issue of stretch etc should not be an issue if the silicone is softened enough, silicones like this when used with smooth on slacker or fxsmith deadener do not compress at all. if made right it should displace as per natural flesh. your skin does not compress if you look closely it is the tissue underneath that displaces itself to allow the flex. i use platsil gel 10 and get superb resultsi first form a thin encapsulating skin of neat platsil to all mold surfaces then clamp the molds together. then a mix of platsil gel 10 with 20% deadener mixed in is injected into the mold. leave it for an hour and a half then demold. use 1 part dish soap to 2 parts isopropyl alcohol as a seperator or epoxy parfilm. hope this is of some help, check out smooth ons website and also polytech..."

"...Ive recently done a few test with tinsil gel 10 and i have to say that for puppet skins it is actually better than platsil, i use platsil as i do a lot of animatronics and prosthetics and the tin cures are not at all safe for use on the skin. tinsil however is really good for puppet skins having nearly the same properties. the amount of deaener to tinsil for a nice puppet skin is 3 parts deadener to one part silicone . for example if the slicone is a 50 -50 mix and you use say 30 grams of pt a and 30 grms pt b the amount of deadener would be 90 grams any more results in a wobbly cured gell that will be no good for a puppet skin..."

Links to the products he mentioned :