BLIND SUMMIT PUPPETS
How the puppets are made...
The first part of the puppet to be sculpted is the head, which
I sculpt in either plastaline or clay.
From this original, I make a mould, using silicone rubber encased in a fibre glass or jesmonite shell. The shell provides the silicone with support when the original is removed. I clean up the mould and then make a resin and fibreglass cast.
An armature is needed to support the sculpted head. For plastaline
I use a wooden ball fixed to of a piece of dowel, supported in a wooden
base. (Click the image to see an animation of a head sculpt). The advantage
of plastaline is that it doesn't dry out and shrink, this means that it
is easier to work on something over a longer period. However it can be harder
to work than clay and more difficult to get a uniformly smooth finish. You
can use lighter fluid, applied with a brush or a small piece of sponge to
smooth over the surface of the finished sculpt.
If clay is being used then the armature cannot be solid, it needs to be something with give. This is because the clay shrinks as it dries out and so compresses whatever is inside it. To prevent the clay cracking around the armature you need a soft core at the centre. I use wet sheets of newspaper folded into one long strip, wrapped as tightly as possible around the end of a piece of dowel, and secured with wire. You can then add small bits of clay and build up the head. Whilst working with clay you must keep it as moist as possible, spray it with water frequently and wrap it in plastic when you are not working on it.
Whatever material you sculpt in, the armature needs to be
strong enough to support the size of head you plan to sculpt. A relatively
small head, 10cms from top of head to bottom of chin, can end up using almost
2 lbs of plastaline.
For the eyes I use beads. It can be difficult to know exactly where to position them, especially early on when there is little of the head to know where they should be placed. I try to place them as accurately as possible by taking measurements from the drawings. But often it is just trial and error. I have occasionally got quite far with the sculpt only to realize that I need to move the eyes further forward or back.
A finished clay sculpt can be sealed by applying two or three thin layer of shellac varnish.
The type of mould you make is determined by the material in which you are sculpting and the material in which you intend to cast the finished item. I usually cast the head and hands of the puppet in resin with fibre glass so the end result is a rigid positive. This means the mould needs to flexible if it is going to come away from the details of the face and pull out from any undercuts without doing any damage, and remaining reusable. The best material for this is silicone rubber. It is very flexible and provides a highly detailed cast, picking up every mark and texture of the sculpted body part.
To make the mould I begin by building a wide clay wall around
the head of the puppet. The position of the wall determines the seam line
where the mould will separate and the two parts of the head will join together
when you later cast the finished head. I take the seam line over the top
of the head along the edge of the ear and down just along the bottom line
of the jaw.
You can build registration marks into the mould by making small hollows or protrusions in the clay wall. This means both parts of the mould will line up accurately if you assemble the head in the mould. I tend to dig out a small channel all the way around the head so that the two parts of the silicone rubber have the best possible chance of registering perfectly.
I then make the first silicone part of the mould. This is best done in at least two stages. Firstly a thin layer or two of silicone poured or brushed gently over all the features and into the details of the face, and when this has cured, a thicker layer 6-7mm thick. This can be done in one go, but it is not recommended; in order for the thick layer of silicone not to slump, you need to add a thixotropic agent which makes it harder to brush into the more detailed parts of the face, around the eyes and the nostrils and ears, and increases the likelihood of air bubbles.
Unless you are making a block mould, the silicone on its own is not rigid enough to cast into, when removed from the sculpt it will be soft and flexible. So the next stage is to make a rigid case to support the silicone. For this I use jesmonite and fibreglass, completely encasing the silicone and ensuring it overlaps onto the clay by at least two centimetres all the way round. I build up three or four layers with a couple more around the edge of the mould for extra strength. (You can use resin and fibreglass as well, but you may need to seal the clay to ensure the resin cures properly.)
When the jesmonite has set fully I remove all the clay from
around the head and clean up the back of the mould and head. Take care doing
this as the clay may have begun to dry out and could damage the head. Before
continueing with the second half of the mould you need to spray a release
agent onto the exposed edge of silicone otherwise the two parts will adhere
and you will not be able to seperate the mould. Likewise, before encasing
the second half of the silicone mould in jesmonite and fibreglass you will
need a release agent. I put a thin layer of vasaline around the edge where
the two halves of the mould will meet. This will ensure the two halves separate
and do not just become one solid shell.
To seperate the mould I firstly trim back the edge of the fibreglass. This gets rid of the rough edge, and cuts the mould back to where it is a bit thicker. Then, using a chisel, I gently work around the mould to prise it apart. (When building up the fibreglass shell for the mould I tend to make one or two areas around the edge a bit thicker so there are some stronger points at which to lever open the mould. This is especially useful for a larger mould as the adhesion of the mould materials to the sculpt and each other can be very stong over a large area)
Finally I clean up the mould to prepare it for casting.
When the mould is finished the head is ready to be cast.
I use polyester (plastic) resin and fibre glass to make the puppet head. The resin is a liquid and can be brushed or poured into the mould. It is mixed with a small amount of catalyst which causes it to harden. I do not usually pour resin, as a solid resin head is far too heavy to be of any use. Also, on its own, resin has very little structural strength. To prevent it shattering, it must be used with fibreglass. The resin impregnates the fibreglass and the two materials create a very strong and reasonably lightweight structure.
I build up the head by brushing layers of resin and fibreglass into the mould.
When I have laminated the two halves of the mould I assemble them with a bead of gel coat resin placed around the join as an adhesive. The exception to this is a puppet with a handle on the back of the head as opposed to the head mechanism detailed below. In this case, to fix the handle you need to remove the head from the mould, making it necessary to assemble the head out of the mould.
The Head Mechanism
Many of the puppets that we use have a tilting head mechanism
based on the bunraku puppet head mechanism this pivots the face upwards
around a point where the head meets the neck. This simple mechanism gives
a huge degree of life to the puppets thoughts and movements.
The basis of the mechanism is a piece of aluminium tube, which forms the neck of the puppet. At its top end a small length of threaded rod pivots around a steel pin. The back end of this piece of rod is fixed into the inside back of the puppets head. A wooden handle is drilled to take the lower end of the aluminium tube. It has an elongated hole cut into its length through which a small trigger connects to a short rod within the tube. Through the use of piano/steel wire, the trigger rod pulls down the threaded rod at the top of the tube. It pulls against a spring which connects the threaded rod to the tube, which returns the head to its lowered (resting) position. When the head is in place on the puppet, the aluminium tube travels down through a hole into the puppets body. The shoulder construction of the puppet rests on the top of the handle (which has a rounded top to it), so as well as controlling the head, the top of the handle also supports the body of the puppet.