Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Episode IV A New Project

Lets get right into it, shall we? I've been lucky enough to learn more about ball and socket armatures since working with the Twirlywoo puppets for MacKinnon and Saunders. And when I rejoined the team at Scream Street back in January, I was stationed in the puppet maintanence department, which gave me the perfect opportunity to continue learning about these armatures and begin work on my very own*. I could finally combine my soldering skills with my character design in a very raw creation that would eventually become Old Man Prickles (TBC - however, as I did not revise this choice over the subsequent months, I soon became rather fond if it). 

* if you ever get the chance to work for a different department (be it rigging, puppet maintenance or costumes etc) then it's really worth taking. Working in a studio environment, where there is a certain amount of added pressure, will be the best place to learn a new skill, even if you're a complete newb.

Scream Street was to finish in April, so I had a few months to use the workshop facilities, buy in materials and plan out the armature. Luckily, I am quite a laidback and re-usable kind of chap, so I chose a character design from my University years. This not only saved me a little time, but I'd already created a walk cycle (albeit a very crude 2D one) of which I knew would match the character of Old Man Prickles and what I wanted from this particular armature.

Tall and lanky, stooped and old. I guess as far as criteria is concerned, this was it. I already knew that building the armature was my priority where the character design could potentially change depending on the final outcome (dimensions, posture etc). Remember, this was my first attempt at making one... I could (most certainly) bugger it up!

Puppet Maintenance for Scream Street

So it began with learning more about the armatures from MacKinnon and Saunders, the legendary puppet making company who supplied the puppets for Scream Street. The dimensions I was imagining to use matched up rather well with the scale and size of the children characters; approx 300mm high, slender and elongated figures and a slightly enlarged head. The difference, however, is that I'd use this scale for a grown adult sized character, being Old Man Prickles

I drew up some blue prints, taking some inspiration from the layouts of the Scream Street armatures, and started to cut 3/5mm steel rodding to fit these dimensions. The picture below shows how important the original drawing of Old Man Prickles was, because I was constantly referring back to it. Ultimately he ended up being 10mm taller, but hey who's counting?

The beginnings of my armature

Casting the hands was relatively straight forward due to the practice of making endless replacement hands for the Scream Street puppets. They are a silicone cast, poured into a hard resin mould. The hand paddles were made from plate steel with armature wire (1mm) for the fingers. To strengthen the 'skeleton' of the hand use cotton to weave in and out of the wire fingers and wrap with tights. A blob of two-part epoxy is then dabbed on each fingertip to stop the fraying of the wire.


I won't go through the entire assembling process because it would take a mighty long time. Plus, I feel that an air of mystery always surrounds the construction of an armature so I shall honour this by distracting you with a completely unrelated video...

The armature has a rigging point, which accepts 3/16" round bar or a bullet that can then attach to extra rigging (dumbells etc). This K&S tube runs adjacent to the hips, providing access for the rig when the character does a walk cycle (for example) across screen. So far he has a pretty well balanced body, so the rigging point might only be needed for mid-air tomfoolery. I have made a silicone mould for the head sculpt I made out of super sculpey. No need to bake the sculpey for a mould, as it can be removed quite easily (depending on shape and small features such as ears) and possibly used again. 

Just to give you an idea of my rigging job, whilst on Twirlywoos, check out this photograph below where animator Timon is setting up the puppets for his next shot. The long overhead bar is home to (usually) four carriages, each with a drop-down that also has a smaller carriage on. Upon these carriages is a rigging point, allowing more bars and joints to be attached and finally reach the puppet itself. It's basically like a giant K'NEX kit (remember that?!).

Each carriage can be wound in tiny increments, allowing the animator to lift the puppet off the 'ground' for movements such as jumping, falling and dancing (where tie-downs or magnets might not quite do the job). Anyway, this is why it's always handy to fit a rigging point into any puppet armature that you make. Just in case they learn to fly.

THUS comes an end to my vague step by step guide to building an armature. I apologies that it's not too detailed, but this is stage 1 of many and I have already rambled the whiskers off a walrus. I shall continue this guide on my next blog post, where I will begin to clad the puppet and make his poseable moustache, woof!

As far as I know, this is still on Netflix. Most definitely worth a watch folks.

I went to see the French-Swiss stop motion feature My Life as a Courgette (zucchini for those yanks) at the Home complex in Manchester. It was absolutely wonderful. It follows a very linear storyline, but the attention to emotional detail and the beautiful subtleties in its animation are what make it so great. The character design is very interesting, almost as if they were drawn by the children who star in this film, yet it works in this vibrant and quirky world because each individual has a very different backstory. The entire design and style actually reminded me of A Town Called Panic, another succesful French production, with visuals that are unique but heartwarmingly colourful.
    I would urge anybody with feelings to go and watch this film. Being an independant film it might be a little harder to track down, but lo! for it is well worth the chase. There is a very positive review from the Guardian that may help sway your mind if my meager words have not. Alas, I fear my writing is becoming unpracticed and full of nonsense. I am so glad the world of animation has taken me in to shelter amongst other nonsensical folk. 

Anyway, I can feel myself pootling along with no direction, so I shall bid you farewell and continue on my current project. It's a sculpting and model making adventure using old logs from the forest. They've dried out now, so it's time to branch out with my creative flare and varnish them. Progress shall be posted next time, you lucky buggers. CIAO!

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