02 December 2008

Okay, Fine. I Do Know How to Build Puppets.

It has occurred on more than one occasion: Someone has asked me if I could build a puppet for them, and how much I would charge for such a thing. My usual response is to give them Russ Walko's e-mail address. Russ is crazy talented; I've seen him create puppet art out of garbage. I've also had the pleasure of working with puppets he's built. He does top-notch work. I've had my hand up the backside of Henson Creature Shop built puppets, so I know from top-notch work.

In the past year I've built a couple of puppets for performance:

The infamous "sperm puppets" for Red Snapper's "Every Sperm is Sacred" number.

Spike, Theatre Unleashed's mascot. Last year I brought an old friend back to life:

Pepper, based on the Glorified Sock Puppet pattern from Project Puppet.

Project Puppet has helped me get over my bad self and gain confidence as a puppet builder. I know how to sew. Like many puppet nerds, I spent many an evening in high school hand stitiching an attempt at a Kermit replica. However, there is a gaping void between knowledge and confidence that can only be bridged by practice.

Which leads me to my latest puppet project, the crocodile:

The eye and nose ridges are temporary. After I finish building the head, I'll cover it with fabric and attach fabric covered ridges. I tacked these temporary jobs on to give a sense of what he's going to look like when finished.

One thing I've learned is that puppets can be deceptively small. Kermit's head is just enough fabric to cover a grown hippy's hand. Knowing that, compare the size of Kermit to the other Muppets. Not very large! The first foam-head puppet I built, a "big bad wolf" back in college was HUGE! I know that the torso of this croc can't be longer than my arm, which has dictated the size of the head.

I started with the mouthplate on this guy. Covered it in black felt and then added the foam for his snout and head. The crown of his head is the same "foam wedge" approach that I learned from Andrew Young's Tumbles P. Bear Project.

I'm not a bad draftsman. Even at my most disparaging of my puppet building skills, I've arrogantly trumpeted my ability to put pen to paper and design puppets.

(Above is "Skip," an unrealized design for a crappy children's show idea I once had.) So here's a secret that I gleaned from the great St. James Henson: It's all about the silhouette. The way we humans are built, we have an innate ability to rapidly identify silhouettes. If the overall shape is right, you can fudge the details. This is how we know Mickey is a mouse and Kermit is a frog, even though they really bear little resemblance to their namesakes.

The croc puppet is all about silhouette. I'm building it pretty much on the fly, without drafting it before hand, but I have plenty of visual references to work from. (Google image search is a gift from the gods.) I'm very pleased with how this latest puppet is turning out, and felt that it was time to admit what a few people have been telling me for the past year: I do know how to build puppets.