Monday, August 10, 2009

TFS- Puppet Making Part 3- Puppet Heads

As the previous Puppet Making posting says, it's now time to think of the puppet head as something distinct from the body.

All these examples are from TFS.

So to begin, I've resolved some important design issues already: most importantly, how is the facial animation is going to be created. This is essential to know BEFORE you make the head. The answer (for this project) is- sculpted heads that will have applied on to them animatable features (eyelids, pupils, eyebrows, and mouths). Again, I certainly didn't invent this approach, it's used all the time, mostly cause it WORKS.

The sculpted head will keep its form and volume perfectly (unlike a clay head, that would have to be resculpted constantly), but will still "be alive" cause of the features that will animate. Those features will be a mix of coloured Sculpy, mixed with a soft wax (which helps keep the features from smearing on to the puppet head, which makes a big mess and screws with the paint job on the head).

Next step is to figure out how to actually craft the head, from the core, outward. And that's what this image shows you:

At the core is BRASS STOCK. You can get it at hobby stores, call around. It comes in all sizes. For puppet heads, I use " square, 3/16" ". You can also buy it round, which is why I specify.

The purpose of this brass stock is that it gives a sleeve for the neck of the puppet to slide into. The neck (when you make it) will ALSO have brass stock on it, but a slightly smaller gauge- I use "square, 5/32" ". You want an easily removable head because at times (while animating) you will want to do some detailed work on the features, or you might need to retouch the paint job. Being able to actually take the head off the puppet makes this very easy (even in mid shot!)

Again, you need to be working at scale now, drawing the head out (based on the original scale drawing), and figuring out just how long you need to make the brass stock so that it embeds nicely, and won't be sticking out at its bottom. This takes practice, no two ways about it.

Cutting the brass stock is a bit tricky. It CAN be done with a hack saw and a vise, but it sort of sucks that way. Much easier and faster is with a rotary tool (often called a "Dremel" which is one brand), that you attach a cutting disk to. It cuts the brass like butter. Remember though- the brass will get VERY hot, so hold it with pliers, and wear safely goggles and a mask (there will be brass dust kicking around).

Often, I do this part for students, since it's a bit tricky and potentially dangerous if you're unsure of yourself. So be careful...

You CAN make the puppet with its head as part of the body. That's a faster, easier way. But this process (using brass stock) is a pretty pro way to go, and that's what we're aiming for, isn't it.

With your brass stock for your head cut, the next step is this:

I've molded plumber's epoxy (a two part compound, available at Home Depot in Canada) around the stock. Again, I've used the scale drawing to make sure I don't put too much on. This epoxy is so that the foil (which is the next step) has something to grab on to. You'll note all the weird pointy bits on the epoxy. If I had done it smooth, the foil would just spin on the epoxy, and your final head would ALSO just spin around loosely- driving you insane while animating (and ruining your film).

Plumber's epoxy is an amazing material. You can use it for anything hard in a puppet's armature- arm bones, leg bones, pelvis, chest... it dries very fast, and is very hard (giving you a really strong armature). There's lots of tips and tricks to using this material, but that's not for THIS posting. Just be sure to practice with it first to get a feel for the material (before putting it to REAL use), and wear tight rubber gloves (the epoxy will stick to your fingers over time, and it's not really healthy). It also doesn't hurt to have a fan and open window, as the fumes are stinky.

You'll ALSO note (this is vital), that I left a wee bit of space at the bottom of the epoxy. This is so that when I apply the Super Sculpy (which is the final layer of the head), there is brass stock for me to sculpt the Sculpy on to. This way, the final layer will be very strongly attached to the brass stock, AND the foil, and the epoxy. If the epoxy covered all the stock, the final layer of Sculpy would only be attached to the epoxy, and that increases your chance that the whole head will spin on the stock, again- driving your insane. This is a bit confusing, but practice is the only way to get it. Nothing about puppet making is "easy", or perfect on the first shot. It's very much a learned skill, and that comes through practice. C'est la vie!

Next comes the foil. Nothing fancy, just good ol' fashion tin foil. The purpose of the foil is to "bulk up" the head, while keeping it light. That's why the final layer of Sculpy is actually so thin- it keeps it light. And a LIGHT head is very important for a puppet. A heavy head will weigh the puppet down, and make balance an issue.

Pack the foil on tight, but not TOO tight, or it gets heavy. Refer always to your scale drawing to keep on size...

Finally, it's time to sculpt. I use Super Sculpy cause it's tough, and I use the grey kind cause it's easier on the eyes and (I'm convinced) sculpts more smoothly. It doesn't drag in the way the flesh-coloured (if your flesh is "white") Super Sculpy does.

A sculpting tip- use a length of 5/32" brass stock (if you used 3/16" in the head) to put your head on to while sculpting. It makes it easier to rotate and keeps your hands off the actual head.

Rotate the head all the time you're sculpting, checking all angles, making sure it's balanced and pleasant and looking "right" in all dimensions... it takes me ages to sculpt (well, hours- a puppet head probably takes me about 6 hours in total to sculpt). But I really enjoy it. I love the process of building the head up, trying things out, starting over... I listen to talk radio, zone out... I love finding the planes and angles that are right... letting the character rise up out of the clay... I'm self-taught, and whatever skills I have it's really just through practice. Take your time, get good. If you're already good, get better.

My basic tools. The weird little wire thing is just some stiff floral wire (covered in plastic) wrapped around into a sort of "mini-scooper" thing, for digging out small spaces..

Here's another tip, for when you're done sculpting for the day, and for when you actually bake this head. Use a wire curled like this:

It keeps your soft head up off the table, cause the wire is sitting inside the brass stock. And when you bake, you can just set the head on this wire base, and place the whole thing on a baking pan. Just make sure as you make the curly base, you keep it flat and level, not wobbly.

When you're ready, bake the head according to the instructions. Baking Sculpy is a bit of an art, keep an eye on it, don't let it burn... and practice.

A baking tip- when it's done baking, turn off the oven, open the oven door, and let it cool. Don't try to take the head out while it's hot. It's now VERY fragile, so leave it alone. I've wept tears of pain from taking a head out too soon... Once it's cool, it's rock hard. But let it cool!

Also- be sure to use the joke "I'm going to put my head in the oven" as much as possible at this stage. My wife tells me that one never gets old...

Now with a cool, hard head, you should have something like this (when viewed from the bottom):

Notice how the brass stock is flush with the base of the head. That's what you want (or even the brass stock up inside a bit). The main thing is that you don't want the stock sticking out (it will look terrible on camera), and you want the square of stock clean and free of Sculpy. If there's any gunking the stock up, you can easily pick it out.

Now it's time to paint. Painting Sculpy is easy, AND tricky. It's easy to apply the paint, but it's tricky to ensure the paint is strongly adhered to the Sculpy. You're going to be putting your hands (and pressure) on this head for every frame, and paint can easily scrape/chip/smear off, if you don't take precautions.

The best way to get a solid paint job is to use a primer on the head. I use automotive primer, grey. It's flat and thin. You just need a thin layer, on all of the head. It dries fast, and from THERE, you can paint on acrylic paint with a brush (or air brush).

Be careful when spraying the paint. Do it somewhere that a bit of mess is OK (like a garage). I use a cardboard box as a "spray booth" to catch the excess paint. And I use a base of wood with skewers glued in to hold the heads, for painting.

Well, now you've got a puppet head. Apply your paint job. Be sure to keep a little bottle of the skin tone paint, for touch ups!

When you're done painting the head, let it dry well, then SEAL the paint by using either a spray fixative (available at art stores), or a paint-on version. This just helps keep the paint on better, and prevents little things like a random fingernail from causing trouble. Be sure to use a flat (or matte) finish, not gloss. Unless you're making a puppet that's glossy (perhaps a fish man?)

The paint WILL chip off, or peel. Not a lot, but it's still likely to happen. Eyebrows are notorious, as they are animated across the head. They stick, they smear, they can pull paint right off. Just be very careful (no kidding), have touch up paint ready, and all will be well!

This process is tested and true, and although it's not perfect, it gives excellent results in a fairly straight- forward, DIY fashion...


ChrisW said...

Hi Patricia:

Thanks for saying hi!


Darkmatters said...

Excellent tutorial on head making!!! Thanks for not calling it "Getting your head together" or something equally inane (though come to think of it, that's probably just what I would call it on my blog!).

One additional step I'd recommend... Over the foil I'd make a thin shell of epoxy putty before sculpting in super-sculpey. You can roll epoxy putty out in a pasta machine or under a rolling pin (or a length of pipe or whatever) if you either sandwich it between pieces of waxed paper or powder it pretty well with talcum or baby powder so it doesn't stick.

Actually I've never tried rolling it out, that part I only read somewhere, so I can't speak for it, but I have made heads both with and without the intermediate epoxy shell, and with is much better for me. I wet my fingertips and press the putty out into a thin sheet, apply it over the foil (I actually use other materials rather than foil) and then rough up the surface before it cures. This of course leaves a nice rough surface for the sculpey to stick to.

The reason I like the epoxy shell is it helps to have a hard surface to sculpt onto.... trying to sculpt over a foil core is frustrating.... things can shift around on you.

ChrisW said...

Yeah, great head-making tips. You really have a good head on your shoulders.


You can also use rubbing alcohol to keep the epoxy active a bit longer, and easier to shape. Just dip your fingers in the alcohol as you work the epoxy.

These are great tips, ANYTHING to make sculpting easier is a good thing! Thanks for sharing this...

Darkmatters said...

Cool... I'll have to give that a try!

jriggity said...

more good stuff for the blogosphere!


kathryn durst said...

thanks so much chris for posting these! i tried making puppets myself this summer and definitely struggled with every aspect of it. it will be nice to try again with this help. :)

Ken A. Priebe said...

Hey Chris-
Quick question...are you going to be in Toronto around Oct. 16-17-18, or will you be attending the Ottawa Animation Festival?

Please email me:

Anonymous said...

a HUGE THANK YOU for describing in pictures and words how to make a replacement head. I've been wrestling with that aspect of puppet making for literally years. This will help so much with making the next two puppets the next scene requires.

Excellent information, Chris. You rock.