labricoleuse: (macropuppets!)
Imaginary Invalid closed on Sunday, so the show's run managed to beat me to the finish of this tail-making saga. Nevertheless, here's the final conclusion, or as i like to say, the tail end!

If you need a refresher on what's happened so far, the whole thing began with a two-part post on the silicone/spandex process by which third-year graduate student Adrienne Corral created a set of lizard skin samples, an effect which was ultimately not used, as the designer elected to go with actual leather instead. Those are here and here.

Next, we looked at how the tail skeleton went together with aluminum conduit and hose clamps.

This most recent post addresses how the embossed alligator hide got turned into the skin for the skeleton.

Now, finally, let's get to the finishing work!

Recall that this entire process, we had been working on the structure based on the information that it needed to be capable of being altered to fit multiple performers, that this person would be crossing the stage and possibly running or climbing, and the tail's movement needed to be as realistic as possible.

As a crafts artisan, you have to be very flexible with new script development, and be able to roll with the changes as deftly as possible. I think by the time we opened, we had been asked whether the tail could go on three different actors, and at one point it was even potentialy going to be cut altogether.

Operating with the understanding that the wearer was running and possibly climbing in it, and that the skin had to be this leather hide, we had engineered the skeleton to be as lightweight as possible, and created it in segments so that the movement could remain as sinuous as possible (think about those hinged wooden snake toys).

In tech, the exploration of the performance turned out such that the wearer now needed to recline on the ground, wrap the tail around his leg, and run offstage. Our efforts to minimize the weight and maintain the sinuous movement however meant that the structure was not engineered to support this new movement--the tail segments collapsed and looked stupid when the actor lay down or bent the tail manually himself.

In a longer production period, or in a world where we have time travel, given these kinds of new movements, ideally re-engineering the entire tail concept would be in order. When this type of situation arises during Saturday of tech weekend, that's when you really have to get creative! We didn't have the budget or time to make a new skeleton or any different configuration of the leather "skin," so I decided we really just needed to find a way to stuff the tail as quickly as possible, with as lightweight but sturdy material as possible, with a minimum of deconstruction.

First, we skinned the tail back to its pointy tip. I had a couple of assistants begin cubing scrap couch foam for the stuffing--couch foam (or urethane foam) is a good combination of lightweight and sturdy, and best of all it was free.

Next I patterned a large "tube sock" from green spandex that would drop down around the skeleton and contain the stuffing. We secured the tube sock to the bottom-most hose-clamp, and began working upward, segment by segment: stuff the sock from clamp to clamp, whipstitch it down to the next set of "ribs," then reattach the leather over top. Repeat. At this point, the tail production was a free-for-all pile-up--every person in the entire shop had their hands on it at one point or another in order to get it done.

Read more... )
labricoleuse: (macropuppets!)
The next (but not final!) installment in the lizard tail adventure: a photoessay of sorts! When last we left the process, there had been a skeleton constructed and a vinyl "skin" pattern cut out.

Read more... )
labricoleuse: (Default)
Recall the saga of the lizard skin samples, from two prior posts here and here...but what happened after that?

Those samples were the preliminary experiments on the creation of a man-sized reptile tail for a new translation of Moliere's Imaginary Invalid at PlayMakers Repertory Company of Chapel Hill, NC.

For the first round of fittings with our designer, Sonya Berlovitz, third year graduate Adrienne Corral had created an initial tail mockup for scale and shape, and for skin choices we had all our spandex samples as well as some samples of croc and gator embossed vinyls and leathers.

At this point in the process, what we knew about the tail was that someone would be wearing it during a hallucination scene in which one character goes to hell (though exactly whom was as yet undecided), that this person would be crossing the stage and possibly running or climbing, and the tail's movement needed to be as realistic as possible.

Read more... )
labricoleuse: (macropuppets!)
I have a few more books to address with respect to this semester's topics, and these relate to the "reshaping the actor" and hypothetical engineering projects.

The first is Puppetry: A World History by Eileen Blumenthal. This is a large-format book with both tons of text and lots of full-color and B&W photographs. It is a general overview of many kinds of puppetry (from marionettes to shadow puppets to bunraku to multiple-operator macropuppets in various cultures), and discusses not only elements of structural engineering but cultural significance as well. I keep it in the class library as a reference for some of the hypothetical engineering projects, in case a student wants to do something like a five-person Chinese Dragon or a parade-style macropuppet, etc.

Another book i always make available is edited by Blumenthal, Julie Taymor: Playing with Fire. This year, i've got the updated 2006 version, which includes some of her recent film work, as well as the 2006 opera Grendel. (The previous edition was from 1996, and stopped at her staging of The Green Bird.) It's a coffeetable-book-style retrospective of her career, mostly photos of productions in full-color, but also featuring many of her design renderings, some behind-the-scenes pix, and a few diagrams of some of the less intuitive structures (like the one-person cheetahs from Lion King which are waist-mounted and utilize the puppeteer's legs as the animal's hind legs). I keep this one around for mask class as well.

Speaking of Lion King, Taymor's production diary/scrapbook, The Lion King: Pride Rock on Broadway is another excellent (though clearly production-specific) resource for creative puppetry structures. Whereas Playing with Fire has maybe 3-4 pages on the Lion King process, Pride Rock on Broadway is crammed with structural diagrams and maquette photos and matrix sculpture images, even to the point of including an actual structural blueprint for the hydraulic mechanism inside the hyperextending head-mounted "Scar" mask. It's a great resource, particularly given how many designers tend to find inspiration in Taymor's work, and want things made "like that one costume in Lion King."

Another new book i was super excited to come across is Journey of the Tall Horse: A Story of African Theatre by Mervyn Millar. This book is essentially about the genesis of the acclaimed Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, and specifically their fantastic production Tall Horse, about the journey of a giraffe from the savannah of Africa to the menagerie of King Charles X of France in 1826. (If you follow this sort of thing, you'll maybe recognize Handspring from their most recent production, War Horse, which opened at Britain's National Theatre last year and is still running.) It's mostly a history, so it's largely text, but VERY image-heavy, nearly every page has a production photo, a design rendering, a behind-the-scenes snapshot, or a structural diagram of one of the multitudinous puppets. It's particularly cool to compare and contrast Handspring's two-operator giraffe puppet with Taymor's single-operator giraffe design depicted in the Pride Rock book!

Random thought: It's weird to consider chronology with respect to these courses, since i teach them on a biennial basis. I've taught this once before, and it'll come around again in Fall of 2011. Each time, i have six students--if i stay here for the remainder of my career, how many students will learn these subjects from me in the fullness of time? I guess if i keep on teaching and don't get hit by a bus or something before i'm elderly, i could teach as many as, what? 150 students in a given topic? Maybe as many as 200? And of course there's my commitment to "open source costuming" through conduits like this blog.

That's a lot of paying it forward. Cool!
labricoleuse: (ass head mask)
Okeedoke, i've finally gotten back to NC, leapt back into the swing of things at work, and uploaded my final round of photos from the symposium. These third day images have some puppet-construction coverage (both small-scale and large-scale), as well as pix of some of the participants' finished Varaform heads.

I apologize for the less-than-stellar quality of some of the lecture images--i was taking them largely without flash from the back of their blackbox theatre where the demos were held, so some aren't ideal but i think are still useful to see. And, most of the mid-workshop images are much better quality.

Read more... )

I have to say, one of the things i really appreciated about this symposium is their focus on safe work practices, as well as safe costume engineering practices. They had a spray booth for spraying, and a Barging station outdoors, where they still would not let anyone use it who had not brought a fit-tested respirator. They talked about cooling vests and locations of hidden vent holes for air circulation, building ice-pack pockets into the bodies at key locations, and were teaching a method that allowed for 360-degree vision for the wearer. Awesome!

Of course, this isn't the final post on the topic, as I'll be finishing up my rabbit and donkey (hopefully over the next two weeks) and posting about how that goes. And, my "official" article that i'm cowriting with Dixon Reynolds in Sightlines will have a lot more text, too, so that'll also be coming out in the fall issue.
labricoleuse: (ass head mask)
I am so, so sad for the symposium to be over! I'm genuinely sad that i am going to be finishing up my projects at home and not going to have a chance to see everyone else finish up theirs in person! (Though, there is a Facebook group for us all to share photos on, so at least there is a way to see pix of how they all turned out.)

But, i'm ahead of myself, since i still haven't written about the second or third days yet, so first i better do that.

The general schedule of the symposium consisted of morning presentations and demos on various related topics (how to use different materials and when, engineering and patterning issues, techniques and cautions, etc), with hands-on labs in the afternoons and evenings. On the second day, the lectures discussed the construction of body forms for bighead/walkaround/mascot costumes, and interior mechanisms for smaller scale puppetry.

photos galore )
labricoleuse: (ass head mask)
Again with the LJ failure last night. I can't seem to upload any posts when i get home in the evenings here. So, again with the second attempt this evening:

Whew! I've just finished the second day of the symposium, but i really ought to finish posting about the first day, first.

The second workshop of the first day involved making donkey heads from sheet foam. Our first step was to make our donkeys in half-scale, using soft polyurethane foam (like couch foam, but in thin sheets). This allowed us to sculpturally customize our donkeys--some were goofy, some childlike, some creepy, etc., whatever the participant wanted to do. Some people even altered the donkey altogether into other animals.

Read more... )
labricoleuse: (ass head mask)
This year's symposium is hosted by the costume program at Ohio University. OU's graduate program offers concentrations in Costume Design, Costume Production, and Costume Crafts, and with its "triple-threat" faculty of Holly Cole, David Russell, and Kjersten Lester-Moratzka, it's really become the place to go for an MFA if you want to do creature crafts, walkarounds/bigheads, and macropuppetry. Also assisting with the symposium are OU grads Brandon Kirkham and Marit Aagaard, as well as several other former and current students and colleagues of the hosts.

The first day of the symposium consisted of a general overview (including the survey of their mask and puppet collection, photos of which i posted earliers) and some initial lectures from Holly and David about their respective workshops: foam construction and Veraform (thermoplastic mesh) construction techniques. Then (after a delicious prix fixe lunch at a local Middle Eastern restaurant) we all split into two groups and began working!

I've got time to post some photos and overview info on our first workshop--carving matrix sculptures in blue insulation foam, for the purpose of making Veraform heads! This workshop was led by David Russell, and our subject at hand was rabbit heads. (I gather Mr Russell recently made something like 40 rabbit heads for a production of The Velveteen Rabbit so was now intimately familiar with this particular head shape for the purposes of teaching large groups.)

Read more... )
labricoleuse: (macropuppets!)
Well, dang. I wrote this entry last night late and attempted to post it, but the hotel wireless was on the fritz. So, here's my second attempt, on my way out the door this morning:

Aight y'all, it is late and i have just gotten home from an 11-hour day at the symposium followed by barhopping, so forgive me for not posting a serious well-composed write-up of Day One. (The subject of the symposium is bighead/walkaround/full-head creature masks, and puppetry/macropuppetry.)

I do have over 50 photos already, and will be reporting in-depth on the whole event as soon as i have time to do something besides, you know, attend it and sleep...but for now, i've simply got some initial teaser photos, from the Puppet and Mask collection here at Ohio University, all of which were on display today during the intro section of the symposium!

Read more... )

I've got posts coming soon on the workshops, in which we are making creature heads using a range of methods and materials! First though, i have to sleep, for real. And do it all over again tomorrow.
labricoleuse: (macropuppets!)
At the end of February, i had the good fortune and wonderful opportunity to work as a fabricator with Basil Twist, master puppeteer and Artist-in-Residence at Duke University on director Ellen Hemphill's production of Ionesco's Exit the King. I took some photos of the construction process for a couple of the creatures...

Read more... )
labricoleuse: (macropuppets!)
I want to point out the award-winning drama, War Horse, a really amazing collaborative production between the reknowned Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa and London's National Theatre. The 3-person horse puppets really have to be seen--they're just brilliantly made. Click through these reviews for some photographs, as well as the National Theatre's site for a gallery:
labricoleuse: (macropuppets!)
I'll have some good project posts coming soon (probably this week) on some more Amadeus projects, but i wanted to give a heads-up to my Carolina readership about an exciting event happening soon in Raleigh: Puppet Fusion!

Puppet Fusion is three days worth of puppet and mask performances and workshops, featuring a host of artists and artisans from around the country, including Vermont's legendary Bread and Puppet Theatre, Chinese Theatre Works of New York, and North Carolina's own Hobey Ford and Paperhand Puppet Intervention.

In related news, there's a fairly long article in today's News & Observer about Paperhand, which includes a link to a video on YouTube featuring their work.
labricoleuse: (macropuppets!)
Because we are eventually going to be talking about macropuppet mechanisms in Decorative Arts this semester, I've been scoping around online for cool links and images and such to show my students. I came across the work of NC master puppeteer Hobey Ford, who specializes in rod puppets. He's just finished a week-long residency here in the Triangle area, courtesy of the Carrboro Artcenter.

You can view a video of highlights from his show Animalia on the Loyd Artists website. The quality of the video is a bit grainy at times, but the magic of the mechanisms comes through anyhow--i particularly love his caterpillars that cocoon and emerge as butterflies. There are a few of his puppets that look like they are glove-mounted rod puppets, which are of particular interest because we're addressing ergonomic safety with respect to glove-based costume projects (a subject i touched on last year in this post on the Edward Scissorhands gloves. is an excellent resource for all kinds of puppetry information; of particular interest to me is their aggregate of macropuppet posts. I particularly enjoyed reading the step-by-step post about how a bunch of Star Wars fans built a life-size 3-person Jabba the Hutt in some dude's driveway.

They also maintain the Puppet Building Wiki, which is a cool idea in theory and seems to have a fair number of cool, useful articles (like how to make stilts) but the enormous masthead of spammy links at the top of the pages is distracting and irritating.

Puppeteers Unite have such a huge links page that it'll keep me busy for days just paging through all the cool stuff.

PuppetVision has a group on YouTube where they've collected a whole host of over 100 video clips of puppet performances and construction how-tos as well!
labricoleuse: (macropuppets!)
Probably the most complex crafts project on The Little Prince was the Fox macropuppet.

The project was largely the province of my assistant, third-year MFA candidate Emily Vandervoort Mason. Emily's degree focus is craftswork, so i asked her what, of the range of projects on the show, did she want to be responsible for (with my oversight and input, of course). I wanted her to have the opportunity for a great portfolio inclusion. Bravely, she picked the Fox.

pix and method )
labricoleuse: (macropuppets!)
Wow, i haven't updated in a while. Things are *SUPER* busy with the biggest crafts show of the year (The Little Prince, full of masks, macropuppets, hats, parasols, you name it!), so there's a lot that's in process coming soon. Without airing the business of others, the misfortunes of funerals and surgeries have, when added to the prodigious workload, precluded my writing even about non-project topics of late. It's quite the hamster-wheel!

I'm doing some hats for one of our actors with a large headsize (25"), and we had to order a new dolly head for him. I found heads up to 25" for under $25 apiece at Wig & Hairpiece Supply, for those as might want such things.

And, i can't yet reveal exactly what i'm doing with them, but if you are looking to engineer some kinetic macropuppetry frameworks--or, do stop-motion claymation or similar--here is the best thing since iced tea on a hot day: Zoobs! Ball and socket joints and connectors which can bear a fair amount of weight and offer a wide range of movement.

I'd also like to commend my students and coworkers for really stepping to the plate on devotion to water conservation measures for dyeing in a drought state. We've managed to reduce our water significantly while still keeping up with a heavy dye load for our mainstage show.

* * *

Most folks have read in the news a bit about the IATSE stagehand strike that's left Broadway dark for nearly a week now. For some behind-the-scenes (literally) perspectives, check out the following links:

Local One's initial press release on the strike
Local One's followup on the strike
The One NYC Stagehand blog muses on the ramifications of the strike
Steve On Broadway (SOB)'s got some stuff to say
The Humble Nailbanger is blogging the strike from within
Parabasis sets up a Strike Resource Open Thread for discussion

I have a lot of opinions on the subject and no time to explore them. If they're still striking in December, maybe i'll have the leisure to sit down and be articulate about it then. For now, back to the parasol factory!
labricoleuse: (macropuppets!)
I've mentioned in previous posts that this semester's graduate crafts course is on masks and armor. As we roll up into Fall Break, they're finishing up the section on masks, which culminates in a project i call "Complex Masks." The mask they chose for this project had to have some engineering issue involved in its construction. For example, one student chose to make a dragon whose eyes light up, another made a leather commedia mask using traditional Italian leather maskmaking techniques (for which she made all the traditional tools as well, like a hammer made from a bull's horn), another made a Medusa mask that had actual recoiling snakes, etc etc etc.

Two of the students gave me permission to photograph and share images of their projects here.

Click for pix! )
labricoleuse: (ass head mask)
The Arts, Crafts, and Theatre Safety organization publishes a monthly newsletter entitled "ACTS FACTS," which contains various media articles about cautionary safety topics pertaining to the fields of arts and entertainment. This month there is an article that I would particularly like to share with my readership, as it addresses large-scale character/mascot costumes (also often known in the industry as "bigheads" or "walkarounds"). The character/mascot production industry is one into which many crafts artisans enter at some point in their careers.

This article is reprinted by permission from ACTS FACTS, Monona Rossol, Editor--181 Thompson St #23, New York, NY, 10012--(212)777-0062, -- It's contents are copyright ACTS, April 2007.

Disney Learns Lessons About Costume Safety
Orlando Sentinel,, Beth Kassab, 3/6/07

Thousands of performers at Disney parks around the world must deal with physically demanding conditions and injuries from their heavy and sweltering hot costumes, overzealous children and other hazards. These performers at Disney's four Orlando theme parks reported enough injuries in 2005 to affect more than a third of the 1,900-person work force.

The reason is the costumes portraying 270 different characters can weigh as much as 47 pounds. Weight was blamed for 282 out of 773 injuries, mostly to the neck, shoulder or back, according to reports kept by Disney during 2005, the most recent year available for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). While some of the injuries were minor, the reports show that actors at Disney World were injured badly enough in cases in which the costume was cited as a factor to miss a combined 105 days of work in 2005. Actors were transferred to lighter-duty jobs for a month or longer at least 13 times that year because of costume-related conditions.

A burdensome costume head, typically a weighty part of the gear, was specifically cited in 49 cases, often resulting in neck or back strain. Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck heads, among others, were specifically mentioned in the reports.

Children or adults were listed as a cause in 107 injured, in which they pushed, pulled or otherwise hurt performers in costume. Some reports cited "excited" guests, characters who were "hit by guest," "jumping" children, "heavy" children and "child pulling on costume." Injuries from those incidents include bruises, sprains, and other ailments.

All told, the reported incidents ranged from a death in 2004 to minor ailments such as skin rashes. The death occurred when 38-year-old performer Javier Cruz died after he was hit and run over by a parade float backstage while dressed as Pluto. OSHA fined Disney $6300 because they had allowed employees to be in areas where they should not have been. But that incident also raised question about performer's poor vision while in costume.

Another issue is the heat that can build up in the costume especially in the hot Florida summers. Various gadgets such as fans, cooling tubes and ice vests were reportedly tried, but for the most part, they added more weight to the costume than they were worth. The gadgets tend to break, performers say, leaving them carrying additional pounds without any benefit. And in the dead of summer, performers reported that the ice in the vests melts before you get started.

Disney claims that in recent years it has recruited a former NASA engineer to address some of the issues on how the human body endures heat and weight. Disney also exchanges information with military researchers who examine the effects of heat and heavy loads on soldiers and has adopted some materials and techniques originally developed for the auto industry, Carol Campbell, vice president of Disney's character programs and development claims.

Disney also says it now provides classes for actors on how to bend down and pick up heavy items (such as the bag that contains their costume) and other ergonomically correct movements. And [sic] instructor-led warm-up class designed by sport-medicine experts at Florida Hospital is included at the beginning of each actor's shift.

COMMENT. ACTS would like to see Disney's finding made available to teachers of costume design in schools and universities. All of these issues of restricted vision, heat, and ergonomic factors should be incorporated into costume designing at the entry level in this profession.

I concur with ACTS' final comment--we artisans need to always be mindful of wearer-safety when creating costume items, and consideration of vision-range, interior heat, and overall weight must always be integrated from an engineering level, from concept to design to execution. I'll be teaching a course in the fall in maskmaking, which includes a section on bighead engineering and macropuppet costumes, so in a few months i'll be addressing this further on a practical, specific scale here in La Bricoleuse.

Incidentally, if you are interested in reading more about the circumstances surrounding the death of Javier Cruz, the incident is discussed at length here, on the Theme Park Insider forum, a discussion board for park workers and equipment operators and engineers.
labricoleuse: (ass head mask)
This is the second part of a two-part series on the building of the macropuppet plant arms for the musical Little Shop of Horrors. Part one is here, in which i illustrate how we built the "skeletons" of the arms.

Photos and explanation of how the arms got finished... )
labricoleuse: (ass head mask)
I have a lot of complex projects in the works right now--shoes, hats, the wire crinolines from the last post--but by far my favorite is building the enormous girl-grabbing puppet arms of Audrey II, the carnivorous plant star of the musical Little Shop of Horrors.

If you are familiar with the show, you know that it's all about the plant puppets, and that because the plant grows exponentially larger in each scene, the show requires four different plant puppets--two handheld potted-plant-sized ones, a large walkaround-sized one (though since it's in a pot, the puppeteer doesn't actually walk around in it), and an enormous one that requires three and then five puppeteers to manipulate it due to its sprawling prehensile "arms".

The Drama department of Durham Academy, a prestigious private K-12 school in Durham, NC, is producing the show this semester with sets designed by Zach Hamm, who also is the ATD at my work. They are working with the licensing and production company Music Theatre International, from whom they are also renting the plants. The set of four puppets was originally built by Character Translations, Inc.. The rental package consists of the four plants and plans for building the two sets of grabbing arms. (Presumably the plans are offered instead of renting built versions of the arms themselves due to the need to accomodate varying stage sizes and different actor-faces for the victim-flowers.) Zach and his construction team were unable add building the arms on top of their work on the set itself, so he asked if i'd be interested in doing it, and i ask you: does the sun come up in the morning?

YES, i was definitely interested in doing it!

Photographs, plans, and the first part of the plantbuilding me the Audrey! )

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