#09: Towards Little Mournings and the end of The Maker’s Lab

by fingerplayers

This journal is an entry in The Maker’s Lab journal series. Click here to read the previous entries.

Photography by Tuckys Photography

Daniel:
As the first iteration of The Maker’s Lab comes to a close, I would like to acknowledge the courage and perseverance that Xin Feng has displayed throughout the entire journey. With Chiam being her very first puppet, her persistent experimentation over the past nine months has been no easy feat. It is also with great courage that she has shared her process, thoughts, vulnerabilities and mistakes with everyone through her online reflections. I hope that perhaps these ideas may inspire you or others to push them further, dig deeper and experiment with your own puppets.

I recall the questions that we started out with in the first reflection. Where do I fit in the big picture of Singapore puppetry? How can I conduct meaningful experimentation? Perhaps, these questions cannot be definitely answered but will continue to follow us even beyond The Maker’s Lab. They are a constant reminder that we exist, build and create art within a larger community and that to hone our craft of making, we have to continuously challenge ourselves.

And so, even as one journey ends, another begins with new collaborators, new ideas and new makes.

Xin Feng:
Over the course of the rehearsals and set-up in January, February and March, a number of changes and repairs were made to Puppet Chiam. I found these changes important as they helped improve the puppeteering experience. Besides the major design changes mentioned in my previous reflection, these were some of the changes I made to the puppet over the last two months:

  • Changes to the palms’ elastic band
  • Changes to the pockets
  • Changes to the neck joint
  • Changes to the limb joints 
  • Repairs to the cloth joints (on knee and ankle)
  • Touch-ups to paint work
  • Repairs to the sandal
  • Troubleshooting from the batteries

Changes to the palms’ elastic band

I added an elastic band, a suggestion from Myra, to temporarily allow the puppeteers to slip their fingers into Chaim’s hands so that the puppeteer’s hands can become Chiam’s hands. This creates a more seamless illusion that the puppet is moving its arms. After hearing from the puppeteers that it is easier to manipulate with a solid ring in earlier rehearsals, I then decided to replace the palm elastic band with a solid ring.

Figure 1: Original elastic band
Video 1: Video of puppeteer’s hand slipped into Chiam’s hand while turning the shadow screen handle
Figure 2: Elastic band on both arms
Figure 3: Wrapping the metal ring with gum paper

I first wrapped the ring up with gum paper. This will allow the paint to stay on the ring later. The ring was then coated with glue and embedded into the palm of the puppet. I used silicone sealant to cover the slit on the palm and covered it with a foam piece.

Figure 4: Finished look of ring in Chiam’s palm

Changes to the pockets

I also made changes to the puppet’s pants pockets. A handkerchief, lighter and cigarette box are placed in two of Chiam’s pockets. After the puppeteers remove the props, they have difficulty returning the props to the pockets. I was tasked to add a solid structure to the pockets to prevent it from collapsing.

Figure 5: Top view of the pocket containing cigarette box and lighter
Figure 6: Side view of pocket containing cigarette box and lighter
Figure 7: Top view of pocket containing handkerchief
Figure 8: Side view of pocket containing handkerchief

At the start, I used a vanguard sheet to line the insides of the pockets. After a few rehearsals, the pockets started to collapse again. The vanguard sheets were not sturdy enough to hold the mouths of the pockets open. I then used boning to build a structure inside the pocket. This helped maintain the pockets’ opening and resolved the issue of the pockets collapsing after each use. However, at certain angles, the lighter would fall out easily and the puppeteer had to be careful not to tilt Chiam too much and cause the pocket’s contents to fall out.

Figure 9: Internal structure of the pockets. The boning structure is too stiff and holds the pockets too straight

I was also told that the pockets were now too strange as they stood really straight and still. This will be something I hope to improve on in the future if possible.

Changes to the neck joint

In the midst of the rehearsal, the velcro for the neck joint started to come loose easily. The use of two cable ties as a temporary solution became a permanent one as I felt that it could better hold the neck and the body together. The cable ties were strong enough to bear the weight of the entire puppet while at the same time remaining flexible enough for the neck joint to move naturally.

Figure 10: Photo of the neck joint using cable ties

Changes to the limb joints

One last major change I made was to the limb joints. Due to the way the arms are designed and built, the joints swing around easily. With the single string, the arms are free to spin in any direction and made them too free-moving which got in the way of the manipulation. As such, instead of a single string holding the forearm and the arms together, I added an additional string to prevent the arms from spinning too much. This helped to hold the arms in place and reduced the amount of swing in each of the puppet’s arms.

Figure 11: Photo of the arm joint
Figure 12: Changes made to stringing of puppet arms

Repairs to the cloth joints

In my last journal entry, I shared about having to repair the knee joints and replace them with a metal joint. During one of the technical runs, Chiam’s ankle fell off. The calico cloths that were originally holding the two ankles tore after much usage.

Figure 13: Torn calico cloth at the ankles

To fix this, I removed the calico cloth and replaced it with a thicker canvas that was able to withstand wear and tear. Over the course of rehearsals, I observed that the puppet had to withstand three different directional forces. One from the main puppeteer, as well as the two other puppeteers each manipulating its upper limbs and lower limbs respectively. Sometimes, the puppeteers may exert forces in different directions on the puppet at the same time.

Due to the shortage of time and the speed at which I needed to repair the ankles, I kept to the cloth joint and used Leukoplast tapes to further reinforce the cloth to the puppet. I did not replace the EVA foam and painted over the Leukoplast tapes instead.

Figure 14: Repaired feet with painted leukoplast

Touch-ups to paint work

Another issue I had to deal with was the peeling of the paint after each rehearsal. The peeling of the paint was located at areas most contacted by the puppeteer. These areas were at the ankles and arm rod. To prevent further peeling, I pasted a thin layer of Leukoplast tape and painted over the surface, which reduced the peeling significantly. I still had to make minor touch-ups after every rehearsal but it was much easier to handle.

Figure 15: Paint dropping after each rehearsal

Repairs to the Sandal

The strap of the left sandal broke during another rehearsal. This was because the boning structure was not fully attached to the base of the sandal, which caused the EVA foam to break after continuous usage.

Figure 16: Broken strap
Figure 17: Black cloth wrapped around the straps as indicated by dotted lines

I used the heavier-weight cloth that was used to fix the ankle joint to repair the sandal. This time, I lined the cloth around the entire perimeter of the sandal strap, going under Chiam’s feet as well. This increased the stability and strength of the joint where the strap was connected to the sandal.

Touch-ups to the finger support area

Figure 18: The back support with the hole sewn up

During one of the final rehearsals, I was given feedback that the cloth around the handle was hindering the puppeteer’s manipulation. I had initially cut a hole to allow the ring support to stick out of the pants. I did not expect the puppeteer’s fingers to get caught between the clothing. I realised that it was important to always sew the seams properly and ensure that there are no holes where the puppeteer’s fingers can get caught.

Troubleshooting from the batteries

I learnt that the first thing to troubleshoot for the malfunction of any animatronics (eg. Servo motors) is to check the power and the batteries. Insufficient power causes the servo motors to spasm strangely. As seen in Video 2, the eyes will have random small jerky movements causing the eyes to look like they are twitching. Due to the eye and chest mechanism using up a lot of power over the course of each run, the batteries had to be changed regularly. I found that the batteries started to malfunction below 1.4 voltage for the servo motors and the 9V batteries started to cause irregularities below 8 volts. The 9V batteries power the processor (arduino) and the 1.5V batteries power the servo motors. Each servo motor for the eye needs around 4-6V while the chest servo motors require around 4.8-6V each. I had to check the voltages of the batteries using a multimeter after each show to ensure that the batteries are within the working range.

Video 2: Spasming of eye servo motors due to low power

Final Additions and touch-ups to Chiam

For final Chiam, I made the following additions:

  • Addition of eyelids to the eye balls
  • Addition of black cloth to the back of the eye mechanism
  • Touch-ups to head shape
  • Addition of neck skin
  • Repairs of hip joint

Addition of eyelids to the eye balls

I added eyelids to the eye mechanism, so that he does not look like he is in a constant state of shock. For the eyelids, I used masking tape to tape over the area I wanted, and painted over it.

Figure 19: Addition of eyelids

Addition of black cloth to the back of the eye mechanism

I also covered the back of the eye mechanism with a black cloth. I attached the black cloth to the back of the eye mechanism using snap buttons. The black cloth helps to block out the light from flooding into the back of the head and seeping through the gaps in the eye. Before adding the black cloth, you can easily see through the back of the head from the gaps in the eye.

Figure 20: Addition of snaps to the back of the eye mechanism
Figure 21: Snaps added to the cloth
Figure 22: Gaps around the eye that allow us to see through the puppet
Figure 23: Gaps not visible after adding the black cloth

Touch-ups to head shape

I also used papier mache to cover the back of Chiam’s head to make it rounder and smoother.  The previous head shape was made separately and after drying, the shape shrank and could not fit evenly to the back of Chiam’s head although it was made with exact measurements. With the shrunken back head, it looked as though Chiam went for a head surgery and the surgeon forgot how to reattach the back of the head back onto Chiam. Thus, I smoothed his skin over with papier mache.

Figure 24: Back of head with papier mache

Addition of Neck Skin

After attaching the head to the neck joint, I used calico cloth to cover the neck. I first painted the calico cloth to the colour I needed. Then I cut two pieces for the front and the back of the neck. Initially, I sewed the sides of the two cloths together (seen in Figure 24 below) but I realised that sewing it in this manner would cause restrictions to the neck movements. I would want the puppet to be able to do a full left to right turn. However, I realised that sewing the side of the seams and attaching it to the shoulder would restrict the turning movement.

Figure 25: Addition of neck skin

To counter this, I added two more pieces of the cloth the left and right side of the puppet’s neck to act as the scalene muscles on the neck.

Figure 26: Additional pieces of cloth to allow the turning of the neck

The decision to do this was a result of looking into how our neck muscles are utilised when we tilt and turn our heads. The following video explains more on how our neck muscles work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kesE5gD86LE&t=7s

Figure 27: Attempting to build the wrinkles on Chiam’s neck
Figure 28: Loose cloth wrinkles that allow Chiam to turn his head freely

While building the neck, I had to ensure that it is sturdy and does not hinder the puppet from turning its head left to right and from tilting the head up and down. This was achieved using a few pieces of cloth that formed the left, front, right and back of the neck. The wrinkles of the cloth worked to my advantage and I used it to further emphasise the age of the puppet. This method would not have worked if Chiam was a young boy.

Figure 29: Neck painted over

Repairs of hip joint

To cover the joint between the cloth and other parts of the body, I used papier mache to cover it up and then painted it over.

I also had to repair the joints between the thigh and the hip as it fell off during one of the rehearsals. I used a screw and some epoxy putty to reattach the leg back. The screw had to be tightened in a difficult angle. Thankfully, Yew Jin from Ctrl Frea@k, who was creating the sound design for Little Mournings, had a rachet screwdriver that could reach into the insides of the thigh.

Figure 30: The hip broke and I had to stick it back together and screw both wooden pieces together
Figure 31: After fixing it, I noticed that it had moved out of place (compare left and right thigh positions)

Although it had moved out of place, I was thankful that it did not affect the manipulation of the puppet Chiam.

Concluding Thoughts

The feedback given by the puppeteers, creatives and crew members over the course of the production made me realise that there are still many things to improve on for Puppet Chiam and when working on puppet productions. There is no end to the number of things I wish I could have done better. I believe that this holds true in the journey of perfecting the craft of puppet-making or any other art form.

When I was designing Chiam with animatronics, I had originally thought of a more intimate performing space. However, with COVID-19 safe-distancing rules, we had to maintain a 3m distance between the stage and the audience which prevented us from considering a more intimate space. My thoughts on intimacy come from the use of animatronics in film, where the “performance space” is created with the camera frame. In films, the camera allows for close-ups which help to highlight the detailed expressions of animatronics. On the other hand, the lighting and performing space in the theatre is much larger and so perhaps to bring to life the details and nuances of animatronics in puppets, we will have to be more deliberate in the crafting of our spaces.

In the future, I will pay closer attention to the staging of the performance, the distance between audience and the stage and also work together with the other designers to craft the puppet design and spaces. Puppet Chiam was never a comfortable puppet to manipulate in that conceptually, he was designed to challenge the puppeteers’ idea of control over the puppet while physically, the introduction of animatronics meant that the puppeteers had an additional element to work with. I was a little sceptical at the beginning but I have learnt to be more confident about my ideas. I feel that we cannot ignore the age-old discourse in the puppetry scene, about mechanical manipulation vs movements with the use of animatronics.

There were many challenges I had to overcome while working on this lab. When I first began The Maker’s Lab, I wanted to explore how animatronics will affect the puppeteering experience, but I was doubtful that the use of animatronics would be successful. During my research, some of the puppeteers spoke of their preference for mechanical approaches to mechanisms while others felt that puppetry should be kept as simple as possible. I agreed with these perspectives and was constantly questioning what the purpose of my research was. I also agreed that a puppet should be kept simple so that the puppeteer can concentrate on puppeteering and was afraid that the introduction of animatronics would distract the puppeteer from the craft.

However, I am happy with what the project has achieved with the puppeteers. I was surprised to learn that the puppeteers accepted the animatronics. Due to the need for the puppeteers to react to the movements of the breathing mechanism (activated by the puppeteers’ movements or the absence of), the puppeteers were constantly kept on their toes and tested the possibility of passive manipulation. No shows were made 100% the same. I wonder if this infinite feedback loop between the puppeteer and the puppet can be further expanded and developed.

I have also come to realise that the use of animatronics is but another possibility in the creation of puppets. Every style of designing and making has its pros and cons and ultimately, it is up to the project brief, maker and creative team to discuss and decide what is best for the production. In my opinion, animatronics is neither a “must-have” in puppetry nor a “must-not-have”. I learnt in a User Experience class that the tagline for user experience designers is “it depends”. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to a problem and it all depends on all the stakeholders of the project (the product, the target users, the company etc.). With each production, we will have different creative needs and wants and the process of discovering a “suitable” puppet design begins anew.

As a maker, one has to constantly take into consideration the puppeteers’ experience. During the process of making, the maker is constantly thinking about how to make the user experience better for the puppeteer. My background in User Experience taught me that with the introduction of new elements to an existing design, I had to keep the end-user (puppeteers) in mind. A sword to a swordsman is the extension of one’s limbs, while a puppet to a puppeteer is the extension of one’s mind and body. As such, in the design and making of Chiam, I had to understand how the puppeteers manipulated rod puppets and discover movements and manipulations that were intuitive for them so that they would be able to perform their best.

I learnt how puppeteers are taught to handle the rod puppet by attending Kian Sin’s Rod Puppet Construction Masterclass in 2020 and Beng Tian’s Puppet Manipulation Masterclass in 2015. This allowed me to know where and how I should introduce new elements to my existing rod puppet design. My design for Chiam was further informed and improved from observations and feedback gathered during the jamming sessions with the puppeteers. For example, I found that the distance of the joystick from the puppet is very important as it will allow the lead puppeteer to hold on to the rod comfortably. In my next prototype, I installed the joystick closer to the head, as I learnt that it was easier for the puppeteer to handle the weight of the puppet. The puppeteer could then hold the rod closer to the puppet, reducing the amount of strength needed by the puppeteer’s hand to balance the weight. Another change I made was to the programming of the eye mechanism to allow its control to be more intuitive. The initial eye movement of the eyeballs from left to right was determined by pushing the joystick in the direction. However, the eye does not return to a neutral position. I was told that it was easy for the puppeteer to forget to return the eye position to a neutral position and the puppeteer also sometimes had trouble returning the eye to the middle, as she could not see the eye from behind the puppet. This prompted me to change the code, so that the eye always returns to the neutral position once the puppeteer lets go of the joystick.

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to the uncles in Singapore from all walks of life who were my inspiration for Puppet Chiam. I was glad that audience members whom I spoke to could tell who Chiam was modelled after. These Singaporean uncles may not lead exciting lives or lavish lifestyles, but their stories far exceed your imagination. The Singaporean uncles of the Pioneer and Merdeka Generation, who were always so keen to share a piece of their Singapore story with me. As such, Chiam is a tribute to the “no-screw joints made in school” — to the three uncles who shared about how they learnt to make those joints in school. Most of them do not have degrees but seemed to have all the answers to all your questions.

I would like to end this lab with a thank you to The Finger Players. To Ellison and Myra, who gave me the opportunity to explore animatronics in puppetry and for helping me out with puppet-making. To Beng Tian and Kian Sin who shared their puppetry journey with me when I was researching on this topic. To the puppeteers. Darren and Sindhu and Beng Tian for taking a leap into the unknown with me. Without them, Chiam would just be another puppet. To the production team, Hwee Leng, Ian, Joel, Victoria, Brenda and Shannon for being patient with Puppet Chiam and taking care of me. To Woan Wen and Grace for building this beautiful world for Chiam. To Jeffrey and Yew Jin for taking on the challenge to work with wireless networks to make Chiam’s world come alive. Thank you for the ratchet screwdriver, it was really helpful. To Lin Xiang, who came on board as the programming consultant and was willing to teach me some aspects of coding. It really helped with the process. Thank you to Hwee Sim, Xiang Yi and Vanessa for helping to realise this performance amidst the pandemic. Thank you to my assistants, Marilyn, Abital and Cher See for all the suggestions on how to make Chiam better and for all the late nights. To Lin Xiang for the crash course on the basics of programming, which helped me better understand the concepts and how to use them. Programming helped me realise that there are a thousand and one ways to do things and it is important to do it in a way you are most comfortable with. I would also like to thank my friends, Song Yu and Zi Feng, for sharing their knowledge on servo motors, readings and discussions on electronics with me.  Last but not least, thank you Daniel for building (no pun intended) this safe space for me to make mistakes, constantly giving me feedback and for being patient with me despite all the torturous sleepless nights I put you through.

This article is a monthly reflection by Sim Xin Feng, the maker of our inaugural The Maker’s Lab as part of an ongoing 9-month experimental laboratory. The Maker’s Lab is curated and managed by Daniel Sim, a core team member of TFP. The ideas and reflections within the article are drawn from Xin Feng’s observations and discoveries as a maker, designer and researcher. Instead of being taken as conclusive, we hope that they serve to be a starting point for thought-provoking conversations and perhaps even debates. We would love to hear from you and can be reached at tfpmakerslab@gmail.com.