Beginning The Lab

by fingerplayers

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.

Daniel: Welcome to Xin Feng’s first reflection as she embarks on her journey with The Maker’s Lab. As some would empathise, the beginning of an experiment is often always confusing and scary as one attempts to find a starting point. Where do I fit in the big picture of Singapore puppetry? How can I conduct meaningful experimentation? It is with these existential questions at the back of our heads that Xin Feng began her inquiry.

Xin Feng started prototyping during Singapore’s two-month long circuit breaker. During this period, materials and objects that she could work with became drastically limited. She had to build from materials she could find locally (within her home). Due to the lack of tools at home to do precise construction, she then had to pay close attention to the objects and materials that she was working with. To what extent could she improvise and prototype?

Puppetry in Singapore

Xin Feng: Thinking about puppetry often brings me back to a conversation I had with someone. I spoke to them about puppetry in Singapore, and how we do not seem to have anything that belongs to us; Rod Puppetry from the West, Traditional Hand Puppetry from East Asia, Wayang Kulit from Indonesia and Malaysia – everything seemed to be “borrowed”. I noticed that the Indonesian friends I had met on an exchange programme sharing about their Wayang Kulit craft and wondered if there was any puppetry form that we can claim as our own? They told me that that was not necessarily true, as the art form (Chinese traditional puppetry) had slowly evolved as it travelled across Southeast Asia. Different puppet troupes had developed their own methods in solving problems that came with the various communities they brought their performances to. Similarly, puppetry in Singapore has its own style that we cannot deny.

About Myself

Xin Feng: I have a superficial understanding of puppetry and am still finding my way around. Prior to applying for The Maker’s Lab, I studied Interactive Media and had been working as a graphic designer since 2013. I previously trained with the second cohort of I Theatre’s Creative Edge Theatre Training Ensemble and fabricated props and set for events, installations and a couple of productions for less than a year. I want to find out how my knowledge in Interactive Media can be useful in puppetry.

Research Process

Xin Feng: For a start, I looked into the relationship between the puppet and its stakeholders to better understand the concerns that puppeteers, makers and directors face during a production (from conceptualisation to performance).

This was later split into two groups:

Factors that can be controlled in design

  • How well it fits with puppeteer
  • Focal point of the puppet (e.g. eyes)
  • Weight of the puppet
  • Originality of the puppet
  • Can it be easily replicated if damaged
  • Is it ergonomically-designed?
  • Can materials be sourced easily?

Factors that cannot be controlled in design

  • Strength of the puppeteer
  • Performance duration
  • Space availability
  • Rehearsal timings
  • Experience level of the puppeteer
  • Knowledge of the puppeteer

To better understand the puppeteers’ experience, I also interviewed a few puppeteers with the following questions:

  • How long have you been puppeteering?
  • What type(s) of puppets do you enjoy working with (e.g. Traditional Chinese Puppet/Rod Puppet/Object Puppet/etc.)? Why?
  • What are some challenges you face as a puppeteer?
  • What are aspects of puppeteering you value most (e.g. flexibility of the puppet/size)? Anything you wish you can explore more of as a puppeteer?

From the interviews, I found two common aspects of puppeteering that puppeteers look for – the ease of control and the weight of the puppet. I also found that puppeteers seem to favour the rod puppet as it resembles the human body and can be manipulated more instinctively. One of the main challenges  puppeteers face was finding ways to overcome body fatigue. The weight of the puppet and the space in which the puppeteer has to work with then becomes key factors in helping puppeteers overcome this challenge. As different puppeteers have different preferences when it comes to puppeteering, can technology be used to enhance the puppeteering experience?

From my encounters with Singapore theatre, the use of technology in puppetry seems to be new territory that has not been explored deeply. Perhaps due to the lack of materials and resources, it is relatively rare to find puppets that incorporate technology in their manipulation. As such, I hope to use The Maker’s Lab to further explore how technology can be incorporated in puppetry, starting with the basics of animatronics. (As the online Cambridge Dictionary defines, animatronics is “the use of machines controlled by computers to make puppets and models move in a natural way in films and other types of entertainment”.)

Maker’s Notes

Xin Feng: I started the experimenting with an animatronic eye, as the eyes are the soul of the puppet. For this, I used an Arduino and 2 micro-servomotors to achieve a low-fidelity prototype. The first problem I faced was finding a way to turn the eye in 4 different directions – up and down, left and right. I had some trouble with this as I was working on the eye during the circuit breaker and Phase 1 of reopening. Most of the shops were closed and I could only make do with the materials I could find at home.

Experimenting with the axis for the eye – the above was a failed attempt in creating the eye. The wires were not strong enough to hold up the eye and I was still missing another axis – up-down axis.

I found another scrap material that could hold up the eye and created two axes for it to spin on.

Although this eye worked a lot better, the material used was unstable. The movement was also very “staccato” and I am looking to find a ball-joint that would help make the eye movement less stiff. Another issue I faced was the thickness of the ball used. The thickness caused the metal wire to slip out after a few turns.

One of the biggest obstacles I faced while learning about animatronics was the feasibility of it. The materials used to build a part can be expensive and the time taken to improve and rework things makes one question the necessity of experimenting with animatronics. If puppetry is realised through the connection between the puppeteer and object, would technology become an additional burden to the puppeteer? During two separate conversations with The Finger Players (TFP)’s Co-Founders, Kian Sin and Beng Tian, I realised that they spoke a lot on the human touch in puppetry. I understand the limitations of technology and how some things cannot be achieved through technology. Throughout the process of ideating and researching, I found myself constantly having doubts as to whether this idea to explore animatronics was feasible at all. I am not confident but at the same time I am excited to find out what are some possibilities that animatronics can bring to the puppetry theatre.

Afterthoughts

Xin Feng: This would be the first time I am venturing into animatronics. I have only done basic programming for games and interactive installations. I want to find out how technologies from animatronics can be incorporated into puppetry for theatre. There are three aspects I hope I can explore:

Eyes

  • Soul of the puppet
  • Experimentation with animatronic eye

Breathing

  • The breath is what brings a puppet alive
  • Experimentation with other ways of moving

Movement

  • Experimentation with other ways of moving

The technology I want to explore does not replace the puppeteer, but instead, introduces other possibilities of “play” to the puppeteer.  

interactive = unfinished (works)

– Matt Adams (Blast Theory)

One of the things I want to constantly remind myself throughout this lab is that work involving interactivity is never finished. Matt Adams explained that it is never completed because it is heavily dependent on the users’ interaction with it. Without the puppeteer, the object is just another object.  

The Call of Materials in Shaping a Local Puppet Aesthetic

Daniel: Xin Feng’s reflection on her prototype during the circuit breaker reminds us of the importance in heeding the call of materials. From using the grooves in her soccer ball toy (now turned eyeball) to attach wires to acknowledging the flimsiness of the foam sheets, she has had to ‘listen’ to the materials at hand. Often, as we attempt to shape the materials that we work with, the materials are in turn shaping the types of puppets that we create.

In Singapore, we use commonly acquired materials like plywood, sponge, foam, styrofoam, etc to build our puppets. We also often rely on gadgets from toys or household appliances to build joints and puppet parts. Conversely, solid wood, used by puppet builders in other countries, is expensive locally and thus not financially feasible yet. As a result, many of our contemporary puppets are compositions of various materials and gadgets, differing largely from classical puppet builds. It is my opinion that these interesting combinations contribute towards developing a local puppet aesthetic.

Diving into animatronics in puppetry then becomes an investigation of our identity. As Singapore strives to brand itself as a digital and technological hub, electronic prototyping systems such as Arduino become more easily available. However, the compatibility of animatronics in puppetry remains yet to be proven. How does puppet-making and puppet performance engage with such technologies? Will the life-ness of our puppets be enhanced or diminished? In a series of podcasts recorded by artist-researcher Lynne Kent with Australian puppet designers and makers (https://thingmaking.net/), she introduces some very exciting possibilities. Here, we are very much interested to explore these possibilities locally in Singapore.

If you wish to follow Xin Feng on her journey with The Maker’s Lab, click on the ‘Subscribe’ link below now!

Click on the links below to read more about the other monthly reflections by Xin Feng