In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, we spoke to the Makers and Designers of the puppets we have in The Finger Players (TFP), to create the repository that is the Puppet Origin Stories – a humble effort to highlight the background, and the making and design history of these puppets. We hope that this can be a continued endeavour at TFP, and we hope that you can go on this journey with us.
Ah Where is a puppet featured in The Ageing Artist, and it tells the story of an elderly artist named Toh Ah Where, and her journey of accepting her mortality and loss of craft. This puppet has three parts – a larger-than-life head, gloves connected to larger-than-life hands, and boots with attached musculature. It is designed and built by Loo An Ni.
The design brief from the Director, Jia Yi, was for a puppet that could ‘shrink’ over time, in order to show the progression of Ah Where’s muscular degenerative disease, and that it could only be manipulated by a maximum of two puppeteers. She provided An Ni with visual references, and after reading the script, An Ni felt a larger-than-life puppet would work. She decided on this because she wanted to highlight an aspect of Ah Where as mentioned in the script – that artists are often placed on a pedestal, and are “larger-than-life”. She continued developing the design by thinking about Ah Where’s backstory, and Jia Yi also provided her with the direction that the “shrinking” of her would be physical and not existential.
In terms of the design’s finishing, An Ni played with different levels of abstraction – the puppet’s features are life-like but the texture is not. For the texture, she went for a grey, wood texture, as she drew inspiration from Ah Where’s art form as mentioned in the script – an artist who works with charcoal (burnt wood) and features bonsais in her drawings.
An Ni used midjourney to generate an image of an old lady’s face, scaled it up to size, and carved a Styrofoam mould based on the image. She used alumnimium mesh to shape details over the Styrofoam mould, before covering it with claycrete, which is a combination of paper pulp and plaster power. Mixing claycrete with water forms a paste, which could give thickness faster as compared to papier mache. This aluminium-claycrete combination then gave An Ni the hollow puppet head she wanted, as she needed the puppeteer’s head to go inside the puppet head. After she completed a foundation, she sculpted on details with air-dry clay and foam putty. The reason for not using claycrete for this step is because claycrete takes a long time to dry, and for continuous sculpting, air-dry clay and putty would be the logical choice.
After completing the headgear, An Ni sanded down some areas to achieve a greater variety in texture and then painted over the initial white with shades of brown emulsion paint. She still felt the end product was a little flat, so she sprayed the entire headgear with clear brown spray paint to make it more textured.
An Ni then attached the big puppet head to a wearable harness that she had built for the production of Peepbird, and what held the puppet’s head up was metal structures she had created during Cycle 2021/2022 of The Maker’s Lab.
Ah Where’s hands have articulated fingers, and are designed to be bigger than a human hand. An Ni referenced youtube for articulated finger tutorials, and created similar wood joints with wood hinges. She realized soon after that this was a bad choice, as Paulownia wood, though light, was weak and fragile. However, it was a design motif, so An Ni forged ahead despite the multiple breakages. Besides, to change the joints entirely would mean having to dig the joints out from the entire hand structure and joining it back. The saving grace was that Paulownia wood is light, and when it breaks, there is a clean jagged edge that makes it easy to glue back.
An Ni created the feet from a wire mesh structure because she envisioned a lot of movement being needed. She used a rubber boot as a base, as holes can be easily drilled into it as compared to faux leather/fabric. As the puppeteer was required to walk with these boot-feet structure, An Ni gave it a bend by adding another hinge, which she built using wire mesh.
There is removable musculature added to the feet, made with wire mesh and clay crete. Initially An Ni had designed for two puppeteers to manipulate this huge puppet, but in the end it made more sense for the Master Puppeteer (Jo Kwek) to wear everything, and have the musculature be removed by an external puppeteer (Chng Xin Xuan).
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