Puppet Origin Stories: Octopus x Mok

by fingerplayers

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.

Octopus x Mok

Octopus x Mok is a hybrid puppet featured in Jun and the Octopus (2022), a theatrical adaptation of the children’s story book of the same name. It is a story about body safety and body boundaries within young people, and follows the journey of Jun, a boy who learns swimming from a family friend – Uncle Mok. The tale takes a dark turn when Uncle Mok transforms into an Octopus in Jun’s nightmares. This puppet is designed and built by Daniel Sim.  

In the production, Set Designer Wong Chee Wai’s visual design was inspired by the colours and artistic styles of the illustrations in the book, and that was also one of the design considerations for Daniel’s puppet design. While the Director Myra Loke’s brief was that of a fairytale-like horror diorama, she was clear that the octopus should not be menacing.

Eventual set design by Wong Chee Wai, Image courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Another starting point of Daniel’s puppet design was that he had never built a TFP-style rod puppet before and thus wanted to use this as a good opportunity to understand the strengths and limitations of this style of puppets. As such, the human puppets (Jun, Ma, Pa, and Mok) were all designed in the TFP rod puppet style.

As for the Octopus, Daniel initially designed it to perform similar to an umbrella, where the opening and closing of the umbrella would control the tentacles of the octopus. However, after building a prototype, he decided to abandon the idea as it did not offer sufficient control and the tentacles behaved too ‘floppily’. 

Phase 1 Octopus

Octopus Phase 1 mechanism with Mok head attached
Octopus Phase 1

Phase 1 of this production was in 2021, and the Phase 1 Octopus puppet had a mechanism buried inside the puppet’s head, with multiple fishing lines connected to each tentacle. 

The control mechanism was made primarily from wood with fishing lines attached to the individual tentacles to control them. The fishing lines were run through small rings sewn onto boning within each tentacle. The tentacles would curl up when the puppeteer pulled on the mechanism. The shape and “body” of the octopus head and tentacles were then made out of sponge and covered in fabric. The suckers of the tentacles were sewn-on buttons. When the puppet was completed however, Daniel was not very satisfied with the outcome because the buttons ended up adding a lot of weight to the puppet. This made it hard on the puppeteers and also reduced the amount of curl that the tentacles were capable of.

After Phase 1, Daniel considered rebuilding the puppet and mechanism entirely to improve on its mobility. Additionally, after seeing the puppets in relation to the size of the set in the presentation venue, Myra feedback that she wanted the puppets to be larger. Hence, Daniel went back to the drawing block.

Phase 2 Octopus

Octopus Phase 2 base with Mok head attached
Octopus Phase 2 initial stages

One of the challenges of re-designing and re-building this Octopus puppet was to reduce its weight. As compared to the previous mechanism where the puppets had to pull two parts apart in order to trigger the tentacles, he added a lever and reversed the action into a squeeze to trigger the tentacles. With the lever in place, rotating the mechanism in various directions around it would also cause different tentacles to move, creating a more organic motion.

Fabric was used in place of buttons for the Octopus’s suckers. Daniel was introduced to the Shibori technique – fabric would retain its shape when heat is applied to it. He tied organza around little cardboard discs, and then ironed it to retain its shape. The round disc-like fabric  was then sewn onto the tentacles. Not only are the suckers lighter, they could also be made in various sizes. 

Octopus Phase 2 finishing

For the finishing, Daniel chose to align it with the book’s illustration. He initially tried painting the puppet to achieve a desired finishing, but it just didn’t turn out right. At the same time, layering with paint to achieve the right finishing would only add more weight to the puppet, which Daniel wanted to prevent. As luck would have it, Spotlight had the fabric with a finishing close to what Daniel had envisioned, and so he used it to dress the Octopus puppet up. In order to unite the visual design of the puppets and set, Chee Wait also used the fabric within his set finishings.

Without revealing too much, the Octopus is actually a metaphor for a character in the story, called Uncle Mok. In the play, Uncle Mok visually becomes the octopus. In order for that transformation to happen, Daniel designed the head of Uncle Mok to be detachable from the rod puppet and attachable to the Octopus. He modified the rod puppet velcro neck joint into a clasp joint that allowed for easy release and attachment.

All in all, keeping quite strict to the TFP-style rod puppet allowed Daniel to understand the considerations put into designing and build these kinds of puppets. The rod puppet provides huge amounts of flexibility in manipulation and modification. However, with the scaling up of these puppets or the addition of requirements in its performance (such as swimming), the in crease in weight in relation to the manipulation style have to be taken into consideration. For example, with the rod puppets in JATO, some of their joints started to take a lot of wear and tear during rehearsals and thus had to be rebuilt with sturdier materials.

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