Puppet Origin Stories: Paul

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.

Baby Paul
Teenage Paul
Adult Paul

Paul is created by Marilyn Ang, selected Maker of The Maker’s Lab Cycle 2022/2023. It was featured in the production of The Puppets are Alright – The Bench in 2023. The Maker’s Lab is an initiative by The Finger Players (TFP) to nurture and grow builders and designers of puppets and objects, and at the end of each cycle, a puppet will be created to become the starting point of a production’s creative process. The Bench was borne out of this. 

This cycle of The Maker’s Lab had the theme of Puppetry and Tactility, and started with a lot of tactile experimentation to settle on a core element to continue exploration with. After a few months of experimentation and discussion, the core creative team that comprised Marilyn, Daniel Sim (Programme Manager of The Maker’s Lab), Ellison Tan and Myra Loke (Co-ADs of TFP 2020-2023) collaboratively decided to continue experimenting with bubbles as an element.

The Bench is a story that charts the gradual disintegration of a father-son relationship, and Marilyn decided to have the son, Paul, as a rod puppet that would have bubble elements either in the finishing or in its mechanism, and could also “grow” throughout the duration of the show. Marilyn felt that both parties could never express themselves truthfully – the Father character spoke of his emotions through stories, and the Son character could never really let his emotions“bubble to the surface”. Marilyn therefore wanted Paul to externalize these emotions through bubbles, as she thought the fleeting nature of them was a suitable metaphor. She decided on rod puppets because she has built them before, and was more confident in this form. 

Marilyn designed two puppets to support a visual transition from Baby Paul to Adult Paul. Baby Paul was covered in a swaddle, and would “grow” to become Child Paul, a puppet that had a mechanism that blew bubbles from his mouth. Adult Paul had a chest mechanism that could spit out bubbles. Marilyn thought this was an appropriate metaphor – in that children would process emotions outwardly, whereas adults would suppress emotions inwardly. The structure of both puppets was designed with the puppeteer in mind; Marilyn felt it would be a strain on the puppeteer’s (Ian Tan) body if he were to kneel down for prolonged periods of time to manipulate the rod puppet in a traditional way, and so Child Paul was a conventional rod puppet, whereas Adult Paul had wooden ‘clasps’ cut into his foot, that would allow the puppeteer to manipulate the puppet to walk via his/her feet. 

The added wooden ‘clasp’ with an aluminium flatbar for added stability, and for avoiding the chance of breakage whilst in use. 

Paul’s head was a transparent globe with a holographic finish. This finish was achieved using iridescent tape that looks bright and colorful under light. However, Marilyn wanted it to be more subdued, so she used a glue-like matte finishing to mattify the tape. Unfortunately under stage lighting, this finishing looked a little dull, but it was too late to revert back to the iridescent tape. 

Child Paul with bubble head mechanism
Adult Paul with bubble chest mechanism

The bubble mechanism was the most challenging part of designing and building the Paul puppet, mainly because it necessitates a 100% success rate. A usual bubble mechanism works as such – when a trigger is pulled, the motor is activated and bubble fluid is moved up to the nozzle. A wiper, usually situated at the top of the nozzle, would wipe off the liquid to form a bubble-film. The fan, already activated by the motor, would then move sufficient air outwards to form bubbles coming out from the nozzle. However, instead of just placing a bubble gun directly into the puppet, Marilyn broke the bubble gun mechanism into its individual components and reinstalled them within her own puppet structure. The process of modifying the bubble mechanism to work well within a dynamic puppet proved to be challenging and much trialing and testing was needed to achieve the high rate of success.

One such example was the modification of the trigger of the bubble mechanism. For the Paul puppet, the trigger had to be placed on the rod behind its head for easy access by the puppeteer, but the bubble solution and its mechanism had to be placed in the respective head or body cavity, where the bubble was due to come from. This resulted in the distance between each part of the mechanism to be a lot longer. In this case, the switch can’t be directly connected to the motor, and likewise the trigger to the wiper. To circumvent this problem, Marilyn dissected store-bought bubble guns and used their parts independently. Each Paul puppet has two different bubble guns inside him. One is hand-powered (pull the gear, and the gear would set it in motion), and one is motor-powered (activated by a switch that was soldered to the motor). 

The red/pink orange section is the motor with the gear and tubes that drags the bubble liquid upwards. On top of that is the fan that blows the bubble out. The yellow section is the wiper-nozzle, and below it is a funnel that catches the liquid to let it flow back down.
Bubble head mechanism

One challenge that Marilyn encountered was that the backflow of the liquid is quite substantial, because the motor is constantly pumping the liquid up to the nozzle, and the liquid that hasn’t been wiped off and blown as bubbles would have to flow back down. This constant recycling of bubble liquid meant that wastage was minimized, but it also meant that it became very soapy, sticky, and messy, because the bottle tended to leak and stained the puppet in the process. Eventually Marilyn realized it was because the bottle from the store-bought bubble gun couldn’t be sealed tight enough, and this was eventually replaced by a sauce bottle she bought from Daiso. 

Another challenge that Marilyn encountered was that the entire puppet became quite heavy after it was built. This was because Marilyn had to use an aluminium u-bar as a base to hold the bubble mechanism. Small shifts in the bubble mechanism positioning would result in it failing. These structures were essential to shape the torso and house the mechanism stably but added significant weight to the already weighty mechanism.

Copper tapes and wires in and around Paul’s hands

Another interesting thing to note about Paul was that Marilyn had sewn in copper wires into the hands and attached them to the copper tape lining the rod handle of Paul’s hands. This was done so that when the puppeteer is in contact with the rod and Paul’s hand is touching the circuits on a specially made bench for the show (connected up to a “Playtron” system), it would close an electrical circuit resulting in different sounds being made by contact. 

Besides the bubble mechanism, Marilyn was also interested in working with tactile sound systems and in particular Playtron, developed by Playtronica. In order for different sound to be produced in the Playtron system, the users would have to close various circuits by touching different nodes. Marilyn incorporated part of the circuit into Paul by sewing copper wires into the hands and attached them to copper tape lining the rod handles of Paul’s hands. As a result, when the puppeteer held on to the rod and touched the set bench (which was rigged with Playtron), the circuit would close and sounds will be played.”

The bench top connected to the “Playtron” system

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