Puppet Origin Stories: Ru Xin

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.

Ru Xin

Ru Xin is a life-sized puppet designed and built by Loo An Ni, selected Maker of The Maker’s Lab Cycle 2021/2022. 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. 

Ru Xin’s past life was a modular puppet structure, a series of bones and joints that can be combined in different configurations to create various puppet structures. In the long run, this allows the Maker to quickly test various structures to find the one that works best for their needs. This structure was featured in the production of No Disaster on This Land in 2022. For the production of The Puppets are Alright – Parting in 2023, An Ni took on the design brief of Director and Writer Oliver Chong to convert the metal structures into Ru Xin.

Design by An Ni for No Disaster on This Land
Modular structure worn on Puppeteer Vanessa Toh

Oliver’s brief was quite straightforward – to use the system that was developed in the previous iteration of The Maker’s Lab, and create a life-sized human puppet that is as realistic as possible. The two words that Oliver had used in his brief were ‘realistic’ and ‘soft’, and An Ni took this on in her approach to the material and textures of Ru Xin.

Archive image of Parting – Ru Xin with her three puppeteers, Image credit: Benson Lim

To achieve the desired soft and fleshy texture, An Ni layered fish tank filter sponge(muscle) over the metal structures(bone) to give it a foundation structure. She then layered polyester wadding(fat) over the fish tank filter sponge. Polyester wadding is typically used in quilts, which makes it ideal to work with, as they come in sheets, and An Ni could shape it easier as compared to cotton. She used flesh-colored stocking as skin, as it had the appropriate elasticity and was also seamless enough to not have seam lines running across Ru Xin’s limbs. At places where she needed the stocking to join, she would hide it behind the puppet’s costume. 

The Makers at TFP typically use yellow / grey sponge, commonly used in cushion/sofa/mattresses and come in different densities. For most of TFP’s rod puppets, the lower density sponge is used, but when used in large quantities, the weight of the puppet can be quite substantial. During her research, An Ni found that “reticulated foam” kept coming up. Reticulated foam looks like sponge with much bigger holes, which meant it had less material and in turn lower density. Upon doing more research, she found that fish tank filter resembles this the most. Even though fish tank filter is slightly more expensive, the difference in price is not astronomical, and to make the puppet as light as possible, she decided to go with this material. 

One of Oliver’s brief was also for Ru Xin to be an average middle-aged woman, so An Ni’s interpretation of that was to create a puppet that looks average, had average height, average built etc. She generated the face of Ru Xin with midjourney, using keywords like ‘average’ and ‘middle-aged’, and she referenced her body shape from images she found online of women who went through weight loss programmes. The reason for using AI assistance was because An Ni acknowledges that photo-realism is not her strength, and she felt it would be slightly macabre, and even disrespectful, if she were to use stock images of real women found on the internet. However, midjourney had its shortcomings too, as they had more average white woman features in its system, and was unable to generate a face that was more Asian-looking. 

As luck would have it, Ang Cheng Yan, Admin and Finance Manager of TFP, was of the exact average height that An Ni wanted Ru Xin to be – at 1.6 metres. An Ni got Cheng Yan to be the reference for Ru Xin, and so all major joints, girth of limbs etc, were matched exactly to Cheng Yan’s build. For the head, An Ni wanted to experiment with 3D printing and moulding. She downloaded a 3D skull model and printed it with TFP’s 3D printer, and moulded over it with lightweight air dry clay, all the while referencing the midjourney image that had been generated. She used a male skull 3D file, as it was the easiest and fastest to clean up and edit (the female models were free medical models which were great in terms of detail, but it slowed An Ni’s computer down too much and were also unnecessary for the purposes of building Ru Xin) . She did however have to shave off the brow bone and the jaw, to make the overall appearance more feminine. An Ni then covered Ru Xin’s finished head with stocking, and added a short-hair wig to it, as this was the hair length that midjourney had generated. This proved to be advantageous, as most, if not all of the moments in Parting would have made long hair extremely tricky to navigate. The first draft of Ru Xin proved to be too heavy, but thankfully An Ni could reference Cheng Yan again, to shave off the required muscle and make her lighter. 

An Ni was the one who named this puppet Ru Xin. The building period for Ru Xin was quite close to the production run of Every Brilliant Thing, in which Oliver’s character had a love interest named Xin Ru. An Ni felt that while both characters were love interests in Oliver’s productions, they had a vastly different outcome, and so she named this puppet the opposite of Xin Ru – Ru Xin. 

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