TML 2021 #04: Harness Re-finements!

by fingerplayers

After Puppeteer Consultation Session 3 

After the session, I made the following changes: 

  1. Made another set of shoulder straps – with thicker and longer padding – for faster changeover between puppets in preparation for our next session. 

Puppeteer Consultation Session 4 

In this session, Choong Li Sann, our Physiotherapist Consultant, joined us to look at the harness and puppets in detail. Find out more about her work here

We went through exercises from previous sessions to review how efficiently Oliver is using his body, and where the harness can be improved.  

We did the following exercises: 

  1. Long-arm structure on shoulder- without plastic back plate 
Video 1: Oliver moving with the long-arm structure attached to harness.

Our observations: 

  • Harness helped distribute long-arm structure’s weight across his body 
  • Oliver was free to move his torso which allowed a wide range of movement  
  • Oliver is tilting his head away from protruding structures which increases strain to the neck  Take note of puppet structures near the face / head 
  • Hip strap shifted upwards slowly with movement 
  1. Long arm structure on shoulder – with plastic back plate 
Video 2: Oliver moving with the long-arm structure attached to harness with back plates.

Our observations: 

  • Back plate caused hip strap to ride up incessantly, which resulted in less efficient weight distribution of long-arm structure 
  • The rigidity of the back plates also resulted in smaller range of movement / more work done to overcompensate so as to achieve movements that were possible without the back plate 
  • The back plate was too long and extended over shoulder blades. This prevented the shoulders from moving as much as the plates pressed against the shoulder blade. I will shorten the plates to sit below the shoulder blade.  

3. Overhead structure – with plastic back plates 

Video 3: Oliver moving with the overhead structure attached to harness with back plates.

Our observations: 

  • As with PC 3, the overhead structure was not heavy enough to truly test if the back plates were doing their job of transferring some weight to the hips.  
  • Learnt that it is important for the neutral position of the puppet structure to be the same as that of the puppeteer, so that the puppeteer does not need to alter his/her neutral position, causing strain on the body.  
  • The control mechanism should keep a minimum distance away from the puppeteer’s face when designing puppets 
  • Shortened back plate that ends under the shoulder blade would be  

Li Sann was really helpful in articulating some guiding principles in designing for the body: 

  • Do not overextend body parts unnecessarily 
  • Break down parts of the harness – the hip strap is fixed while everything else moves around it, so as to provide a stable and secure mounting point  
  • Break down parts of the body – how it moves, and how puppet movements can be designed to utilise these movements. For example, raising the arm more than 90° leads to increased fatigue over time. Coupled with where most of the puppet’s weight lie (Peepbird wing’s weight is about 60% or more at the extremity). It would then be helpful if movement can be designed where the puppet and therefore puppeteer’s arm can be retracted at intervals, providing a little room for rest.  
  • Questions to ask to determine harness’ usefulness level such as do you feel the weight is transferred evenly across your body and do you find your movements becoming more efficient.   

My takeaways from the session are: 

  • Fundamental things like how to wear a harness like securing the various straps by placing hand firmly behind D ring, and then pulling the Velcro 
  • Ideal strap placement: shoulder straps over pecs and hip straps hugging hip bone 
  • Which body parts to avoid covering so as to have better range of movement: if trunk needs to move freely do not cover shoulder blades with rigid structures 
  • Attention to detail like D ring placement to prevent chafing and control rod position to avoid hitting the face 

The changes to make: 

Video 4: Changes to make in terms of shape and fitting of harness.
  • Improve hip strap to hug hips better and not shift around with movement by making it hug the body better with better shaping of padding 
  • Place D rings further inwards on the shoulder straps to prevent chafing of the puppeteer’s neck 
  • Less extreme curve on shoulder straps to prevent chafing of the puppeteer’s neck 
  • Lower “X” Velcro position across shoulders as the added thickness in shoulder straps padding resulted in Velcro positions becoming higher and chafing the puppeteer’s neck. 
  • Replace the Velcro straps at the back with thick elastic band (similar to sports bands) from shoulder strap to hip strap. The elastic bands assist the puppeteer’s back when moving from a bend to straight position. 

Puppeteer Consultation Session 5 

In preparing for the session, I took in the  suggestions made in PC 4 regarding the harness. I also purchased a waist / back supporter from Watsons for further reference in design.  

Image 1: Front view of harness with elastic band backing.
Image 2: Back view of harness (elastic band backing can be changed out to plastic plate backing)

I made the following changes: 

  • Tried out new materials – sewing yoga mat directly to neoprene (instead of housing yoga mat in a calico pocket), in hopes of reducing bulk and to harness the anti-slip properties of yoga mat  
  • Split hip strap into three sections (centre, left, right) instead of the previous two (left, right) to allow for more adjustability 
  • Changed connecting Velcro straps on the hip strap to one large piece, to accommodate different hip curves  
  • Added an elastic band between the centre hip section and shoulder straps to allow more flexibility in movement while maintaining tightness  
  • Allowed elastic bands to be swapped with plastic back plates 
  • Extended shoulder straps to allow the plastic back plates to sit lower, under the shoulder blades 

In PC 5, we did the following exercises: 

  1. Overhead structure – with plastic back plates 
Video 5: Oliver moving with the overhead structure attached to harness with back plates.

Our observations: 

  • The adjustment of the rod connecting structure to harness such that the top of the bird’s head is directly above Oliver’s head helped to align both neutral positions of the puppet and puppeteer  
  • Back plates helped in transferring some weight to the hips  
  • By only attaching the back plates to the hip strap with only one row of bolts and nuts (instead of two rows in PC4), the hip strap sits more snugly and provides more support. Oliver’s torso is also able to move more freely, which allows for wider range of movement 

2. Extra function of resting control rod on shoulder strap, held in place with Velcro 

Video 6: Oliver moving with the overhead structure – the beak control rods are attached to his shoulder strap Velcro.

Our observations: 

  • Having the rods stuck to either side of the shoulder strap makes opening bird’s mouth difficult. The centre of chest is a better resting position 
  • The current rods blocks Oliver’s line of sight  as such, if this is a necessary part of puppet’s design, the design control should account for the puppeteer’s face and vision while achieving the desired range of movement 

3. Overhead structure – with back elastic bands 

Video 7: Oliver moving with the overhead structure attached to harness with back elastic bands.

Our observations: 

  • Reduced rigidity at the lower back area is actually a detriment to overhead structures as the puppet become too free-moving which reduces the amount of tactile control the puppeteer has over the puppet 
  1. Long-arm structure – with back elastic bands 
Video 8: Oliver moving with the long-arm structure attached to harness with back elastic bands.
Video 9: Li Sann moving with the long-arm structure attached to harness with back elastic bands.

Our observations: 

  • While standing still, the desired effect of elastic band pulling the back straight can be felt 
  • The centre portion of the hip strap starts to pull upwards with movement. This is due to hip-to-shoulder elastic straps pulling more strongly than hip strap’s base material of neoprene 
  • This also leads to the entire hip strap riding up and overall reduces the weight transfer of puppet structure across harness. 
  • Daniel added a tiny wooden brace as an emergency measure, which helped stiffen that area 

My takeaways from the session are: 

  • Fit the harness before mounting puppet structures as that allows us to sit the harness in neutral on the puppeteer’s body before loading it 
  • Hip strap needs to hug hip bones very tightly to prevent it from riding upwards. I will have to increase width of hip strap 
  • For the various parts of the harness, there is a need to find the balance between rigidity and elasticity 
  • Materials used in harness cannot have drastic differences in elasticity as that will reduce the overall effectiveness of the harness as the various parts will behave too differently 
  • Shoulder straps should sit over pecs as they are the strongest muscle 
  • Accommodating the various chest sizes of females by allowing adjustable strap positions 
  • Plan early for appropriate control rod resting position 
  • There are different methods to wear and adjust the harness with one assistant or two assistants as the harness will have to be tensioned in a balanced manner without the parts sliding out of position 


Image 3: After a long day…Li Sann stretching our bodies.

This article is a monthly reflection by Loo An Ni, the maker of 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 An Ni’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.
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