TML 2021 #05: Modular Puppet Structure and Jamming Sessions
This journal is an entry in The Maker’s Lab series. Click here to read the previous entries.
It has been four and the half months since the beginning of our second iteration of The Maker’s Lab! In this short and intensive period, we worked through 5 Puppeteer Consultant sessions with Oliver Chong, 2 of which our Physiotherapist Consultant Choong Li Sann joined us. We also had 2 Creative Meetings with Myra Loke (director), Ellison Tan (playwright) and our designers. Most recently, Loo An Ni’s exploration culminated in a series of jamming sessions over the first two weeks of October where we were joined by our show puppeteers – Vanessa Toh and Hairi Cromo.
As we continue our making journey, I am constantly reminded of the importance of feedback cycles between the maker and the puppeteer(s), and the maker and other specialised persons, for example Li Sann or the other creatives. The acute comments on the technical and performative effectiveness of the harness and puppet structures that An Ni received has allowed us to refine our perspectives of puppetry and the makes of our puppets.
In the next few weeks, the project will be shifting towards an exploration that is driven in part by An Ni’s design impulses and in part by the development of our performance. As such, we will have to balance an increasing amount of creative negotiation against the technical and practical realities of the project. It will be an exciting time ahead!
Exploration thus far has been focused on the harness, using puppets from previous productions – Peepbird’s wing and head – as a placeholder. After creating a harness with feedback from Li Sann, I moved on to focus on the other half of my exploration: the modular puppet structure.
MODULAR PUPPET STRUCTURE
To recap, the modular puppet structure is a series of bones and joints that can be combined in different configurations to give various puppet structures. In the long run, this allows the maker to quickly test various structure to find the one that works best for their needs at the moment.
The bones are sections of 12mm square aluminium rods of 45, 60 and 90cm lengths with holes drilled in all 4 sides. The holes are 5mm in diameter and drilled at intervals. These holes will allow me to attach either joints connecting to other aluminium sections or attachments specific to the puppet design.
The joints are the hinge joint, swivel joint and ball joint. I opted to use store-bought hinges for the hinge joint and book-binding screws for the swivel joint as they are readily available. I struggled in the past to securely mount store-bought ball joints to puppet structures, and so explored 3D printing one instead.
There is always a gap between expectation and reality. I expected the ball to be held snugly inside the socket as was designed. Instead, the two parts of the 3D print came separate. As such, I tried to use a 3D pen to solve the issue by adding an additional plastic lip to hold the ball in. Unfortunately, that also snapped at the narrowest point. In the end, we simulated the free swivelling nature of a ball joint with cable ties for the jamming sessions.
JAMMING SESSION 1
The day has come! In Jamming session 1, we had our performance puppeteers, Vanessa and Hairi, come in to use the harness and modular structures for the first time. I had prepared three puppet structures, aptly-named Dangly, Scissors, and Wild Card. We tested these structures on both the harness with the elastic back straps and the harness with the hard back plates. The objective of this jamming session was to allow the puppeteers to get used to the harnesses and structures and to explore the movement styles of a swarm and of a blob. In this first session, Myra joined us in facilitating the movements.
Dangly is a puppet structure designed with a swirling and slithering movement in mind. I imagined it to be able to simulate the movement styles of the swarm. For me, a swarm has an organic yet natural movement. It has a configuration of a rod-hinge-rod-swivel joint-rod-ball joint-control rod.
Scissors is a puppet structure where the sections are all connected in a crisscross manner with swivel joints. When the puppeteer pulls on one section, it in turn causes others to open or close, thus allowing the puppet to expand or contract quickly or slowly. I designed scissors to explore the movement styles of a blob which I imagine to swiftly change its shape in various directions.
Wild Card is a puppet structure that I modified from my old Peepbird wing structure. It has the same bone and joint configuration, but the centre section bones lean outwards (Peepbird’s lean inwards). I tried this mainly out of curiosity.
The following is a selection of videos showing our exploration:
The session also revealed how much stress the joints are under and the need for secure fastening – anything with threads (screw, nuts and bolts) must not come undone with repeated turning. As such, I decided to make the following changes for Jamming Session 2:
- Hinges secured with 2 nuts instead of previously 1 nut to allow the nuts to lock each other in place.
- Bookbinding screws changed to bolt with lock nut
- Continued to use cable ties as a placeholder for the ball joint
In the same vein, the harness should hold puppet structures securely to the body, and not shift along with structures. As such, I made the following changes to the harness to resolve the shifting issue that arose during the jamming:
- Removed 1 layer of foam in centre portion of hip strap to allow it to conform to the body better
- Angled the front pocket on the shoulder strap outwards so that the puppet structure is leaning away from the puppeteer’s face
- Added Velcro straps on top of the side elastic straps to counter the puppet structure’s weight from stretching open the shoulder straps
- Added thigh straps to limit hip strap shifting up
- Swapped the positions of the Velcro and elastic on the fasteners connecting the shoulder straps and the hip strap so that the shoulder straps shift less
JAMMING SESSION 2
Structured and led by Ellison and Myra, this session explored the relationships between the puppeteers and puppet structures. After the last session, we felt that the Single Scissors and Dangly had most potential and thus wanted to test them out more. Also, we wanted to explore the interactions between puppeteers and the puppet structures that were attached to them.
Dangly remained the same while Scissors went through an upgrade to became Scissors Evolution. For Scissors Evolution, I retired the 45cm length rods and introduced 120cm length rods, thus expanding the overall size of the puppet structure.
The following selection of videos capture our exploration:
JAMMING SESSION 3
For our last session, we focused on character development and narrative building, creating short scenes with the puppets. We used keywords and thoughts inspired from material provided by both Ellison and Myra.
After seeing the puppet structures come to life through Vanessa’s and Hairi’s manipulation in the jamming sessions, I thought of the following:
- Dangly moves the way I anticipated it to, albeit unpredictably. The next thing to do is to tune the joints so each movement can be replicated, while maintaining the amount of freedom puppeteer has in manipulating it
- Dangly pleasantly surprised me in being able to be linked in a loop and moving in an infinity shape
- For Scissors Evolution, less control over the puppet structures allows the puppeteers to create more and varied movements and movement combinations. I had linked a section in Scissors Evolution initially as I thought more control would allow easier manipulation for the puppeteer (as observed in Dangly), but later realised that delinking it allowed more possibilities for the puppeteers
- Seeing puppeteers approach puppet structures with fresh eyes opened my own to new possibilities such as choosing different sections of the structure to become the head or front of the puppet
- Puppeteers’ emotions bring in the humanistic aspect to these mechanical objects. For example, humour in the dance battle (Video 7) and angst in Vanessa’s presentation of Dangly (Video 11)
Some initial thoughts on how to refine the puppet structures and harnesses are as follows:
- Fine tune Dangly so it moves a tiny bit more predictably
- Think of other points of attachments for the control rods so that they need not just be handheld (for eg. attached to the knees or elbows)Other and/or multiple points of attachment for control rod- eg to knees or elbows, not just handheld
- Look into other ways to mount the puppet structures to the harness instead of just inserting into the pocket on shoulder straps
For anyone who can decode my scribbling, email to email@example.com with your answer, and get a FREE THE FINGER PLAYERS NOTEBOOK SET!!
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.
We would love to hear from you and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you wish to follow An Ni on her journey with The Maker’s Lab, click on the ‘Subscribe’ link below now!