TML 2021 #06: Designing and making the puppets – Debris Girl and Table Boy

by fingerplayers

This journal is an entry in The Maker’s Lab series. Click here to read the previous entries.

Daniel: After the jamming sessions in October, we took a break to allow ourselves to step back from the making and to think about where we are at. At the same time, drawing inspiration from the exploration done in the jamming sessions, Ellison wrote the script. In November and December, An Ni then designed the puppets and started to build them. Thus far, we have just completed the fitting sessions with our puppeteers. 

An Ni: A long break did wonders and I came back, refreshed and ready to create puppets using the modular puppet system. Without giving too much away, Ellison wrote a script incorporating the puppet structures used in October’s jamming sessions –  Dangly and Scissors Evolution, and there are two characters. In this journal entry, I will share more on my designs and how the puppet structures became these characters.

From Dangly to Debris Girl

For the character, Debris Girl, she emerges from the puppet structure, Dangly. Responding to the script, I wanted her to be the embodiment of chaos – a swarm of crushed building material and shredded meat. Below is a drawing of how I will attach the pieces of meat and debris onto Dangly.

Drawing of the puppet design for Debris Girl

As Debris Girl is possibly constantly in motion, the puppet structures will open and close, pulling and pushing the attachments accordingly. As such, the attachments should be soft so as to not suffer too much damage when they inevitably brush against each other. Additionally, they should be as light as possible. 

The meat shreds and concrete chunks are made from low density polyurethane foam (sponge) stuck around a wire border. The wire border holds the shape of each chunk and gives me the flexibility to bend them into contorted shapes. The foam is flexible enough to follow the wire border and also creates a surface for painting. I learnt this technique in the Rod Puppet Masterclass and wanted to see how to use it other than for rod puppet hands.

These attachments were then connected to various rattan sticks that were then connected to the main aluminium puppet structure. I chose rattan because it is flexible, yet strong and light. I then arranged these units on the various parts of Dangly in an aesthetically pleasing manner. I had to also constantly check for “traffic issues” to prevent the units from tangling with each other. 

(From left to right) Meat (yellow pieces); Concrete units (grey blocks); Units attached temporarily to Dangly

Debris Girl Fitting

Fitting day arrives. Debris Girl looks alright but the debris can be arranged in a more interesting manner and the group of debris can move in a more organic manner and show larger differences in shape. 

Vanessa trying out the movement of Debris Girl

Other observations are:

  • The rattan spokes holding the attachments could not fully open, hence collapsing on Vanessa as she moves. This is due to the weight of the attachments.
  • The whole puppet structure spins in its holding pocket on the harness. This causes the structure to twist into angles that it should not be turning to. The spinning was an advantage in the jamming session by allowing greater range of movement in puppet structure. However, with the addition of attachments, it becomes a hinderance as it prevents the attachments from easily returning to their neutral position.

The following are some photos of Vanessa trying out Debris Girl puppet:

The first issue with opening up has a simple solution and was resolved during the fitting session. I changed the control rod to a longer one. This allowed Vanessa to gain more reach, thus allowing her to stretch the puppet structure more easily. Pleasantly, it also gave rise to a whole new series of shapes that the puppet can make. 

Vanessa working with a longer control rod

To resolve the second issue, we added another rod into the opposite shoulder sleeve on the harness and braced it to Dangly. This locked the structure in place and stopped the twisting. We also added a counterweight on the branch to stabilise Dangly further. A nice surprise is how it completes the chaotic look by appearing to spear through Vanessa’s head.

Adding bracing to stabilise the structure on Vanessa’s harness

From Scissors Evolution to Table Boy

For the character, Table Boy, he emerges from the puppet structure, Scissors Evolution. Resonating with its planar structure, Table Boy is designed to be an amalgam of a variety of table legs and chairs. 

Drawing of the puppet design for Table Boy

In discussion with Myra, a requirement for the puppet is that Table Boy will be able to protect himself by hiding within a cocoon of his attachment pieces. When designing, one of the challenges is to create a cocoon yet not have so many attachments that Debris Girl is visually overwhelmed on stage. As such, I decided to use a row of table legs that will be able to bunch up into a cocoon-like shell while at the same time not blocking everything completely. 

Due to the size of the puppet structure and attachments, my number one concern is weight. As such, all materials were chosen with this consideration in mind. I decided to make the legs from styrofoam (as opposed to the stiffer and stronger blue foam, or wood, or sourcing for the actual table legs) and then finish them with papier mache. The papier mache process is different as well, using gum paper and white glue (instead of only gum paper and water or wet paper and white glue) as this gives a harder layer. I did two layers of papier mache to allow the “skin” to be sufficiently strong yet trying not to add too much weight with more layers. Also, if the legs take on any wear and tear during the rehearsal process, I think it will add to the final finishing. 

(From left to right) Freshly cut Styrofoam legs; Legs papier mached; Assistant Phoebe Ho sanding to smoothen out papier mache texture

Table Boy Fitting

The fitting session for Table Boy did not go as smoothly as Debris Girl’s. This was because one of the attachments (the brown wooden shell on his left arm) did not work almost immediately. The attachment was supposed to open and close in the opposite direction of the puppet structure, moving together with the closing and opening of the aluminium arms. However, despite my calculations, the movement of the puppet structure did not work well with the attachment and caused it to drop off the structure. Nonetheless this gives me an opportunity to relook at this attachment, as I also feel that the entire puppet is currently very planar, taking away some of the playfulness observed in the jamming session.

During the fitting session, we also identified the positions for additional control handles for Hairi so that the puppet could be manipulated more comfortably. The puppet was initially controlled just by holding onto the aluminium structure. 

Using hand tools as make-shift control handles

Additionally, I started to feel that Table Boy’s design is quite static. Besides the planar movement of the structure itself, the attachments look stiff and eventually rather uninteresting. And so a design note to myself – to continue to find a way to allow the movement in the puppet structure to trigger some movement in the attachments themselves. This will then reduce the puppet’s stiffness and allow its breath to flow more freely.

Hairi trying out Table Boy

Further refinements on the modular puppet structure

Besides working on the character designs and make, I also developed the modular puppet structure. In particular, I focused on the joints of the aluminium structures. In my previous journal entries, I shared about how the ball joint did not work and we ended up using temporary cable tie joints. 

I took inspiration from clevis joints to develop the joints for my puppet structures. Clevis joints are a series of industrially-developed joints used in various applications like the automotive, aircraft or construction industries. In puppetry, they act like hinges and placing two of them perpendicularly to each other allows for movement on all planes. These are cut from U-shaped aluminium and follow the 5mm hole size on the puppet structures.

1-direction rotation joint
2-direction rotation joint
Hinge joint


Love letter to bandsaw
cuts aluminium quickly cleanly and squarely
sorry scroll saw you’ve been dethroned from the number one saw position in my heart
Love letter to 3M small hole repair compound
you had me at primer enhanced

This post is not sponsored by Makita or 3M (but I wish it were).

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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