Monday, October 20, 2008

Famous Puppet Death Scenes

I was recently lucky enough to catch this stage production, put on by The Old Trout Puppet Workshop troupe. If you go to this link, be sure to view their gallery of puppets, and read the reviews page to see how much praise is being heaped on this show, and why.

The premise of the show is very simple, and very clever. There is a narrator character (a puppet, of course) who explains that the evening will consist of the best puppet death scenes, taken from the history of puppet theatre.

What follows is exactly that. But what's so exciting about this premise is that it leaves so much to the audience's imagination. What is depicted is truly ONLY the death scenes, from some 22 imagined plays. What led to these deaths? How did the characters in each of these plays arrive at this critical turning point in the narrative?

Since there are 22 death scenes depicted, and none lasting more than a few moments, the audience can't actually take the time to dream up what the surrounding narratives might be. But this only adds to the complexity of the show. It's a premise that truly draws up the audience's active imagination, and as a result is incredibly engaging, just from a narrative perspective.

Then, of course, there is the puppet work. As an animator (and one who moves puppets frame by frame), I would say the puppet work at its worst was well done, and at its best was truly moving and inspiring. The climax of the show, in which the narrator "attempts" the ultimate puppet death scene, is fantastic. It is a fantastic bit of puppet theatre, but I would argue fantastic theatre, period.

Without giving too much away (as this scene is so special and touching, I don't want to reveal too much in case you see it), the show's climax does exactly what top-notch puppet work can do. The climax moves the audience from thinking of the puppet as a piece of wood and wire, into thinking the puppet is truly, TRULY real. And by "real" I certainly don't mean "CGI-realism-I-can't-believe-it's-not-human-better-than-
" real. The puppet is clearly NOT a living, breathing creature- we're talking about a roughly sculpted puppet, with no moving mouth, about 2 feet high, yellow, that has the puppeteers right on stage WITH him, controlling his moves. The image above is the puppet in question. CGI reality, he is not.

I mean there is real emotion involved. We care for that piece of wood and metal as if it were a living, breathing human. The effectiveness of the climax is a testament to the skills and HEART of the puppeteers, writers, and director.

This show moved me enormously. As it ended, I felt a mixture of joy and sadness. Joy because I had been lucky enough to catch this live performance (can't rent THIS baby at Blockbuster). But sad because something this touching doesn't appear everyday. Nor once a week, month, year... It's such a rare thing, to be truly moved by anything in life, other than one's own "real world" joys and sorrows.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have seen this show. And I hope you can see it too (if you haven't already).

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Masking Tape Zombie

Just in case you thought that all I care about is cute little stop motion kitties (from my posting of a few weeks ago), I thought I'd post this bit of loveliness. Halloween IS just around the corner, so I'll use that as a further excuse. I'll also blame a life-long and apparently never-ending love for monsters and monster design.

Anyway, this whole fella is made of green masking tape (aka "painter's tape"), on top of a wire armature, that you can see posed in the above picture. He's climbing out of the grave, hence the pose, and the half body aspect. And yes, that's a Wind In The Willows dvd case he's perched on. What can I say, my tastes are varied.

Anyway, I've used masking tape before, basically to "bulk out" trees and such for set pieces. It paints up nicely, and is easy/cheap to work with, so I thought I'd give it a go on something a little more specific, and detailed. Get to know the medium a bit, if you will. It's always interesting to play with materials that aren't typically used for art, as neat things can happen when you colour outside the lines...

I'm not sure if I'll actually finish this particular piece, as it's really just a test for a "life size" effort that I'll throw in our garden on Halloween night, with some spooky lighting. I just wanted to test the tape approach to see how detailed I could get things.

Of course, this little guy wouldn't animate (the tape is a bit fragile, and would cave in as soon as you'd grab it in order to animate it), but I'm sure there's some crazy way to make a stop mo puppet with masking tape.

Below are a few more pics. The in-focus one reveals the green tape, as it peeks through in places, which gives the thing a sort of "rotting, glow-in-the-dark-from-the-inside, Mario Bava" sort of vibe as a base. In this picture you can also how the bits of applied tape lends the face a patched, barely-held-together quality, that suits the "zombie" look pretty well. I saved this technique, which is just basically tearing very tiny pieces of tape into rough squares and sticking them on, till the very end, since the look it gave only matters on the surface level. On lower levels, I just bulked up into the main shapes as I went.

The out of focus image is my fave. It's basically the same framing and lighting as the one above it, but it goes to show what selective focus can do to an image. The out of focus pic does not look like the subject is about 3 inches high, and made of tape and paint. For my money, it looks pretty damn alive (or undead, as the case may be). No Photoshop involved, just in-camera manipulation.

Happy pre-Halloween...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Beginning Of...Something

In case you ever need to contact the authorities regarding any of my online conduct, you can use this image for the police bulletin. It's essentially a caricature of myself, right down to the forehead wrinkles (sigh).

This puppet head is simply the result of playing around with various materials, as I work towards something of a design sense for what someday will hopefully be another short film.

I'm going for something that is fairly realistic in style, but at the same time more cartoony (exaggerated) than my last film, The Magic Projector. I want more freedom, in terms of design style and animation style, to play. I'd like things to be a bit looser, more energetic. In short, I want the process of development and the final piece to be fun. Not frivolous, mind you (who would want to describe something they might work several years on as "frivolous"), but fun. As a full-time teacher and very full-time dad, there's no way I'll stick with an indie project if it isn't fun.

Regarding the puppet head pictured: it's Super Sculpey, with an base coat of automotive primer, followed by various coats of acrylic paints, then finished with a matte clear coat. The trickiest thing about using these particular materials for a puppet head is trying to get a final product that not only looks good but can stand up to the rigors of animation.

By that, I mean: the mouth is also Super Sculpey, and is held on by a touch of sticky tac. The eyeballs are clay, that I can "roll" around as need be. The eyelids are clay. The eyebrows are clay. All of these applied (and over time, sticky) items take a toll on the paint job. And if the paint isn't solidly adhered to the puppet head, the animated clay will eventually wear off the paint, or become smeared in to the point of having to seriously re-clean and then repaint.

This combo of a solid head with animatable features is a tried and true design process for puppet heads. You'll see it followed in a lot of features, TV, and indie films. It allows the head to maintain volume and mass and proportion frame by frame, while the clay features allow varied expressions. Of course, there is a limit to expression since the head is solid and can't be stretched/squashed, but hey- welcome to puppet animation.

Stop motion is very much about tests (at least it is for me). Tests give you the confidence to proceed with confidence. And after working commercially when tests weren't always possible because of production schedules, working independently now means I can test all I want (cause it's my dime, and it's my time).

So this puppet head is a test for materials, and for visual style. Until I had a sculpted, essentially finished head, I didn't really have a character design. For me, it was the process of actually sculpting the head (with a few sketches as rough guides) that "revealed" the character (and the design principles that will probably lead the project onward).

The glasses are floral wire, by the way.