Article by Michael Hoyle
Where do I begin?
Ok, so this isn’t my first experience of making a large puppet. I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with various materials and I’ve found materials that I work well with.
Having previously sculpted stage scenery with polystyrene, I knew its flexible capabilities: it carves easily, it’s lightweight and it’s flexible.
I ordered polystyrene blocks; they come in pairs of 4′ x 2′ x 6′. I calculated how much I would need and ordered it.
The blocks come in different densities, quite simply, the denser it is; the heavier it is and the fewer air gaps in the block. Polystyrene blocks, as I’m sure you are aware, are made up of small beads of polystyrene. When hot-wire carving, the wire melts through the polystyrene and creates a smooth flat finish, rather than the mess caused by any other method. If the block is too light, this smooth finish will have small gaps in the surface which will give away the fact that it is polystyrene. I learnt this the hard way. Dense blocks carve slower but remain solid. The blocks can also be bought with a fire resistant additive. I always opt for this.
One of the negatives to using polystyrene is the obvious weakness of it. Any knocks can literally remove chunks and remove any detailed artwork. I researched coatings and have come to discover some great products; Rosco Flexcoat is one of these. Rosco Foamcoat is another great product.
I have never had a mentor for my stage creations. I’ve learnt a lot from experience in the industry and a lot of my core knowledge comes from the team at Wellington Scenic in Lincoln. I have had the pleasure of working alongside this company for many years and they have some of the most skilled scenic team members I know, especially Alan Miller Bunford who has constantly wowed audiences with his design and painting ability.
I’m very self-motivated and may even have a slight obsessive compulsive attitude to projects. It’s both positive and negative. I spend hours of my own time learning. I can stay up until the early hours of the morning to theoretically master the art of something. I learn from videos, books, websites and through practice.
I am much more of a visual learner than a read-write learner. Give me a demonstration and it’s in my mind straight away. Give me written instructions and I will need to take at least two passes before it starts to sink in.
I sit at home and learn new techniques. I visualise a very loose method plan. I choose to keep it loose because I know that if I hit a stumbling block, I may need to quickly switch direction and it can’t have a detrimental effect on the cost. This is where my 30% kinesthetic learning kicks in.
Here are my steps to making an elephant stage puppet
1. Research and planning
So I’ve researched the materials and methods I intend to use. The materials have arrived. I have also found an image of the elephant I want to base the sculpture on.
Before ordering the polystyrene blocks, I calculated the size the elephant needs to be in comparison to the block size.
Working with polystyrene is messy and potentially dangerous, as are many other materials. Before completing any project, the correct risk assessments must be done. It may feel like this may hinder the creative process but this practice is essential by law. It really is effective and not a waste of time. You don’t want to finish a job without protective equipment, feel lightheaded and then read the label to see ‘IF INHALED, SEEK MEDICAL ADVICE IMMEDIATELY’ or potentially worse ‘CONTAINS CARCINOGENICS’ on the side!
The risk assessment process identifies all risks and safety measures before the process begins. You want to go home safe and sound at the end of the day.
My old stage manager once told me that he had the job of spraying lacquer on wigs for a production. He did this in his small production office at the theatre-royal and found himself waking up in a hospital bed, paralysed. He literally had to learn to walk again.
So we’ve covered safety.
I then cleared a good sized space to work in and raised the blocks to a practical working height. Even though they are polystyrene, the blocks are still quite heavy and difficult to handle. I made sure I had access to the maximum surface area for carving.
A little trick that many people already know; I projected the image onto the blocks. This saved hours of grid drawing and scaling. It also gave me the opportunity to check the sizing of the puppet, which I confess, appeared a fraction too small. I adjusted the projector image to the size I liked and made sure I still had enough block. This alteration meant that the trunk would need to be an additional piece added on, but my loose planning was flexible enough to accommodate this change.
This step requires some confidence. I remove the profile edge of the sculpture and then remove large chunks to reveal a vague elephant shape.
This takes forever. I worked a night shift to complete this because it’s much easier to do when the building is quiet.
I began to panic at this point. There was a moment of ‘this doesn’t seem to be going to plan’ going through my mind as I carved smaller and smaller pieces off.
Please note: Working with polystyrene is ok, cleaning it up is not.
I then used a wire brush to scrub the sculpture into shape. This gives a rounder, smoother surface and my confidence began to return.
This is so messy. I am literally brushing this to remove tiny balls of polystyrene. It gets everywhere.
I was fortunate to have a good team of people that would do a lot of the tidying but I had occasions where I spent much longer tidying then I did sculpting. Not nice at 3am.
I basically did this with the body until it took its shape. I then returned to calving… and chiselling… and hammering… pretty much anything I could to remove the internal bulk of the polystyrene to make it light weight, without going too far and blowing a hole through it.
Once this was done, I stuck the head block on. I use expanding foam to stick the blocks together. It’s the only thing I know that works and it works extremely well. I make small holes in the glueing surface with the end of the expanding foam nozzle and fill with foam. This helps to bond them together.
I then followed the previous steps to carve the head, excluding the lower trunk, which I wanted to move.
I sealed the body with a heat gun, lightly waving it over the body to lightly melt the roughly brushed surface. This worked really effectively to make sure it was solid and sealed. I had to be careful using a heat gun and make sure it wasn’t too hot.
As mentioned earlier, polystyrene alone isn’t strong enough to be used in a practical manner intended. So I chose my finishing product, this time Rosco Flexcoat. This can be applied directly to polystyrene and seals the surface further.
I must admit, the puppet served the purpose for the short tour but I am now contemplating adding a fibreglass layer to add a strong hard finish.
Please note: Polystyrene will react to the resin and be dissolved. The last thing you want is to apply your final coating to realise you’ve just dissolved the sculpture. There are methods of coating the polystyrene to protect it from the resin prior to fibreglass application.
Once the protective coating is applied, the sculpture needed time to dry.
6. Adding the trunk
The trunk was made up of small carved cylindrical polystyrene shapes with a length of sash cord run through each one. Picture the old caterpillar drag-along toy from the 80’s. The shape of this gradually got narrower as a trunk does.
Once this was completed, I wrapped this in grey vinyl material and sealed the ends using a mixture of tacks (to hold in place), hot glue (to stick vinyl on vinyl) and expanding foam (to join this to the head).
7. Making the Frame
The internals of the puppet were kept simple so as not to add weight. The puppeteers were required for this and used to measure the correct heights. Once this was established, I build a light-weight timber frame designed to sit on the puppeteer’s shoulders at the correct height. This was padded for comfort and fixed in with expanding foam.
8. Making the legs
My initial designs for the puppet found that having detached legs would be the easiest way to make the puppet walk.
I measured the lengths required for the legs and carved them in pairs. These were then fixed onto a wooden backing and this then had straps attached to it to fix to the puppeteer’s legs. The legs then moved with each puppeteer step.
This design only really worked because of the decoration on the Asian parade elephant. I intentionally planned to add beading and ribbon to conceal the gap between the body and the legs.
This puppet was great fun to paint. The texture lent itself to the texture of skin which did a lot of the work for me.
I started with a dark base colour and then used a spray gun to add lighter shades. I then went back over this to add shadows and chose a lighter colour for highlights.
The paint I used was standard emulsion but I often mix this with flex-coat to add an additional layer of protection.
The final part of painting involved adding the decoration to the puppet.
I hope you have had an insight into the process of creating this stage puppet and have enjoyed the read.
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