Pedri Animation's Stop Motion Puppets
As we may have already told you elsewhere, we like making stop motion animation puppets. We do it a lot and we're very proud of what we make. It's an intense and complicated process that's almost as old as film itself – but just like film, stop motion and animation continue to evolve and come up with new ways of reinventing itself. All of which means that the way we make stop motion puppets has to keep on improving as well!
The puppets are the 'actors' in an animation film, and how they look and move is vital to the success of the film. So how they're made is really important, which is why every puppet for a stop motion film is made according to a strictly defined process.
The first thing we do when making a puppet is create a style guide that details the puppet's character and the sets in which they'll feature. The style guide will contain both textual descriptions and visual references - it's vital that the style guide is as detailed as possible, as the character has to fit perfectly into the world of the film.
The first decision to make is what the basic style for the puppet will be. Nothing to do with fashion, but simply how the puppet will look. Are they going to look realistic or are they caricatures? Once this is decided, we'll start talking about materials. Do you want it to look like skin (in which case we'll use something like silicone) or from a material like clay or cloth? Will the clothing be part of the puppet or will it be dressed in real clothing? These are all things that have to be considered when we start to make an animation puppet.
The puppet's character
These are the main characteristics that we take into account for a puppet:
Their character (moods/emotions)
How they move
Their motivation (what they're interested in)
If they talk (and if they talk, how they talk)
How they interact with other characters
Once we know this, one of our illustrators will make some preliminary sketches for the puppet (normally on paper).
After a couple of feedback rounds, more definitive sketches will be made, that will eventually be turned into clay models.
These will be carefully examined from every angle to see if they match the original character description. If everyone's happy, then we can start making the puppet (and everything else for the film like the set and props) for real!
When we're ready to make the final puppet, we'll split the clay model into various parts, usually the torso, arms, legs and head. Then we'll make moulds for all these sections, out of which we'll later make a flexible version of the puppet that we can experiment with. This is important because when you're making an animation film, the puppets are constantly placed in different positions, and it's vital that the puppet stays in every position in which it's placed by the animator.
To ensure this happens, we insert a skeleton inside every puppet. It's called an armature. We normally use ball and socket armatures. If the puppet is too small for this, we'll use aluminium wire instead.
Like the puppet itself, an armature is normally sketched on paper first.
The most important considerations are how the puppet will move and how it will stand. Technically this means it's really important where the joints will go (which we determine by the puppet's anatomy) and where we fix the 'rig points.' 'Rig points' are places where it's possible to fix the puppet to a specific spot when it needs to be animated, so we get the precision we need to make every shot perfect.
Once the technical details of the armature have been settled, we make the armature according to the detailed plans we'll have made. The various parts are normally soldered together, which due to the size and importance of the armature has to be done extremely carefully.
We then place the armature in the moulds where we pour flexible kopiermateriaal over them. This may be silicone, Polyurethanene or Latex foam. Finally, the armature and the mouldings will be assembled together to make the basic animation puppet.
If the way a puppet moves is important, then its face is, well, really important too. It's possible to give a puppet's face as much movement and expression as the rest of its body, and there lots of ways to do this. For example, we can put an armature inside the head and use tiny pedals to animate the eyebrows, lips and even the cheeks.
Or we might use a classic technique that has recently taken a quantum leap recently thanks to the advances in 3D printing, called Rapid Prototyping. When we use Rapid Prototyping we design the expressions digitally and then print them out in full colour 3D. The result is a series of faces that the animator can change and replace really easily during the film. It's a brilliant way to create a huge number and variety of expressions extremely quickly.
If the puppets are going to talk, then their mouth will have to move as well for this happen (and then frame by frame of course). This can be done in two ways: either by moving the face with ball and socket joints that are activated by pedals; by manually changing the puppet's facial parts; or with the 3D printing technique, Rapid Prototyping we described above.
The final touches include the painting of the puppet, the retouching of the skin and other body parts, and finally the making of wigs and clothes. Then our puppets are good to go!
Clothing is a totally different part of the puppet making process. But just like the creation of the puppet, it's an extremely intricate and precise process. And just the creation of the puppet, the design, style and expression of the character are the most important considerations when making the puppet's clothes.
We begin by making a clothing style guide, combining initial sketches with fabric swatches to get a clear picture of what we're going to do.
After that, it's strictly haute couture! We use tiny clothing patterns to give every item of clothing the right shape and form. It's a task that requires painstaking accuracy and precision, which is made challenging enough by the size in which we're working, but then even more so by having to take into account the possibilities of incorporating spaces for the puppet's rigging into the clothing.
Once all the details have been finalised, all the parts will be sewn together into a one-piece costume for the puppet.