When brainstorming how best to build our characters, I drew inspiration from one of my favourite childhood toys… the Pink Panther. Many of you may be familiar with this type of bendy rubber toy which allows you to pose the character into any position and it retains its shape. This was due to what lay at its core, a wire armature.
Traditionally, an armature is a framework around which a sculpture is built. This framework provides structure and stability, especially when material such as clay is being used as the medium. When sculpting a figure, the armature is analogous to the skeleton and has essentially the same purpose: to hold the body erect. An example of this can be seen in my previous post on Sculpting Prototypes, however the armatures used in our final puppets served a different purpose… to bring our characters to life!
We used a special wire made specifically for stop motion animation designed to bend back and forth hundreds of times before breaking point. It comes in various thicknesses and can be purchased from speciality hobby shops such as Barnes.
As with all our phases of pre-production, we performed numerous tests and discovered through trial and error the best approach for building our armatures. In our case, a body could be made up of 3 pieces of wire. One for the left arm and leg, another for the right arm and leg and the third for the neck and spine.
They were glued together with quick drying super glue, then tied at the chest and hips with regular wire. The arms were bent at the ends to create round edges. This helps avoid the pointy wire from popping out of the arm whilst animating.
Next we applied a great product called Knead-It to the chest and hips ensuring the connecting joints were all stuck together tightly. We also added some to the end of the arms to give them a little more body and to the feet to secure the nuts in place (more on this below). This product is a two-part epoxy that has a working time of 3 – 5 minutes once mixed and dries like concrete 10 minutes later. After an hour, it can even be sanded, drilled, machined, filed, sawed or painted. You simply mix it together in your hands (gloves recommended) and it has the consistency of BluTack. We used it everywhere during our production.
The photo below also shows an alternative approach to creating armatures. In this example the arms and legs were made from two pieces of wire wrapped around each other. This actually gives the armature more strength and may allow you to keep animating if one of the wires should break mid shot. For our purposes however, I found that because the whole puppet was then set in silicon, the tension became too high and I was unable to gain the same level of minute movements I could get from a single wire. Doubling the amount of wire also doubled the expense.
The feet were the most technically challenging part of the armature as they needed to include ‘tie-downs’. A tie-down is the mechanism used to fasten your puppet’s feet to the set allowing them to stand upright and stay securely in place. The most common practice is to use nuts and bolts, an examples of which can be seen in this post.
We created wire loops for the feet and super glued nuts on top. This meant that when the bolt passed through the bottom of the set and into the nut, it would pull the wire loop between them down. Knead-it was then used to keep the whole rig secure.
In some instances, we also experimented with making the wire loop up and over the nut. This was by far the most secure method to ensure the nut didn’t break free, but was a bit bulky and hard to set within our puppet. We ended up sticking with basic loops at the bottom.
If you don’t want to go through the trouble of building your own armature, you can purchase them ready made. Some are available as wire like ours, but you may opt for a more durable (and expensive) ‘ball and socket‘ joint armature. The only problem is you generally have to base your character around these predefined shapes and sizes.
Once our armature was complete, we then had to place them in the molds we made earlier. We needed to find a way to suspend the armature exactly half way between both sides of the mold so it set in the middle of the puppet once we poured the silicone. For this, I placed some wire in the grooves I had previously set in the mold and balanced the armature on these. This allowed for it to be propped up off one side of the mold. In order to ensure the armature stayed perfectly in place once I closed both sides of the mold, I stuck it to the wire in the grooves with super glue. The wire was easily removed later on by yanking it free with pliers. The process wasn’t perfect and sometimes resulted in crookedly set armatures with wires protruding from limbs, but overall, we managed to get the job done.
The next step was to close the mold and pour in the silicone to create the final cast, which I’ll write about in my next post. If you have any questions about the above process, feel free to ask them in the comments below.