Stop Motion Tutorial Part 4

The Art of Puppet Making and Puppet Animation

Puppet animation is the most commonly used technique in stop motion. Models are manipulated in order to imitate movement by incremental adjustments of limbs and expressions for each frame. The technique of puppet making is one of the most creative and most multidisciplinary art forms. If done professionally, it requires a combination of drawing, sculpting, building, molding, sewing, metalwork and many other quintessential crafts. On the most basic level, however, a stop motion puppet can be a single string of wire, or cut out paper pieces. Any character, made out of any material could serve as a model for stop motion and the possibilities are endless, it all depends on what you are trying to achieve.

puppet animation

This tutorial will focus on the creation of industry standard puppets, and on techniques and processes used in puppet animation studios across the world. The ideas for puppet making evolved over time during a long trial and error process. Each step of modelmaking in puppet animation is somewhat standardized, but there is still a lot of improvisation and last-minute adjustments made in unconventional and creative ways that gets done during the process. We have attempted to create a basic guide for each step during puppet making, with best materials and tools for each body part, the armature and the accessories, as well as tips on how to achieve the basics such as having your puppet be stable during filming, making your puppet fly etc.

Puppet animation teams in studios such as Laika consist of several departments, each in charge of a single step of the process – the armatures, molds, painting. As you will probably start doing stop motion alone, you should be familiar with all of these, and you should be able to make a puppet from start to finish by yourself. It takes a lot of time, a lot of knowledge, and often an investment to do so, but it’s also extremely fun and rewarding. Not many things can compare to seeing your first puppet come to life.

Sketching your Puppet

puppet animation

First of all, you need to know what your puppet is going to look like. You need to make a detailed plan of all the measures, limb proportions, height and width. The easiest way to do so is by drawing the puppet. This stage doesn’t have to include accessories, hair, colors or clothing. The best way of doing this is by using simple drawing pencils. It’s only meant to serve as a ruler, or a schematic for sculpting. Once you have decided on what the puppet should look like and taken detailed measures of each body part it’s time for part two.

Creating Armatures for Puppet Animation

Premade armatures are affordable and great for beginners

The ability to move your character is obviously the most important thing when it comes to stop motion. If you consider the fact that each second of your movie will consist of 12 or 24 frames, and that each frame represents a change in your characters’ stature, pose, face and body expression, then being able to move it as you wish is a must. This can be achieved in several different ways. Your puppet can either be made from a soft material which can be transformed and adjusted for each frame (as is the case with claymation), or it will have to have movable limbs with stable joints. The latter is how puppet animation is normally made today. Puppet armatures are the most important part of the creation process, and if they are not done properly, the process will fail.

10 gauge aluminum wire is the best choice for making armatures

The best way to make solid but movable and adjustable armatures for puppets is by using wire or metal framing. You could use steel, copper or brass, but aluminum wire is the easiest to work with. It’s easy to manipulate and twist, it’s endurable and hard to break and it’s cheap. You can get 40 feet of aluminum wire for about $6. The thickness of the wire is a factor too. Obviously, thicker wire is more resilient but harder to manipulate and vice-versa. Wire diameter is expressed in gauges, with 10, 11, 12 gauge wires being most suitable for puppet animation. You should consider using thicker wire for the body and the legs, and thinner for arms and hands.

A technique commonly used to reinforce puppet armatures is twisting two pieces of wire together using a drill. This makes the wire ten times stronger, and it doesn’t reduce movability. You insert the ends of two strings of wire into a drill, hold the other ends tightly together using pliers, and as the drill is spinning, the wire forms a strong braid. You can, of course, spin the wire together by hand, it’s just harder and it takes more time (and if you are doing this every day you will want to get a drill).

This amazing book by Tom Brierton is an extremely useful guide on armature making.

You can also get pre-made armature components and body parts, or use metal scraps if you can find an imaginable way to put them together. Alternatively, welding metal limbs is also a great way for making armatures, but it’s unnecessary with wire available. Joints are the most important part of the armature. The limbs and body just need to be stable and immovable, but joints have to give the puppet the ability to move in a human and natural way. You will have to make joints as if you were trying to recreate a human being; on ankles, wrists, shoulders, elbows, knees, neck etc. A good way to do that is to stand in front of a mirror and move around in a way you’ve imagined your puppet to move during the scene. Joints can be made by using metal tubes and pre-drilled cubes which you will join with the wire on two sides on places where the joints should be. These pieces can either be made or bought. Alternatively, wire (if thick enough) might be enough for joints. If the wire is adjustable enough and it doesn’t retract, that’s the simplest way of doing it. The point is that you are able to move your puppet’s limbs while it remains stable at the same time. You should try out several different ways of creating the base of the puppet. Try out different wires, pre bought armature kits, try joints which were pre made, hardened wire joints, try fashioning pieces by yourself from some scraps you find at home.

Shape and Form – Puppet Animation Body Building

Once you’ve decided on what type of armature you’ll be using and made it, it’s time for the body. In this stage, same as with the armatures, possibilities are endless. You could use sculpting clay, latex, sponge, cushion foam, or any other material. The only thing you will want to make sure of is that the material you will be sculpting your puppet doesn’t block the parts which are supposed to move, or that it’s flexible enough to be moved at will (and that it stays still once you move it). Epoxy putty is one of the commonly used materials for sculpting immovable parts such as bones, or torso, and for fixtures. It hardens well and it’s easy to work with (it can be toxic so wear gloves, though).

Apoxie Sculpt is great for stiff body parts and fixing

For the limbs, latex is one of the best options. You can apply it to a part of the puppet and after it sets it’s resilient and movable. Latex is also used for molding in puppet animation. The process used is complicated (it requires a proper toolkit) and it takes a long time, but the results are great. You build a clay puppet over the armature, you surround it with gray clay (which takes longer to harden) on one side, and once you’ve created a “clay pool”, you delicately cover it with plaster.

Liquid latex is a great tool for puppet making

Once the plaster sets you repeat the procedure on the other side of the puppet. As a result you get a plaster mold which you can use for casting latex (or any other material) puppets. Make another armature, fix it inside of the mold. Put the two halves together and leave a hole to pour the latex in, close the hole and bake the latex in an oven. You will get an exact copy of the clay puppet you made. It will be flexible and stable because of the armature.

Modelling Clay is the easiest way to form puppet shapes

This is just one example of how puppets are made in pro (and semi pro) puppet animation studios. Most often though (in studios like Laika), body parts are created by using separate molds for each. For example, you can sculpt clay hands, make a mold and cast them. That way you also have a lot more flexibility if you have to replace a body part or if it breaks (and it will happen a lot, especially at start). If your character is wearing clothes, you can also consider sculpting the parts of the body which are going to be visible, and just cover the armature with fabric.

Faces and Expressions

If you are animating a character talking at 24fps, that means that you’re going to have to be able to change a tiny puppets’ facial expressions several times in one second. If you have sculpted a face which can’t move it won’t work. There are two ways of dealing with the issue. You can use soft materials (some forms of clay, plasticine etc.) for the parts of the face which have to be movable, such as lips, eyebrows or eyes. And the more common way is making a thousand different expressions and sculpting them separately. On Kubo and the Two Strings by studio Laika, they used a 3D printer to do that, but if you don’t own one, sculpting and molding manually is the only way. This may sound like it would take a year to do, but it really depends on how detailed you are planning to make your character. You could only go for five or ten basic expressions and mouth movements. The way to change faces is to create a socket for a small magnet on the head so that the changeable pieces just stick together in seconds (small magnets are easy to find in hardware stores and online). Now, you could use this process for other body parts as well, but the face is really the only thing that requires such a tedious procedure.

Puppet Animation in Color – Painting, Hair, Accessories

Professional airbrushes are ideal for painting details and they don’t leave any marks

When it comes to painting your character, once again the possibilities are endless. I prefer high quality acrylic paint and artificial nylon brushes (don’t use real ones, they will leave hair on your puppet). Another, more expensive way, is using a paint airbrush. It will ensure even coating and no visible brush strokes.

As for the hair, you want something that can stay in one place. If you are animating a character running, you need to be able to keep the hair in the air for the duration of the frame, you need to be able to move it around and adjust it same as you did with the puppet. A great way to do so is to use silicon coating or some sort of a mild adhesive on fabric (or on actual hair).

Nylon brushes are a great and cheap tool for painting puppets

Clothes can be sawn manually, which will give you most possibilities, but you could also buy dolls and toys and take their clothes to put on your puppet. Use your imagination. If you’ve decided to make a zombie puppet, take an old t-shirt tear off a piece, grab a needle and thread, sew it together, rough it up, smudge it with some mud and paint and that’s it. Any character imaginable can become real if you are imaginative enough, especially when it comes to clothing and paint, where you really don’t have to take care of many technical details.

We hope you found this puppet animation tutorial helpful. Any feedback, comments and shares are greatly appreciated! Happy puppet making!