Sunday, February 7, 2016

Update, Quite Late! Art Camp 2015

Well THIS is super late, you know, for a change. It's been a while and I'm trying to catch up on a few things I should have posted ages ago. First up: Art Camp! I hosted a series of camps last summer, instead of the one traditional week. These are the highlights from the screen printing projects the kids made on fabric, as well as some hand sewing and melty-bead things. 

The high-dive/camp fire/s'more nirvana shirt was designed and drawn by a very talented fourth grader, and it turned out awesome, from concept to print in a few days. 

The girls from years past returned with sketch-books at the ready and executed some very cool two and three color prints. These were printed on canvas, which we then sewed into tote bags. 

The giraffe design was a paper cut-out (which was grueling, but totally worth it!). It was printed on a shirt, but the artists and I agreed that she should go ahead and make five-or-ten prints on paper, because it turned out so great. 

Another camper borrowed the big sun from the giraffe designer and used a pineapple I had designed for a friend to make this cool shirt. 

X-BOX, represent!

The final project of the week was to design a print or pattern with me, and then make a one-of-a-kind drawstring backpack. Martha (the beautiful and talented wife) had to lead that half of the project, of course, and they turned out great. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Where Puppets Come From

It's easy! Just follow a few hundred specific steps, mess up a dozen or so times, necessitating a few major 'redos' and causing one or two complete emotional breakdowns, and in about eight to ten hours of work, your done! 

All jokes aside I do love making them, and though parts of the process can be tedious, the end result is a lot of fun, and makes a lot of people very happy. I've been lucky enough to stay busy with orders, between five and ten a year, and have thus developed a good system to building the puppets, without having to mentally start from scratch every time. 

Here's how I do it. 

The Mouth! Over the years (the many years of experimentation and system development ), I have used a variety of materials for the mouth, the most action oriented part, and really the foundation on which the puppet is built. If the mouth isn't study (but expressive) and flexible (but in control), the performace, operation and over-all quality will suffer. If you are using an older pupper, specifically you, Mr. Santos, I regret using a bud light box as the very flimsy rock on which to build my... puppet.  

These days, the two semi-circles of the mouth are cut from sturdy chip board or foam core, and black fleece is glued to all surfaces, then the seams around the mouth and the split in the jaw are machine sewn and reinforced. Before closing it up, though, a small, tight pocket is added for the thumb on the bottom and two fingers up top. These are also machine sewn, and allow for very precise control by the puppeteer. 

You can see the roll of 1/2" foam in the background here, along with a few 'skulls', which brings us to....

The skull! I first constructed these from cardboard and duct tape (shudder), and they were rigid, heavy, and if ever accidentally crushed or stepped on, they would never be the same.  Now that I'm a proper adult professional puppet weirdo, I construct each skull from lightweight, durable and all-together-superior poly foam. I developed a general pattern that is adjusted to allow for size and shape variations from client to client. 

Here are two looks at a skull along with a body, which is a slightly tapered tube, with the narrower opening at the 'neck'. Next comes 'the skin' (this whole process sounds terrifically morbid, dudn't it?) 

All of the surface stitching is done by hand (my hand!), using a frankensteined, home-cooked version of the long-rumored, widely-feared, not-that-crazy-once-you-get-down-to-the-business-of-doing-it, 'Henson stitch'... Which is basically a whip stitch done with very shallow allowance on the inside. I couldn't find a photo to illustrate the process, but I drape and pin the whole 'skin' inside out, and trim it down to the slightest possible seam allowance.  Then I sew it all up, making tight (and hopefully mostly invisible) stitches, flip the whole thing right-side-out, stretch it down over the head and body, then cut the opening for the mouth. 

The reason the skin looks so smooth and flawless, not pulling here-or-there, is because the only anchor points (glue points) are the inside of the lips and the base of the body, inside the puppet. I used to slather the thing in glue and then as the fabric and foam aged, the puppet would develop wrinkles or pulls. Amateur! 

Here's a puppet with an exceptional body - meaning it's an exception, not that I admire it, ha. This client called for a specific 'fat belly', which I sculpted out of foam and had to adhere differently. 

The facial features are made specifically by design to match the clients needs. The 'pyramid' noses are made from scrap cardboard from a cracker box or off-cuts from the ship board used to construct the mouth. The eyes are usually built around cardboard or foam core, covered with felt for the whites, lids and lashes, and the pupils (starting about a year back) are plastic doll eyes - just the black kind, usually. Once in a while I'm losing my mind racing a deadline and my lovely wife Martha comes in to cheer me up. This photo indicates one of those times.

Hands, arms, and control rods are next. These are also a recent milestone, now standard on all Ben Rumback puppets. They took some time to become so, as they add some serious work. For each hand I cut two foam hands, and four pieces of wire. The photo pretty much speaks for itself; The wires are sandwiched between both foam hand shapes, and drowned in glue to keep them in place. The ends are curled over to prevent any sharp ends of wire stressing any of the materials. The hand is then inserted into a machine sewn skin (the hand and arm are one piece), and stitched up around the control rod, the best view of which you can see below.

The arms are attached to the body at the shoulder with a plastic nut and bolt that ratchet together (and are hard as all-get-out to undo) and allow a range of movement forward and back on a swivel. The foam allows natural looking shoulder movement, which is very lucky, as I don't know how to make a ball joint! I capo the ends of the control rods with wooden rods, in which the wire is embedded and glued, for comfort and control. Somehow I don't have a clear photo of that, but I'll try to dig one up.

fter the face, hair and arms are all finished up, I'm pretty much ready to ship them off. Costumes are another recent development, and come by the grace and talent of Martha, my talented spouse. 

That's it! That's all! It's that simple, haha, so go get your puppet on! But, hey, be cool, no client poaching. Here's a gallery of my recent creations, from design drawing to fruition. 

This handsome trio were gifted to their real-life-counterparts by their dad, in an act of hilariously creative, and very generous holiday gifting, last year. 

These two enigmatic ladies were the product of a kickstarter funded steampunk-cocktail puppet show... Which is probably the craziest project concept I've been a part of. 

 And then I came to these two lovelies - This one was a big deal to me (they all are, but hear me out). These were a surprise wedding gift for two comediennes/actors who were to be married at Jim Henson studios. Their brilliant friend wrote and performed a musical number at the wedding as a gift to the two ladies, and commissioned their puppet likenesses from me for the event. What an amazing thing - I'm still hoping for video! 

That's it! Really, this time it's the end, so get out of here! If I posted your photo or your likeness in puppet form and you don't want it here, all public-like, just e-mail me at and I'll remove it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Trick, Treat, Repeat.

When you get right down to it, autumn is my favorite time of year. The changing of the leaves, the respite from the unbearable dog days of the beautiful Kansas summers, and of course, the happiest of the happy holidays: Hallowe'en!

This year, I was lucky enough to be visited by a pair of ghosts of Hallowe'ens past, two delightful clients from up Ontario way. I've worked with them twice in the past, and was happy to hear they wanted me back. 

Here are some progress shots of the costumes taking shape. Can you guess who they were going as, yet? 

Hint: the one above is female, the male of the species is pictured below. 

If you haven't gotten it by now I may as well just spill: they were the ghoulish, ghastly pair of ghosts from the classic Tim Burton monsterpiece, Beetlejuice! This is a very silly post. Please excuse the puns.

The Maitlands, as their commonly called, are a great, cult-as-all-get-out, couples costume, and a quick google image search will return a handful of less-than-intimidating home made jobs, as well as a few that had me questioning whether I was up to the task. 

These were definitely the most complicated costumes I have ever made, and more than once I worried they weren't going to turn out. An okay man maybe once said "success without crippling self doubt is none the sweeter than..." Well, I stink at making up meaningful quotes. Anyway, they turned out really cool! Moral: believe in yourself!

The tongue was a challenge of its own, but layering 1/2" foam cut to the contour worked, and I shaved it down and rounded the edges with scissors, then stitched some red fleece around the shape. 

A couple of dime store eye-balls, about a million pieces of brown fleece cut into spiral-curls, a few hot glue burns, and VIOLA! 

This handsome fellow was easier to finish up, with plush fur for the hair and no tongues or other extra accessories to make. My lovely wife Martha helped me with a photo shoot (and half of the modeling) a little after midnight, about a week before Hallowe'en.

We had fun trying them on, ha ha. It just happened that I was wearing a rather Maitland-ish shirt, and Martha's bathrobe was house-coat-y enough to pass for 'on purpose.'

I used a piece of red-dyed silk chiffon that Martha had from a previous project to let the wearer hide their face while maintaining a safe field of vision. 

The clients were both thrilled with the photos, and more-so with the masks when they arrived a few days later. In the end they won all three of the costume contests they entered, so any lingering self doubt abated, and I slept easy the next few nights. 

Once that was all said and done, I remembered that I had yet to make a costume for myself, as we were again hosting our annual party, and had guests coming from Chicago to impress!

I was in over my head before I started, working with materials that were relatively foreign to me. I considered going the cartoony route, as above, and softening the edges by building with foam and fabric, but I knew what I wanted to make, and anything less would be a concession to time and a lack of talent. 

So, in a fit of stubbornness, I made a few paper models, one after the other, weeding out problems and making slight adjustments to an enlarged paper-craft toy pdf I found on 4chan. After something like eight (no joke) slight variations on failure, lightning struck and I lucked out, and I was finally ready to move on to the final material: chip board. 

Steady... Steeeeady.

After a few dry runs of with painters tape, I busted out the hot glue and got serious. 

At this point, I was only about three steps away from full on nazi-bustin'! 

The piping on the sides of the helmet were made of bisected clear tubing from the hardware store, a tip from another DIYer of the same costume. 

Foam core fin? Check. Brass brads for rivets? You got it. Time to paint! 

Black base, then a few layers of gold. 

With the helmet done (except the lenses, which I had waiting in a bag) it was time to face facts: without a rocket-pack, I was just a nerd in a cardboard helmet. This is the model from the movie. Gulp. 

'Twas the night before our party, and I hadn't a plan for the pack, 
so I did lots of sketches, and had a small panic attack. 

I went for foam. The rocket pack wasn't going to look like the one from the movie, but I could match the shape and style close enough to get by on the helmet's cred. The thirsty cardboard started to swell and build up unwanted texture in few spots, but I was able to give it a day to dry out, sand it down and then hit it with one last layer of gold. 

I tried the helmet on in the morning, after the fumes cleared out, before heading to work. Speaking of work, I had to scramble and come up with an alternate costume (the school rule is from a book or history, and I didn't want to explain all day that The Rocketeer was a comic before the movie). My cotes her Amy and I went as gender-swapped (though I think the Ox was always a boy ox) Paul Bunyan and Babe, which is one of my favorite tall-tales. 

What, you may ask, does Babe the Blue Ox do when the Nazi's sail a blimp into Hollywood? 
He blasts into action as THE FREAKIN' ROCKETEEEER!!!

The pack is less than perfect, but the jacket my buddy Phil hooked me up with was so good I wasn't at worried about it. I made the boot covers out of fake leather and wore some boots that almost matched, but let's be honest, no one was looking at the shoes. 

The costume came together in the last hours before the party, and people who remembered the movie loved it. The helmet survived the party (whew!), and now sits proudly on display on top of a set of lockers. Happy Hallowe'en!