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.

1 comment: said...

Great to see behind the seams, er, scenes. (Har har har, haha.)