Oolong’s Zoo

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Ghost of Margaret Thatcher

Party @ Trafalgar Square

Some time around the middle of 2011 I had a vision of a puppet I could make, of the ghost of Margaret Thatcher. Although she was not yet physically dead, her spirit had been haunting the political landscape of Great Britain for some decades. You couldn’t see her, but sometimes this cold and oppressive presence would make itself felt, and you just knew that she was there – whispering in the corridors of Whitehall, stalking the nightmares of the children of the 80s.

posted by frm at 15:25  

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Third Giant Puppet: Hati the Wolf


The Wild Hunt in 2007 – photo by DecoByDesign (not my wolf)


The Samhuinn Fire Festival in Edinburgh has more often than not featured a pack of wolves in one form or another – the Wild Hunt, hounding the spirits of Summer,  is one of its recurring symbols, and for me has been one of the big highlights of the Samhuinns I have attended as an audience member.

The Wolves in 2010 were largely metaphorical, more lupine humans than humanoid wolves, but they still tore the vitals from our fantastical-animals Summer Troupe. This year the wolves were less numerous, but wolfier – just two of us with giant puppets.

When I started thinking about this year’s festival, I found myself with an unusually clear vision of the puppet-wolf I wanted to make. A lot of my art comes out of doodling to see what emerges, so when I do have a persistent creative vision, I tend to feel like I owe it to myself to make it happen. Pleasingly, this year’s Samhuinn was even more puppet-based than last year’s, with one large group of puppeteers where usually there are several separate performance groups. Here’s a gallery of puppetry photos from the night, and here are some photos of my puppet-making process.

My wolf would be mounted on a backpack frame, like my previous puppets, but this time the head would be a couple of feet above and in front of my own head. I had a collection of much thicker bendy sticks than our usual withies – presumably also willow – that I found in the street one time, and these would be my main construction material. They’re strong, but they have a lot of give in them, so the puppet has a great deal of movement in it – freed from the traditional bamboo skeleton, it bounces around of its own accord and takes a moment to settle back down after any sudden movement. It has its own rhythm, so the operator needs to work with its impulses rather than trying to control every motion.

The May Queen at Air PointI made the head from the same thick aluminium wire I used for the tapir‘s head last year, and gave it something of a skeletal appearance by binding it in white cotton strips – offcuts from a t-shirt factory, I think, found in the Beltane Fire Society stores. I’d used the same strips for my giant dreamcatcher-style sculpture representing the element of Air at this year’s Beltane, which is a story for another blog post.

Once I had mounted the head on the sticks, I started thinking about how to make it as visible as it should be, and I hit on the idea of helping to hold and bring out the shape of the wolf with more of those cloth strips, using the same sort of crude knots I’d learned for my Air sculpture. After some thought, I concluded that I needed to cover the sides of it and the head with some cloth. I left the back open, a decision I would regret slightly in the torrential rain of Samhuinn night.

Hati's mawI decided I wanted to be able to control the jaw so that it could snap at things, howl and so on, as seemed appropriate. I achieved this with a hinge similar to the one I used for last year’s tapir, with springs to keep the jaw shut and a string to open it at will. I mounted the string towards the back of the jaw, so that it also afforded a good deal of control over the whole head and the body it’s attached to – pull the string back towards the body and the jaw alone opens; pull it forwards and the entire puppet stoops. The springs are pretty loose, so the puppet chatters to itself.

Hati's eyesThe eyes are illuminated with the same kind of cheap push-on lights I used for Mashi‘s eyes, and Tara the tapir’s brain. I mounted them on wire, with several extra pieces of gaffer tape for stability. The lights are pretty unreliable – they were flickering off when they got a knock, before I put them in – but in the end they made it through the night without any problems.

Hati meets the Cailleach. Photo by Raini Scott.

The front legs are made from strips of the white cotton, plus a sheet of muslin for the upper part. They are attached to paws made of wire and bound in cotton, with claws made of Fimo Air Light and coated in PVA glue for shininess and waterproofing. The paws are attached to sticks of bamboo for control. Inspired by careful observation of Muppets in action, I made sure that I could control both arms with one hand, with the sticks crossed over, leaving my other hand free to operate the mouth and head.

The fangs are made from the same air-drying clay as the claws, while the rest of the teeth are just torn-up tissue paper and PVA, formed around a little cone of plastic sheeting and then immediately removed. This technique allowed me to make as many teeth as I wanted very quickly.

One of the bits that I left till last, in case I ran out of time, was the hind legs. These aren’t really part of the puppet; I just sewed tubes of muslin around each of the shoulder straps, hiding the incongruous blue plastic. Then I cut a series of slits at the bottom of the muslin, and using PVA I very quickly formed the ends of the cloth into little claw shapes.

Here’s the finished puppet in action, indoors.

And here are some clips from the night itself: clip 1, clip 2, clip 3.

SamhuinnI was hugely impressed with everyone’s puppets in the end. My co-wolf Zoë did me proud; Ross’s three-person ice giant was a wonder, with its disembodied head and articulated hands on mighty poles, as was Darren’s one-person murder of crows; Helen’s lion, Frank’s pirate, Karin’s firefly, Kay’s moth queen, Morag’s Kali, Neil’s headless hobbyhorseman, Judy’s nightmare and Franzi’s tree were all things of beauty.

Many thanks to everyone in the group – and to all the photographers who took great photos, and everyone else involved as performers, tech, stewards or audience members. I had one of the best nights.


Summer puppets. This and previous photo by Chris Scott



posted by frm at 15:40  

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Second giant puppet: Tara the Tapir

For the 2010 Samhuinn Fire Festival in Edinburgh, I co-organised a group representing the role of the spirit of Summer, doomed to fall to the wolves of Winter, by means of a carnival troupe of mediaeval-style musicians, fantastical animals  and basket-bearers distributing flowers and cake, glitter and bubbles. I led the puppeteers together with my friend  Hannah Werdmuller, and Andy Glowaski organised the rest. (more…)

posted by frm at 14:42  

Friday, June 3, 2011

My first giant puppet: Mashi

I’d been vaguely wanting to try making puppets for years, but apart from a couple of days working on Big Man Walking in 2009 I’d never really had the opportunity – until the 2010 Beltane Fire Festival, when Morag Patterson announced at the open meeting that she would be running a group of Red Puppeteers.

In the context of Edinburgh’s Beltane, Red stands for vitality – for the chaotic, unrestrained aliveness of our animal selves – much the same energy that the Horned God stands for in some of the world’s ancient religions. Sexuality is a part of that, and humour, too.

I went to the first meeting of the Red Puppeteers with no idea what I was going to make, but I came away with an image lodged firmly in my mind – a horned goddess, bug-eyed and maybe a little addled, partly inspired by the cave painting at Trois Freres that is sometimes known as ‘The Sorcerer’.

On reason I was particularly drawn to puppets in the Beltane context was that Beltane – spectacular as it is – doesn’t always make it easy to see what’s going on. Having puppets even a head and shoulder taller than the crowd makes a big difference, but I decided I wanted to make something big.

Once I had a rough idea of the dimensions I was going for, it was time to build the skeleton – two bamboo poles attached to an old rucksack frame using gaffer tape; two cross-pieces, slightly longer than the gap between those to give space to attach limbs; and one more vertical for the ‘spine’, to which the head would attach.

Body full-length

Most of the shape outside of the frame came from withies – thin sticks of willow that become bendy when soaked or steamed (and bendier still if you ease each one in with soft back-and-forth bends along its length. They then firm up in their new shape when they dry, making them versatile, lightweight and relatively strong.

Minotaur 1It makes sense to start with some of the main lines of the puppet before filling in any of the details of its surface – indeed, sometimes the lines are really all you need, as Ross Flemington‘s minimal, sinewy minotaur puppet demonstrated. Most of the impact comes from the overall shape and the movement, especially in low light.


The sections of the limbs for most of the puppets started with rings of willow attached to bamboo canes with willow cross-pieces. With these stuck in place, further withies are added to make a strong, stable structure.

There are many ways to attach sections of limbs together. Perhaps the simplest is to drill a hole through the bamboo (with gaffer tape around it to help prevent splintering) and connect them with cable ties and/or wires. Another technique is to make two half-circles of wire and attach them – interlocked – to the ends of the ‘bones’. I wanted to restrict Mashi’s knees to one axis of rotation, so I held those joints together with nuts and bolts. I found that the nuts would slowly work themselves loose, a problem I was later told can be avoided by doubling up the nuts.

The head, antlers and hands were mainly made of chicken wire and papier mache – which allows finer detail than willow, at the expense of added weight.

The biggest technical challenge for me was the legs. These are often omitted from big willow puppets, or at best they are vestigial – which makes sense, since the torso typically starts just a little way above the puppeteer’s head, and most people want to control its arms using their own. I decided to have arms hanging freely (but bent at the elbows) instead, allowing me to have legs capable of dancing, walking or spreading.

Hip jointThat was the fun part – legs that just walked stiffly would have been too easy. I wanted ones that could swivel outwards and upwards, but always kept the knees at an appropriate angle. The answer was hip-joints made with wheels from an old desk – rotation around their base allowed them to move up and down and walk, while the movement of the wheels themselves allowed the squatting action. Since they are still constrained on one axis, the knees always stay upright as long as you stay within their normal range of movement, so that walking and other movements  could be controlled completely from the feet.

Puppet scaleOnce it was operational, the puppet wasn’t hard to use – though having something taller than yourself strapped to your back is challenging when the wind blows! A trip up Calton Hill on a windy day convinced me to greatly scale back my original plans to cover most of the puppet in a skin of tissue paper and muslin, and in the end I only covered a few parts, mainly to emphasise the outline and certain features.

The night itself was a huge amount of fun – the crowd obviously really enjoyed the puppets, especially appreciating our presence at times when they couldn’t see much else going on. The interaction with the audience – something many groups avoid at Beltane  – was particularly delightful. One Italian punter proposed to Mashi, and a couple of little kids shook her hand. With six foot six of puppet over my head (all in all, Mashi is around 10′ 8″ tall) I was able to loom like never before.

I took her out again at the Meadows Festival just for fun, and to the Leith Festival with official endorsement from the organisers – dancing through the streets in the sunshine, freaking out small children, and so on. Since then, though, she was just been lying on the roof of my kitchen extension the storms the other week, when she blew all the way to the far side of the garden. Maybe it’s a sign that I should patch her up and take her for another spin…

posted by frm at 12:17  

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