Oolong’s Zoo

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Air Point

Usually, at Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Festival, the May Queen makes her way around the hill, visiting and ‘awakening’ performance groups representing the classical elements – Air, Earth, Water and Fire. In 2011, it happened that nobody put themselves forward to run a group for the element of Air. It is notoriously the hardest element to represent through the medium of dance and costume anyway, what with it being invisible. For Beltane 2009 I had been in an Air performance group myself, which was a lot of fun, but .

The May Queen at Air PointFor this year I volunteered to try something a bit different, and do an Air Point without any performers at all. Instead I decided to create a sculptural installation – a sort of giant horizontal dreamcatcher, spiralling down in a tornado shape in the middle.

So I took a bunch of super-thick withies that I’d found dumped in the street one time, made a great big circle out of them, twisted around and held in place with wire and string.

Then I took an enormously long strip of white cotton, about a centimetre wide,
from the Beltane stores. With help and tuition from Emmie Creighton-Offord, I set about wrapping it around the ring of withies, making soft knots as I went. These are barely knots at all, just the string looped back around itself after it goes around the frame, but as long as they are in tension they stay in place well. This technique would serve me extremely well later, when I came to make Hati the giant wolf puppet.

The basic pattern is that shared by dreamcatchers everywhere, but to give it a spiral twist I made sure that each knot was over to one side, rather than in the middle between two knots of the outer ring. To allow it to pull down in the middle, I made sure the line was slacker and slacker as I approached the centre.

Emmie contributed a normal-scale dreamcatcher to hang from it, and so did Sacha Harrison, one of the White Women assigned to the element of Air, with added decorations. I extended the spirals of the main net beyond its bottom with a sort of converging double-helix, and hung one of the dreamcatchers from the centre.

My main role at that year’s festival was as one of the official photographers, so I had the opportunity to capture this image of the installation at the moment of the May Queen’s blessing.

Unfortunately, while I was off speed-editing my pictures from the night, a pair of drunken punters stumbled into the sculpture and destroyed it. Still, my mother taught me at an early age about the concept of ‘art for the gods’, which is always destined to be destroyed, and it is hard to imagine a more apt example.

posted by frm at 10:32  

Friday, June 10, 2011

USB Sugru Tiger

Photo of the sculpture

I’ve been looking forward to making USB sculptures out of Sugru ever since I got to play with a couple a little of the the stuff at the Maker Faire in Newcastle last year. My hope is that it will prove at least as resilient as epoxy putty, which is remarkably strong but quite brittle – usually an epoxy USB sculpture will survive being dropped, or kept in a pocket with keys for a long time, but I have seen the occasional part crack off.

I also think I like the way Sugru feels after it’s set, more than I like the cold, stony feel of epoxy putty. It hardens to a firm but rubbery consistency, with whatever surface texture you imprint on it – or a smooth sheen, if you polish it with water.

Like epoxy putty, it sets on its own over the course of about a day; it sticks firmly to anything when you first start using it; it gives you maybe half an hour to an hour of good working time; and if you’re not careful, little bits will end up setting in a slightly different position from where you thought you left them.

To make this tiger I used an unusually small flash drive, two googly eyes, a pipe cleaner and almost a whole 5g sachet of orange Sugru. I also used just a little bit of black Sugru. Since each 5g of Sugru starts setting from the moment you open the sachet, I took the opportunity to use what was left over to enhance the grip of my camera with the impression of my fingers. Then I made a cat.

Note: commissions are always welcome.

posted by frm at 22:40  

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 Рlegs 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 Рrotation 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  

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


On Saturday I went to the second UK Maker Faire in Newcastle. This is an event that gets together a whole lot of people in one building who have something creative and technological to show off, share or workshop. That’s a pretty broad remit; there was probably a slim majority of fun robotics projects, plus a bunch of people doing interesting things with 3D printing, a giant musical Tesla coil playing tunes using lightning – that sort of thing.

The Orange Cat of Sugru One of the things that was most interesting to me personally was a new kind of silicone putty, called Sugru. It’s being sold mainly as a way of modifying existing objects, by sticking things onto other things, adding comfortable grips and suchlike, but I’m intrigued by its sculpting potential.

It has a few things in common with epoxy putty – it sticks pretty firmly to many different surfaces, making it great for modifying existing objects; it gives you about half an hour or so of working time during which it goes from being really quite sticky to kind of stiff, then it cures fully in about 24 hours; and it comes in a range of different colours.

The big difference is that when it ‘hardens’, it stays soft and rubbery. Drop it, and it bounces. You can probably use it to erase pencil marks. That makes it more desirable and fun for certain kinds of uses – I’d rather mod delicate electronic equipment with something that bounces rather than crashing like stone, for example. Another difference is that unlike epoxy (which needs to be mixed up) it starts curing from the moment you take it out of the packet, which means you need to use a whole pack at once if you don’t want to waste any.

It’s quite like Fimo to work with, and holds details well. The surface noticeably cures a bit faster than the inside, but you don’t seem to get the kind of annoying wrinkle-prone skin you do with many air-drying modelling clays. For me the working time is plenty for most of my sculptures, though I know a lot of people take longer. The two sculptures I made held their own weight surprisingly well, sagging only a tiny bit, which is a relief after working with epoxy putty or even Fimo Soft. I only got to play with a little bit at the Faire, and it hasn’t launched commercially yet, but I’m looking forward to doing more with it. I can see a lot of interesting potential there.

posted by frm at 16:06  

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I stumbled on a science/art workshop led by Lizzie Burns at The Bowery a few weeks ago, part of the Edinburgh Interdisciplinary Discussion thing, which I’m quite excited about now that I’ve heard of it.

Lizzie makes jewellery and paintings inspired by various fields of science, and also runs workshops in museums and things – they’re mostly aimed at kids really, but she suggested that I come along, so I thought I’d give it a go.

There were actually a series of workshops each based on sculpting bits of the body, leading up to the one I was at, where we made whole bodies. There’s a long history of anatomy being studied by artists, and I figured it might be a useful exercise for me, especially since I’ve been sculpting more humans lately (mainly at Dr Sketchy). Either way, it was fun making a skeleton.

The material is a light air-drying clay resembling Efaplast Light, but a bit more elastic. Very well suited to this sort of thing, though a little tricky to transport safely before it’s fully dry.

posted by frm at 19:38  

Monday, March 31, 2008

Write me a Script!

I’ve been wanting to animate my beasties for years now, but despite being full of character designs I’ve never really had an animation idea good enough to inspire me to action. I may be a writer of sorts, but I don’t really do fiction.

That’s why I’m soliciting scripts. Specifically I’m looking for scripts which don’t call for elaborate staging, and will take no more than 60 seconds of animation time. If you can make a recording of the script and send it to me that’s even better, but if not I can probably get people together later to record it for us, so don’t worry about that too much.

I’m open to receiving scripts by email, but what I’d like best is for people to submit them to Everything2 for Gone in 60 Seconds – a Theatre Quest, and make sure that they would work as one-minute plays as well as animations.

There’s nothing particularly taxing about submitting things for Everything2 – the main things are just to make sure it reads well, add links by putting square brackets around a few relevant words or phrases, and check that it looks okay after you post. Ask me on the site if you have any questions or problems after you sign up.

posted by frm at 15:21  

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