The Puppet Challenge Part 7: Graham, Caroline and Scott

Graham Carter, Caroline McCatty and Scott Garrett

Graham Carter: Puss-in-Boots

Above: Graham Carter’s concept artwork for  his puppet of Puss-in-Boots

Below: working-drawing

It’s always interesting when an illustrator known for a particular style of two-dimensional artwork, then has to realise a design as an object. Graham magnificently rose to the challenge, producing a delightful concept sheet that transformed effortlessly… or so it seemed… into a finished puppet. (I’m no such fool as to imagine it was a simple matter, but Graham has the skill and grace to at least make it look so.)

Graham writes:

“This is my first foray into puppet-making. (Well, apart from a ten-foot mobile Yeti rod-puppet I helped build for a parade a couple of years ago – but that was a group effort!) Firstly I’d like to thank Clive and Peter for inviting me to take part. I do like a challenge! When I accepted it though, I hadn’t quite anticipated the shift in mindset needed when making something ‘functional’ as opposed to purely aesthetic. Some of my recent 3D pieces do closely resemble puppets, and I had considered tackling this in the same way but that soon went out of the window when I realised that limbs had to actually move! As much as I tried to plan the puppet and make a few thumbnail sketches, I figured the best way, for me personally, was trial and error. I had a loose design in my head and figured I would tackle moveable limbs as I went along. Engineers would scoff at that of course, but I’m definitely not an engineer! When thinking of a subject I very nearly began working on a miniature puppet theatre-set based on the film of Jason & the Argonauts, with Skeleton Automata – but very quickly realised this would be a folly for a novice! Keep it simple! (Wise words Clive!) I thought it would be fun creating a character with long legs, and I narrowed it down to a frog-prince or Puss-in-Boots. I opted for the clever cat. In order to spice it up a bit I decided on a futuristic Puss-in-Boots, complete with bionic arm/paw (of course!) I did make him a little leather hat too but this only served to make him look like a 70’s pimp!”

“Ideally I would have liked to carve the model to give it that old-fashioned toy look, but I just didn’t have the tools. I chose instead to use wood I had lying around in my studio, plus any old nuts, bolts, wire and laser-cut wood off-cuts I had at my disposal. This gives it a rough and ready look, but I do actually quite like that. It took me a while to figure out how to get the limbs to function. I just stared at the pieces of wood for ages until I figured out a solution. If they were too stiff or obstructed I would just saw/sand a little here and there until they became functional. I’m pleased with the legs – the elbows are a little cumbersome and unnatural looking, but again – I think it suits my style, and the character (that’s my excuse anyway). The head is attached to a rod at the back to give it multi-directional function. I added the moveable eyebrows as an afterthought, as I wanted it to have that slight ventriloquist’s dummy look about it. (I would have liked to add a moving jaw too. Next time!)”

“I haven’t got around to attaching string etc yet to make him dance, but with a couple of screw replacements I think he could pull off some moves!”

“My son certainly loves him….”

I appreciate the fact that Graham opted for a ‘rough and ready’ look for his puppet. Some makers get bogged down trying to create a perfect, slightly retro, moulded-in-plastic finish, and while that may look good as a toy, the brief here was to make a puppet, and puppets are much more forgiving when it comes to surface detail. The magic of a puppet must stem not only from its design, but also from the way in which it moves. I’m sure that in the hands of a puppeteer, this Puss-in-Boots would turn in quite a performance. I love the idea that he can raise a roguish eyebrow, or arch them both in a look of ‘drop-dead’ disdain.

Caroline McCatty: The Ogre that Pretended to be a Little Girl

Caroline wrote at the outset of the Challenge:

“I’m planning to make a flying puppet based on a Chinese fairy tale called The Flying Ogre. I’ll attempt to make a glove-puppet that transforms from a little girl into an ogre, because in the tale he disguises himself as a little girl.”

“I have the idea to make a Little Girl glove-puppet whose head will open and the ogre pop out. The design work is all a bit rough as I don’t have time to spend making the prep work wonderful. Anyway this is where my ideas are going, but the final puppet will be less basic.”

Above: Caroline’s ‘mock-up’, made to get the feel of how the puppet might look

Caroline basically described a ‘trick-puppet’, commonplace in nineteenth century puppet performances, though more usually associated with marionettes than glove-puppets. Mechanisms and effects became quite ornate as marionette companies went to great lengths to outdo rivals in the ingenuity and splendour of their illusions.

Below: Caroline photographed the stages of making her Little Girl/Ogre glove-puppet

Above: a sketch of the Little Girl next to an Ogre’s head rather different to the finished one

Below: the carved and painted head of the Little Girl next to the completed Ogre head

The Ogre’s head is built around an inflatable bladder. The whole thing folds up and can be hidden, packed away inside the Little Girl’s head, which is made of two halves… a front and back… fastened with ties. When the ties are released, her face flops forward and the crumpled Ogre’s head pops out. With the aid of a tube and good lungs, Caroline can inflate the Ogre’s head so that it replaces the Little Girl’s.

You can see Caroline’s transformation puppet going through its paces in the film linked below. I think we can be pretty sure she’ll get quicker and more dextrous with practice. Ten out of ten for invention, skill and blow-power. A splendid result.

Little Girl into Ogre Transformation

Scott Garrett: the Earl of Rone and the Whittlesea Straw Bear

Scott turned to two ancient celebratory traditions for the inspiration of his glove-puppets: the Earl of Rone and the Whittlesea Straw Bear, shown in his illustrations above.

He writes of the custom of the Earl:

“Why the Earl of Rone? Well, he’s just one of a number of fantastic English folklore characters out there, madly eccentric. If I’d done the Hastings Jack, it would have just been a lump of vegetation. The Earl has a great physical character, chunky almost cuddly… but he is deeply dark. He reminds me of some old Polish/Czech character, earthy in his sackcloth garb, but with the graphic white, red and black mask and its sharp, angular nose.”

Below: the stages of Scott’s puppet. The first is a mock-up produced to check for scale, made of a ball and some gift-wrap.

Below: the finished puppet

Below: Scott’s early sketch for the Whittlesea Straw Bear glove-puppet

In Whittlesea it’s the custom on the 1st Monday after Twelfth Night to dress a ploughman in straw and call him a ‘Straw Bear’. A newspaper of 1882 reported the Bear “taken around the town to entertain, by his frantic and clumsy gestures, the good folk who had, on the previous day, subscribed to the rustics a spread of beer, tobacco and beef”.

The costume was described as being made of great lengths of tightly twisted straw bands wound up the arms, legs and body of the man or boy chosen to play the role. Sticks fastened to the shoulders formed a cone above the wearer’s head, and the face was completely covered so that the Bear was all but blind. A tail was provided and a strong chain fastened around its armpits. It was made to dance in front of houses and gifts of money or of beer and food for later consumption were expected. The custom evidently held an honoured status in the community, as straw was carefully selected from the best available, the harvesters saying, “That’ll do for the Bear”. The custom had long died out, but was revived in the 1980s. The straw costume is burned at the end of the celebrations and has to be made afresh each year.

I think Scott’s puppets are splendid evocations of folk customs. He wrote that he’d balked at the Hastings Jack, but I for one would like to see his take on that venerable tradition, not least because for a couple of years the Jack sported a mask that I’d made in the likeness of my late father.