The Art of Making Lifelike Marionette Bodies (Feb, 1936)

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The Art of Making Lifelike Marionette Bodies

Materials and tools . . . Various types of joints . . . Costuming . . . How to string puppets . . . Hints on their manipulation

By Florence Fetherston Drake

Lifelike MARIONETTE bodies may be made in several ways for use with heads of the type described last month (P. S. M., Jan. ’36, p. 57):

1. Sewed and stuffed with kapok or cotton, and weighted.
2. Papier-mache shell bodies, filled and weighted.
3. Of wood (scrap pieces and dowel sticks) whittled to shape.
4. Best of all, carved from softwood, but this takes more knowledge and artistry than the others and therefore should follow experiments with one of the simpler methods.

In this article the third method will be described. It is a practical way to make the average puppet, but, of course, not all puppets. Every puppet is an individual problem and should be regarded as such. Give it the characteristics called for in its part in the play. Consider the proportions, weight, and gestures. Do not be too realistic, however; poor imitation is not art. Elimination of nonessentials is important. Simplify everything.

For the normal figure, puppets are about six heads tall. The body is two heads long, and from hips to feet is three heads. This one-two-three proportion is easily remembered. The hips divide the figure in half. Hands and feet are equal to the length of the face from the hair line on the forehead to the chin. Legs are divided into three parts: thigh, leg, foot. Leg and thigh are about the same length—one and a half heads long. Upper arm and forearm are practically similar. The width of the hips is more than the width of the shoulders in women’s figures; less in men’s figures. In making a lean figure, exaggerate the thinness; in a fat one, exaggerate the width. A glance at any group of Tony Sarg’s figures will show what is meant.

Since all properties and stage settings must be made to the same scale as that used for the puppets, it is important to adhere to a certain scale. If an 18-in. puppet is used to represent a figure 6 ft. tall, the scale is, obviously, 3 in. equals 1 ft. If the puppet is 15 in., the scale is 2-1/2 in. equals 1 ft.; if 12 in., the scale is 2 in. equals 1 ft.

The size of a puppet depends upon where it is to be shown. One . third the height of the proscenium is good. From 15 to 24 in. is the average height. When puppets are larger, much of the illusion is lost and they become difficult and awkward to operate.

Make a rough sketch of the figure you intend to copy—front and side views. No matter how crude this may be, it will help.

Soft white pine is the wood to use. At almost any lumberyard you can buy, for a dime or two, odds and ends of wood that serve the purpose admirably. You will also need 3/4- and 3/8-in. dowels; small and medium tacks, brads, and nails; very small and medium screw eyes, commonly designated as 217-1/2 and 215-1/2 fine and medium sandpaper; a sharpening stone or emery for keeping a keen edge on your knife; adhesive tape; narrow tape for the back of knee joints to prevent the legs from bending forward; spools of No. 20 copper and No. 16 tinned wire; small pieces of thin tin or brass for hinges; muslin for joining hip and shoulder pieces and legs to hip piece; and sheet lead, dress weights, or sinkers to weight figures.

The essential tools are: coping or fret saw, small and medium size hammers, pocketknife, chisel, awl, small gimlet or hand drill, flat and round-nosed pliers, flat and round files, razor blade and holder, scissors, ruler, vise, and clamps.

The wooden parts need not be finished too carefully except in cases where the arms, calves of legs, or perhaps the neck are exposed. All parts should have the edges rounded and be sandpapered to prevent cutting through the costume and to assure smooth action. Tack a piece of sandpaper around the end of a block of wood about 1 by 2 by 8 in., and another piece around a portion of an old broom handle; these will be helpful in finishing your work. Hold the wooden parts firmly in the vise while working on them. You will accomplish more in a shorter time and with less exertion than if you try to hold the parts.

Shoulders. Whittle this piece from a block as wide as the shoulders and as thick as the body through the chest. It should extend slightly below the armpits. Slope the shoulders and cut quite a hollow for the neck, leaving it high in the back but sloping well down on the chest (Fig. 2). In the middle toward the back, drill hole through which the wire may be drawn. Leave a loop at the top to which the head is attached. Bend the ends of the wire back and tack firmly (Fig. 3). Length of neck should accord with character of figure.

Hip Piece. Whittle according to your sketch as to depth and width (Fig. 4). Use muslin or the ribbed top of a stocking to join chest and hip pieces, tacking it as necessary (Fig. 5). It is sometimes advisable to weight the hip piece as in Fig. 6. A puppet so weighted will sit better.

Legs. Cut 3/4-in.. dowel to length and whittle roughly to shape, tapering toward ankle. Choose from Fig. 7 the hinge you prefer to use. All hinges need a tape strip in back. The thigh is formed from a short piece of dowel around which is tacked a piece of muslin about 1 in. wide and 3 in. deep. The end of the muslin is tacked to underside of hip piece (Fig. 8).

The feet may be modeled on the leg with paper pulp as in Fig. 9 or whittled from wood like Fig. 10. If modeled, it is necessary to cut thin wooden soles and nail them to the lower leg dowels. When dry, boots or shoes may be simulated by pasting on paper, cloth, or leather, or by painting. Feet of wood are excellent, especially if hardwood is used, as it weights the parts. Be sure to get them large enough. The drawings show different ways of joining them to the legs. An ankle joint is not always necessary (see A, Fig. 7). Women’s figures rarely need them; and if long skirts are worn, even leg strings are omitted.

Arms. Only the forearm need be stiff. The upper arm is a hollow tube of muslin, slightly stuffed (Fig. 11). Hands modeled of paper pulp are satisfactory. If the character is to wield a tool or weapon of any kind, a hole is left through which handle can be thrust (Fig. 12). Hands should be expressive in shape as well as in action. A hand can do marvelous things when controlled by a clever manipulator. It can show shaky old age, nervous excitement, calm repose, strength or weakness. It can fence, spar, draw a sword, swing a hammer on an anvil. A rhythmic song sung at the same time helps the action.

Hands may also be shaped in fine wire as in Fig. 13 and wrapped with adhesive tape, muslin, or crepe paper, later being painted and shellacked. A piece of 3/8-in. tape about 4 ft. long may be used to wrap each hand, fingers, and arm, leaving a loop of wire exposed at the elbow for connection. Instead of tape, hands may be wrapped with narrow strips of flesh-colored crepe paper. Wind tightly and use paste whenever necessary (Fig. 14). Sew the forearm and hand to the upper arm, and tack this part to the shoulder. Finger tips should reach halfway between hips and knees.

Costumes. It is great fun looking up native costumes for your marionette actors. Make clothing of soft materials; thick or stiff fabrics hamper the puppet’s work. Keep the clothing loose so that the puppet moves easily. Use gay colors where possible and characteristic caps and headdresses.

Controllers. Experienced operators now often simplify them, preferring two sticks 9 in. long made of 1/2-in. dowels. To one is attached, by means of grooves or notches sawed near each end and in the middle, the two head strings and the string to center back. To the second stick the leg strings are tied near the ends, and 1-1/2 in. farther in, are tied the hand strings.

If a T-shaped controller is preferred, cut 3/4-in. wide strips from cigar-box wood, the main piece being the length of the operator’s hand and the crosspiece equal to the span of the hand—approximately 7 by 9 in. An extra piece 8 in. long is needed for the leg strings. It requires a small hole in the center to slip over a wire nail or peg on the main piece. Cut a 1/4-in. wide strip from an old inner tube, and draw it through holes drilled in the crosspiece to form a loop for supporting the puppet. This leaves the operator’s fingers free for manipulation. When not in use, the puppet is hung by this loop.

Stringing a Marionette. This is done after the puppet is dressed. When stringing, hang the puppet about 50 in. from the floor. The string is run taut to every place but the back and legs, which should be a bit slack so that the control may be slipped over a brad without disturbing the feet when they are to remain motionless or when the puppet is seated. Use heavy black linen thread or any strong waxed thread.

There are five screw eyes to be put on the body before the puppet is dressed, and two on the head, as follows: Two for the shoulder strings; one on the back, just above or just below the waist; one on each leg just above the knee joint; and one back of each ear. The screw eyes for the head are usually just above the ears, but they must be placed so that the greater weight of the head is in front. When the shoulder strings are pulled, the head then bends forward instead of back. For a pompous strutting character, place the screw eyes forward; for old age or a hunchback, set them far back. Between these two extremes is the normal place.

The strings are sewn through the clothes, never fastened directly to them. The hand strings are fastened between thumb and first finger.

The length of the strings depends on the height of the puppeteers’ bridge above the puppet stage. About 50 in. is an average length from the control stick to the feet of the puppet. First suspend the controller at the exact height from the floor that the combined height of the marionette and the strings is to be. To find this distance, measure the puppeteer from waist to feet, and to that length add the elevation of the bridge from the stage floor, if it is raised.

Cut a piece of thread 3 in. longer than double the distance from the controller to the marionette’s shoulder, as the marionette is held upright with its feet on the floor. Tie one end securely to the marionette’s left shoulder and the other to the right shoulder. Cut the thread in half and attach these ends to their places on the controller. The marionette is now supported upright. Tie a thread to the screw eye in its head near the left ear; measure double the distance from this point to the controller, with the head erect; allow 3 in. extra and cut the thread. Tie the other end to the right ear loop, cut the thread in half, and fasten the ends to the controller.

The head is now supported. Be careful that the weight of the body hangs from the shoulder strings; if these are slack, the head strings are supporting the whole marionette and head movements will be stiff or impossible.

Next, tie a string to the left hand, measure up to the controller and back, and allow 3 in. extra, cut, pass the free end of the string through the proper controller hole, and tie to the right hand. This string or thread is continuous. Arms are raised by placing a finger under the string and lifting it. A ring may be slipped over the string at this point so that it may be lifted more conveniently.

Tie a thread to the back screw eye, using a needle to draw it through the clothing if necessary. Draw this thread up to the hole in the back of the main control bar; cut and tie securely. By lifting this string, which is slack, the puppet can be made to bow.

In the same manner, secure the strings to the knee screw eyes, and tie them to the extra crosspiece of the controller. Legs and arms should hang limp when not in use. To make the puppet walk, tip the leg rod of the control up and down.

The marionette is now strung and ready to manipulate. For strings to work tricks or to control extra movements, extra holes may be drilled in the controller where required.

It is best to keep puppets hanging up. Never lay a puppet down without first winding the strings around the control to prevent tangling.

Manipulation. Hold the controller in the left hand by the stock, close to the crosspiece, if it is T-shaped. Tip and tilt the control, and also pull the shoulder strings with the first finger. In other words, learn to do all you can with the left hand before using the right hand at all. The right hand is used for the leg control (or walking stick) and for the hand strings. Manipulate all strings close to the controller; never reach down under. The puppet who is supposed to be speaking should be in movement while doing so; the others must be still.

Puppets are limited in action. If they are overtaxed, they soon become ridiculous. There are certain things they do well, flying, for instance. They grieve and die with heartrending realism. Their head and arms make the most expressive movements. They should all kneel and sit well.

Avoid long speeches; they are rarely successful. Fairy tales, no matter how worn out the plot may be, take on new life when acted by puppets. Better have but few characters in the play, as only two or three can be well managed on the stage at one time.

Due to the difficulty of restringing, it is necessary to make two puppets alike if it happens that the costume must be changed.

Try to have nothing on the stage in which the strings will become entangled, and don’t forget to keep everything as simple as possible. Strings that get tangled, stage properties that fall or move about, back drops too detailed in treatment, all these distract attention from the characters.

The curtain should rise and fall many times. Have puppets enter and leave often. A puppet can leap twice his height in the air when surprised. Let another go out dancing a hornpipe. In a two-man show, an animal, creeping up behind another figure, is always pleasing (see P.S.M., Dec. ’35, p. 67).

An article on marionette stages by Mrs. Drake is scheduled for early publication.

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  2. Arglebarglegleep says: June 13, 20102:06 pm

    Thanks for publishing these old ‘how to’ articles. Some times they have odd little tricks that have been forgotten in the years since their publication.

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  5. rainvelle says: September 25, 20119:20 pm

    thanks for this very information. i’m going to make some marrionetes for my children.

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