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Sticks and strings will make my bones

Puppet maker Oliver Chong on bringing a giant puppet to life

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Published: 19 Feb 2021


Time taken : ~10mins

A true puppeteer makes their own puppets.

Its huge, drooping eyes are framed by its cotton beard, a tiny crown sits upon its head. Beneath his paper mache body lies a sturdy metal skeleton, made up of aluminium stripes and tubes, nylon boning strips and blind rivets. 415 rattling balls announce the Rattle King’s arrival, a sound that this 4.5m-tall giant himself detests.

Commissioned as part of Esplanade’s new children’s festival March On, The Rattle King centres on the titular character searching for solace amidst noisy soundscapes. The character comes in the form of an impressive and awe-inducing 4.5m-tall puppet. The puppet was designed and made by Oliver Chong, by now a well-known figure in Singapore’s theatre scene due to his work with theatre company The Finger Players, known for incorporating puppetry into their productions. An actor, director as well as a designer, he breaks down the process of constructing puppets and shares his views on the relationship between puppetry and puppet-making. 

Oliver Chong constructing a puppet

Oliver Chong working on the inner frame of the puppet.

How do you make a puppet?

Where do you begin when making a puppet? What is your process like?

I begin with the design brief. The brief itself should contain the details of the character and concept in the context of the plot, as well as the overall mood and artistic direction. Sometimes, all these details are given by the director, other times, it is a result of brainstorming with the creative team.

Other important points of consideration would be the number of puppeteers required to manipulate the puppet, their skill levels in puppetry,  the actions the puppet is required to do and the specifications of the puppet stage. These factors will inform the size, make, type, joints, mechanisms and so on, in the design of the puppet.

All the aforementioned creative aspects will have to be negotiated with its feasibility. The resources available such as time, budget, manpower, availability and size of workshop space, materials and, machinery, will further inform the design of the puppet.

All this planning has to be in place before I begin building my puppets.

How do you plan a puppet's construction?

The number of assistants onboard the project and their skill level is crucial to planning schedules, workflow, communication and work dissemination. I would make miniature prototypes with scrap materials when I am unsure of any part of the construction.

Occasionally, experimentation with materials fabricated to the puppet’s actual size is necessary. All prototypes, sketches and schedules would be prepared for meetings with my team members, and tasks would be explained and disseminated according to their skill level.

Otherwise, if I am building most of a puppet alone, all planning of the workflow would just be in my mind, a process where I design the puppet as I construct it. I usually make all sketches of the design and construction in my mind, unless it reaches a point where the puppet is too complex to visualise or when an assistant becomes available. Then, I communicate the design on paper.

The perks of designing and constructing alone is the process for me, where I react to what I see and what the puppet needs as it unfolds on the workbench. At the end, when it is completed, it feels like it has made itself using my hands.

What guides your decision making in selecting materials? 

The requirements in the movements of the puppet, its joints, the number of puppeteers manipulating it, the look and weight of the puppet, and the size, height and type of puppet stage. Some materials that can be used are plastic, metal such as aluminium, clay, wood, sponges, foams and fabrics. I have no preference for materials, it really depends on what the puppet requires.

Do you think there's such a thing as a good or bad puppet? 

Yes. A good puppet must be functional and aesthetically pleasing. 

What makes a puppet move?

What are some mechanics you can use to make a puppet move? Can you take us through how the Rattle King was made?

There are many kinds of puppets: hand and glove, rod, marionette (string), rod-string and various other different hybrids.

For the Rattle King, his head, body and arms were made with aluminium strips and tubes, nylon boning strips and blind rivets. We put in a hollow metal frame and canvas padding in the centre with the body harness. His face was made using 3D sculpturing with paper mache, followed by cotton wool for the beard. His hands were created using high-density foam, aluminium wire and cotton gauze mache, and his clothing on the lower half of his body was made with polyester gauze and canvas strips. The balls that make up the rattle was cable-tied to his aluminium torso. I used a mix of acrylic and spray paint for his facial features and other details, and finished it with a protective water-resistant sealant.

How does the Rattle King move?

The Rattle King can nod and turn his head, bend his upper body forward, walk, and has full range in both arms. The rattling sound comes from 415 hollow plastic balls that made up his torso and upper arms, hitting against one another whenever he moves.

In order to move, one master puppeteer needs to hold him up from the inside and manipulate his head to nod and turn, and bend his upper body forward or upwards. Each of his arms require a puppeteer to manipulate.

What are the estimated number of hours spent on building the Rattle King, and how heavy is he?

It took 57 12-hour work days, so that’s a total of 684 hours, 100 of which I had the help of one assistant. The entire puppet weighs close to 40kg.

What are the most important things to address when you're to animate a puppet? 

Life-likeness, or “believability of life in movement”, in the context of the movement qualities required  in the world of the play.

Did he turn out the way you wanted him to? What else would you have wanted to incorporate into the Rattle King?

Yes, mostly, with the resources available. Given a bigger workshop space with a higher ceiling and the help of more skilled assistants, I would have wanted to make him lighter in weight and have more detachable parts for ease of transportation.

The perks of designing and constructing alone is the process for me, where I react to what I see and what the puppet needs as it unfolds on the workbench. At the end, when it is completed, it feels like it has made itself using my hands.

The relationship between puppet-making and puppeteering

Although you are not performing as the Rattle King for this production, what do you think is the relationship between puppet-making and puppeteering?

In an ideal world, a true puppeteer makes their own puppets. Otherwise, both the puppeteer and puppet-maker should have deep knowledge of each other’s skill set. Puppet-making is the key to the soul of puppeteering.

Do the mechanics and appearance affect the characterisation of the puppet, and vice versa? Is there a benefit for the performer to make their own puppets?

Yes, to both questions. The performer who makes their own puppets will know the workings of the inside of the puppet, thus its strengths and weaknesses, and shall therefore be more likely to realise the full potential of the puppet.

On a more profound note, the process of making the puppet will also bring about a psychological and spiritual bonding between the performer and their puppet, which is the ideal state of connectedness—the “soul” in puppeteering. 

Has puppet-making affected your perspective as a performer and director?

Puppet-making has inspired, fuelled, and supplemented my practice as a physical performer and acting coach for the past 17 years. It has also inadvertently shaped my artistic choices and predilections as a director. 

What’s the most memorable/your favourite puppet you’ve ever made or performed with?

The puppet of White Dog in Citizen Dog. It is one of the most complex puppets that I have built thus far.

What do you think is most magical or special about puppet theatre?

Seeing inanimate objects come to life to tell our stories.

 

Catch the Rattle King in action from 12-14 Mar 2021 at Esplanade.

All images courtesy of Oliver Chong.

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