I recently finished making my first shadow puppet. As you can see. It turned out ok!
The design is based on ‘Frog’ by Japanese Edo period artist Matsumoto Hoji. The original 1814 woodblock image can be found in the online archives of the British Museum.
I thought the gloomy little guy would make a perfect silhouette thats full of character to make my first ‘test’ shadow puppet from.
I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been into the idea of shadow puppets and puppet theatre.
When I was about 9 or 10 in Year 4 at school we got split into groups to make, write, and perform a ‘Georgian Home Theatre’ style play. Pollock’s Toy Museum in Fitzrovia London is a fantastic day out if you’ve never been, and has lots of examples on display.
As a teenager I saw folktale storytellers telling folk tales with shadow puppets down on the beach i the evening during Broadstairs Folk Week one year.
Then at university in the early 00’s, I studied Indonesian Gamalan for 2 years culminating in a final performance at the Royal Festival Hall. An event that gave me the oppertunity to meet an IRL Dalang and experience Wayang Kulit for the first time. Now in my mid 30’s this post is now the 4th post about puppets and puppet theatre on the blog.
Seeing shadow theatre performed live – is for me – a magical and romantic experience. For most of my adult life I’ve found my self talking about shadow theatre in conversations late at night with friends about our creative aspirations. This summer whilst sick in bed with Covid I realised that I should JFDI.
I have some ambitious plans. The project is an wrapper for a whole bunch of new skill’s I’d like to learn. There is (I think) a lot that could be done with shadow theatre in 2021. Especially with the ease of access to realtime virtual game engines and the uptick in mixed media experimentation.
I’ve decided to document the project and journey end to end. I go in to quite a bit of detail as I haven’t found any blogs or step by step guides aimed at grown adults out there.
This first post covers material testing and the techniques and lessons learned whilst making the first test puppet based on Matsumoto Hoji’s Frog.
These two books by David Currell have been invaluable resources!
Shadow Puppets and Shadow Play in particular has been an invaluable guide to the design, construction, manipulation and presentation of shadow puppets and theatre of all kinds. It’s a very inspiring book!
Step 1: The Silhouette
I made a quick and dirty high contrast version of the image from the British Museum and printed it out.
I used a fat marker pen to re-outline the silhouette adding in the missing curve of the hind leg. Then I coloured Frog in with a Sharpe and cut him out.
💡 At this stage it occurred to me that I should have flipped/reversed the image. So the remains of the stuck template would be facing the screen when performing.
💡 This became a better and better idea as I was cutting out the puppet. As I as the puppeteer would always be looking at a ‘clean’ silhouette.
Step 2. Materials
Big shout out to the team at my local art shop.
My friend Claire works there and to be honest I’ve seen them more in the last couple of weeks than in the decade since we last worked together at the bookshop. All the staff in the shop had opinions on what material I should use to make a shadow puppet from when I popped in. I explained that I was thinking the max size of a puppet (for now) could potentially be upto about 30-40cm.
In the event, I came home with both 1mm and 1.25mm thick mounting board. I made a couple of easy straight line test cuts on both materials with a scalpel and sharp scissors. The 1.mm board it turned out after being cut into was far to flimsy to make up the core of a shadow puppet.
I know all I did was cut out a square. But I learned some important things about working with the material.
The 1.25mm thick board is DENSE. It’s definitely going to be my ‘go to’ material for making future puppets. It will definitely stay ridged (unsupported) for puppets up to 50cm in size.
On the down side, the boards density meant that it took early 8 passes with scalpel blade to cut cleanly all the way though the material (foreshadowing).
I also tried cutting along a pre-existing scalpel score line with a pair of sharp paper scissors, but this turned out to be an absolute no go. Cutting right to the tip of the scissor blades caused the outer layer of the mounting board to tear ahead of it. Bad. Unexpected.
💡 The material is perfect to make robust shadow puppets from!
💡 Warning bells about working with this ‘perfect’ material should have been ringing louder at this stage. 8 passes with a scalpel 🤔
I stuck Gloomy Frog to the board material and left him to dry.
Step 3. Cutting Out the Silhouette
I went back to Pullingers before even attempting to cut the thing out with my small scalpel.
We talked about maybe trying a different handle for my scalpel set. But in the end I came home with a trusty fresh Jakar Cutting Knife. Mainly as the blades are more robust and it has a bit more of a ‘body’ to put more force onto when cutting.
Things started out well…
I very quickly I ran in to a problem.
Because of the boards destiny, even with the cutting knife it was still taking 3/4 passes to cut cleanly though. Trying to cut the whole silhouette out in one go was not going to happen as I couldn’t tell what had been cleanly cut, and which part of the line still needed additional passes.
So I ended up cutting the flash off in sections.
It solved my problem, but I risked cutting into the Frogs edge.
So I started curling up the flashing as the cuts went though the material, which allowed me to make the cuts much longer. And see/know where the cut had made it all the way though the material.
After I got about this far around the frog I occurred to me that a pair of embroidery scissors might also be a useful tool, especially for sharp turns and the detail on the feet. I could cut just to the side of the silhouette and then clean it up with either my cutting knife of scalpel.
After living in a shared household in my early 20’s and a very sad incident involving fabric shears. I have a policy that goes something like ‘Use my sewing stuff for anything other than sewing and I’ll cut YOU with them’. So the next day I went out and bought second pair of embroidery scissors.
💡 Pro tip: If you scrape off the plastic injection mould lines from a tool like this, it will turn it from a £4 tool to one that feels like a £10 one.
I was really pleased with these embroidery scissors. Combined with the curling/bending technique things went faster, with minimal clean up required after with a blade. So I was able to cut his belly out, and toes etc in about 5mins vs the 20mins it would have taken me with a blade.
💡 It took me two evenings to cut this whole shape out the first evening just with the cutting knife left my hand cramping from the force I was applying to the blade. I had to wait a couple of days before I could think about going back to it.
💡 Have a craft knife, and sharp small scissors to hand before beginning to work with 1.25mm mounting board! If your going to do this at home!
I forgot to take a photo here as I moved right on to the eyes.
Step 4. Eyes and More Materials Testing
When cutting out the eye, it quickly became clear that due to the problems working with the material I’d already experienced, these more precise detailed cuts were going to be difficult….
So I ended up cutting the first eye out completely.
I then re-attached the mounting board eye with some strong electrical tape.
Given that I’d stuck the eye back on with electrical tape, it occurred to me that for future puppets I could do lots of fine line work (like Javanese puppets have) with electrical tape? For inner silhouette work and perhaps the main body of the puppet could be made from mounting board and have detailed edges cut from electrical tape.
Anyways thats for a future project!
It worked fine!
As expected using a scalpel on electrical tape was lovely to work with and I’m going to explore this further. Knowing that this *is a thing* means I can build it in to future puppet designs.
💡 When cut with anything other than a knife this material is left with a slightly fuzzy fibrous edge that needs addressing with a scalpel.
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Step 5. Mouth and Aluminium Wire
From the very start of the project I wanted to test out ways of attaching things to the mounting board. Aluminium wire (of various gauges) is an important element of making various movement mechanisms for shadow puppets.
I didn’t want to make any moving parts this time around, but I did want to get an idea of the effort involved in attaching wire to a puppets body. So I cut the aluminium wire with a pair of pliers and bent to shape.
Currell’s book suggests punching holes though the body of the material and then using strong thread to ‘sew’ it on. So thats exactly what I did.
The aluminium wire does have a little bit of a flex and bounce from the join to the main part of the body of the flog. It gives the little guy a bit of life independent from its characterful silhouette.
But there was too much give. So I added a few small drops of superglue. It soaked into the thread and ensured that the wire was fixed to the body without excess wobble.
I was really happy with how the puppet was turning out and I took him into the other room to show Eve who and held him up to bedside lamp to get a feel for what he looks like.
After looking at the shadow in differnt situations, I made a couple of small tweaks to the puppet. Including: clearing up all the outer edges with a scalpel to remove ‘fuzzies’.
I also reshaped the back leg sightly and open up the gap between the hind and front leg using the embroidery scissors.
Step 6. Attachment + The Control Rod
Currell’s book ‘Shadow Puppets and Shadow Play’ documents lots of methods for puppet control. From fixed rods, hooks, hangers etc
The method I thought was most straight forward was with Velcro. Though Currell does indicate that Velcro as a solution has diminishing returns the bigger/heavier a puppet gets.
Given that the frog is a test puppet and only 22cm tall, I thought I’d get a feel for it and see.
The first decision was around ‘what kind’ of velcro. I have loads of cable management type stuff laying around the house, so my initial thought process looked something like this:
But honestly, I wasn’t sure that it was going to be the right type. So another trip back to Pullingers was taken to look though their extensive velcro selection. I bought a box of Velcro Branded Self Adhesive Stick on Tape. Unfortunately they only had white, but I didn’t mind, as I thought it would make the attachment point(s) easier to see in the dark during a performance.
The puppet has the velours side stuck too it, and the rod will have the hooks. This will make the rod interchangeable with other puppets I make in future. It will also mean that swapping puppets during a performance should be a quick and easy change.
The control rod was made from clipped, bent and cut down clothes hanger wire.
My wire cutters wen’t strong enough to go all the way though, so I cut the wire as best I could and then made the ‘break’ by bending it backward and forward.
I straightened the wire with two pairs of pliers and spent the whole time wishing that I owned a small desk vice. After drilling a hole into a piece of wooden dowel I glued the wire into the handle.
I was planning on using a glue gun to attach the Velcro hooks to the end of the wire (which I have bent at a 45 degree angle – but this might change).
Whilst I was cutting the self adhesive hooks to size it occurred to me I could just skip that step and stick two pieces together over/around the rod.
This is working adequately and It’ll do for now. We’ll see how robust it is long term.
The velours on the puppet is also just using the self adhesive. This will do for now too.
How well it all lasts when it comes to repeated use and performance is worry for future Jaymo.
This is the completed rod. I won’t be using steel coat hanger wire again.
💡 It’s rainy Autumn now here in London. I’m going to keep an eye out for a broken umbrella on the street. I have a feeling that umbrella rod would be perfect for the second iteration of the control rod.
I attached two separate location points on the Frog to see how the puppet handles when controlled from the bottom or the top. Its interesting to ‘feel’ how it needs to be held depending on which location you are attached to.
A lot to learn still. A lot to consider for future puppets.
Step 7. Results
Honestly I’m SO pleased with how he turned out!
Just look at the little guy!
When you see the ‘living’ shadow on the wall it has so much character.
I’ve learnt a lot making this puppet, and tbh, can’t wait to move on to the next one.
I think I’m going to make a dragonfly shadow puppet next.
As a character it will work well as a high energy foil to the character of the Gloomy Frog.
I was thinking of using this CC0 image as the basis for the silhouette.
I still intend to make the dragonfly out of the same mounting board. But I think this time I’m going to avail myself of the expertise of the folks at my local maker space and also use their lazer cutter.
The dragonfly is also going to be more ambitious. I’d like the tail to articulate and also try and get the wings to flap.
I also think I’m going to design the dragonfly in Blender, as the MakerLab need the print file in .dxf format. Also, if I’m going to reach my stretch goal (below) I’ll need a 3D object thats 1:1 to the real thing.
As I mentioned in an episode of my podcast recently, I’ve started learning Unreal Engine.
My intention is to have realtime stylised backgrounds projected from a portable pico projector on the screen and also casting the puppets shadow.
Maybe using a game controller or a USB pedal I’ll be able to skip forward and back though scenes/action events all running in realtime.
I’m imaging the Gloomy Frog sitting by a river bank with cell shaded water running by, with dappled sunlight around him. Also a scene where the dragonfly flies high in the air with things like clouds rushing/wooshing by.
I’ve just backed the OAK – D lite spacial AI camera on kickstarter. Its an incredible little bit of kit coming from/made by the OpenCV team.
My ambitious mental stretch goal is to have the puppets tracked by the camera.
This would open up all sorts of possibilities for the shadows to interact with parts of the world, and trigger things like particle effects etc.
I’m gonna need a lot of time and patience when it arrives in Dec to figure it all out! But i’m excited for the challenge.
Before I can do any kind of performance I will need to make a screen for the shadows to be thrown onto and for the portable projector to be projected on. This is kinda low down the priority list for now as I have so much Unreal Engine to learn.
The screen may also go though several iterations once the OAK camera arrives. A trip to my local Fabric Land is going to occur soon though! LOL.
For now I may just use a piece of fabric and knock something together from a green screen poll set once I have the second puppet made/built.
I can then at least begin writing/practicing rehearsing the short story. As that will influence the scenes I make in Unreal.
Anyways, thats it. Nearly 3k words about a very simple shadow puppet I made of a frog.
This project is really exciting/engaging to me. It has given me the excuse to finally learn how to 3D model things, use Unreal and when the camera arrives I’ll also be trying to learn python for the second time. It is all in all, a fun little project that I’m spending my time on.
As I said at the top: I’ve been TALKING about making and doing shadow puppets for so long, there is something satisfying about finally ACTUALLY doing something with them!
If you have made it this far, thanks!
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