We made this as a prop for a Halloween act where we played zookeepers showing off the zoo's newest animal ambassador: Thanatoceros, the Vulture Headed Death.
The skull shape is loosely inspired by a wreathed hornbill.
Step 1: Materials Needed
- For prototyping
- Some thin cardboard, like a cereal box or something
- For the base
- A sheet of foam core
- Gaffing tape (or any sturdy tape would probably work)
- Exacto knife
- Paper Mache clay (we used "Celluclay")
- Acrylic paint
- Scrap of leather for the tongue
- Black fur
- Needle and thread
- Hot glue
Step 2: Cut Out Shapes for the Base
We started by making a cardboard prototype (first photo) and tweaking it until it looked right. This helped in figuring out how the shapes would fit together and how the inside of the mouth would work.
Next, cut the shapes out of foam core. The second photo shows the shapes for the exterior of the skull and the jaw; You'll need two skull pieces and two jaw pieces. The third photo shows the inside of the mouth (this is also the hinge of the jaw, and the grip that the puppeteer uses to control the puppet). The fourth photo shows the inside of the mouth once it's been folded up.
Step 3: Assemble the Pieces
Tape the foam core together. The photos each have notes describing more about how the pieces fit together.
The trickiest part is getting the inside of the mouth.
Step 4: Paper Mache Time
Mix up some paper mache clay and apply it to the base.
The clay works best when there's less water in it. It had to be quite wet to mix it up, but storing it overnight in the fridge in a ziploc bag gave it a better, dryer consistency.
This stuff takes a long time to dry in places where it's thick. Give it 2-3 days (even though the package says 24 hours).
Just like real clay, smoothing the surface with a wet finger worked well.
The goo is really hard to get off your hands. Scrubbing with salt eventually got most of it off, but next time I would use gloves.
After it was dry, we tried sanding the skull with various dremel bits, but found that we couldn't get it very smooth, nor could we improve the lumpy shapes. We quickly gave up.
Make a few extra blobs of clay at this stage; you can use them to test dryness, sanding, and paint, later.
Step 5: Paint the Skull
We used standard acrylic paint, starting with a base coat of plain white over the entire thing.
For the skull part, we next added some brown paint over the top. The paper mache has quite a bit of texture, and to get the "aged dirty bone" look, we painted on a layer of brown that was thinned with a lot of water, then quickly wiped it off again, so that the paint only stayed in the deeper holes and pores of the skull.
The beak is a range of greys and pinks. We used the same "aging" process with the tip of the beak, but painted a layer of dark grey over it, then wiped it off.
At this stage we also added a forked tongue, made out of a scrap of leather. It's just hot glued on there.
It'll take some calibration to figure out a good ratio of water to paint for the "aging" look.
Hue noise is your friend. A range of pinks and greens made their way into the greyish beak, making a more realistic mottled look.
Step 6: Make the Puppet
We added small bits of foam core to the inside of the skull, making a finger grip. This took some adjustment to make it functional and comfortable. Plan to prototype with tape. Most importantly, the fingers should be able to easily push upward, so that the mouth can open.
We also taped an loop of elastic under the lower jaw to hold the thumb.
The skull has a bit of fur hot glued directly to the top and bottom, which serves to cover up the hand inside.
We also made a fur "sleeve" by sewing some black fake fur into a tube. You could also probably just use a coat sleeve.
Making the sleeve detachable from the puppet head makes it easier to adjust or repair the inside of the skull as needed. It also adds a bit of realism since the fur looks layered.
The puppeteer also wears a black glove.
Pay more attention to this step early on. We discovered too late that the hand was totally visible through the eyehole. It would have been good to allow a bit more room below the eye.
There was also a brief experiment with adding an e-cig to the puppet to make smoke come out its eyes. This proved difficult to control via the tiny button on the e-cig. Further, the amount of smoke that came out was disappointingly near-invisible.