I am part of a very small group of friends, artists and creative engineers who are constantly dreaming up fun ideas for projects.
A burlesque dancer friend hired me to create a set of four giant butterfly puppets for a new routine. They had some specific challenges: In addition to looking beautiful and reasonably lifelike, they needed to be relatively easy to operate, portable, lightweight and durable. Not having any similar puppets to research, I had to design these with my best judgement and hope that the result would be as intended.
I decided to create these four butterfly puppets from designs I drew in Adobe Illustrator and then sent to a CNC routing service to be cut from 2mm black Sintra (foamed PVC board). I knew that creating the wing structure from this plastic sheet, with bold, simple and relatively evenly spaced cutouts, would result in relatively strong and reasonably lightweight wings.
There were two reasons for cutting the butterfly wing patterns from the plastic sheet. The wings would be lightweight enough to not flex more than desired. I wanted the puppet to flap it's wings, not have the wings bend. Also, cutting the designs allowed for a translucent fabric to create the color and texture of each butterfly. The translucency creates a fantastic effect.
Each wing was cut 4 times from the plastic. Twice for each wing, so that the fabric could be laminated in between. Antennae were also cut to add to the head later on. The wing design was important to have a straight edge where it would meet in the center.
When the Sintra parts arrive, A variety of sheer lightweight fabrics, some with iridescence were then cut to fit into each of the various cutouts. Some sections of fabric were used to span more than one section. Gorilla glue was used to secure the fabric and each layer of the Sintra in place, laminated into one solid wing. Also, a strip of theatrical gel in a dark gray color was used as a strong but flexible hinge between the two wings, also glued into place and with about 1/8" of space between the wings.
2, 8' long sections of aluminum U channel were used to mount and control each butterfly puppet. The aluminum channel is held together back to back and the butterfly is placed at the very end of the channel and temporarily secured with tape while 3-4 holes are carefully drilled along the edge of each wing and into the aluminum channel. A bolt with a rubber or neoprene washer is used to secure each wing to the aluminum.
Using a zip-tie, secure the two aluminum channels together several feet from the bottom of the butterfly wings and lift the puppet off the ground with the channel facing upward (on the top of the wings). Slowly bob the butterfly up and down in a pivoting motion of the aluminum channel. The channels will each flex outward allowing the wings to flap. Slide the zip-tie either closer or further away from the wings to adjust the tension until the best/desired flapping effect is achieved. The location of the zip-tie is where the two aluminum channels should be secured with a couple bolts or rivets.
The aluminum channel can either be painted black or what I chose to do, cover them in black gaff tape. The bolt heads are all painted black as well.
For a finished effect, I added heads with antenna. I started with painting a hard styrofoam craft ball with a solvent free primer, then black spray paint, gluing the antenna into place. The head was actually attached to it's own rigid wire secured at the same location as the two aluminum channels point of connection to keep the head centered between the wings. I used the type of wire used to support suspended ceilings, sometimes referred to as "hang wire".
That's pretty much it. With very little practice a performer can learn to effectively operate one of these butterflies with a range of slow to fast fluttering.