Introduction: How to Make a Jointed Paper Puppet for Animation

About: I am a film/new media student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Making moving images is gratifying and fun--especially when you use your hands. The world's earliest known animated features were created with paper cutouts, pieces of paper that lie flat on a background and are moved frame-by-frame in front of a camera. Animating with paper is still a living stop-motion technique to some, and emulated by computer animators wherever animation can be found. The most famous and most beloved example of paper cutout animation must be Yuriy Norshteyn's 1975 masterpiece, Hedgehog in the Fog . There are a few tools and tricks used to create the look of the film that you can build fairly cheaply and easily yourself. One is this puppet, which, when carefully-constructed, can be used over and over again.

Anybody can do this. I chose a more complicated puppet, but making a snowman out of three paper circles or a four-legged creature might be a good place to start for those who feel intimidated.

NB: This is not an instructable on making a paper cutout animation, only making the puppet itself. I plan on making a step-by-step on animating--for cheap--at some point in the future.

You will need:

Cutting mat
A pad of bristol board
Gaffer's tape (see note below)
X-acto knife
Paint, markers or material of choice for coloring your puppet
Optional: pointed tools and pens

Step 1: Draw!

I decided to make a(n anatomically incorrect) lower body skeleton. This way, it should be obvious where I will make my joints. A lot of people like to make character puppets, but I would encourage you to try to make something amorphous or abstract if that is more interesting to you. It will suit this project fine as long as it is made out of more than one paper segment. Try sketching without having anything in mind, and see what happens. The surface of your hand or the length of a pencil tend to be helpful approximations for a reasonably-sized puppet.

Step 2: Segment

Once you have decided what you want to make, think about how you want it to move. Where does it need to bend to make its movement? Does it walk or jump? Does it slither? Creating more joints will allow for more subtle movement.

Mark on your drawing with dotted lines where you will need to segment the puppet to add joints. Then draw each segment separately as a cutting guide.

Important: When you are drawing, account for some overlap. Note which segment of a joint you will want to lie underneath and which on top. It might help to mark which paper segment you want to lie underneath at each joint. Add 1/8" to 1/4" to the bottom-lying segment.

Step 3: Cut

Cut out your segments using an X-acto knife. Be careful to turn the paper as you cut, rather than turning the knife!

Step 4: Poke a Hole in Your First Segment

Choose any paper segment that seems preferable to layer underneath its adjoining segment(s). *If you don't know what I mean by this, you might want to skip ahead and look at the next couple pictures first.* I chose the femur, since part of it gets tucked into the pelvis to make the hip joint. Let's call this segment A. Poke a hole using the X-Acto knife no less than 1/8" from the end of segment A. It should be big enough so that you can thread it fairly easily.

Step 5: Thread the Segment

Thread the hole you just made in segment A with a 1-2" piece of thread, entering through the side you want to face the camera.

Step 6: Tape Thread to Reverse Side

With a very small piece of tape, secure the thread to the reverse side of the paper in whatever direction it wants to go . If you bend the string into an angle, it might make your joint stick at an angle rather than remaining loose and flexible. Do not cover the hole! This will also make your joint stick. Instead, tape beside it.

Step 7: Tape Thread to Adjoining Segment

Place segment A on top of its adjoining segment, which we will call B. Both segments should be face down right now. We are looking at the side that no one will see in the animation.

Here is the tricky part! Cut off another small piece of tape. Add this tape first to the thread itself (it helps to use an X-acto), right where the string comes out of the hole, and facing down like the first piece. If you place it too close to the hole, the joint will be stiff (difficult to position, get fluid movement). If you place it too far away, the joint could be too loose (easy to blow away). I usually place the tape about 1/16" to 1/8" away from the hole. Then secure the thread to the segment B. It might take a couple tries to see where on segment B the tape should be in order to get an appropriate look for your puppet.

Step 8: Trim the Thread

Step 9: Repeat This Process for Every Joint

With each joint you add, figuring out just how to place the thread/tape will get easier. Experiment with looser and stiffer joints and how they affect the movement of your puppet.

Step 10: Color!

Add some color to your puppet. Watercolor and gouache work well. Cut away any visible tape with an X-acto knife, and your puppet is done!

See notes below to see how I changed my design over the course of the project. You might find yourself doing this, too!