Creating a Giant Pageant Puppet




Introduction: Creating a Giant Pageant Puppet

In the fall of 2010, my company, Puppet Junction Productions, was commissioned by Comedy Central to design and build a 12' pageant puppet of TV personality Stephen Colbert.  The puppet would be performed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. during the Rally to Restore Fear and/or Sanity,  in front of a live audience of over 250,000 people, as well as broadcast on a live televised special.  We had 2 weeks to make this happen. After many sleepless nights and what seemed like endless paper mache-ing, we finished our giant puppet and it was received to much success! 

Step 1: Materials

Puppet Junction designers Serra Hirsch and David Michael Friend collaborated on the original design and spearheaded the build, and puppeteer and seamstress Sarah Lafferty was brought on to create the giant suit for the body.  We had many people help with the paper mache part, and couldn't have managed without them!  The 3 main creators puppeteered the puppet in the final performance in Washington, D.C.

Materials List

For the head, Hands:
  • Old Newspapers
  • ThickCraft Paper (torn and crumpled up, no flat edges)
  • Large pieces of cardboard (from refridgerator boxes or similar)
  • Staples
  • Masking Tape
  • Wallpaper Paste (water or clay based)
  • Water
  • Paintbrushes
  • Thin glossy cardboard for fingernails (like what calendars are made of)
  • Hight Heat Hot Glue Gun and lots of glue sticks
For the Body, Suit, Harness:
  • Old metal backpack frame 
  • PVC, varying sizes, "X" and "T" connectors as needed
  • Bendable Aluminum Flat Bars to create Shoulders
  • Foam for shoulder pads
  • Weld-On PVC Welding Cement
  • Long Ropes to connect arms
  • Long, lightweight strong rods to support arms/hands
  • Fabric for clothing
  • Nut and Bolts, misc. lengths
Final Touches - Hair, Jewlery, Glasses, etc:
  • Heat Insulation Cover (for ring)
  • Clear Plexiglass (for glasses)
  • Strong Wire (glasses frame - stems and bridge)
  • Eva Foam (for hair/eyebrows)
  • Acrylic Paint
  • Spray matte sealing spray
  • Clear Plastic dome spheres - 2 halves, for the eyeballs
  • White spray paint 

Step 2: Preparing the Frame

We used a metal toddler backpack frame, but you can use any metal backpack frame.  We knew our load would be heavy, so the advantage with the particular frame we used is there were 2 open ended rods that ran vertically along the sides of backpack wearer's back - we were easily able to extend those support rods with PVC pipes inserted at the top of each side rod to the giant shoulders. Once the rods were in, we screwed holes all the way through the PVC pipe and backback frame and secured them with bolts.  The picture shows us testing the PVC rod height for the side rods (shoulder/puppet body support).  

For the center rod (which was for the head support - the heaviest part of the puppet), we screwed in a longer and thicker PVC pipe vertically in the center, along the whole back - bolted down through 2 of the metal frame's horizontal supports.

To create the giant shoulders, we used a flat aluminium bar to create a horizontal surface running from the top of each shoulder PVC pipe, curved slightly, along with with 2 aluminium bars bent into wide hoops, all bolted to the ends of each shoulder PVC pipe.  We then covered the horizontal bar and hoops with thin sheets of foam/batting to give them the shape of shoulders.

Step 3: Making the Head and Hands

Using the large cardboard pieces, we cut out 2 giant hands, securely affixed long support rods to them (for manipulating the finished hand) and built up the hands using crumpled newspaper and masking tape.  We also created a "cuff" with a 7" wide cardboard strip for each hand that was stapled into a loop and affixed to the base of the hands to create a wrist.   Since the client wanted one hand open (for gesturing) and the other to hold a pen, we had to adjust accordingly as we built them up into those shapes.  

For the face, same basic concept - using a giant piece of cardboard, we cut a giant oval and curved it slightly vertically (ear to ear) to create a loose facial curve.  We then cut sideway darts out of the sides, overlapped edges and stapled them in place to form a basic oval shape.  Then, as with the hands, we built up the face with crumpled newspaper and masking tape.  We used a few thin cardboard strips to solodify and define the chin, brow, nose and ears.

We kept the back of the fave open in a large "O," and inserted a basic PVC frame (all pieces cemented together using PVC "X"  and "T" connectors and Weld-On, once we were sure of their placement/length).  We had a large vertical PVC pipe running from below the head (the "neck") to the top of the head and 2 horizontal pieces going from ear to ear and temple to temple, anchored securely on the inside with cardboard and hot glue. Since the center PVC that ran vertically in the head (and ran down to below the head) was the connector to the body - connecting onto the center PVC pipe in the backpack frame, we needed it to be thin enough PVC size so that it would fit into the packpack PVC pipe - there, once they slid down and fitted together at least 12", we screwed a securing hole through both the larger and thinner PVC's and bolted them together at the end, right before the performance.

Step 4: Papier Mache-ing

We used wallpaper paste - you can use either clay based (which is a little messier and beige/off white) or water based (clear and looks like vaseline).  Both work great. The paper of choice for this project was torn brown craft paper, wet down and crumpled tightly to keep it moist, but wringing out all excess water.  You can use thick brown shopping bags instead of store bought craft paper, but remove all glue remnants and tear away all edges/seams of the bag.  The crumpling and wetting of the paper makes it easier to manipulate/shape, and the tearing of the edges exposes very small fibers that will make your seaming smoother.

The first 1-2 layers are important as they give you a springboard to work off of.  For this step, using paintbrushes, paint a thin, even coat of wallpaper paste onto one side of each strip of the wet crumpled craft paper, applying it to the crumpled paper sculpture one at a time, slightly taught so all the newspaper creases don't translate to the hardened paper mache.  Keep going, overlapping the edges to connect each strip to the next, and adding a little wallpaper paste on the top, especially on the seams.  Work in an organized pattern to completely cover the newspaper sculpture with one or two layers.  If you are working on a double sided object, such as we were with the hands, work on one side first and once that is fully dry,  flip it and move to the other side.  Don't do too many layers at once or it will have a hard time drying and might mold.  For the drying, it is helpful to leave the object in the sun or near a radiator if possible.

Once your first 2 layers are hardened (a day or so later), you can go back to adjust your crumpled paper "sculpture" with an exacto knife, cutting off hard edges and rounding them, adjusting and embellishing facial lines and adding padding to areas where needed.  You have more perspective with the paper mache layer than you did with the crumpled paper layer.  

You can see in the pictures attached to this step the progression of the hands and face, as we made adjustments following the first few layers, before proceeding to the 3rd-6th layers.  

A few things for our project: we added fingernails in one of the final layers of paper mache on the hands using thin, glossy flat cardboard (such as what a wall calendar is made of), cut into fingernail shapes. We lightly glued the cardboard on each finger with white glue, and using the craft paper, we paper mache-ed in a circular way around the base of each nail, so the paper mache looked like the cuticles. We also added a wedding band (foam pipe insulation, widened a bit and paper mache-ed over), and the pen was made with cardboard tube and a party hat for the pointed tip.

Step 5: Costume and Painting

While the paper mache is thoroughly drying  you can focus on the body and costume.  We were lucky enough to have an experienced seamstress making a giant suit, but if you want to just have a looser giant shirt, you can do a basic shape.  The important thing is for the wearer to put the back harness on and figure out where the visibility is so you can add a viewing peep hole for them inside the body of the puppet - you may have to cut some of the shoulder padding cover off in the center, depending on how tall your backpack wearer is.  We made our peep hole the red tie and used sheer fabric.  To keep the arms connected to the body, we had removable long ropes attached to the shoulder hoops, and they ran all the way to the inside of the wrists.  The costume had long sleeves the ropes fit through.

Step 6: Removing the Newspaper and Touchups

When you are sure that the paper mache on the head and hands are fully dry (you will know when it's thick enough if it doesn't bend when you press on it - it should be need to be able to "knock" on it as you would a thin piece of wood), it is time to remove the newspaper fron the inside.  

For the head, we had to go inside through the back opening and cut out part of the cardboard base to reach the crumpled newspaper. Just reach in and pull it out.  There will be a little bit that stays in, just take out as much as possible to make the puppet lighter.  Once the newspaper was mostly out, we could look through the back to to make sure there were no thin areas that you could see light through.  If we found thin areas, either by seeing the light shine through the dried paper mache layers or by feeling a tender area, we circled them with a marker and went back to that specific area to add more paper mache layers - you can paper mache/reinforce from the inside or the outside at this point.  

For the areas where the glasses were going to be attached, we did some heavy duty reinforcing on the inside (mostly bridge of nose and sides of face) and added a glasses stems (strong wire coming from above the ears to the sides of his temples) as well as a hook at the bridge of nose that connected to a small piece of wood inside.  At this stage, we also cut out the eye sockets and paper mache-ed over the edges of the cut outs to make them smooth.

For the hands, because the base was in the center of the crumpled newspaper, we had paper to remove on either side of the cardboard hand cutout.  We then reinforced the hands by gluing sturdy cardboard strip supports which sat upright from the cardboard cutout inside the hands to the backs and palms of hands to retain their shape. 

Step 7: Eyeballs, Painting and Hair

Once all the paper mache is behind you, you can start to paint - the fun part!  

We used acrylic paint, and started with a white base coat all over everything.  For the eyeballs, we used clear plastic dome spheres (half for each eyeball), painted from the inside to keep a glossy eyeball (pupil, then iris then spray paint white). We didn't attach them until after the whole head was painted.  Using a large batch of flesh tone paint, we covered the whole head and both hands, then doing some shading with darker or lighter flesh tone paint colors.  Once we were done painting, we affixed the eyeballs from the inside of the face using hot glue and cardboard.

For the hair, we used thin EVA foam ("fun foam").  We put a basic layer on the whole head, creating the hairline by darting and affixing with hot glue.  To create the 3-D effect, we cut out giant palm leaf shaped sections of the EVA foam and with a blade we made some slits in them.  We then attached them on the head from either edge of the "leaf," so that the hair strands had some depth and layers to them and came off the head a bit.

For the glasses, we cut out clear plexi glass into the shape we wanted and drilled holes in the corners to attach them to the bridge and wire stems. 

For the eyebrows, we used more of the EVA foam and hot glued them on.

Step 8: Practice, Be Safe, Have Spotters Help

We were ready to bring it to DC!

Once at the performance venue, we connected the arm ropes running on the inside of the sleeves to the shoulder rings and slid the thinner vertical head PVC support rod into the larger PVC pipe in the center of backpack frame rod and secured them together with a bolt. 

A few words of advice:  Once the puppet is all put together and full sized, you will need to practice in the open air with spotters. 
During the rehearsal, get your helpers to guide the manipulators - practice the movements, prepare for possible gusts of wind, be sure the performers are familiar with how slowly the puppet moves and the difficulty involved with even the simplest gestures. It can be very difficult to balance, especially inside the body.  Less is more - don't try and have your puppet do too much....the fact that it's a giant person is awe-inducing, you don't need to make it do jumping jacks or blow kisses, too.  Throughout  the performance, make sure the spotters available to stand around and be at the ready if the performers need weight shifted, suddenly need help to come out of the puppet or put down the arm. It IS mostly just paper, but these pageant puppets are heavy.  

Note: After our rehearsal, we decided we felt more comfortable having a puppet wrangler permanently holding a rope that was looped around the PVC support inside the head for extra security - so that if for some reason the performer inside the body leaned too far forward, the head weight wouldn't carry the whole puppet down into a face plant. The wrangler held the rope loosely most of the time, but it was extra security that was needed to make everyone feel safe. 

Thanks for reading this Instructable, and good luck to you with your giant puppet!

ONE MORE THING! Probably the most important words of advice: Make sure as you build up your giant puppet that it can fit out the door and you can take it to your performance venue. If you have a garage or a warehouse, this would be the best build space for such a project :)

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