Puppet Armature Analysis – Putting Huey, Dewey, and Louie through their paces

I had two purposes in doing these armature movement tests. The first and most obvious was a need to test out the various armature designs I came up with. To take a moment to examine how the different weights of wire worked for each joint and to see which limb structure is both effective and efficient for my needs. The second aspect of these tests is to give me a chance to essentially rough draft my walk cycles for the project. While Posthaste does have a basic narrative structure to it of a teenage boy trying to outrun a mail truck to get his letter sent out that day, my real focus for this piece to to stretch my ability to give a walk cycle a sense of a character’s personality as well as then creating various types of walk cycles that can all work together with the personality of the same character.

One of the movie’s that I recently watched and will be typing up my review for is Laika’s ParaNorman. What really struck me with the movie and what I plan to focus my review on is how they really took the time to individualize each character. They take a moment in the commentary to talk about how they sat down and came up with life stories for each of the cursed zombies and then combined the idea of who they were in life and then how their bodies would have decomposed to come up with a unique walk cycle for each of them. Each character has a distinct and well thought out series of walk cycles and movement cycles. This is essentially what I am trying to accomplish with my one main character, and with my secondary characters in a smaller way. At the end, when the female puppet walks by and distracts my main character, I want the audience to be able to get a sense of exactly who she is as a person just from her one walk from one side of the screen to the other.

In order to accomplish this I need to reacquaint myself with working with puppets. My last production piece for school was a hand drawn 2D piece, Colors (you can see it in its work-in-progress state here) and that was only done after having been on medical leave for a year to try and sort out this whole unknown auto-immune thing I’ve got going on, which I still haven’t quite figured out but I’ve at least found some treatments that are helping me to manage it better. So yeah, to circle back ’round to my point, I am out of practice so rough drafts and test animations of the walk cycles is a very good thing to work my way back into full animating form as it were.

So with those two focus points of structure and movement in place, I present to you my puppet armatures Huey, Dewey, and Louie in their first movement tests!

Dewey

Dewey was my first test design, using the basic wood and wire structure I first learned in my puppet building class at RIT for creating starter puppets. It is very much based on the simple wire and plasticine puppet design described in Stop Motion: Craft Skills for Model Animation by Susannah Shaw, though I do not intend to cover this puppet with plasticine. The main difference from that basic design and pretty much every puppet design you will ever see, is that I tried using a double spine in this case. Generally you always follow the anatomy or assumed anatomy of whatever type of creature you are building when making the puppet’s skeleton. A double spine is just one of those things you don’t do. My thought process in using a double spine here was to really experience why this is a bad idea. I knew from the start it would cause problems, but  I really wanted to experience those issues myself to gain a better understanding of why it doesn’t work. It may seem a little strange, but I think, in some cases, intentionally repeating someone else’s mistake can help you to better understand why certain design concepts evolved. Plus, there’s always that chance that by trying something different you can discover some thing useful, which I actually did.

I chose to use this particular puppet to test out the walk cycle for the distracting female at the end of the film. Her walk cycle is intended to be very hippy and involve a lot of torque at the waist as she is meant to be very curvaceous and dancing along to her headphones as she walks. I figured, that if this spine design could be of any use, it would be in helping to create that twist in the spine by giving it a little more support. And in one sense it did help. I felt it was a little easier to get a more fluid rotation of the hips from back to front on this character. Where the double spine was a hindrance in the walk cycle was actually in moving the  hip up and down as the character walked. To really get that swaying walk, I needed to have poses where the shoulder was tilting down and the hip was titling up on the same side of the body. Having the second spine prevented me from creating that movement effectively and took a lot of the intended swagger out of the walk cycle.

However,  while the double spine is certainly not the right choice for this particular puppet, I can see some instances where it could be useful. If you have a character that moves in a more waddling fashion, such as a duck or maybe a robot, having that extra section of the spine can add support for the extra twisting you might do, and it’s rigidity might help you to maintain a stiffer or more mechanical look to the movements.

Overall, the use of the wooden pieces for the limbs worked very well. They were easy to grip, firm so I didn’t have to worry about give, and of course they can be easily shaped into whatever form is needed for the puppet design. The only really drawback to the wooden limbs is the added time in takes to cut and sand each section down to just the right shape.

The use of the twisted 16 gauge wire overall was very useful. I didn’t feel like any of the areas were too weak to hold their position, while simultaneously I had a good range of flexibility so I didn’t feel like I was fighting the puppet when I tried to move it. In the joint between the heel and toe of the feet, I used a single piece of the 16 gauge wire instead of the twisted double I used elsewhere. This did prove problematic, the wire was just too weak and had a tendency to sometimes bend in additional places other than where I wanted it to bend. It also felt very fragile and I was concerned that the constant bending with every step would soon snap the wire in half. Moving forward, I plan to bump that back up to a double twist of the 16 gauge to give it the added stability I need.

For the hands, the twisted 20 gauge wire seemed to hold up well. The only real issue was in bending such small segments to look like properly curled fingers. The lengths are too small to be properly manipulated by hand so needle nose pliers or tweezers would be useful. I also plan to add some epoxy to the finger segments to provide a bit of a finger bone effect so the length of the knuckle segments is more regulated during the actual animation. Also, the connections between the fingers and the flat wooden piece I used for the palm, look chunky after having been put together, making me think that attaching the fingers to a metal loop directly is the better solution.

With the exception of the spine, which I pretty much assumed wouldn’t work going in, this design worked very well. It was strong and stable, didn’t break, and when I held the puppet up horizontally by the ankle it supported its entire weight without bending, which is a great test of the strength to weight assessment of the puppet. If it can’t hold itself up like that, there’s a good chance it will start to wobble or the weight of the upper body will start to bend it out of position in more precarious poses, like if you need the character to balance on one foot.

Overall I think I have a good start with the movement test here. I like the firm placing of the foot with each forward step. Towards the end, I feel like the toe is popping too much from the contact position to the down position so I’ll have to watch that.  (Contact position is when the foot that is moving forward first makes contact with the ground, most often with just the heel. The down position is when that foot is then flat on the ground and the weight has been transferred to it) I think I need to push the bounce in the upper body a bit more before hitting the contact positions since she is supposed to be rocking out to some music on her headphones. I think the arm movement works pretty well, though it can also be pushed a but further on the back swing and I need to make sure the hands aren’t coming too high up on the forward motion. It works better at shoulder level than up by the jaw. Also, there just needs to be more swaying of the hips back and forth. Some of this was due to the limitations of the puppet, but I also wasn’t pushing the pose as much as I should have.

Overall, I think it’s a good start, but I need to really exaggerate the movements a bit more for them to come across properly. Following live actions movements exactly tends to look too subdued in animation. I think here, I stuck too close to the reference footage, and didn’t push past it as much as I needed to in order for her personality to come across. She’s supposed to be a very bold and confident person who is going to dominate the shot she is in.

Huey

The main assessment I came away with from the Huey puppet is that the plumber’s epoxy was just way too heavy. The puppet just felt very weighted when I was trying to manipulate it, which, I think, added to the more measured performance I ended up with. The legs seemed bulky and the feet felt clunky. Even though the same wire weights in the extremities worked well for Dewey, they felt far too weak for the weight of the limbs for Huey here, especially in the legs. One thing that did seem to hold up decently was the single 8 gauge wire used for the spine rather than a twisted double section of the 16 gauge.

I did the horizontal body test, holding the puppet by the feet, and the wire in the ankle started to bend almost immediately. I did an overnight test of the puppet standing on one leg with the other leg bent like it was bouncing a soccer ball and both arms fully extended. When I came back to check it the next day, the limbs all drooped, which means that I wouldn’t be able to hold itself in a position overnight if I had the need to break up the shooting of the shot over several days, which is generally what you need to do.

The rounded edges of the limbs also got in the way when trying to bend the elbow so that the wrist was near the shoulder, and even in bringing the arms down along the side of the body. When I tried to sand away some of the extra epoxy to get the limbs closer to where they needed to be, it started to crumble and break off. Nothing detached, but it made me nervous about the longevity of the attachments. Additionally, the cut-in pelvis design I used kept rubbing against the connections at the top of the legs and didn’t work as well as I hoped. While I was able to get a higher step towards the front, the top of the legs kept catching on the back of the pelvis when the leg was fully extended, making it hard to get the pacing of the steps the way I wanted. The added bulk of the epoxy at the connection point, only made the problem worse.

As for the hands a feet. The hands are going to be primary made out of polyurethane foam, which is in the next phase of the designing, so there’s really nothing to talk about with them until I can test them out in action. The feet on the other hand just felt way to clunky. Using the double twisted wire instead of the single strand of the 16 did help, but the rounded shape of the feet made it hard to get the idea of weight across since the foot had a bit of an illusion of floating because the foot curves in at the bottom. The hex nuts were useful as channels for the tie downs and I didn’t have to be concerned about wood splitting like I did with the previous design if I needed to clamp it down tightly.

For the movement test, I definitely stuck too close to the reference footage. I was having difficulty determining what differentiated the jogging cycle from a run cycle, so I followed the reference almost exactly. In the end I was able to determine, that the main way to express the difference between a jog and a run is in holding the upper body section more steady. In a run, the character gets a little lower and focuses more on covering distance horizontally. Because the jog is slower, but not a walk, there’s a lot more vertical movement that essentially eats up the speed. This test doesn’t have much personality too it. I really need to focus next time on the character of the awkward teen running. He also moves just a bit too fast here for what I want in the jog, so I’ll need to re-pace it. Overall, it was valuable in helping me to figure out what I need to do, though the cycle itself isn’t very good. Here’s to doing better next time!

Louie

Louie was a weird sort of combination of being the most successful puppet and the least successful at the same time. The big thing I got out of this design concept was the fact that the plastic plugs worked really really well for the limbs. All I had to do was cut and/or glue them to size, drill a hole through the center and I was good to go. For a simple amateur puppet skeleton where you plan to build-up or mold the  actual body shape in top of with another material, they are great. The brand I’ve been using are Crown Bolt plugs, which have a cylindrical shape rather than the tapered one you find in most plugs. he only downside is that I’ve only been able to find them in the large variety pack size, so I have a lot of extra plugs and screws in sizes I’m not using. But, in this field, I’ll probably find a use for them at some point.

What didn’t work very well in this design concept was the wire weights I was using. Most of Louie’s joints used the single piece of 8 gauge aluminum wire. I found this to just be too stiff to manipulate the way I want. Some animators who prefer a tighter armature might actually like the 8 gauge. It’s really a matter of taste. For me, I felt like I was fighting with the puppet a little too much to get it where I wanted it. Another thing I discovered, was that because I was only using a single piece of the wire that was smooth, the JB-weld epoxy didn’t hold as well, and one of the arms came loose in it’s socket. Now having a limb come loose is a common problem, and can sometimes be because the socket and the length of wire weren’t deep enough and there just wasn’t enough surface to grip to each other. In this case, though,  I had almost 1/2″ of wire in the socket, but it just pulled loose of the epoxy and started to rotate freely. Thankfully the wire didn’t break so it’s an easy enough fix at this stage, I just need to re-glue the socket, but it makes me feel that the other advantage the twisted double length of the 16 gauge has is that because it’s twisted there are more grooves and divots for the epoxy to fill and grip into, helping to keep the wire more securely attached.

Moving outward to the extremities. The  palm design seems to work pretty well for the hands, but again the wire weight is off and the single  piece of 16 gauge for each finger is just too thick for such delicate manipulation. I decided to test two different foot design concepts with Louie, adjusting from what I learned with the first two test puppets. His left foot was a variation on the wooden foot from Dewey, using a washer to make the bottom of his foot flatter, and there was supposed to be another washer on top to disperse the force of the tie down and to keep the wood from splitting. I ended up forgetting the top washer before I did the movement test in my haste to get my work done, but I plan to add it in later when I fix his arm and I’ll still be able to get a sense for how well it works when I use him as a secondary character in the project. The second foot design was mostly made from hex nuts and washers, similar to the core of the foot I used with Huey, just without the plumber’s epoxy surrounding it.

Both foot designs seemed to work just fine. I found that with the weight difference between the two not matching, the puppet had  a tendancy to shift forward when the metal foot was extended and the wooden foot was holding the weight.  I’m guessing the issue would have been alleviated if both feet were the same, but it made me more inclined to go with the metal and wire foot for my final design. In my next round of testing when the puppets are covered with the foam layer, I will try and figure out a good capping method to go over the internal foot structure, that doesn’t appear to change too much in between frames if I need to adjust the screw.

The last piece of information that I took away from the movement test with the Louie armature, was that I had left too much joint space in this design. Having the extra wire between the torso and the upper arm, at the elbows, and particularly at the knees made the puppet more unwieldy. Because I had so much extra wire, the knee wouldn’t always bend at the same height, and with the stiffer 8 gauge wire, it was harder to force the bend back where I wanted it. For the next design I tried to be a lot more deliberate in having enough wire to fold the limb back entirely if I need too (like if the puppet were to squat, bending the knees all the way so the upper and lower legs are parallel).

Despite some of my struggles with the wire weights in this puppet design, this movement test actually was the best of the three in my opinion. I tried to distance myself a little more from the reference footage, which I think paid off. In my efforts to create more of the look of a awkward teenager, I tried to add little touches like having the wrists cocked awkwardly to break the line of the arm, and added a sort of forward head bob as he moved, which enhances the idea that he is listening to music. The first few steps have a pretty good amount of bounce in them, I think he starts to dip a little too much the two steps before he spins and the movement starts to look too cartoony. The tempo slows a bit too much on the spin, I need to eliminate a frame of two from the timing to get him back on pace, but overall I really like it. In the next iteration I want to try and put a little more awkwardness in his posture. I plan to have him slouch a little more, which will add some bend to the legs, and have him  lead with his head and shoulders more. I also plan to work out a less graceful curve for the arms as they move, to really try and get a sense that this is a character who has recently gone though a growth spurt, and hasn’t quite figured out how to maneuver his longer limbs.

One good reference point I stumbled across was actually when I was watching The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon (the character played by Jim Parsons) always seems more awkward than the other characters. Some of this is due to his long and thin stature, but I noticed in one scene between him and his roommate Leonard (Johnny Galecki) that it is also in how he holds himself. Leonard as the “king of the nerds” is the most confident of the group in relating to the rest of the world, while Sheldon’s character is often shown to be confused and anxious about the prospect of interacting with other people. I noticed in one shot how much that came across just in the way they were standing. Leonard was calm, his arms were just hanging straight down at his sides and he was causally leaning with his weight shifted to one side. Sheldon, on the other hand, just looked anxious even though in the conversation he was actually correcting Leonard about something. (Sheldon likes to tell people they are wrong a lot and then tell them why) Sheldon was standing almost perfectly straight, his weight balanced between both feet and his elbows were bent bringing his hand and shoulders up. There was a tension to his pose like he was instinctually preparing for an attack (Sheldon is always thinking about the worst case scenario) which reminded me a bit of the anxiety of high school when most people are more insecure about themselves, and there’s an inherent nervous tension, as if you are waiting for someone else to notice your faults and judge you for them. So I plan to try and pay more attention to the body postures as I watch future episodes of the show and see if I can glean some more good ideas from it. Thanks Jim Parsons!

Final analysis

So, taking everything I learned from my three test puppets, with a thought toward efficiency and economy at the same time, here is the final design for my main character Randy.

randy final armature front

randy final armature side

Working my way out from the center, the torso and pelvis are essentially the same as the ones used for Louie, the third puppet. This is really a combination of the overall shapes used for the first puppet Dewey, but with the shoulders angled in and the lower section of the pelvis angled more and raised up a bit.

The spine is the only piece of 8 gauge aluminum wire being used, the added stiffness is more useful in that central joint since most of his movements have him upright and there won’t be as much movement there. This allows me to be a little rougher in handing the arms and  legs without worrying that it will shift the central position of the character. However, there are a few shots where Randy needs to contort a little more, so I plan to build one copy of him where his spine will be made with the double twisted pieces of the 16 gauge so I can get those poses a little easier.

I’ll continue to use the plastic anchor plugs for the limbs as they’re a lot faster to assemble than the wooden limbs and a lot lighter than the metal and epoxy ones. The joints to the limbs with be connected with the double 16 gauge twist. I’ve expanded the length of the arm and leg segments so I don’t have as much fluidity in where the joints bend.

The feet will be made with the stacked hex nuts with the connecting 16 gauge twist sitting on top of the toes and then wrapped around the ankle joint. The hands are slightly less determined. I know that for a inner skeleton method, using a loop of the 16 gauge and attaching single strands of the 20 gauge wire that will then be doubled back and enhanced with epoxy to create the finger joints. I have one more test to do of a design that actually utilizes something akin to a wire exoskeleton. Once I’ve tested that with the various other coverings I’ll be able to build the hand segments for the final character.

I also have a few more tests to do to determine the best head replacement system before I drill the holes. One thought I had was combining the idea I used with Dewey where I simple use a screw to tighter down on a piece of wire holding the head in a socket, with  the plug holder idea I used with Louie. The concern with the plug method is that over time the plug will become torn up and won’t hold the replacement heads as firmly. However, I recently saw a different metal armature design called Stop Mo Tech which uses a combination of metal caps you can epoxy to your wire joints, which then fit into their socket parts which have screws to tighten and clamp them down. It’s an easy method for having replacement parts on hand if something breaks. I plan to try a variation on that technique using some of the excess plastic plug anchors with a loop on one end which can be slotted into the neck of the puppet and then secured in place by drilling a screw through the back of the torso into the loop at the bottom.

Unlike the test armatures, the hands and feet won’t be permanently attached to the final designs until after the foam “flesh” layer is added and the clothing is designed and stitched together. This is simply because it’s easier to get the costumes on the puppet without the hands and feet stuck on the ends. I will get into this more later once I get the clothing done and can show pictures of the whole process.

So there you have it, the final armature design for Randy!

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