Fish Puppets

This summer I was hired by a production company in New York City to make five large fish puppets. This is their story.

Prototype

The puppets needed were to be operated outdoors by a single person over the course of a few days. I needed to find a lightweight solution that could respond to wind and other variations in weather.

I started with the idea of using conical tomato cages as the base for the body.
I started with the idea of using conical tomato cages as the base for the body. Also pictured: Bill.

The build time was short, and I only had a week to make a prototype before heading to New York for other work. I asked Bill Holznagel, an excellent builder and performer for Tears of Joy and his own company Signal Light (if you live in Portland and haven’t seen their show Playtime with Pete and Randy, do yourself a favor).

An emphasis was put on the desired “flowiness” of the puppets by the client. In an earlier test, I’d looked to find that element with a combination of materials and performance. It’s show here in shadow, ’cause when you’re videoing your self, you make sacrfices.

Some early  variations of fabric choices and fin designs.
Some early variations of fabric choices and fin designs.
Every puppet has certain elements that serve to create it's personality and reflect emotion. The opening mouth and the eyes proved to be very important
Every puppet has certain elements that serve to create it’s personality and reflect emotion. The opening mouth and the eyes proved to be very important
These puppets were intended to interact with people at a large party, so  it was necessary to test the scale (no pun intended).
These puppets were intended to interact with people at a large party, so it was necessary to test the scale (no pun intended).
Finalizing the Design

In New York, I worked with my friend Sam Hill, a fellow mask maker and sculptor, to finish the build. We worked in studio in Greenpoint to figure out the final details.

My first note was to make the fish bigger.
My first note was to make the fish bigger. It’s close to 6′ from mouth to tail.
It took awhile to get the tail to stabilize.
It took awhile to get the tail to stabilize.
Trying out some scale patterns.
Trying out some scale patterns.
Cutting lots of fabric.
Cutting lots of fabric.
Fish factory
Fish factory
Attaching the scales required strategy. We still needed to be able to access various parts of the puppet during construction and throughout its life.
Attaching the scales required strategy. We still needed to be able to access various parts of the puppet during construction and throughout its life.
The puppet needed to have a strong eye that could potentially let light pass through.
The puppet needed to have a strong eye that could potentially let light pass through.
Testing for optimal position: one that would reveal a sense of character and a clarity of focus.
Testing for optimal position: one that would reveal a sense of character and a clarity of focus.
Finishing the attachment of the gold lamé  around the mouth. It was a thirsty sort of day.
Finishing the attachment of the gold lamé around the mouth. It was a thirsty sort of day.
A few more tests…

We took the first puppet out to see  how it moved in the outdoors.  You can tell from the video noise that it was  windy day.

But we also got to interact with curious passersby, which was an unexpected benefit :)
But we also got to interact with curious passersby, which was an unexpected benefit 🙂
Many times during the tests, I had to watch to catch all the details I wanted to adjust. It was fun to finally get to be a puppeteer too.
Many times during the tests, I had to watch to catch all the details I wanted to adjust. It was fun to finally get to be a puppeteer too.
Checking the puppet at the studio at sunset.
Checking the puppet at the studio at sunset. That’s a happy fish.
The school awaits pickup.
The school awaits pickup.
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