I decided to make Nausicaa and her bird because I love her character and the world she lives in, a world of giant insects and spectacular flying machines. But committing to this project was just the first step; my next course of action was to research and plan just how I would make these puppets.
There are many ways that stop motion puppets can be fabricated, so long as they can be animated for their desired actions. Think of old school Wallace and Gromit, sculpted from plasticine, compared to the 3D printed faces in Laika's 'Paranorman'. In this sense my options were wide open, but I already had my mind set on pursuing a different making technique entirely, one which hasn't really been used in animation before...
Discovering Lisa Lichtenfels:
For me, research is ongoing and daily. I'm forever reading articles and scouring the vast ocean that is Google Images for new inspiration. On one fateful day I stumbled across an artist who would excite my mind so much that I had to buy her book straight away to find out more about her work. That artist is Lisa Lichtenfels.
Lisa creates incredibly detailed, life-like human sculptures from the least expected materials - batting and nylon tights. She firstly creates a wire skeleton in the desired final pose, and then sews layer after layer of thin batting onto this armature. Once satisfied with the shape, she stretches skin coloured nylon over the body and stitches it into place. The results are incredible, like nothing I've ever seen before. Here's one of my favourites from her book:
As I naturally gravitate towards sewing, this idea of 'soft sculpture' was immediately exciting to me. Upon receiving Lisa's book, 'Figures in Fabric' and reading more about the process, my mind wandered to the possibilities of using the same technique for puppets. If the wire armature underneath was reposed, would the wadding pose with it, and hold its shape?
I began making my own figures with her book as my guide, and experimenting with poseability. Although I never got past the wadding stage, it was enough for me to see that this could really work for puppets.
This is a skeleton from one of my early attempts. As you can see, the wire armature is wrapped in yarn, which means it can be sewn onto. The bones are then built up with felt.
This is the body at a later stage, after having been built up with many layers of wadding. She's stood next to my 15" tall japanese doll for scale. This is the size that I intend to make Nausicaa.
I love the challenge and patience required when sewing on this scale. The results are very satisfying.
From reading Lisa's book I discovered that she was actually once an animator at Disney, and made character designs for 'The Black Cauldron' using soft sculpture. I contacted Lisa to ask her more about the connection between her sculptures and animation, and what she thought the possibilities were. Her encouraging words to pursue this project have given me confidence that the results could be good!
With the knowledge of how my puppet's bodies would be made, I started gathering visual imagery for their finished appearances. For Nausicaa this mainly revolved around her face, which is very particular in terms of shape and proportion.
She has those massive anime eyes, tiny nose and big forehead. Having a lot of references to hand when I make her face will be be important for achieving an accurate model.
My research for Kai the bird has been even more extensive. Finding many good pictures of 'Horseclaws' has proven tricky, but the discovery that they're based on prehistoric Terror Birds was helpful. I've studied their skeletons, as well as the general skeletons of birds, to help me think about how the armature will look. Here's a quick little maquette I put together to help me with visualising the shape:
I try to sketch and collect images every day - anything to help expand my understanding of what I'm trying to make. To me this will always be ongoing, right up to the point when I'm adding the finishing touches to my puppets.
In my next post I'll be talking final maquettes and scale drawings. Thanks for reading!