PuppetYear #4 – Underwater Puppets

Type: Bunraku – underwater
Location: Hatfield, United Kingdom
Materials: memory foam, foam fabric, dental floss, plastic bottles, superglue, lampshades, tin can, vinyl, zip ties, jam jar lids, packing foam
Tools: scissors, needle, can opener, sewing machine
Time: approx. 5 hours (seadragon) & 3 hours (fish, crabs, etc)
Date/s: 29/08/20

I created these puppets in response to the Bristol 48 Puppet Film Challenge hosted by the House of Funny Noises. It was really fun – I didn’t get a film together in the end, but it was a great trigger to try out something I’ve been wanting to investigate: underwater puppetry.

I started with my favourite reclaimed building materials – memory foam and lampshades. Lampshades are great because they hold a really nice shape, and have lots of anchor points to stitch foam onto. They just make a great frame for building. I like to arrange my solid shapes into a skeleton, and let the foam dictate the muscles and therefore the character of the puppet. In this instance, I knew I was going for something in the world of the seahorse wearable puppet I’ve made before:

This puppet was made in Shanghai and shipped to the UK with me in a suitcase. He’s been sitting, waiting for an outing. Not so sure when that’ll be forthcoming, so I decided a friend was in order. I began with the head – wrapping part of a lampshade frame in memory foam and shaping a snout, using dental floss as the thread to secure (it’s stronger, and the wax coating helps it to grip into the foam).

I cut the bottom of the plastic bottle, took a few of those little bobbly feet and made some eyes, positioning them in the foam head. Superglue locked these into position.

I used another plastic bottle to create the belly, and wrapped this in memory foam too. I wanted air to be in this one, so that it would have natural buoyancy in the water (so I didn’t have to dive down and get it whenever I let go).

More lampshade struts served as arm bones. When the body was complete, I used a sheet of foam fabric (not really sure what this is as it came from the recyclers. It’s very soft and lightly spongy) to wrap the puppet and make the skin. Details were stitched in using dental floss.

Once the whole thing had skin, I went back in and added more foam fabric as fins. I cut this to accentuate the ripples I had stitched into it, but didn’t finish the edges.

I wanted to create some other underwater characters for the film – a little hermit crab that lived in an old tin can. So I cut the back out of an opened can to allow hand access, and went back to the trusty old lampshades and foam (packing foam this time) to make a shape. I ran some vinyl up on the sewing machine to make the body, and gave it some definition with a sharpie and some zip ties for eyes.

Then the supporting puppets – some fish cut from foam with jar lids and bottom bottles for eyes.

The completed film in 48 hours definitely escaped me – I underestimated the difficulty of trying to set up a go pro underwater. But I spent a good few hours in the pool, at night, splashing around with puppets and below is a little bit of footage. Good fun, I have learnt A LOT (how hard it is to swim, puppeteer and keep in the frame) and I will keep noodling with this concept.