David created by The Underground Circus, Vancouver BC
At the beginning of 2009, I was approached by David Clark of BC Event Management. David had just received the contract to orchestrate the opening of the new Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre, a gigantic project, -the new VCEC would be the media home for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. He wanted something that could showcase the incredible ballroom, with its 50-foot high ceilings. David had his own things planned, but he wanted a circus element, so he asked me what I could do, something new. I zoned out for about ten minutes of the meeting, and then said, “I could make you a 30 ft high Marionette that can pick up circus acts in its hands”.
David said:, “…That’s sexy…”
MAKING A MARIONETTE
The time when I first proposed the project was eight weeks from the performance date. By the time the project was finally confirmed, I had six weeks to do everything. The making of the model, arranging the equipment, and getting all the material took almost two weeks, so I had a little over a month to build the big puppet.
First step, make a model: I knew that the puppet had to be light, and had to be built fast. From my very limited knowledge of puppetry, I knew that the final details of facial features, painting, costuming, could take a huge amount of time. I decided that I wanted a wire frame look.
I weld aluminum, so I had a lot of 1/16 aluminum tig welding wire. I had a Styrofoam head form, which I used as the first base to create the head around.
I used hot glue to join the pieces of aluminum, and kept it as simple as possible. I wanted it to look like a sketch, with enough detail so that it was easily recognizable, but rough enough that anyone looking at it could read his or her own interpretations into the puppet.
I was halfway through the model when I realized that I had no clue how to move the thing. I had a rough idea of how I was going to handle the rigging, but no good idea where to tie the lines to get the best movement.
As luck would have it, Ninon was working stunts on a film, and interacting with a team of puppeteers. One of them, Paul Hoosen, was a performer who we knew from 15 years ago when we were busking on the streets. Ninon talked to him about my project, and Paul got me in touch with Luman Coad.
I didn’t know how lucky I was. Luman is one of the most knowledgable people in North America when it comes to marionettes, and he lives in North Vancouver. Luman came over to check out the model. I had attached 1/4 inch high strength magnets all over the body, and tied control string to pieces of metal so that the strings could be repositioned and removed very quickly. Luman gave me a crash course in how marionettes move, and it was probably a very good thing that I didn’t know any of it earlier, or I might not have had the arrogance to try the project. He also gave me a copy of his book, which I studied feverously.
The puppeteering team was going to be made up of three puppeteers controlling the head, shoulders, feet and elbows, and two riggers handling the hands. The hands were crucial elements, since the circus acts would be lifted by the same rigging that was lifting the hands.
Paul Hoosen, Luman Coad, and Jenny Cassidy were the puppeteers, and the three of them came over to my house for two sessions of jamming and experimenting with the model. At a little over four feet high, it was almost a perfect 1/8 scale, so I build a 6-foot high cage to be the scale model of the performance space. Lines (coban thread) ran up to the ceiling, across to a control bar, and then were connected to endless loops of rope running from the ceiling to the floor. The tension of the loops was adjusted so that the puppet would stay in any position that it was put into.
The sessions were great, lots of feedback, tweaks on the control system.
Then came the fun part. I bought 800 feet of 1/2 inch aluminum rod, and got to work. I divided the model up into short curve segments, about 90, sketched them out, and scaled all the measurements up. I cut the pieces, bent them, and attached them together with hose clamps until the shape was right, and then tig welded it together. I built from the head down, and left the joints for the last.
I’m making the process seem very straightforward, and in a way it was. Tedious, frustrating, developing different bending techniques as I went, a couple of setbacks, but the design decisions had been made, so I was more involved in scaling it up. Due to manufacturing uncertainties, the final puppet came to about 34 feet high.
I did about 95% of the building myself, with friend and family coming over, drilling holes, wire brushing anything that was finished, and organizing the rigging. There was no practical way to delegate the bending and welding, so for a month I survived on too much coffee and not enough sleep.
The joints worked differently in the big model but I wouldn’t find that out until later.
The control system was a separate problem. There were two goals, to move the puppet, and to keep the acrobats alive. The strings from the ceiling to the puppet were spectra line. 1/8 inch for the body, which had a breaking strength of 1800 lbs, and 5/16 for the hands, which had a breaking strength of about 11,000 lbs. These lines were much to small to be pulled by hand, so they were attached to 7/16 static rope. The lines connected to the hands hand a three to one mechanical advantage, and all the rest of the lines were a straight one to one pull. I designed the control system to mimic what we had used for the puppet. There were two lines for the head, two for each shoulder, one for each elbow, one for the back, and two for each hand. We couldn’t figure out how to make control lines for the knees that wouldn’t interfere with the acrobatic acts, so we opted for a method of tying two lines to the feet to bring them back.
Except for the hand lines, each 7/16 control rope was rigged in a continuous loop, from ground to ceiling. The rope ran through a control device, a yaughting cleat, so that the loop could easily be locked off.
All in all, about $5000 was spent on the rigging. 8 human load bearing pulleys, 70 lightweight climbing pulleys, 14 control devices, 1200 ft of rope, 700 ft of 1/8 in spectra, 200 ft of 5/16 spectra, 100 shackles, four rope hauling devices, and various slings and ties
All the ropes ran from an overhead rigging bar to a base plate on the ground. The base plate was weighted down with 1600 lbs of steel, which was needed to take the force of the acrobatic acts. Both control bar and base plate were custom built for the puppet.
Rigging the control system for the first time took 16 hours for installing all the lines and ropes, and about another 12 hours of attaching the strings to the puppet, and tweaking the attachment points. Joints in the big puppet were a problem. Due to weight and inertia differences, some things didn’t scale up. Much discussion and high speed experimentation was done in the final hours before the dress rehearsal.
Luman was the head puppeteer, and was invaluable in his analysis of attachment points, and keeping my ambitions in line. All the puppeteers gave a lot of their imagination and ingenuity to the project. It was amazing to see the life they gave to a 34 foot high marionette. Luman was on the head strings, and I was astonished to see the puppet pass from intense concentration to amusement with a combination of head movements, and the body language given by the other puppeteers.
Rounding up the control team were Khristopher Harvey, and Paz (hey, that’s what he calls himself), both experienced live load manipulators. They were also picked for their artistic sensibilities, and fit in well with the puppeteers.
We’ve performed it at four events so far. The second was up on Whistler Mountain for the Snowboarding festival, where we hung the puppet from a crane, and completely redid the control line configuration. I have a list of puppet modifications that I need to work on (they all agree that my hip joints suck), plus new plans for yet another control system. It was set up at the Vancouver ARt Gallery, during the Leanardo da Vinci exhibit, and again at the VCEC west, where we let the public play with the puppet, learning some new things in the process.
The puppeteers got a lot of amusement of out my learning curve, and were very very tolerant of my continually insisting “but it should work this way!” It was a great introduction to the incredibly addictive world of puppeteering.