Casting Characters From Whole Cloth

For the past year and a half I’ve been working on a short film titled Don’t Walk, and finally I get to release it out to the world. Now that I’m finished, I thought it would be interesting for people to see the evolution of the puppets featured in the film.

Here is “Don’t Walk:”

The thing that surprises people most about this short is that the main characters are puppets. Here’s our main characters without the lighting and effects:

Pruppets.

The initial idea for Don’t Walk was partially inspired by these sketches that Jim Henson used to do in the 60s, on places like the Ed Sullivan show. The puppeteers would hold out the puppets, and cover their arms in black fabric, creating the illusion that the puppet is moving wherever it wants to.

Image from “Java,” taken from the Muppet Wiki

I thought this technique would be cool to give a modern update- I could use After Effects to create pedestrian signal puppets, that would have a fluid, recognizable movement, but also seemed to actually glow like their real-life counterparts.

Early storyboard. Imagine this, except it animates.

The story for Don’t Walk is simple, but took me a long time to create. I’d never done a full, animated storyboard before, but since we were going to be choreographing our movements to specific beats in the song (“Unsquare Dance” had been my choice since the beginning), I figured we should get as granular as possible in the planning.

Once we had at least a rough idea of where the story was going, it was time to start working on the puppets. The puppets had to fulfill a few major criteria:

  • The puppets had to be instantly recognizable replicate real life iconography that most audience members will see on a daily basis.
  • The puppets had to articulate smoothly- the idea is that both of these puppets would just be a glove that the puppeteer could manipulate, and create a wide variety of emotions out of.
  • There was also no budget, so they had to be inexpensive, and within the scope of what I, someone who sews at a third grade level, could make.

Version 1: Paper Mockup

Initially, I had thought I would emulate those signals that are a flat LED. I would cover the hand with several flat shapes, and the seams between them would blend in once I blew the highlights out in post.

I rejected this pretty quickly, as the flat panels gave a little bit too much rigidity. And though this is a REALLY rough version, it was even clear at this point that it wouldn’t hit on the recognizable look that we needed. (Maybe we can revive this down the line and create a puppet tribute to Saul Bass.)

Version 2: Bead Mockup

Getting the movements down.

After I nixed the flat panel, I decided to try to go in the exact opposite direction, and go for the “LED bulb” style of signal.

The plan was to sew beads to velcro, and attach the velcro to wherever we needed to on the glove. (This took sooooo much time. When I think of Jon Stewarts retirement, I think of how I watched every episode in the months preceding while sewing these damn beads.)

Things are coming together in this early test, but the velcro strips have a bit of a life of their own, and the rigidity sometimes ended up articulating itself in weird ways.

Version 3: Bead, first pass

Now we’re getting somewhere!

After the tightly-beaded version, I decided to try use the same number of “bulbs” that they actually use on pedestrian signals. And as you can tell, it looks much more accurate.

The most surprising finding was that the more negative space I created by spacing the beads out, the more the illusion worked.

Final Version:

We took the rod out of his head (it was a painless operation), and we closed up some of the gaps on his torso.

And here is our final version, next to our first draft of the Hand.

Notice how the beads are actually on the side of my hand. If I turned my hand, it pretty much ruined the illusion of the puppet, so I had to be really careful to move everything in a very specific way.

Fortunately, I could take all of the lessons from Man, and apply it to our co-star, Hand. In this early version, you can see Hand has smaller beads, and they’re a reddish color. Truthfully, these were the closest beads I could find to the “safety” orange that gets used in real life. I hemmed and I hawed for a long time, pretending that these beads would be OK, but the reality was that they don’t show up well on camera, and they look diminutive next to the LED’s of our main character. My gut won out, and I realized I needed a new option.

It seems obvious in hindsight, but the answer was to just use the same beads as Man, and color-correct them in post. This would also give us more flexibility in shooting. Initially, I wasn’t sure whether to round off the hand on the bottom, or give him slight wrists. Ultimately I decided that the wrists would be integral to the sections where Hand is “waddling.”

Shout out to my co-puppeteer Eric Henney

Once we had our actors, we were ready to walk the boards. We looped every part of the soundtrack, and just repeatedly ran our choreography, using a monitor for reference.

Once we were done shooting, it was onto the laborious process of post, where this…

Becomes this…

The whole process, while long, was incredibly gratifying. I know that sounds like a cliche people say, but it totally was. It’s almost surreal to stop and think about how far the whole video has come, and how it came from nothing but a vauge idea in my head.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the film! And I hope no one cuts off the credits and uploads it to their Facebook page for cheap views!

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