taking one frame at a time since 1999

Building my first puppet and looking for advice.


I'm completely new to stop motion animation and have recently decided to build my first puppet. I've been tinkering in my workshop machining up a ball and socket armature from scratch but as I near completion of the skeleton, I'm starting to lose confidence in how I should complete the puppet.

I'm not expecting perfection, being my first puppet but I'd like as much control of the final result as possible. I guess what I'm looking for is advice on the various options of finishing the puppet and their pros/cons. I've never worked with silicone or latex so I'm partly hoping there is a different direction I can take to still get a relatively similar result. The style for the character I'm building is that of a wasteland nomad, initially I thought they would be covered in cloth (picture Tusken Raider) but I can't help picturing a mass of "boiling" cloth in the final animation, so I'm now thinking of a more slim-line style of leather straps / armour etc, (similar to the mariner from Waterworld, or Max from Madmax). I have a couple of 3D printers (SLA and FDM) so can fabricate hard details relatively easily, so I guess I'm trying to figure how to do the soft bits.

I'm a fairly experienced visual effects artist and animator and I'm looking to use stop motion elements in conjunction with visual effects for a more gritty look for a personal project. I intend to complete any facial animation in CG so I'm not overly worried about achieving a physical facial rig.

I'm building the armature from threaded steel rods, steel bearings and brass joints. I'm aiming for the final puppet to be around 10 inches tall.

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I've gotten pretty decent success using fabric with puppets. As long as the fabric is tight fitting, boiling shouldn't be too much of an issue. If you can sculpt well, I would recommend using silicone or foam latex. It's a lot easier in the long run. Foam latex is more expensive initially than silicone, but if you plan to make a bunch of puppets, I would try foam latex. This video is my go-to for foam latex

A kit of foam latex is usually cheaper than buying silicone, but you will need a mixer and oven specifically for it. I just bought ecoflex 0030 for casting a character in silicone, and it cost me about $45 for a quart of part A and B. My main recommendation would be to digitally sculpt and print your character, then cast it, especially if you think you'll need multiple. Using the traditional "buildup" method for puppet making can be quite tedious, and requires a lot of practice.

Fabric "mummy wrapping" strips could have a little latex soaked into them to stick them down, and make them want to pop back to the position you made them in. If they are wrapped fairly snugly that should work pretty well.  I think silicone would do the same thing.  But designing things like straps and armour sounds like a good solution.

When you look at the costume designs for Laika and Aardman, they generally have a very stylised look that let them make most clothing tight fitting, even if the real garment would not be such a snug fit.  So just designing things that don't have a tendency to boil seems like the best approach.  The last couple of mini-films I did had dresses and capes that were impossible to keep from fluttering, I just had to live with it.  All I could do, when I couldn't completely stop a part of fabric from moving or get it back exactly to the last position, was to follow through with the movement over the next few frames to make it smoother and seem intentional.  In one short, I had a wind blowing, just so the movement of a cape would make sense - but then I had to keep on doing it.

Another approach that completely avoided any boiling was to sculpt the character as a clothed figure (the bronze "Ray-los" in my Harryhausen100 tribute), so the clothing was part of the foam latex cast.    

I have used thin craft EVA foam to make a miniature helmet. I basically made a miniature cosplay helmet with the same methods as shown in the videos for full-size stuff. I coated it in PVA and used metallic paints. For rivets I put little blobs of latex on the surface.There is still a little flexibility in the foam, so for armour it would work quite nicely, and is very lightweight.

Thanks for the responses. This all sounds like great advice. I think I'll bite the bullet and try out some mold making. I think sculpting and 3d printing is probably my best bet considering I already have quite a bit of experience with it.

Does anyone know what exactly I should be searching for on Amazon? I've tried 2 part silicone, and then found some latex rubber but nothing seems obviously for the purpose I'm looking for. I'm based in the UK if that's any help.

Again, the advice is much appreciated!

Mike, you need to be more specific as to what you are looking for.

I get my silicone for moulds from DWR plastics, but I use Plat-Sil Gel 00 for body parts.

Liquid latex is what you need for most moulding applications. Widely available.

Ah ok, I realise I'm not being very clear (I've never actually done any form of mould making). So from the research I've done my process is going to look like this:

1. Sculpt and 3d print body sections.
2. Create mould of body part using 3d printed sections.
3. Insert armature into mould and create final body part.

So I'll end up with 3 different bits:
Body sections (resin 3d prints)
Final body parts (containing armature)

So I guess my questions are:
What material should I use for the moulds and what material should I use for the final body parts?
I've read that latex can take forever to set inside a mould and shouldn't be used for voluminous forms, yet I seem to only see Silicone used for the actual mould.

I've done a lot of mould making, but no 3d printing!

The normal old-fashioned process is to sculpt the figure in plasticine (which is soft and can be dug out of a mould), make a mould from a hard material like plaster or fibreglass resin, then cast in a flexible material like foam latex or silicone.

Since you are starting with a hard plastic sculpture/print, it makes sense to have a flexible mould, and silicone is the best choice for that.  That's what you would do if you wanted to end up with a hard resin, plaster/cement cast. It means you can get away with minor undercuts, since you can flex the mould to get the hard model out.  And silicone does not need release agent for casting in many materials.  But you want a flexible puppet.

The trick is to cast silicone in a silicone mould without it sticking.  You should be able to do that by using a release agent.

Nearly all the very soft silicones that are good for casting puppets are platinum cure silicones - that includes the Smooth-On Dragonskin and Ecoflex ranges, and the Polytek Platsil gel-10 and Gel-0.   Many of the mould making silicones are also platinum cure - I use a quick-setting one called Pinkysil for most of my silicone moulds.  I'm not sure what release agent would be best, since I have never cast silicone in silicone.  I use silicone moulds for casting rigid props.

The other sort is Tin Cure silicone, and there are some mould making silicones that fall into that category.  I have read that platinum silicone is inhibited by it - that is, if it comes into contact, it fails to cure and stays runny.  I know from experience that plastic is inhibited by many things, especially the sulphur that is in latex and in some plasticine, so you have to do the original sculpt in Non-Sulfur Plasticine or traces on the mould will stop the silicone curing.  

So clearly you would need release agent for that, too, to keep the two different silicones from ever touching.

I still use a layer of PVA release (a water based liquid with some alcohol in it that dries as a clear film, and can be washed off with warm water) and a layer of mould release wax, then maybe another layer of pva on top of that so I have a nice dry surface to paint the skin coat onto.  It works well with fibreglass moulds and casting.  I got it 20 years ago and still have enough to last for a few more years so I haven't needed to try anything new.  

But I think there are spray-can release agents that might be suitable.  You would have to look at the product descriptions at a moulding and casting and special FX supplier's website.  

Or maybe someone else at this forum has used these and can help.  I'm in Austrlalia so I don't know the UK suppliers well.

Liquid latex can be used for moulds, but the sulphur in it would stop the platinum silicone curing in it.  

I always wondered if you couldn't use a 3D printet mould. Printing the negative should be just as easy as the positive?! But I don't know what flexible material you could use for the cast. Baking is out of the question I guess for most of the materials used for 3D printing, and clay would be hard to pull out of such a stiff mould.

But for a first puppet I would recommend a quick build up on a wire armature. Just to get startet and try out the media!! And if you're comfortable in 3D and have a printer you could print parts of your figure, and "glue" them to the armature. But stopmonick has a wonderful video about building up puppets. And the struggles with silicone, moulds and casting, you can save for later, I think.

DWR plastics sell platinum based silicone for mould making, and they sell a spray wax release agent, which makes it possible to cast silicone inside a silicone mould.

The reason latex would take a long time to set, if at all, inside a 3D printed plastic mould is that the latex has a lot of water in it and rather depends on a plaster mould absorbing the water to speed up the set. Plastic would obviously not do this.

But silicone does not have this issue, so would be fine inside a rigid plastic mould. The soft silicone would be poured or injected into the mould, to flow around the armature wires that are laid into the mould first. Then when set the silicone piece can be eased out of the mould with the wire embedded. There is an Adam Savage 'Tested' video where he looks at Aardman's mould making, that shows some nice moulds.

Thanks for the replies. StopmoNick, what you mentioned about using a soft mould with a hard master and vice versa is something I've never actually considered (and now seems quite obvious!). I've picked up a couple of different silicones to have a play with. I got a slightly more rigid one for the mould and a softer one for the actual part.

I still need to model and print the parts before I can dive in with the moulding but I'll post an update when I get to it.

Thanks again for the tips!

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