Making clay/needle felted (maybe?) puppets, with a few questions.

So a director I know had one of the producers on the feature (doc) he is currently working say he would be interested in in producing a stop motion feature with him and the director wants me to help him build the puppets for the pitch we will be preparing. (and the film if we are able to get a green light)

So I've started on researching materials and and am trying to get the general look figured out for our main puppet, a llama. Currently we are leaning towards the idea of creating a fuzzy puppet with clay faces.

I was talking to one of my room mates about the fuzzy body and she suggested I look into needle felting, after finding a few truly incredible examples online like this and this I got some wool and felting needles and gave it a go. We are going for a very cute kid friendly aesthetic, this was my proof of concept and first needle felted sculpture:

It's not perfect and could use a bit of refining to get the stray fibers down, but the director likes it as an initial test and people I have showed it to seem to think it is pretty cute. Next step will be a full scale puppet on a wire armature, this is about 6" tall or so, and we plan to have 10" - 12" puppets.

I re-watched Curse of the Were Rabbit today and I think that most of the hair of the villagers was needle felting, can anyone confirm this?

I would also be interested in seeing any videos anyone has made with needle felted puppets.

And on another tangent the director would like the final puppet I build for the pitch to have a ball and socket armature, I've been looking Harryhausen Presents the Armacreature Armature Kit as well as AS Professional Armature Kit. It seems like the Harryhausen Presents kit is a real deal for the number of joints it includes (10 fixed & 10 double vs AS Supplies 6 fixed and 4 double). Does anyone have experience with these kits? Are Harryhausen Presents just bulkier, or do that have issues with weight? (Although I don't think weight is going to be that big of an issue as the bulk of the body will be wool which is very light)

Any insight on my questions would be appreciated, and I will try to keep everyone updated on the progress of the puppets. Ideally I will have something ready that I am happy with that work well for both the animators and the director by July.

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Nice job on the Llama! I think I'd do a pretty thorough test of the compatibility of clay with felt first. Try this - put a chunk of clay under a desk lamp so it gets nice and warm, just like it will under animation lights. Grab it with your fingers and twiddle it around a little, like you're animating it. Then do the same for your test llama. Repeat dozens of times, and see if you don't get smeary half melted clay in your felt and vice verse. If you don't then I guess they're 2 great tastes that taste great together. Or, you might need 2 animators, one for clay and one for felt. Or lots of wet wipes on hand. Or possibly Don's Puppet Putty or animation wax would do the trick? 

Personally I think I'd lean toward wire armatures because I don't know how you'd be able to get access to adjust the tension screws during animation when some of the joints inevitably loosen or lock up. Also because the cheap off-the-shelf armatures tend not to be very good. We have a saying around here - a good wire armature is a lot better than a bad ball and socket one. But then you still run the risk of wires breaking. It's a conundrum for sure. I think I'd try to devise a way for the legs, tail and head to come off and use replaceable wire segments. That still comes with problems though- not sure how you'd slide the wire parts in and out but have them snug enough so the felt doesn't slip around. Possibly a decent b&s armature is the best answer. Some of the off-the-shelf ones are pretty decent. 

Another little test - can you stick a jeweler's screwdriver or really tiny allen key into the felt and then pull it back out without leaving a visible mark or hole? Probably need an alcohol wipe and then a dry wipe first so it doesn't deposit any dirt.

My initial suggestion was wire armature as I have the most experience with them, I'm not sure that tightening the joints during animation would be that easy as holes will be visible buy you would want to put a spot of felt over the hole much like you would with a clay puppet (the felting us actually like a weird sculpting medium)

I have some puppet putty from Don actually and enjoy it's properties, I've ordered more so I can do some more tests.

While I won't be doing the final animation I will definitely be doing animation tests as I prototype puppets, and the first few will have wire armatures so we'll see what the director thinks of those, I do have about 5 months or so to work out these details so I expect there will be a lot of experimentation.

You did say that some of the off the shelf B&S armatures are decent, any recommendations? Or would it be best to ask in the armature sub-forum?

Anyway thanks Strider, I'll keep everyone updated.
Try making the clay face removable so that you can take it off and sculpt it between frames. Or maybe make replacement faces beforehand if you don't want to sculpt on the fly.

Ok, so you have some familiarity with stopmotion, good to know. I just checked Marc's Animateclay store to refresh my memory on armature kits - I know he always carried the good ones. As I recall the Armabenders and Animation Supplies are excellent (I haven't used them, but going by what people on the board have said). Those are modular off-the-shelf kits. Then he also has Animation Toolkit, which is a modular wire kit - also excellent. There's one there I'm not familiar with - AnimaSapien. Just from a quick glance they're made the same way as the good kits from what I can tell. You want to stay away from Armaverse and similar type kits, which are made from pressed steel plates. Those kind require the plates to be too big and bulky and they still bend from the pressure when you tighten the screws. The good kits are made from machined parts. 

But like I say, I don't have any experience with them personally - hopefully somebody who does can chime in.

link to Marc's store

Also, I just looked at your link to the Armacreature (Harryhausen Presents) kit, and that also looks like a quality armature. I doubt Dragonframe would sell it if it wasn't. 

Hey about covering the holes on the felt - will it stay on by itself, or do you need to stick it on with something? 

Background and off topic:

Yeah Strider I used to be on these boards a decade or so ago probably as SlothPaladin, the last puppet film I made was The Haiku Menace, back in 2006. Shortly after that I gave up on making a claymation vampire project, it was about the time a bunch of people on the boards were freaking out about the really cheap Sanyo iDshot camera.

From that point on I stuck exclusively to LEGO animations do to my love of them, huge collection and the scale of films I could create in a 'tight space'. For the last couple of years I've been working on finish a large project which is not online (but hear is a teaser). While working on that project I focused on set design and lighting, while also learning how focal length effects cinematography. I understood a lot of the mechanics of lenses but didn't really understand how to apply it to smart artistic choices, but 75 shots later using prime lenses ranging from 18mm to 300mm I learned A LOT.

You can kind of see my understanding of lights, set design and cinematography in my latest short Manhole.

But you can also see that I haven't really focused on animation that much, but that is alright, set design lighting and prop/puppet fabrication is one of my favorite parts of stop motion. And getting to work on this pitch is an exciting return to puppet films for me. My biggest fear is if I will be able to have the same level of detail and perfection I've managed is some of my LEGO films scaled up to puppets and sets 12 times larger?

Back on track:

Scotty D. We are looking at replaceable jaws, I have made silicon molds of jaws in the past which should remove the most difficult sculpting, I figured we could do eyebrow movement and such but a removable/replaceable head is a neat idea and worth exploring.

Strider on armature kits: Yeah, I was pretty much just looking at the armatures in Marc's store and had browsed the boards here a bit and didn't seem to find anything bad about about the Animation Supplies kit, the Armacreature (HH Presents) kit looks a little bulkier the AS's offering but might work for what we are doing, although when I talked to the director about it he does not wan't to skimp on quality and we have based budget estements on AS's kit, I would like to see some feed back or examples with Armacreature (HH Presents) armatures.

As far as the patching up felt goes, I think we will have to do some tests when I have the felt over an armature, a wire one at least, you can add new wool on top by poking it with a needle so I should be able to cover holes, however refining it would be a pain in mid shot. I am hoping to get a wire armature built over the weekend and start on the proof of concept puppet, I'll actually have the clay head on so we'll get to see how that looks.

I'm working on a film with simple needle felted characters. You can see the male lead in the link below.

One thing I have found is that your nice tight felting tends to work loose over time and needs to be re-needled, possibly with additional wool after a while. You will also find the wool tends to get ragged, with loose filaments appearing. You will need to carefully 'shave' the wool with a sharp pair of small scissors.

The puppets are very light and can be held in place using small magnets glued into the feet with other magnets under a thin (I use 6mm MDF) floor.


Thanks for the video and info Kit, i really like your worms floppy ears

Oh SlothPaladin- that name is familiar! Wow, you go way back!! Ok, now I don't feel like I'm talking to a complete stranger, and I have some idea of your skill level and understanding (I'll have more when I watch your film). Wish I could answer your specific questions about the different armatures, but unfortunately I can't. Does anybody have experience with them?

Oh Willy is a film where not only are the puppets needle felted, but many of the props and even sets are as well. Very fun and innovative, and beautifully done. I was hoping to find the whole film online now - the trailer was posted to a thread here in 2012 and it was just going into festivals then, but all I was able to find are a few iffy possibly illegal uploads, and when I clicked on one it opened like half a dozen popup windows, so I shut it down quick. Try it if you feel lucky. 

Here are some clips by Roos Mattaar featuing a needle felted fox puppet with some comments on how it was made. 

And here's a music video with some comments on working with needle felted puppets.

Yeah, I think you were going by DarkStrider back then but my memory could serve me wrong.

Thanks for all the links to the films, Oh Willy looks great and I just love the way the fox looks in Roos' demo reel.

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