Giving Life and Emotion to Puppets

I’ve had a really successful summer working in my Oregon studio, completing two and a half minutes of new animation for Seed in the Sand! The goals with this sequence are to show the excitement and emotional ties of the group and the romantic affection between The One and his Mate as the sprouted seed grows into a tree.

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So, how do I go about bringing my puppets to life and making them appear to emote in a way that the audience can feel?


A snapshot of the creatures on set.

Sometimes the greatest emotional impact can be achieved with the smallest of movements like a subtle tilt of the head, or simply a long pause with no movement at all. Many of the shots I have been working on don’t involve very complex movements. The pair may only move slightly as they look at each other fondly. In some ways this can be more complicated than a walk or big movement. The subtle tilt of a head may need to continue for a second or more. At 24 frames per second shot on twos, that makes 12 movements per second. Each frame requires a movement so small that I can only tell I have moved the character by checking it against the previous frame in DragonFrame and if I move the character just a little too much it can be a real challenge to get back to the correct pose.

While long shots where the characters are barely moving are a normal part of live action filmmaking, in animation the impulse to keep the puppets in constant motion must be held in check if you want to create an emotive or contemplative scene. This level of restraint took me a long time to learn. Even now it may take a few times watching a shot to see how long the pause really needs to be. If I haven’t made it long enough when shooting I will repeat frames in Adobe Premiere until the pause is long enough but not so long that it feels like a freeze frame. The action can usually be paused for at least a half second before it starts to seem unnatural and sometimes even a second can work.


Tiny eyelids made of clay and the tools I use to apply them to the puppets.

Well timed blinks add an important element to a character’s reaction to events or suggest that they are considering what is happening at the moment. Also an occasional blink helps them to seem to be alive. Most basic blinks that I animate are four frames long.


The Story Continues: New Life and Impending Starvation

Now that summer is here again I’ve got a nice, long break from my faculty position at Kansas City Art Institute to make as much progress on Seed and the Sand’s meadow scene as I can manage. This set is still in Oregon at the family farm due to its enormousness and fragility! A few weeks ago I set off for the west coast with dog and child. Our first stop was Los Angeles for a little fun with friends and then up to Oregon to deliver my daughter to summer camp and get to work animating!


The first job when we arrived was to reclaim my meadow set from the mice and spiders! The spiders still remain in the margins watching from above, beside and behind. The mice keep out of sight.

My puppets needed some maintenance too. I washed their little hands and brushed their messy fur.


Gently cleaning with a paste of baking soda and a soft brush.


Rinsing in cold water.


Grooming and primping.

The storyboard cards are pinned up. I don’t always follow the cards precisely, but they help to guide my animation. I get a lot of inspiration as I work. New shots get added, and some get cut or changed.


This set of cards tells a story of new life and impending starvation.

The first day animating, I managed seven seconds in 6 and a half hours. I hope I can keep up that pace. I’ve got a month here to get as much done as possible. I plan to be finished with this set by the end of next summer. When I get back to Kansas City in the fall I’ll be building a new set and bringing on a couple of interns to help with background animation!

Making the Sea Monster: Part 1

I am starting work on the sea monster for Seed in the Sand. At 38 inches long, she is almost four times the size of the nest dwellers. The monster is very dangerous but should look appealingly pretty so as not to cause fear at first sight. The scales and tail fin will match the mermaid from The One’s dreams and the hands will be feminine and pretty.

Here are some photos of my progress so far:


The head has a ball of aluminum foil at its center and is covered with wire mesh in preparation for the sculpey.


The dainty hand is the same shape and pattern as the mermaid and masked woman, but with ability to be more fin-like and have more flexibility due to the absence of knuckles.


The foot will be very lizard-like but be partially webbed. Notice the T-nut tied into the foot for anchoring. This monster is too large to use the magnets for tie down.


The tail fin also has a T-nut tie down.


Here is the entire armature rearing up in a threatening posture. Or maybe she just wants a hug. I plan to use some rigging for leaps and stabilization and it will be removed in post. You can see bolts temporarily installed in some of the tie down locations to help me make sure to keep the areas unblocked as I move forward with the flesh and skin.


The skull and lower jaw are made with translucent sculpey. The eyes are glass reproductions of fish eyes that I purchased from Van Dykes Taxidermy Supply.


Smile for the camera!


Black paint for the gums and inside of the mouth help to define the teeth.


Isn’t she pretty.


Foam in progress.



The foam is all trimmed. She is ready for skin!

Puppet Hand Demonstration


I hope you enjoy this demonstration of how I make my puppet hands. If you have any questions, please comment below. This hand belongs to my villain that is under construction and it is about and one and a quarter inches long.

The hand is made as part of the wire armature:


Using the wire hand as a pattern, the back of the hand is cut out of felt with enough width in the fingers to wrap around the wire:


I glue that to the wire skeleton starting with the back of the hand and then each finger.


To do the fingers I dip the finger wire into the glue gun nozzle to coat it with a thin layer of glue and then press the felt evenly on to the finger, making sure to get the tip nicely rounded:


Next, using my tiny scissors, I cut the front of the hand out of felt using the hand as a pattern.


The front of the hand ready to be attached:


I glue the palm first and then do each finger using a very thin layer of hot glue. To finish, I clean the tip of the glue gun and use it as an iron to make the finger look seamless and rounded and to melt any stray strands of hot glue into the felt:


Here is the finished hand photographed using my cutting mat as a scale reference:


One of the many good reasons to use hot glue for making the puppet hands is that if a finger wire breaks I can carefully melt the hot glue and peel open the seams to make repairs. I like to use felt because it looks like short fur and I can make the seams disappear.


Adding the Final Touches to Dream of Dolls Dancing

All of the animation for Dream of Dolls Dancing, my short film project made out of the dreams from Seed in the Sand, is complete. I am now adding the subtle touches that give depth to the composited shots by incorporating stock footage from Pond5 into my After Effects compositions. Here are a couple of examples.

In the shot of The One sinking as the mermaid watches I have added upscaled underwater footage with a camera lens blur effect as a base layer that is obscured with two layers of low opacity blue haze. The first layer is between the mermaid and The One and the other is the topmost layer. The underwater rays of light shift slowly.

Here is a still of the composition without the stock footage:


And here it is with the stock footage:

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Here is a still image of the original stock footage with a link to


My second example is showing the addition of a a sunrise glow and a fog layer that gradually obscures the composition of The One as he rushes toward the dancing dolls in his paper boat:

Here is a still of the composition without the stock footage:


And here it is with the stock footage:


Here is a still image of the original stock footage of the fog layer with a link to


Soon I will start building the soundscape!


Multiplane Downshooter

The final shot of the Dream of Dolls Dancing sequence takes place under water. The mermaid is floating and the One is sinking. I shot each character separately over a greenscreen, created bubbles in Cinema 4D, and assembled everything in After Effects.

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Since I am only doing one shot with a downshooter, I put together a temporary set up with my existing materials instead of constructing something more permanent.

The acrylic sheet is clamped to the animation tables above the greenscreen backdrop paper on the floor.

The acrylic sheet is clamped to the two animation tables to suspend the puppets above the greenscreen backdrop paper on the floor.


To set up the camera for this shot, I removed the central piece of the tripod and attached it to the arm of the c-stand.


The mermaid has magnets built into her derriere. A second pair of magnets under the acrylic sheet keeps her securely in position.


I shot the mermaid sideways so I could get the camera closer to her in order to have as many pixels as possible to work with.

Once the two characters were animated I brought them together in my After Effects composition and rendered the partially completed piece as a JPG still image sequence. To create the bubble effect in Cinema 4D, I imported the image sequence for use as a backdrop and constructed an invisible model of the sinking creature to displace the bubbles made by the particle emitter. Then I rendered the C4D bubbles as a transparent PNG sequence and put it together with the other elements in After Effects. A still image of the final result is at the top of this post.

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In this screen capture of the Cinema 4D viewport window you can see the rendered frame at the top left. The bubbles and the puppet in the background frame are visible, but the CG character model is not.

The next step for this project within a project is to work on the sound design……

Animating Bubbles in Cinema 4D

Work continues on the dancing doll dream sequences. I am creating elemental effects in Cinema 4D, a computer graphics program, and have just completed an animation of bubbles for the sequence done from the creature’s eye view as he sinks into the dream ocean. I achieved the really nice stretchy bubbles by making them into metaball objects. Then, I rendered the bubbles with an alpha channel so I could combine it with my After Effects composition as the top layer.

Here’s a low resolution test render I did to see how the timing is working. I’ve still got endless adjustments to make and some work to do with lighting the background and creating surface ripple. Also, the final animation of the bubbles will be rendered in Cinema 4D again with the background so they will have the correct reflection and refraction.

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The final render of the bubbles is finished and now I’ll add it to the rest of the layers in Adobe After Effects. Here is a transparent still image from the bubble render. Notice the reflection and refraction of the dolls in the bubbles.