I'm a puppet maker with a degree in theatre. A former lighting techie, stage manager and producer. And I like to think that with puppetry, the only limit is your imagination. More...
Unless specified, all text, images and files are © by School of Puppetry, 2007 onwards. This means you can not use any of the text, images or files without my permission, unless specified.
As mentioned in my short post about what materials to use when making a puppet, there’s no hard and fast rules as to what to use when building a puppet. However, shadow puppets generally stick to the basics: something to create a silhouette with (usually a flat card or paper material), plus something for joints, and of course the rods to operate the puppet with. Even though these materials may seem limited, you can actually push the boundaries quite a bit, as I explain below. The following is split into sections: the puppet itself; joints; and rods. A separate post about materials for screens is here [link to be added].
First, it’s important to state that different styles of shadow puppetry use different materials. This may sound obvious, but I am often surprised how few people realise that shadow puppetry is more than those black Victorian silhouettes… in fact, it’s not Victorian at all, but French. French shadow puppetry originated the simple card cut-outs and presumably it was imported to the UK from there. But in Greek and Asian shadow puppetry, animal hides are used, and they are extremely detailed as well as coloured! You really really don’t have to stick with black cardboard…
If you’re working with the French style, then plain black cardboard will do fine. I find a 3mm (0.12 inches) thick cardboard to be of sufficient thickness: too thin and the cardboard will be uncontrollable (and hence why paper is rarely used by puppet makers), too thick and the puppet won’t move fluidly. You can actually use different colours too: thin pink cardboard will make for a good pink shadow if held up to the light… even white cardboard works for a greyish outline. Cardboard is preferred by puppeteers mainly because it is cheap and easy to supply: if you wreck a puppet, it doesn’t take much time or money to repair.
|My strawberry fish shadow puppet. It’s made using fantasy film which has then been laminated for protection. The holes in the puppet facilitate attachment of rods.|
To cut out the puppet, you can use a pair of scissors to cut the basic outline, and then a scalpel or box cutter for any further details.
As mentioned above, other styles of shadow puppets (wayang kulit and karagozis) are actually made with animal hide, tanned until translucent, and then painted. One does not need to deal with those sorts of materials in order to make colourful puppets. Many puppet makers use cellophane, theatrical lighting gels (try Rosco.com for examples), fantasy films, stiffened cloth fabrics, and I have even used patterned papers for colour. You can use colour to highlight certain areas of the puppet - say, it’s eyes - or you can use these materials for the entire puppet. In other words, you don’t have to have a single silhouette, you can actually have a character that is designed entirely out of coloured fabrics. An example of this is my fish shadow puppet (pictured at left), which is composed entirely of patterned A4 paper sheets found at Officeworks.
Some shadow puppeteers work with electronic projection, such as Nana Projects. Such ‘puppets’ are actually slides, made using acetate sheets which are coloured (using ink or gels), cut, and joined (think of it like live cartoon animations). These slides are then placed onto overhead projectors, and moved by hand by the puppeteers. Take a gander at some of Nana Project’s online videos and you can see for yourself how it works.
More than that: you don’t have to use anything flat. A shadow puppet is quite literally just an object for which you only ever see its shadow. This means you can use a simple three dimensional object and use it to cast a shadow. Voila, a shadow puppet!
To join the pieces of the puppet together, there are a number of good and easy to use methods. One is to use string joints, whereby you knot some thread and then sew it through two (or more) pieces of the puppet; then knot the thread on the other side. Another is to use wire joints, where the method is similar, only using wire instead. Both of these methods are clearly explained in this video tutorial.
I have found string to be less durable than wire, although wire does have a greater potential to rip your screen and it is more timely and expensive to repair. Another simple method, that is a compromise between the two, is to use brads or ‘paper fasteners’. These are like thumb tacks, but the pin at the back is actually two ‘legs’ which open out and can be flattened against the materials.
|A workshop with Richard Bradshaw; the rods are made with a bamboo handle and coathanger wire. The tip of the rod is then taped to the puppet.|
Usually shadow puppets of Asian origin use carved bone for rods. Obviously, and again, we’re not likely to use that kind of material. Instead, you can use dowel - bamboo or pine works really well. Bamboo has more of a tendency to split, but is flexible and strong (the downside is that it might be harder to find or more expensive). The dowel is often used as a handle, with thick wire for the actual rod part. I usually use coathanger wire, but some people prefer what’s known as ‘piano wire‘. The non-handle tip of the rod can then be attached to the puppet itself. There are many methods for doing this, some use tape (masking or sticky works well), others attach it more firmly using thin wire (same as used with the joints). The type of materials used to make the actual puppet will influence how - and how well - you attach the rods. However, one thing that all puppet makers retain in common is that the rod is attached so that the puppeteer may hold it at a right angle to their bodies. That is, the puppet can be held and moved from behind, rather than from below. This allows for a wider range of movement, as well as comfort. (This is speaking about modern puppet makers. Those who work in the Asian, French and Greek styles often used bone rods that were attached vertically, rather than horizontally)
All of these options and many more are discussed in extensive detail in David Currell’s excellent book, Shadow Puppets & Shadow Play. It covers a great many materials that I’d never even remotely considered for use with shadow puppetry, along with a lot of detail on how to make shadow puppets, how to perform with them, etc. As shadow puppetry is my particular interest, I am very very glad to have this on my bookshelf.
This post AKA tools needed in wayang kulitsend feedback / have a question?
Australians may want to buy locally. Where? I explain here.