Lately we've been practicing a different puppet technique– needle felting. It is much cheaper and faster than silicone casting so it's great for low budget productions. It can work for less realistic human characters and works very well for animal characters. It does take some practice, I'm still learning it. I recommend starting with simple shapes before making a hole puppet with an armature.
When we started making our short series "Secret Dancers", which shows a different animal character every episode, we needed a relatively fast way to make puppets. So the felting method suited here very well.
The shrew puppet begun as always with research. First, we looked at lots of shrew types and chose the one that most appealed to us. I started sketching it to understand it's structure and then adding him unique features. Our character is a hard-working janitor who has a secret persona of a goth dancer. Knowing the character helped us to understand the way he moves and to plan the armature.
Because of this production budget we decided to go for a mostly wire armature instead of a ball and socket one. Also, the puppet had very thin hands, too thin for the jointed balls. We made a detailed sketch and built the armature according to it.
Before making an armature it's important to understand what animation it will make. In this case the nose for example was an important part. We had to plan the way it will animate so it will be able to make small movements. It is also important to know what will cover the armature and what resistance it will create.
1. We placed the hips and shoulders - we use aluminum block units where we can insert the wires of the arms, legs, neck and spine and lock it with a screw. So if one of the parts breaks, the screw can be loosened and the broken part can be replaced with a new part and get locked again. Unlike the Epoxy putty that is more problematic for replacing parts.
2. We measured the different parts - length + thickness - to know how many wires to wrap together. The more wires there are, the part will be more durable, more rigid and thicker. If it needs to make subtle and small movements then too many wires can make it difficult.
In this case we wrapped 4 aluminum wires and one steel wire, The aluminum is flexible but it is more fragile so we added one steel wire to make it stronger.
3. We attached the wires to the hips and shoulders, according to the shape of the sketch, added epoxy fixations where there are no joints - so that the hand or leg won't be "noodly" and will have defined joints.
4. For the feet we used ready feet units and added very strong magnets in order to use them for rigging- stabilize and lock the puppet in place. The magnets had holes in the middle and were attached to the feet with a screw and a nut.
We made the feet part later, during the felting process (we were waiting for the feet parts to arrive), as you can see here:
5. For the head we created an armature based on a wooden cube that was cut to size, and we drilled holes in it from which wires come out, that will be used as a rig for the jaw and nose, for the eyelids, and for the ears.
Felting needles – thin and medium – at least 5 of each (they break easily)
Needle Felting Tool Pen that contains 3 needles (I used Clover brand)
Felting pad – I used a foam pad
Shetland wool (or any felting wool)
Felt fabric A4 sheet (for the puppet's cloths)
Small dense comb
I wrapped the armature with wool. Although the shrew has a light brown fur, I used white wool for the inner layer because I had a large amount of it and after adding more layers it won't be seen anyway. I didn't wrap the hands and legs yet. They are too thin and needed only one layer of wool. When wrapping the armature, you need to crush the wool tight to reduce volume.
2. After it was all wrapped I started pocking it with the needles. For this stage I used medium needles inside the needle tool pen that contains 3 needles and makes it faster then using only one needle. I just kept punching it until it became stiffer.
3. I added a layer of brown wool. First, I took a lump of wool, crushed it, and pocked it with the needles on top of the felting pad until it became stiffer, but not too stiff.
4. I added it to the puppet's head and needled it to the puppet. I kept adding wool lumps all over the puppet's head until it was covered with the brown wool.
5, Then started adding smaller lumps and shaping them with the thin needle according to the sketch. Adding some white wool on the ears and around the eyes and blending them with the brown wool, using the thin needle.
6. I covered the hands and legs, wrapping them tightly with wool and using fabric glue in some places to attach them better to the armature. Because the hands are so thin the wool tends to separate from the armature and the glue helps it stay in place. Just make sure not to add too much glue, when it dries it can leave stains on the puppet.
7. At this point I took a brake from felting and started making the cloths. I used a sheet of blue felt fabric for all of it.
8. I cut it according to the sketch, measured the parts on the puppet's body, being careful not to brake the hands armature while doing it, and attached the parts with the fabric glue.
9. After everything was attached I went back to felting. Shaping everything a little more. Adding and removing wool. I wanted to get a hairy look for this puppet, as if it had a fur. So I combed it, using the needle and a small comb, cutting the tips of the hair and combing again until it achieved a fury look.
10. For the shoes I warped tightly the feet armature part with some black wool, added more wool around it and needled until it got smaller and thicker, keeping the bottom part of the feet, under the magnet, without wool, so the magnets will work well as tie downs. Then started adding smaller wool lambs and shaping it with the needle.
For the soles I cut two pieces from a black felt sheet, shaped with a hole in the middle for the magnets and glued it under the shoes. I also cut 2 thin strips with a "toothed" shape, and glued it around the soles.
11. When the outfit was done I painted it with water colors so the cloths will get a worn look. I used gray tones with a lot of water, painted it all and let it dry for the night.
12. After adding the eyes (here is how we make eyes), I added some darker brown wool around the eyes to make eyebrows, and some lighter wool all over the face, felted it with the needle and brushed to blur it all around.
And he was done, ready to animate.