I went out looking for a toy van and came home with an old vanity case. I’d toyed with the idea of replicating my journey from settler to traveller in miniature, by making a stop motion animation film to document it; it had occurred to me that people might be interested in crowdfunding a film like that. I could somehow use my puppet man as my alter ego, who buys and kits out a van as his home.
So, off I set, open to possibilities yet determined. I browsed all the charity shops in London Road and, as I handled some of the toys, ideas bubbled up then popped. In the last charity shop I gave up; as I made for the exit, out of the corner of my eye I spied a red vanity case sitting on the floor amongst vintage gloves, a wooden address book and some old postcards. “Vanity Case As Seen £4.99”, said the tag and I looked over the case; it wasn’t broken and the clasp worked. Why not?
Instead of my puppet man living in a van (or the cage I bought before the course began) he could live in this vanity case. The initials printed on the case, P.D., felt suggestive; suddenly and unexpectedly, my puppet has a home and a name*. Isn’t life sometimes wonderful?
What sort of character lives in a stained, old vanity case? I’m suddenly very excited to find out and I’m feeling much more connected to my puppet man.
*If you can guess his name, I’ll do a puppet show for you…
I’ve been making a man. In May I enrolled on Isobel Smith’s Puppets in a Suitcase 10 week course at The Phoenix Gallery, Brighton. Each week I’ve trotted along to the two and a half hour session to play with objects, make up and share stories, and create my man. Who is he? What’s he like? I don’t feel a strong connection to him yet…
I realised the voice over I recorded during the puppet making was perfect for an emergent practice film. The audio tells a personal story of how unhelpful beliefs can form when blindly trusting the word of an authority figure; questioning snips away the ties that bind the belief in place allowing a realisation of some of the reasons why I make art. This realisation will help me to experiment with the purpose of art in future projects.
The audio fits nicely over the speeded up footage of me making the puppets. My words are not scripted and there is plenty of space between questions and answers. The slowness of the audio contrasts with the fast speed of the visuals, although there are occasional clips played at normal speed (23.967 fps), and this creates breathing space in the visual track. The third audio clip is different from the previous two in that tearing sounds can be heard, which do not match the visual images. I like this because it shows the temporal mismatch of the visual and audio tracks; it’s a reminder of the constructed nature of film.
After putting the sound and images together I thought about bringing the puppets to life. I wanted to use them in a way that was fun and nonviolent as an alternative to the domestic violence usually advocated by Punch and Judy professors. There is a song, Lean on Me by Bill Withers, that I’ve sung at parties or (ahem) in the kebab shop or in the street and people join in singing with me. It makes me smile and it feels good to sing together. I decided the puppets would sing this song. I phoned Justine and she agreed to sing for Delores, the female adult. Andy agreed to sing for Bill Senior. I recorded myself singing as Bill Junior then Justine listened to me through headphones and sang along as I recorded her. Andy did likewise.
Next I filmed the puppets (Andy and Justine moved them around in realtime) dancing and ‘singing’ against the backdrop of a large picture frame; the frame has marked out holes for pictures but it’s empty. This links back to audio during puppet making in the film where I talk about the effect of believing I wasn’t good enough to do art: I stopped drawing and painting for a long time. Judy had suggested, during a tutorial, that I film the puppets in my wardrobe with painted scenery backdrops but that was before I was ready to work with the puppets and, of course, now I was ready it didn’t tie in with the emerging story.
I went to St Peter’s House Library with Justine to look at The Red Book again. I let the book fall open at this image and then turned to the text it referred to. I was hoping for some synchronicity but I couldn’t see how the text related. Justine pointed to the text a few lines above. It said this:
“Come to us, we who are willing from our own will.
Come to us, we who understand you from our own spirit.
Come to us, we who will warm you at our own fire.
Come to us, we who will heal you with our art.
Come to us, we who will produce you from our own body.
Come, child, to father and mother.”
Image 59 The Red Book, C. Jung.
I’d been thinking about how my original idea of using my experience of my father in my film didn’t tie in with emergent practice. I’ve been feeling like I should work with the stuff around my father but I don’t want to; I should because I stated clearly at the beginning that I wanted to. I don’t want to because I think these puppets will tell a different story if I let them. I don’t want them to be violent.
Jung’s verse resonates with me because it feels like it could be the puppets calling me to their story, rather than me fitting them to mine.
I wound ribbon around the boy puppet’s body and secured it in place with a couple of stitches. Next I sewed ribbon to the metal wing structures, embroidering it in place.
All my shots so far are from above, looking down on the action, as I make the puppets. In The Filmmaker’s Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition by Gustavo Mercado, it says high angled shots produce a sense of vulnerability and I suppose that’s because it’s associated with the subject being lower in height than the observer and, therefore, childlike in stature.
I do feel vulnerable as I make the puppets; I haven’t made anything like this before. I’m at the edge of my creative instinct and afraid of what I might produce – it might be so abhorrent and disgusting that I’ll be shunned and despised.
I began playing with wire with the idea that it would form part of a puppet’s body. I didn’t know which part but as I twisted the wire I thought it might resemble an upper arm. I made another, slightly smaller, metal sculpture and joined them together but it didn’t feel right as a limb.
After some time of doing other things I went back to the puppet work and found inspiration after handling objects I pulled out of my imaginatively labelled “stuff” box. Unravelled audio cassette tape gave me the key: I wound wire around it, encasing it, and had created a sort of upper body. I pushed the man puppet’s stick through the body part and realised I could attach other body parts to it.
Turning back to the small wire sculptures, I pushed the female puppet sticks into them and they too have a base I can attach body parts to.
Because the male has post traumatic stress disorder, the audio tape reflects the messed up way he communicates. I’m not sure about the wire sculptures on the females – something to do with inner strength and resourcefulness. I wonder if their bodies change during the performance after interacting with one another.
To make the hair for the child puppet I cut lengths of wool and pulled each length apart to make three strands. This method created a head of red curls. The child puppet has brown eyes and curly hair, like her father and colouring (complexion and red hair) like her mother. As I stuck each strand of wool to her head I contemplated her character. She has no ears, which I think will have an effect on the story. She will not have an awareness of the noise she creates and this could have a profound effect on her father, a soldier who has returned from a tour of duty with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
More photos below.
This video is, as the subject title states, a twelve second video flyer for the second year show. It contains footage of the puppets I’m making.