Adventures of a Semi-Wild Animal Tamer

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New Life for an Old Character

Sat, Feb 23rd, 2019 at 05:19 PM

Hard as it is for me to believe, I've been doing puppetry and building puppets for over sixteen years now, and during that time I've built nearly seventy-five puppets. Over twenty of them are fully-body costume-puppet (AKA body puppet) style characters, which I've always loved, but as one gets older it isn't as easy to climb into these giant things and bring them to life like you can in your twenties and early thirties.

Triton the Triceratops as a Static Display
That's not to say that I don't do costume character performances at all any more - I certainly do. Just not as many, and about half of my characters of this style are now retired for various reasons. A few got worn out from being popular, and some others just didn't quite work out in terms of designs. For example, I once made a giant tree-frog costume where I got down on all fours and hopped like a frog. I'd found I could do that pretty well at home, but didn't realize what my body would feel like after three thirty-minute sets of hopping in one day! That was the first and last time I used the tree frog in public.

Another retired costume character that got a little more time in the limelight was Triton the Triceratops. Inspired from seeing the triceratops in the Dinosaurs! show at the Center for Puppetry Arts, I'd been wanting to make a similar quadruped triceratops since 2003, but didn't get to the point of having the right opportunity and skill set until 2009, when I developed Triton to use at a local natural history museum.

Triton was definitely a hit, but he was a pain in the neck for me - literally! Try as I might to lighten his head, I just couldn't get the weight down to a comfortable level, and ultimately I started having neck muscle pain that still haunts me to this day. It's not chronic in the sense of hurting every day, but it doesn't take much now to irritate those muscles and get them hurting. Thus, Triton was retired after just one year of roughly every-other-month appearances. I soon disassembled him and packed most of him in a large plastic bin, but after a while I started thinking about him and wanted to do something useful with him.

Around the middle of 2018, I pulled him out and reassembled him (an interesting journey of hunting down the scattered pieces and parts that didn't fit in the bin). I tried turning him into a giant marionette (a concept I'd started working with in late 2016), and later tried making him into a direct manipulation (Bunraku-like) design, but none of those ideas worked. He was just too big and too heavy for one person to manipulate from the outside. So, over Thanksgiving weekend I threw in the towel and started playing with my backup idea: turn him into a static display. I imagined this might be doable in about three days, but it ended up taking more like three weeks.

The most critical part was building an internal skeleton, which I fashioned from the large amount of 3/4" PVC pipe I had leftover from many puppet stage building experiments in the past. The engineering challenge was figuring out how to carry the weight of the head back into the body towards the back legs so that he wouldn't flop down onto his beak. This wasn't as difficult as I'd thought, but I learned a lesson in bolt strength when the first bolt I used near the front legs bent and almost snapped! I upgraded to a bolt twice as thick to solve that problem, and replaced a second bolt in the design just to be extra safe.

One good thing about the triceratops is that he was highly padded as a costume, so I reused most of that padding to shape his body out around the PVC skeleton. Still, I needed to fill out the arms and legs, and get a little more filling in his torso, so I raided my supply stores to see what I could find. Four inch wide pool noodles fit perfectly over the PVC leg pipes, and when wrapped in soft NuFoam padding I'd used in the original costume design, the legs looked every bit as natural as when I'd been in the costume performing it. I found the foam padding from my old frog costume and decided to reuse it to further pad out the triceratops' torso, as I've made a new giant frog marionette and doubt I'll ever put the frog costume back together again. A few additional spare chucks of polyurethane foam to fill out the hips and I was pretty much there.

Inside Triton, looking towards his back legs
Inside Trition, looking into his head (the red is the back of his mouth)

I even solved an old problem from back when I used Triton as a costume. I'd used a flat aluminum bar to support his big frill, but it had been rubbing hard against the top of the frill fabric, leaving a couple of small holes. Nothing major, but I thought it would be good to keep that from getting any worse. After thinking on the problem for a while, I hit on the ideal of taking a length of PEX tubing, scoring it open at just the inner middle of it's arc, and shoving that down onto the end of the aluminum bar. This not only covers up any microscopically sharp points on the aluminum, but actually made the frill look a little fuller and flatter, too.

Triton as the Red Horned Rein-Dino
I started to put a large beach ball into Triton's belly, as that's a technique I've used quite successfully on several giant marionettes (and a life-size red kangaroo puppet), but as I kept looking at him, I realized that the belly looks fine just hanging down loosely, so why add anything else to it? Sometimes, less is more.

Triton was looking good – good enough that I started thinking it might be fulfilling to put him into a puppet festival exhibit in the not too distant future. However, that means I need to be able to move him, which is no easy feat. So, I bought a large board and some casters and made a transport dolly for him (you can see this board in the picture at the top of this blog post). The whole thing cost me about $25, but it's already been well worth it, as it's a breeze to roll him around my living room now for cleaning, taking pictures, etc.

As it was the middle of December when I finished my "puppet taxidermy" work, I decided to have a little fun with Triton and dress him up for the occasion. For his last public appearance, which was also in a December, I'd made large reindeer antler covers for his two large horns. I found them and put them back on, then had one of those what-the-heck moments and pulled out some red fleece to make a cover for his nasal horn, turning him into the "Red Horned Rein-Dino".

So, Triton's transformation is complete and he's now a pretty cool display piece. I'm very happy with how he turned out, to the point that I was actually a bit disappointed when a service worker recently came to my house and didn't say anything about him. (How can you not notice a four-foot-tall, six-foot-long triceratops standing in someone's living room?) Ah, well. I guess not everyone is into nature puppet art :-)

Mood: chipper