In 2019, I was commissioned to design and create a series of puppets for a stage production of Little Shop of Horrors. Each puppet was meticulously crafted using distinct construction methods to ensure optimal performance and reliability.
Two variations of the smallest puppet were requested. The first was a self-contained animatronic puppet, engineered to perform in sync with the musical score while interacting with the actors on stage. The second version was a cable-controlled mechanical puppet, specifically designed as a backup to ensure seamless performance in the event of any electronic malfunctions.
The animatronic puppet was operated through animations created using Blender software. A custom exporter was utilized to save the animations, which were then transmitted to the animatronic via an SD card reader running on an ATmega328P microcontroller. The animations were carefully timed to the music, allowing the puppet to perform alongside the cast without any manual intervention.
The mechanical puppet, on the other hand, relied on cable-based control mechanisms. It could be manipulated manually by an actor or stagehand concealed offstage. One of the primary challenges of this project was to efficiently fit the intricate mechanics of both puppets within the given space constraints while ensuring their consistent and reliable operation during performances.
By incorporating cutting-edge technology and innovative design solutions, I was able to deliver high-quality puppets that not only met the requirements of the production but also enhanced the overall theatrical experience.
For the later scenes of the Little Shop of Horrors production, two additional larger puppets were meticulously designed and constructed to elevate the performance’s visual impact.
The first of these was a mechanical puppet, built around a wooden mechanism that facilitated smooth movement. Careful engineering ensured that the puppet was perfectly balanced, enabling it to be controlled by a single lever protruding from the rear of the main pod.
The second puppet was a more substantial creation, designed to discreetly house an operator. Careful engineering allowed the pod to split open on cue during a pivotal moment in the play, revealing the concealed operator. Crafting this puppet presented unique challenges, as it demanded an exceptionally lightweight construction that simultaneously maintained the strength and durability required for the stage performance.
The development process for all puppets began with virtual reality sculpting, followed by refinement using Blender. Once the maquette for the first large puppet was approved, the mechanical components were designed in Solidworks, ensuring seamless integration within the puppet’s structure. The entire project was executed over a condensed timeframe, demonstrating a commitment to delivering high-quality, visually stunning puppets within the demanding constraints of the production schedule.
The Ouija board project presented an intriguing opportunity to merge creative engineering with an engaging design concept. The end goal was to create a board that could interpret user-generated text and then spell it out using a ‘magically moving’ planchette. Additionally, the board had to be robust and resilient, as it would be exposed to the wear and tear of public interaction.
To enhance the illusion of a magical experience, I made the strategic decision to conceal all electronic components and utilize silent systems for the prop’s operation. Achieving a noiseless mechanism was accomplished by integrating TMC2224 drivers with stepper motors, allowing for precise control. An H-style gantry system on flat linear rails, coupled with a single belt, facilitated the positioning of the motors in two of the board’s legs, while the control electronics were discreetly hidden in a third leg.
At the heart of the Ouija board’s electronics was an ATmega328p microcontroller, which read user-generated text files from a micro SD card. The text was then converted into Cartesian coordinates, which were fed to the TMC2224 drivers. These drivers controlled the stepper motors, moving the magnetized planchette with remarkable precision.
The planchette itself was designed using Blender and carefully crafted from a solid piece of jarrah wood. The result was a seamless integration of aesthetics and engineering, culminating in an immersive and captivating prop that delivered an enchanting user experience.
The ventriloquist dummy is an ongoing project, initially intended for display at a Halloween event in October 2020. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, both the event and the project were temporarily put on hold.
The dummy was designed as a partial animatronic, featuring a posable body and a self-controlled head. The project brief required a range of pre-animated facial expressions that could be synchronized with specific sound files. Upon activation, the dummy would randomly select a sound file, play it through a hidden internal speaker, and execute the corresponding facial animation.
Achieving precise timing was crucial for the desired effect, as was minimizing the operational noise of the mechanism. Initially, the dummy utilized the animation system designed for the smallest Audrey II puppet. However, the servo motors proved to be excessively loud. As an alternative, small stepper motors controlled by TMC2224 drivers were implemented, similar to the Ouija board project. While this solution reduced noise, it also introduced challenges related to increased size and heat generation.
Moving forward, the next phase of the project will involve exploring the feasibility of replacing the current motors with compact DC motors, outfitted with hall effect sensors for accurate positional feedback. This approach aims to strike a balance between achieving quiet operation and maintaining the compact form factor required for the ventriloquist dummy’s intricate design.