For a stage production of Little Shop of Horrors in 2019, I was commissioned to provide a selection of puppets, which I approached with very different construction methods.
Two versions of the smallest puppet were commissioned. One was a self-contained animatronic, designed to perform in time with music alongside actors on stage while being carried or placed down. The other was a cable controlled mechanical puppet designed to be used as a backup in case there any electronic malfunctions.
The animatronic was controlled with animations created in Blender, which were saved using a custom exporter, then read to the animatronic via an SD card reader running on an ATmega328P. The animations were timed to the music, so the puppet could act next to the cast with no intervention required.
The mechanical puppet was cable based, which could be controlled manually via an actor or stagehand hidden in the wings. The main challenge of this project was compressing the mechanics of both puppets into the provided space, while still allowing them to work reliably and on cue.
Two larger puppets were designed for later in the play. One was a mechanical puppet, built around a wooden mechanism that allowed for movement, balanced so it could be operated by a single lever protruding from the rear of the main pod.
The other puppet was larger and was designed to conceal an operator. It was made to split at the pod, revealing the operator on cue at a later stage in the play, which required it to be almost impossibly light, while still being strong enough to withstand the requirements of the play.
All puppets were sculpted first in a virtual reality design package before being cleaned up in Blender. When the maquette for the first of the large puppets was signed off on, the mechanical inserts were spaced out and designed in Solidworks. All puppets were created over a short series of weeks.
The Ouija board posed an interesting project, combining engineering with a fun design concept. It was required to be able to take in text as written by the end user, then spell the text out with a ‘magically moving’ planchette. It also needed to be incredibly strong, withstanding the damage caused by exposure to the general public.
It was my decision to try to hide all electronic elements and use silent systems to try and increase the impossible ‘magical’ element of the prop. Making the system silent was relatively easy, using TMC2224 drivers in combination with stepper motors allowed for precise control. By making use of an H style gantry system on flat linear rails with a single belt, the motors could be positioned in two of the board’s legs with the control electronics concealed in a third.
The electronics of the board consisted of an ATmega328p that read user generated text files off a micro SD card, and then converted each letter into a set of cartesian coordinates that it fed to the TMC2224 drivers, which in turn controlled the stepper motors and moved the magnetised planchette.
The planchette was sculpted in Blender and carved out of a piece of jarrah.
The ventriloquist dummy is still an in-progress project. Originally slated for display at a Halloween event in October 2020, the restrictions imposed to battle COVID-19 put the event and project on hold.
The dummy was only a partial animatronic, with a poseable body and a self-controlled head. It was required to have a selection of facial movements that were pre-animated which would match a provided sound file. When triggered, the dummy would randomly select a sound file and play it through a concealed internal speaker while running through its facial animation.
Timing was incredibly important to the final effect, along with ensuring that the whole mechanism made as little sound as possible. Originally the dummy used the animation system designed for the smallest Audrey II, however the servo motors were far too loud. These were exchanged for small stepper motors controlled with the TMC2224 drivers from the Ouija board; this was not a perfect solution due to the increase in size and heat.
The next stage of the project, which will continue in 2021, will be to test whether they can be replaced with small DC motors fitted with a hall effect sensor to provide positional data.
An unused creature design, created for an exploration based horror game set in a disused set of mines.
Designed to be only seen occasionally, the provided description was “Large scuttling creature. Over the course of a few meetings, a concept was drawn up, followed by a digital maquette which was approved. A game-ready model was then created, which could have the higher details baked onto it, which was then textured for a PBR based rendering workflow.
Though currently unused, the creature is a good example of a character design workflow, that could be used in a digital environment, or be recreated for a physical one.
The creature does not have a name, although is referred to as “Bert”.
The portable art box was the brainchild of the artist Jazza, intended to hold a collection of common painting tools and resources in a carry case which could fold out into a work bench for the travelling hobbyist.
The first stage was to translate Jazza’s original concept sketches into a basic 3D model to ensure that everything could be easily spaced out and would fit together as wanted. This was done using Blender, making sure to use the properties of real-world materials and parts to guarantee everything designed could be realistically produced. Once this 3D equivalent of the sketch was done, everything was exported for a 3D printable test model.
The more intense stage was to realise the design as a kit that could be laser cut on scale and assembled with relatively little difficulty by the end user. This was done in Fusion360, with great care taken to link all dimensions to base defined equations, allowing us to change the thickness of the material used, the expected tolerances from the laser, or the size of certain box elements, and have the design and exported files update automatically.