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Adding Facial Features to Your Puppet Character

Initial Planning

First Things First

So, first things first, we need a character to build!

This initial process of character creation is the single most important step in creating memorable, unique puppet characters. Spend the time to think about the character, think about his personality, about how he talks, what he wears etc. The more you can define the character at this stage, the clearer your direction will be in building the puppet, and the better the final result. If you're using one of the Project Puppet patterns as a starting point, start out by sketching the basic shape of the specific pattern on which to build your character (as shown in the picture above). We chose to start with the Roly Puppet Pattern as a base.

The Character Sketch

Starting with the basic shape of the Roly Puppet Pattern, we sketched out how we want our character to look. During the process, and throughout the various rough sketches, we finally decided on this little guy. The below sketch really only tells half the story. We also decided that the character suffers from severe allergies, quite a problem when your nose&or snout&is your most prominent feature. Needless to say, he carries a tissue around at all times and is constantly sniffing, snorting and complaining about the pollen count in his deeper than expected nasal voice. Although not pictured, we might give him a scarf and maybe a hat, we'll see.

We also considered a variety of colors for the character. His allergic disposition could lend itself very well to a non-traditional skin color. A blue pig? A green pig? Either would probably work, but we chose to go the traditional route and make this little fella pink, adding some blue or green or purple for the bags around his eyes.

As you work on a puppet, many times characteristics or subtle personality traits become more apparent. The puppet seems to take on a life of its own at certain stages, so you'll find that the character's personality may change slightly. In the building process, you may decide to change a physical trait which, in turn, alters the voice or attitude of the puppet. Be open to those changes; They often make the resulting character better. Nevertheless, it is important to start with a solid foundation. You should know quite a bit about the character before you start building.

Carving the Foam Base

Work Inside Out

When building foam-based puppets (or altering a Project Puppet pattern) always work from the inside out. Think of it like building a house. You must start with a solid foundation before you can build the walls, and you must have the walls before you can have a roof or windows or doors. The same is true in puppet building. Starting with a good foundation is the key and will enable you to easily complete the subsequent steps.

The building of the foam skull is the last step in the Roly Puppet Pattern. To make alterations, however, we need to work from the inside out. As shown above, first build the foam skull and mouthplate as outlined in the Roly instructions. This will give you the foundation on which to build.

Setting Up the Base

Let's set up our base or foundation. First thing we need to do is find the center line of the mouthplate. This can be easily done by folding the Foam Mouthplate Pattern in half lengthwise, laying it on the completed mouthplate (lining up the edges) and marking the center point on the foam. You'll notice in the picture above that we marked the center line on the edge of the foam of the mouthplate.

Now we can line up the center line of the mouthplate with the center line of the foam skull and pin the mouthplate to the foam skull as shown. Hey, it's already looking like a puppet!

Here's a tip on a homemade tool that will come in handy in the next few steps. Snip and bend a wire hanger to serve as a clip to keep the puppet's mouth in a natural position, as if a puppeteer's hand was on the mouthplate. Using the clip will make working on the puppet easier in the following steps and will also allow you to better visualize your character as you make adjustments to the features.

Planning the Features

Now that we have our base, it's time to start on the features. In the case of our character, we'll start with the snout. First, we need to do a little planning. The goal is to bring the facial features of the character, which at this point exist in two dimensions in the character sketch, into a three-dimensional world. Being mindful of the definitive shapes of the individual features will enable you to do this. To keep things simple, usually, you can work from two definitive shapes. For example, for our character, the definitive shapes are the front of the snout and the base of the snout (the surface where the snout meets the head). If we define these two shapes, we will be able to create the snout and stay true to our character sketch. Note that the definitive shapes of your character's facial features may be different. For example, if you are building a human character, the definitive shapes of the nose would probably be the profile and the base.

Here are the steps we took to create the definitive shapes for the snout of our character:

  • Using the head base as a visual guide, we sketched the shape in actual size for the front of the snout. (This is the sketch on the left in the picture above.)
  • Referring to our character sketch, we noticed that the front of the snout needed to be wider than we originally drew. There was more space between the nostrils of the snout in our character sketch than there was in our initial drawing of the front of the snout. We refined the shape by tracing half of our original drawing, elongating it, and mirroring it with the aid of tracing paper (shown on the right of the above picture). The shape is closer to the original character sketch and will work just fine.
  • We took our refined shape and made it slightly smaller by drawing inside the shape, leaving a border of 1/8 to 3/16 of an inch. Why? Because once the resulting foam shape is covered with fleece, it will be slightly larger. Sizing the shape down at this point will compensate for the thickness of the fleece. The shape of the front of the snout is final.
  • We used the snout front to plan the base of the snout (the surface where the snout meets the head). We traced and mirrored the snout base just like we did with the snout front. It's important in the planning stage to always reference your original character sketch and to keep your shapes and features as close as possible to the drawing.

Below are the final shapes that will define our character's snout. Now it's time for the foam!

Laying Out the Shapes

With our pattern pieces complete, we are ready to carve our character's facial features, in this case, the snout of our little piggy. Here are a few general guidelines for carving foam:

  • You'll want to start with a "square" block of foam, meaning the opposite sides of your foam block should be as parallel as possible to each other. It doesn't have to be perfect, but the closer the better. The block should also be large enough to carve out the facial feature actual size.
  • Use a four-inch razor blade to carve the foam. You can find these blades (and longer ones if needed) at your local home improvement or hardware store. They are usually located in the flooring department as they are typically used for scraping floors. No need for fancy equipment - a few dollars should provide you with a packet of blades that will last you through many projects.

Here's how we laid out the shapes for the snout for our character.

First we drew a center line right down the middle of the foam block.

We laid out the snout front using the center line as a guide.

We laid out the snout base on the opposite side of the foam block from the snout front. Notice how the snout base is not touching the bottom edge of the foam block, whereas the snout front is. This was intentional and was done in an effort to keep with the design. We wanted the snout front to extend below the base (or upper lip of the puppet) slightly. You'll notice we already planned for this offset when establishing the shape of the snout base (see this previous step).

Carving the Features

Pictures are worth a thousand words. So in the next few steps, we'll let the pictures do most of the talking. The following pictures show how we carved the snout for our character.

Notice how we started with what we knew. We carved around our definitive shapes first (the snout front and the snout base). Initially, we left plenty of foam between the two shapes, so as not to carve ourselves into a corner, so to speak. Then gradually, we carved the section in between the definitive shapes into a nice profile connecting the two.

It's important to note at this stage, that any detail carved into the foam will more than likely be lost when it is covered with fleece. This can be a good or bad depending on the situation. The good part is that the imperfections of the carved foam will be smoothed out and will not even noticeable in the final puppet. The bad thing is that there may be some detail that you want to show through. In that case, this is where you would compensate by exaggerating any shape detail that you want to see in the final character.

The Big Picture

All throughout the process of building a puppet character, it's necessary to step back and look at what you are creating, making sure all the pieces are coming together as you envisioned. We pinned the snout to the head base and added a couple of mock-up ears, and hey, this little fella is really taking shape!

It looks like our snout is a little longer and bit less exaggerated in real life than it is in the original sketch. Now would be the time to fix issues like these, especially if your are working from a client's character design. However, for the sake of time, and since we are our own boss for this project, we are going to leave the snout as is, and move on to the next step.

Covering the Foam with Fleece

Making the Fleece Pattern

The first question that must be answered in this step is with what type of fabric will your puppet be covered. This question is very important because it will determine what type of fabric you will use to make the pattern. For example, we knew our pig character would be covered with fleece. Therefore we used fabric that has a similar stretch, to create the pattern. If our puppet was to be covered with fur, which typically has no stretch, then we would have chosen a fabric with no stretch for the patterning process. We normally use an old t-shirt to create patterns for antron fleece. Hey, it's cheap and it works!

Again, start with what you know and then make your changes.

We traced a reference line on the head base to serve as a guide as to where the snout meets the head.

We cut the Head Pattern out of the patterning fabric, exactly as it appears in the Roly Puppet Pattern (with no seam allowance), and pinned it in place on the foam head as shown above.

We traced the reference line and cut out the appropriate section. The alterations to the Roly's Head Pattern are complete! But we can't take those pins out just yet. We still need to pattern the snout.

Making the Fleece Pattern (Part 2)

We pinned the snout in place and drew a reference line down the center. We'll be working with only half of the snout to create the pattern. This will ensure a symmetrical pattern.

We marked where our seams should be with a red marker. Again, we are only concerned with half of the snout at this point. We'll be able to mirror our pattern pieces for the other side of the snout.

There are two things you should keep in mind when deciding where to place your seams.

  • First, you must note the shape of the facial feature. Any sharp changes in the direction of the shape will more than likely need a seam. For instance, we know right away that the front of the snout will need to be a separate pattern piece. Also, keep in mind that the fleece will stretch and you can use that property of the fleece to your advantage. A fabric with stretch to it will allow for less seams, as compared to a fabric with no stretch (such as fur). A non-stretch fabric will require more seams to "hug" the foam understructure.
  • Second, you want to try to place the seams in the most inconspicuous places on your character. Even though the seam hiding capability of antron fleece is outstanding, the seams will still be slightly visible. It's best to place them on the "hidden" places of the puppet. This could be on the underneath side of a facial feature, or in a location (such as the eye area) that you know will be covered with additional features. Behind a hairline or ears or underneath the chin are also excellent places to "hide" seams. In the case of our pig character's snout, we chose to place the seams mainly on the underneath side and to rely on the stretch of the fleece to cling to the shape of the foam snout.

Making the Fleece Pattern (Part 3)

Again, we'll let the pictures speak for themselves. There are a couple of things, however, that you'll want to take note of in this particular step that aren't apparent in the pictures.

First, when patterning for a stretch fabric or fleece, be sure to stretch the patterning fabric over the foam shape. This is easy to do. Just pin one edge of the fabric along one of the guidelines that were drawn for the seam placement, and stretch the fabric to the opposite guideline, pinning it in place. The way the patterning fabric fits the foam shape will be the way the final fleece covering will fit.

Second, be mindful of the grain of the fabric. What is the grain of the fabric? The grain of the fabric or the straight grain is the direction either up or down the weave of the fabric. There is very little or no stretch in the fabric when pulled with the straight grain. Conversely, the fabric will stretch more when pulled against the grain. Keeping this in mind when patterning will allow you to really use the stretch of the fabric to your advantage. You'll also want to note the direction of the grain so that your final fleece covering will fit as planned.

As you can see, once your foam understructure starts to closely resemble a pin cushion, you're done!

Making the Fleece Pattern (Part 4)

Unpin the pattern pieces from the foam understructure. Now we have our pattern!

Next, trace the pattern pieces on a sheet of paper or poster board. You'll notice we added arrows to indicate the direction of the grain. We've also labeled the pattern pieces and added a couple of notes. We plan to mirror two of the pattern pieces, thus eliminating two seams. By mirroring the pattern where we can, the snout of our pig character will be covered with three pieces of fleece sewn together instead of five.

Below are the final pattern shapes.

Notice that we did not add any extra to accommodate seam allowances. We plan to sew the fleece covering by hand, so adding an allowance is unnecessary. If you will be sewing your character on a sewing machine, you may add for a seam allowance in the appropriate places now.

Sewing the Fleece

After cutting the pattern pieces from the fleece, again paying attention to the grain of the fabric, sew the parts together! You may want to refer to the tutorial, Working with Antron Fleece, for tips on dyeing and stitching.

Check how the various pieces fit the foam understructure as you go along, and be sure that the pattern pieces are sewn inline with each other. For example, in the two pictures below, notice how we marked the snout front along the edges in three places. The top mark is the center mark of the snout and the bottom two are where the seams of the snout side and snout bottom pieces will meet the snout front. By ensuring the marks and seams line up, we can avoid giving our pig character a crooked snout.

The Final Assembly

Putting It All Together

Now it's time to put everything together! We simply placed the foam snout in the fleece "skin" and secured it with a little hot glue (in the places indicated by the arrows in the picture below).

Next, we finished adding the mouthplate and foam skull according to the directions in the Roly Puppet Pattern. And that is one way to add facial features to your puppet characters!

We hope you have enjoyed the Adding Facial Features to Your Puppet Characters tutorial!

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