Building Smaug Puppet Head: 10-weeks of collaboration
by Magnus Yule
Before the tale of how we created our three meter (9 foot+) Smaug head puppet, I want to explain the motivation and purpose behind the build. The three of us--Anna Harding, Stephanie Farmer and myself, Magnus Yule--were all in our final year of a Theatre Arts (Prop Making) BA degree at Northbrook College, Worthing UK. One ten-week unit focused on collaboration. This entailed working with students in other disciplines (such as actors, make-up artists, costumers, lighting and sound technicians) to produce a performance of our own devising. I was less concerned with the performance than with whom I'd work. As long as I could make stuff with the hugely talented Anna and Steph I knew we’d have fun. Our skill-sets are complimentary, but with a good degree of overlap, so we knew we’d work well together.
Pictured above: Finished Smaug puppet head by Anna Harding, Stephanie Farmer and Magnus Yule.
The second Hobbit movie, THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, had just been released and my friends wanted to make a dragon. Since it might be our last chance to work together we decided to make exactly what we wanted and design the performance around our puppet. We pitched our idea to the group (a "deleted" scene from the film where Bilbo and an Orc meet Smaug in his lair) and recruited a team of seven. Anna, Steph and I would design the piece and make all the props and scenery. The rest of the team would create prosthetics, costumes and act out the drama with Smaug. The performance would happen in a confined cave-like space with the audience in close proximity to the action.
Reflections on Building Smaug
It took the first four weeks to conceive the specifics of the performance, which left us with six weeks to build and perfect our dragon. At first we thought of creating a welded skeleton of 6mm steel rod clad in a fibreglass skin. We also considered a poly-carved structure finished in body filler and paint. At this point Anna introduced us to the Stan Winston School and Ted Haines who came to our rescue. Anna had bought the first part of Mr Haines’ Dinosaur tutorial. We devoured this with a mixture of awe and utter relief. Here, in terms and techniques we could not only understand but make flesh, was all we needed make Smaug. We three chipped in to buy part two and watched every chapter several times during the build.
Pictured above: Smaug concept art by Stephanie Farmer.
Our individual strengths meant Steph would become lead sculptor, Anna would oversee Smaug's final look and create all the paint finishes, and I would assume the role of workshop manager and chief mechanic. Whilst we would all have a hand in every aspect we felt a degree of overall control should belong to a single voice for these areas.
Materials and tools
The first thing that we had to do was produce a materials and tools list that we’d need. As none of us had made anything in foam before, or worked on a puppet of this size, we were starting from scratch and would largely be learning it all as we went. I doubt we would have tackled such a complex project if Ted Haines hadn’t made it look so straightforward. We did have to translate some US terminology and products into UK/European equivalents. I did source some Duall adhesive from a Yacht Chandlers but at £40 a litre I kept looking for an alternative foam adhesive. Having worked out that L200 foam is the equivalent of Plastazote foam, we determined we’d need six 2x1m sheets. As we waited for the foam to arrive, I gathered as many of the tools from the list as I could.
Steph produced a foam maquette that we patterned in fabric. We then made a 3mm sheet foam version and, following Ted's example, used the patterns for projecting the scaled-up version. Producing this small model gave us the confidence that the full-size version would work.
Pictured above: The small foam maquette.
We worked out that increasing the size fourfold would give us the largest "full-scale" puppet we could handle. We hoped he would be impressive enough to carry the story we wanted to tell. Other materials used included roughly 20 meters of PVC pipe, dozens of fittings, 500 millilitres of pipeweld, 15 meters of bungee cord, 3 litres of Neopreneadhesive, and various foams scrounged from dead sofas and Poundshops (dollar stores, in the US).
Pictured above: The top of the full-size foam head with the blue foam maquette.
We were lucky to have a fully equipped workshop but less fortunate in that our workspace was at the top of a two storey spiral staircase. This meant we had to factor in how Smaug could be dismantled not only for transport but to release him from his eyrie. We started production in early March and the performances were set for early May. This might seem plenty of time but a two week Easter break and other schedule conflicts limited working time to three days per week. Without the tutorials we’d have been sunk. Though I must mention the valuable guidance we received from out tutor, Harriet Parry, whose puppet making skills, and endless encouragement, stopped us from going badly astray.
Pictured above: Covering the base with various foams in custom cut shapes for scale texture.
Smaug slowly took shape, and went from pure white to a variety of shades as different materials were added, but it was only when Anna began giving him his proper colouring that his character emerged.
Pictured above: Anna Harding gives proper colouring with a base coat of spray paint.
We completed our dragon in time for the performance but had almost no time to master the puppeteering. The heavy lower jaw made manipulation for speaking tricky and the mechanical rigging had to both support the long head and enable it to pivot on five axes. In the end it took both Anna and Steph to pilot him.
Pictured above: Smaug nears completion, almost ready to perform.
Once the performances were completed, we had to work out what to do with our dragon, too large for any of us to keep ourselves. Having failed to find him a permanent home, he now looks after the main 3D Workshop at Northbrook College. Though he does get out occasionally and has been seen hanging about at the bar.
Pictured above: Smaug on the wall. Image by J. Nicholls, conceptual artwork by Stephanie Farmer.
Pictured above: Detailed look at Smaug. Image by J. Nicholls, conceptual artwork by Stephanie Farmer.
Anna is now freelancing as a Propmaker and Aerialist mermaid. Steph is developing her sculpting and fabrication skills for various companies and also takes commissions.
Just as we finished our project, the third part of Ted Haines’ trilogy came out. I’m quite glad we didn’t have access to this as I’d have wanted to make his eyes move rather than just light up. At the end of the lesson, Ted admits he’d never made anything as big as his T-Rex head on his own and dares us to do the same. Cheers Ted, we had a lot of fun.
- By Magnus Yule
The Biker Scout Helmet Project
Northbrook College has been involved in a charity project called The Biker Scout Helmet Project. Student Sharon Huls designed a helmet in the style of HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE and a team of seven students spent a ten week period designing, planning, building and learning. The finished helmet will be auctioned for charity at the Star Wars Celebration in London in July, 2016.
Pictured above: The finished helmet in the style of Howels Moving Castle. Photo by Sharon Huls.
For more information about the charity project, click HERE: The Biker Scout Helmet Project
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