How to make a rod puppet monster with David Monzingo

Learn monster puppet making with master special effects character creator David Monzingo. From sculpture to mold-making, painting to performance

Sep 20, 2012


There are three main types of puppetry in the creature creator's arsenal -- hand, animatronic, and rod.  Though they each have their pros and cons, rod puppetry has increased in popularity over the last few years to become the preferred approach for puppeteered characters. Thus the focus of this week's lesson, HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER PUPPET: RODS AND CABLES. Rod puppetry is a step up from hand puppetry in complexity, as far as the amount of maneuverability and the freedom from the limitations of a performer's physiology. And it’s more reliable and less expensive & time-consuming than animatronics, and far cheaper than creating an all-digital character.  Granted, time will be spent to digitally erase the rods from a completed project, but that cost is still far less than the alternatives.


The man taking you through this week's monster making journey is David Monzingo, key artist at Stan Winston Studio and now Legacy Effects.  David, like all of the amazing artists showcased at SWSCA, is a man of many talents. For this lesson on how to make a rod & cable-controlled creature puppet, he designs, sculpts, molds, mechanizes, casts, paints, and to top it all off, puppeteers.  All of these talents go into creating an original serpentine creature puppet.  And each of its movements are going to be achieved with three only rods, and one handle.  That’s it.


Now, to begin, as with almost every monster creation, regardless of type, David starts with a design.  He calls it a “5-minute sketch” repeatedly, almost insinuating that he could have created something much cooler if he had more time.  But if you ask me, 5 minutes is all he needed.  This little creature turns out so awesome!  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  From the sketch, he proceeds with the sculpt, using water-based clay.  As the creation takes on three dimensions, it’s interesting to see how movement obviously played into David's initial thought process.  The monster’s thin arms and curved, serpentine body, almost cry for motion.

Picture above: Using a simple design (without legs) of an alien/lizard creature David shows the rewards and challenges of rod puppetry without having to deal with the issue of locomotion.

Pictured above: WED clay, a fast molding clay that doesn't need to be heated, allows for a quick build up of forms on the wire base structured on the proportions of the design.

Pictured above: The completed WED clay creature sculpture, sealed and ready for molding.


After molding the puppet sculpture with fiberglass, David heads right into creating the armature that will be the interior skeleton that actually moves the puppet.  Things as simple as using a bicycle brake to open and close the jaw, and a toilet tube as the flexible spine of the monster are such a joy to watch because of their simplicity.  And then watching everything from the creation of all the articulation points, down to spray painting the armature the same color as the silicone, become pieces of such a fluid journey that you can’t wait for it all to be complete.

Pictured above: David traces the mold separation line (case line) to determine where the seams should go to minimize undercuts during the mold-making process

Pictured above: Some glued together paint stir sticks allows the mold wall to be a thinner layer of clay while a layer of aluminum foil keeps moisture from leeching from the clay into the wood.

Pictured above: Monzingo roughs in the clay wall around the creature's hand. The next step is to smooth the wall down with a kidney tool.

Picture above: Before applying the fiberglass, Monzingo paints on a surface coat of resin to capture detail.

Pictured above: Fiberglass applied in sheets on top of the still-wet polyester resin adheres to the sculpture forming the hard mold itself.  David used 3 layers with a 4th on the flanges of the mold.

Picture above: Monzingo adds the final layer of glass to the fiberglass mold.

Pictured above: The demolding process can be nerve-wracking. It's the moment of truth before you can tell if your casting was successful.

Pictured above: Suspending a flexible plumbing hose using metal braces across the chest cavity keeps the spine from floating loose inside the mold.

Pictured above: A bike-break cable provides the jaw-opening action to pull the custom aluminum, brass and piano wire jaw hinge.

Pictured above: Monzingo "suspends" the armature inside the mold with wires so that it will be properly placed inside the puppet once he begins the silicone casting process.


Finally, after the silicone casting process, which seals the articulated skeleton into the creature, as well as the final touches of cleaning and painting, the monster reveals itself.  David finishes with a lesson on how to maneuver the rods to animate the puppet.  This is when the creature comes to life.  It’s truly amazing what only three rods and a handle can do.  Put this guy in front of a green screen, and this slimy monster could be 50 feet tall and 100% believable.

Pictured above: Mixing silicone thoroughly is a critical step to guarantee an even casting without air pockets.

Pictured above: Monzingo injects the silicone into the mold.

Pictured above: Once the back of the mold comes you can use a bit of isopropyl alcohol at the flashing points to help ease out the front part of the mold, and use a scissors to trim off the flashing.

Pictured above: Monzingo tests the jaw mechanism to make sure everything is seated properly inside the silicone casting.

Pictured above: Once the rods and mechanisms are attached you need to familiarize yourself with the puppet by moving it around and determining what looks natural, learning its limits and capabilities.

Pictured above: The more you rehearse with your puppet, the better the performance. And in the end, performance is everything.


When all is said and done, you’ll realize how effective rod puppets & Monzingo's techniques are for even those new to Creature Effects.  If it worked for the ALIENS 1/4 scale Alien Queen, it’ll work for you.  Give it a shot.

Check out the full lesson HERE.

-Jeff Dixon