Puppet design: Giving Weena and Erna makeovers

You may have noticed that Weena and Erna look different between the House Party episode and the Greenwashing episode — between the summer and fall 2009 seasons. We gave them makeovers! This wasn’t just to make them prettier, though; there were some practical reasons why we did it.

We were amateur puppet builders and puppeteers, so as puppets, Erna and Weena had a lot of problems. Their arms were too long, and Weena’s came out of her chest rather than from a place that would look like “shoulders.”

The very beginning of Weena, mouth and arms only. Trivia: Weena and Erna's heads are both made out of bras. We figured the foam would have the right curve, but still be flexible enough to make for expressive puppets. Sadly, it is to blame for Erna's lopsided "stroke" look....

Trivia: Weena and Erna's heads are both made out of bras. We figured the foam would have the right curve, but still be flexible enough to make for expressive puppets. Sadly, it is to blame for Erna's lopsided "stroke" look....

Their heads were hard to manipulate; Erna’s mouth drooped, so it always looked like she might have had a stroke.

The Erna puppet was originally built with big, round, bear-like ears which Abby transformed into cuter littler ears. This picture was taken before her face fur was shaved down to its beige undercoat to make her more expressive.

The Erna puppet was originally built with big, round, bear-like ears which Abby transformed into cuter littler ears. This picture was taken before her face fur was shaved down to its beige undercoat to make her more expressive.

And, of course, there was the classic handstick problem: we didn’t have any idea how to make handsticks (which most puppeteers call “arm rods”) so the puppets’ hands wouldn’t fall off of them every other minute.

Gus primps Weena and Erna, who are only half-built, in July 2008.

Gus primps Weena and Erna, who are only half-built, in July 2008.

Gus contemplates a half-finished Weena puppet.

Gus contemplates a half-finished Weena puppet.

So for the new season, we did make new arm rods, shorten both puppets’ arms, and move Weena’s patches around so her arms were attached more where a person’s arms would be. Erna got a new, preppier outfit.

We had gotten feedback that it was hard to see Weena’s eyes, and it was sort of hurting her expressiveness. So out went the eyes that had been salvaged from a teddybear found in a trash pile in Harlem (!) and in went some brighter, yellow eyes. Weena’s new eyes are cool, but they also had no eyelids — so you could really see it clearly when she wasn’t looking ahead of her, like she should be if she were a person. When a puppet talks to the camera but the puppeteer hasn’t positioned her so her eyes are looking horizontally ahead — and this happens to Muppeteers as well as to us — it can look like she’s staring off into space! This continues to be a problem with Weena. I’ve had to fix it mostly by making absolutely sure my hand is at the right angle (which hurts a lot after a while), having the intern or camera person watch to make sure I’m looking the right way, and sometimes redoing a shot that didn’t look so great for that reason.

Erna doesn’t have that line-of-sight problem, but she does have another one. Because her eyes are blue and reflective, they sometimes key out when we use the greenscreen, leaving her with scary holes where her eyes should be!

One day, when filming an interview for the Film and Education Research Academy blog, cameraman and friend of the show Robert Branch delivered another blow to our self-image as puppet builders: while he thought the puppets were cool, their look was terrible for online video. Video records the difference between frames pixel by pixel. When you have a really busy pattern, like stripes or tiny dots — or the houndstooth check and tons of tiny details on Weena — the recorder has to record a LOT of information about how each one of those pixels changes from frame to frame while the puppets move around. Those video files add up! Robert suggested we should have made the puppets solid colors, so that there would be less change in the color range onscreen (when the puppets were holding still, at least!)

Despite this advice from Robert and our knowledge of what else was wrong, we still made some decisions that ignored this wisdom when we made the changes for the Fall 2009 season. Erna got a new hat. It was really helpful for when she was greenscreened (edge thinning had been taking off some of her lovely fur when we did that), but the hat we finally found that matched her outfit was plaid — again, a lot of little stripes for the camera to keep track of.

Ultimately, though, we couldn’t decide: were we going to sacrifice our ideas for who the puppets were, what those characters would want to wear, and what they should look like in order to make for better digital video? What do you think? What would you do?