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  • Making the wig for Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005). Image COURTESY MACKINNON & SAUNDERS

Puppet Masters

by Julia Jarvis-Knell

In anticipation of Real to Reel: The Craft Film Festival, Crafts magazine talks to puppet makers Ian Mackinnon & Peter Saunders who will be holding a talk as part of the festival.

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The adage ‘the patience of a saint’ seems perfectly suited to the career of a puppet maker. Each project means the creation of a unique set of hand-crafted characters. There are clear constraints working to scale with tiny components, hand-painting slithers that will become a puppet’s eyelids, tension wires that must be threaded through puppet fingers, perfectly aligned to ensure the wires don’t stick through the puppet’s skin. Every detail must be as perfect at scale as when it is viewed in action on the big screen. In short, puppet making is a career for the dedicated, patient, meticulous and obsessed.

Ian Mackinnon and Peter Saunders have made a career of puppet making. Their figures have starred in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996), Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012), and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), as well as a huge amount of British children’s animation over the years, including Bob the Builder, Raa Raa the Noisy Lion, The Clangers and Rastamouse to mention just a few.

They both learnt their craft at Cosgrove Hall Productions, a children’s television company in Manchester that produced some of the best-loved animated children’s series of the 1970s and 80s, from Noddy to The Wind in the Willows and Chorlton and the Wheelies.

Adjusting the tension of the mechanism inside Mr Fox for Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox (2009) . Image COURTESY MACKINNON & SAUNDERS

Both makers have always had an affinity with puppets: for Saunders, it was Harryhausen films and the original King Kong that sparked his imagination, while Mackinnon was drawn to hand puppets growing up, The Muppets, Sooty and Bagpuss. Neither expected to make a career in it: ‘Nobody from Rochdale ever went to work in the film industry,’ remarks Saunders wryly. ‘I was just very lucky that one of the directors of Cosgrove Hall saw my work and said, “we’ll offer you five weeks’ work and pay you out of petty cash”.’ It was the beginning of a working relationship that would last for 15 years.

For Mackinnon, it was Saunders’s sister, also working in animation, who spotted some of his work in a school arts competition and suggested he contact her brother. After three months at art college, Saunders suggested Mackinnon might like to work with a friend of his in London. ‘It was very exciting, my first paid job was for Gerry Anderson, who did Thunderbirds and a lot of shows that I’d grown up with,’ he says.

Testing the flexibility of Blink’s Isla puppet for The Supporting Act. Image COURTESY MACKINNON & SAUNDERS

From 1985 to the early 90s the duo worked for Cosgrove Hall Productions, a wholly owned subsidiary of Thames Television. It was a purple patch for British animation, ‘a time where projects were getting commissioned and there was a growing interest in the animation discipline’, explains Mackinnon. ‘People had time to develop their skills and to learn the craft of puppet making and stop-frame animation. It was like being paid to go to animation university in a way, it developed this hub of animation talent in the North West.’ It was not to last. Cosgrove Hall was wound down over a period of a few years when Thames Television lost its franchise. So, in 1992, the pair decided to set up their own puppet-making company.

Mackinnon & Saunders don’t necessarily make what you might think of as a puppet. They are not string puppets like Pinocchio or those manipulated using rods connected to their arms, like Jim Henson’s Muppets. Theirs have hinged metal skeletons with ball-and-socket joints, alongside all sorts of wire and tension cabling in their hands, feet and faces that the animator can use to create the performance.

The majority of their puppets are hand-crafted and it’s a slow, collaborative process. In their workshops at any one time, there will be makers working on Plasticine sculptures, painting models, creating parts for steel armatures, designing and producing costumes, 3d-printing silicone faces, wiring head mechanisms, even spending weeks on a puppet’s hair.

This is an extract from the May/June 2018 issue of Crafts magazine which will be published 3 May 2018

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