Meet Bob Rabbit, my first stopmotion puppet. As I have alluded to before, I have dreams of creating an epic American folk musical based around animal folk songs and tales. During the 2008 election season, I was reading Br’er Rabbit stories, listening to a lot of Bob Dylan and other music from the ’60s folk revival, and thinking about the election of Barack Obama as a culmination of civil rights dreams. I began connecting Br’er Rabbit characters to real figures from the civil rights movement and folk revival–the famous trickster rabbit shared the wit and wile of a young Bob Dylan; old Br’er Terrapin, the wise turtle who could outsmart all of the other animals in his own, slow way, seemed a perfect gospel preacher; Br’er Fox and Wolf took on the personalities of smarmy southern politicians.
I started making hand puppets to explore some of these character connections. My first was Bob Rabbit, the trickster/folksinger amalgamation of Dylan and Br’er Rab. Sewing a two-foot hand puppet was a long process for an amateur seamster, so completing Bob took me the better part of a year. Once he was completed, I started using him in my Jelly Jar shows (Jelly Jar is my fiance Jessie’s and my kids band). Meanwhile, I was exploring old animal folk songs that featured characters from the Br’er Rabbit tales. I discovered wonderful songs like “Mr. Rabbit,” “John the Rabbit,” and “Possum in the ‘Simmon Tree,” and decided that more urgent than my goal of creating an epic tale with all of these characters was my desire to breathe new life into these classic songs.
As I thought about what it would take to realize my vision with hand puppets, I realized I would either have to assemble a 10-piece puppetry troupe/musical group or scale down my ideas. It occurred to me that it might be time to re-explore the artform that dominated my adolescence: stopmotion animation. From 5th-7th grade, I was a stopmotion nut. I built whole cosmos in my bedroom with homemade Sculpey figures and popsicle stick sets and shot stopmotion videos on VHS and Super 8. Then I started playing guitar and that obsession took over.
Fast forward almost 15 years. My musical explorations led me to folk music and folk tales, which led me to hand puppets, which are leading me back to stopmotion. For my first stopmotion puppet, I built a 15 inch wire armature with wire of various gauges to facilitate fluid movement. I constructed a head, hands and feet out of Sculpey clay. I mounted foam on the wire frame for the torso, thighs, and upper arms. Finally I handstitched clothes for the character. This is only the first step. Next I need to make possum and raccoon puppets, buy a nice camera and some stopmotion software to make movies, and record animal folk song soundtracks. My goal is to produce a series of music videos with my puppets animating these classic songs. It will be a long process, but I will keep you posted!