Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Creating the Spitting Image Characters

Jethro Crabb is a sculptor who has made realistic heads for Madame Tussauds. Here's his Instagram top nine. 

He also has sculpted caricature heads for the British TV puppet series Spitting Image

I was curious what went into the design and operation of those caricature puppets, so I asked Jethro about the process.

Jethro says: "The process of making a puppet started with a set of caricature drawings. These drawings essentially designed the look of the caricature. I mainly worked from drawings by Adrian Teal." 
Drawing of Prince Charles and the Coronavirus by Adrian Teal

"He has an amazing ability to visualise caricatures from multiple points of view and make them seem convincing. It was an absolute dream to work from these drawings. There was plenty of leeway to interpret these designs in 3D and I felt that I was walking the line between staying faithful to the style of the original puppets and the design whilst adding my own sculpting style." 

Royal pair sculpted by Jethro Crabb for Spitting Image

"I admire simplicity in sculpture and am particularly drawn to the brutally simple abstracted forms of some traditional African wood carving. My caricature sculpture is influenced by this look. I try to make the large forms very simple and rely on large flat planes and simple shapes interacting together in a dynamic and interesting way. I have always admired the raw energy in the Spitting Image puppets, they do have a brutal, carved quality. They are not over detailed or polished. We only had about 4 days to sculpt each head so this helped with keeping them fresh and not overworked. It was also challenging at times, because if something started to go wrong with the sculpt there wasn’t much time to change it. Personally, I really enjoy working in this quick way as it is a change of pace from my portrait sculpture - a bit more exciting and dynamic."

Any special challenges in interpreting Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Prince Charles, or any of the others you've done?

"Interestingly, I found some of the most obviously caricaturable faces more difficult to do. I wrestled a lot with the Prince Charles sculpt. It just wasn’t working for me. Only near the end did I realise that his ears needed to be placed higher up on his head. So I cut off the clay ears and stuck them back on higher up. Suddenly, there he was- the future king!" 

"When sculpting Elon Musk I had in mind the Tesla truck design. Again, I really like the simplicity of it and wanted Musk’s head to reflect this severe angular design. I was really pleased with how it came out.

Jeff Bezos head sculpted by Jethro Crabb for Spitting Image, 
designed by Adrian Teal, coloured by Grace Cominsky 

I've heard caricaturists say that the bizarre personages in politics these days actually make the job of the caricaturist and impressionist harder because the real figures already are so exaggerated. Do you agree?

"I think with the larger-than-life personalities in politics and the public eye at the moment it can be harder for writers and impressionists to satirize them. I think for the caricaturist it doesn’t necessarily represent a greater challenge. We are just looking at the physical form of people and exaggerating or subverting existing characteristics. When sculpting a caricature or portrait of a famous person, I stop thinking of their personality quite quickly and instead enjoy getting lost in the experience of them as a collection of forms and shapes." 

Olly Taylor who worked on Spitting Image as a puppeteer shared some insights about the puppeteering technique. I wondered how are the hands are coordinated with the shoulders and head. The hands are able to coordinate interactive hand actions pretty effectively, which wasn't so possible for the Muppet way of doing things, where different performers worked the right and left hands. How were they performed?

Olly says: "There will be a lead performer on each character who will have their dominant hand in the head and then their other hand in the puppet’s hand. A second performer will perform the other hand. Sometimes the second puppeteer will perform both hands dependent on the action." 

Eye mechanism and latex skin of Spitting Image puppet, 

Many of the puppets can do eye blinks and / or eye turns. How is that accomplished? Do you have photos of the armature and mechanics inside? Is there radio control involved?

"With respect to the eyes the same mechanism from the 80s series was used again. A cable mechanism to move the eyes and a squeeze bulb to blink them. Often there would be a third puppeteer on the eye mechanism. However in busier scenes, [with] several characters, the second puppeteer who is performing a hand would use the eyes mechanisms in their spare hand. 

As you can see it’s a very collaborative way of performing. It’s requires great skill for those following the lead puppeteer on any character to make the performance of all the parts coherent and reflective of the character performance itself.”

How many major puppet characters are there? What considerations go into choosing which celebrities and politicians get built?

"I think there were around 100 puppets made for the new series. I don’t know how these characters were decided on."
Follow Spitting Image on Instagram


Ashutosh said...

hey sir,
thank you for constantly providing us these beautiful works for years and years.
I really appreciate your work .

Vladimir Venkov said...

Thank you James! Jethro is very good of not only copying the features but somehow injecting live in into his scultures.
Btw Jethro Crabb's link at the beginning of the article doesn't work.