About a year ago, I started dreaming up an idea for an interactive puppet that would push my skills to the limit and, most importantly, would be more dynamic then anything I had been able to produce so far. I tend to obsess over artwork. Many projects rattle around in my mind for months, if not years, before one comes to fruition. Marching up and down my street getting comfortable on stilts and occasionally surprising second floor residents, I knew this project was going to be a fantasy creature that involved the peg stilts. I eventually settled on a giant bird.
Preparing for such a creature takes time. Using peg stilts is tricky business. Peg stilts fix the ankle into one non-moveable position. As a result much of the stilt-walkers movement is like a waddling duck. This creates a completely different sensation than walking. While the whole leg is used, the small muscle that runs down the outside from the hip to the knee, specifically Tensor Fascia Latae, is used much more than normal. In addition, the user’s legs are very active at all times. Even when it looks like the stilt-walker is not moving, having only two small points to balance on means the user must have very active stabilizer muscles throughout the entire body to remain balanced.
Since I had a desire for having more stilt projects, as well as other zany projects, physical training over the last year has included leg work outs (bazillions of squats) and a focus on muscle gain. It might seem odd in a world where we are bombarded with weight loss advertising that I would have to focus on weight gain, but my overall lower weight was a significant concern of my doctor, particularly with some of the activities that are planned for the future. Healthy weight gain is a very slow process of diet tracking, constant measurements, and a darn good coach.
Ideas usually start out as a daydream. Then they go through various evolutions on paper, random doodles on wipe boards throughout the house, and, quite often, miniature sculptures made from scrap materials.
The hardest element to integrate with this costume was the saddle. For that I needed an expert so www.AgnesMakes.com happily jumped in to work on the project. It is great when we can combine our skills and work together. Using vinyl, foam, leather and what felt like 5 lbs of glue, Agnes designed the saddle to be functional, yet carry an element of realism, neatly fitting into Gertrude’s plans. While Agnes diligently worked away, I created hand forged stirrups from the coal forge at Kwartzlab. Traditionally, one isn’t supposed to paint coal forged items, but getting a bit of shine and protecting them from the elements was key.
Testing is also quite important. Everything has to fit well. If something feels a bit uncomfortable on a test run, the pain at an event can be anguishing given the duration. Large projects take careful planning, and, as Louis Pasteur said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”
To finish the saddle we also created a set of fake legs from a combination of leather boots and tough cotton pants. This frees my own legs to work on the stilts as if they are Gertrude’s. A casual observer can see what’s going on of course, so we are all playing a fun game of pretend. Being able to interact with a giant balloon creature is so unusual we can set aside our preconceived notions of what a balloon is and just enjoy this special moment with the family.
Yes, this is the glamorous world of entertaining… Once Gertrude the balloon creature is built, it takes a minimum of two people about 20 minutes to assemble and attach every element. Stilt projects usually require the roof of an SUV or Van in order to get assembled; yet, for all the time it takes, Gertrude is worth it. Linda, Gertrude and I had an enormous amount of fun on our first trip out together.
Gertrude is a fully functioning puppet with a workable head, neck and mouth. She is designed to surprise, delight and interact with audiences of all ages. On her first official evening out, we learned that Gertrude is a bit mischievous, sneaking cotton candy when she could and startling parents when they weren’t looking. Gertrude’s movements are very quiet and, as a result, she can slowly lean her head into a parental conversation. Amusingly, these sneaky movements are watched by fixated children, probably because there’s nothing like watching your own parents release a startled squealing jump.
Gertrude is also very gentle, making sure that the youngest of viewers can give her an affectionate rub. She had a lot of fun with many children that evening, and she even played a real game of Peek-a-boo with a four year old girl. I will remember that interaction forever.
Gertrude is back in her stable now enjoying a break from the public. My youngest son was feeding her some of her favourite red balloons last night. Sometimes I wonder where my larger balloon characters go; much like Pengu’s adventures in Las Vegas, I hope they live on in the minds of others.
Gertrude is different as she will be back, many, many times. Her potential to delight, entertain, and be truly memorable is staggering. We are focused on advancing her character even further with animation and electronics over the coming months. Her next public arrival will be announced.
Drew Ripley is a full time Professional Balloon Artist, and Kwartzlab member.
He can be reached at:
519 500 6640 www.drewripley.com
Twitter: @DrewRipley Facebook: Drew Ripley Entertainment