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Puppet Kaos - where Kelvin Kao plays with puppets and tell random stories

New Microphone: Blue Snowball

I bought a Blue Snowball last week.

So I was at Mary Robinette Kowal‘s blog listening to the audio fiction she recorded to test out her new microphone. I thought it sounded pretty good. I am not sure if it’s the microphone or it’s her voice, but you know how people buy Air Jordans and thinking they can play better basketball as long as they put on those shoes, or buy Proactiv so they can look like Jessica Simpson? I am no different. Maybe this microphone is exactly what I need to make myself sound better!

All kidding aside, I was already looking into buying a new microphone to replace my cheapo 20-dollar Sony F-V220 that I’ve been using. So if someone recommends one, I’ll look into it. I found mostly pretty good reviews about it, and I like what people said about the functionalities, so I went ahead and ordered one.

A few days later the package arrived at my door (yay, new toy!). I gave it a test-run. Here’s some random crap I made up on the spot and recorded in one take while talking to myself:

Of course, I’ve only used this microphone for about half an hour so I can’t say that I know everything about the microphone. But I what I noticed was that the Snowball is better than my old microphone in two things that I used to have to be very careful about. One is the hard P. I used to puff a lot of air when I say my P sounds into a microphone. I’ve been more careful about it to not do it so much, but I still do it every now and then. I don’t have a puff screen so I tend to just wrap the top of the microphone in a thin piece of tissue paper. When I used the Snowball, I noticed that it did a good job of wind resistance. It didn’t pick up much of that. Two, the other thing that I used to have to be very careful with was holding the microphone still. A small change in the way I hold the microphone during the recording could turn into a big noise in my old one, but the Snowball handled that aspect pretty well. Not sure if it’s because I have a stand to hold or because it was designed well that way. But either way, it’s nice to be able to not worry about those things during a recording.

As for the sound quality itself, it’s an improvement. I don’t consider it a huge improvement, but there’s improvement. My old microphone picks up 100-12000 Hz, and the Snowball’s frequency range is 40-18000 Hz, so that’s definitely bigger. The human voice frequency is 300-3000 Hz, though, so that falls within the frequencies of both. The fundamental frequency are 85-155 Hz for males and 165-255 Hz and for females. I haven’t really measure mine so I don’t know where it is. Would be interesting to find out one day, though. The new microphone with higher frequency range will likely pick up more resonance though.

Another thing that’s handy about the microphone was that you can switch between uni-directional and omni-directional easily, which was handy for using it in different situations. The only complain so far was that I couldn’t get it to work right away in Cubase. I need to look into the settings some more. I had a hard time getting things to work in Cubase in general anyway.

And here’s a recording of a song that I heard in elementary school. I believe it was in English but I knew no English back then. If anyone can help me identify the song, it would be awesome. 😀

How about this? If you can name it, I’ll send you five bucks.

Writer’s Block (a different kind of)

Ever experienced writer’s block? Most of us have the experience of trying to write something, but cannot think of anything good to write. However, I’m going to talk about another kind of writer’s block, and I will just call it writer’s block due to the lack of a better term.

Let me explain. There are many times that I have story ideas, or song ideas, that are either too hard to produce or will take too long. But these things tend to excite me so much that I could not come up with other story ideas while those are waiting to be done. In a way, the ideas that I come up with first, but have not yet finished, will occupy my brain until they are done. I might have several of these ideas that come to me at around the same time, and they will create some kind of mental congestion (hm, what about we call it writer’s congestion?) that blocks new ideas from being generated.

In a way, it’s annoying because I will not be able to (or at least, I have to try really hard to) work on new stuff if the old isn’t cleared out. But also, in a way, it’s good because it pushes me to either to dump the old stuff out on paper or keep refining it in my head (and get me more excited about the ideas meanwhile). I am also this way with blog posts. Some people say that you should have several posts saved up so you can use them when you can’t think of anything. But for me, if I don’t finish the old thoughts, I have a hard time coming up with new ones. And if new ones will only come when I finish the old ones, then I will have new ones and don’t need the saved up ones… sort of a circular logic, isn’t it?

I know for a fact that the way I think differ from many people, but I suspect that other people might have gone down this path too. Is it just me? Or you too? Have you experienced this kind of writer’s block or congestion?

Why Being a Puppeteer Is Like Being A Director

Last time we talked about why being a puppeteer is like being an actor, but something I’ve realized is that being a puppeteer is a lot like being a director too! (Actually this is more related to video puppetry than live puppetry, because in video puppetry, the director can stop the camera any time to give directions.) Here’s why:

1. You Get to Watch the Performance

When actors perform, unless there is a giant mirror in front of them, they can only imagine what their performances look like. Even if there’s a mirror in front of him, he can’t looking in it if the script calls him to look at something else (remember those videos in which people seem to be looking at teleprompters?). In video puppetry, ideally you would have a monitor to look at. This monitor is either the camera’s LCD panel or some sort of TV screen sitting on a floor showing you exactly what’s being filmed. Looking at what exactly is being shot is something normally only the director can do (okay, and the cameraman and maybe the continuity supervisor and so on, but not the actors themselves). While the actors need the director to tell them what looked good and what they should change in the next take, puppeteers make their own observations and make some corrections as they go.

2. You Get to Frame the Shot

The director decides what’s visible within the rectangle and the relative positions of how the props and performers are going to appear. While this is the director’s decision, they can only give you the big picture (no pun intended) so there are some fine details that you might need to decide yourself. For example, when a puppet is walking across, he will bounce up and down. The director can tell you where to start, where to end, and which part of the frame to occupy, but something like how much to bounce up and down and how much of the puppet is visible at any given time is simply too many details to communicate sometimes. In that sense, since the puppeteer is able to see the whole frame, he can sometimes help with the composition of the picture too.

3. Sometimes, You ARE Directing Yourself

Sometimes, the director is simply not as familiar with puppetry as you are. When they want a cry to be bigger, they might be able to tell the actor how to do that, but they might not know what’s the equivalent for the puppet. In that case, a puppeteer will need to direct himself.

Of course, for every project to turn out well, you need everyone on the team to put in good work. I am definitely not saying that a director can be replaced with a puppeteer because they are still different jobs that require different skills. What I am pointing out, is that there are some aspect of a puppeteer’s work that are similar to that of the director’s, and by noticing that, we just might make the final product better. :-)

Related post:

Why Being a Puppeteer is like Being an Actor

Why Being a Puppeteer Is Like Being An Actor

Being a puppeteer is a lot like being an actor. Your goal is to bring a believable character to life for the audience to watch, whether on stage or on film. The purpose is the same but how you do it is somewhat different. Here are the things that both a puppeteer and an actor would need to do:
(For the purpose of this discussion, we assume that the puppeteer is working with a Muppet-type puppet… one with moving mouth and arms.)

1. You Display Facial Expressions

mac_happy.jpgAn actor feels an emotion, whether from interactions with characters in the plot or from past memories, and then he shows that on his face. He does this by using facial muscles. He can create a smile, a frown, a tear and so on, and you get to watch it and feel it.

mac_sad.jpgA puppeteer, however, will need to show the emotions on the puppet’s face instead of his own, so whatever the character is feeling needs to be transferred to the puppet’s face via the puppeteer’s arm and hand. A puppet doesn’t have facial muscles, but it does have a mouth. By opening the mouth to different sizes and tilting the head to different angles, you can create a bunch of different facial expressions. A wide-open mouth shows you a happy puppet. A closed mouth arched upwards shows discontent. A head looking downward and sometimes slightly to the side as well shows a puppet feeling sad or feeling down. A mouth might not be much to work with compared to real facial muscles, but if you can use two dots and one line to draw a basic smiley, a mouth that you can open and tilt is plenty to work with!

2. You Ultilize Body Movements

mac_head.jpg Besides facial expressions, we also use body movements and gestures to convey emotions and intentions.mac_scratch.jpg An actor can show aggression by leaning forward and getting into another character’s space, or he can look around and be hesitant in his movements when he is not feeling all that confident. The same idea can also been done with puppets, although some of the movements aren’t quite the same. For example, Muppet-style puppets don’t have legs. The movements you can do, unless you specifically rig the puppets, are limited to the upper body. However, puppets are also capable of doing certain moves that’s impossible for a human actor to do such as twisting their necks and arms at weird angles. Sure, a contortionist might be able to do the same thing, but when puppets do them it looks funnier and less painful.

3. You Provide a Voice

This one is more self-explanatory. If you have a speaking role, you need to create a voice for them. With puppets, you usually look at them and figure out what kind of voice that puppet would have (or you can also do one that has a totally different feel from the puppet to create an element of surprise). Some say that once you can figure out a character’s laugh, then you already know a lot about the character. I agree with that, because a laugh tells you a lot about how much inhibition a character can let go.

It might be more or less obvious why a puppeteer is like an actor, because they are the ones bringing on the performance for you to watch on stage or on screen. Next time we’ll talk about why a puppeteer is like a director. Stay tuned. :-)

What inspired me to write each episode (11-15)

Episode 11: The Truth Behind Halloween

South Park has this episode called Fantastic Easter Special which is a spoof of the Da Vinci code, and it’s about the conspiracy and secret behind Easter. I thought it would be fun to do an episode about the real story behind Halloween as well, because everyone loves a good conspiracy. Also I wanted to do a news magazine type episode, along with some tooth fairy jokes. So I threw it together and it became the longest episode so far.

Episode 12: Daylight Saving

This was inspired by daylight saving time… which I sort of celebrate by watching the time jump suddenly an hour forward or backward on my computer. It’s sort of a surreal experience and sometimes I’m more hyped about it than new year. So I just had to do one episode about daylight saving. And this is another example of how puppets can just do whatever and get away with it (saving up daylight? Oh really?).

Video Special: Enchant This!

This was sort of an ad / trailer / fan video for LCC Theatre Company‘s production “Enchant This!” Some of the video footages from past shows are from YouTube. They were blurry and there were some artifacts from the website that I used to grab YouTube videos and convert them into formats I can actually use in my video editor. If I were to do this again, I would’ve done a much better job with the video quality though, because I’ve figured out a better system.

Episode 13: Tis the Season to be Charlie

This was done around Christmas time so I wanted to include puppets singing Christmas songs that are not quite Christmas songs. I was listening to Christmas songs and I could sworn one of the guy sang “Tis the season to be Charlie” as opposed to “jolly” so I sort of based the episode on that. It’s also partly inspired by the Charlie the Unicorn which had been viral on the internet.

Episode 14: Tofu

This was also made around Christmas time so we were listening to Christmas music at work. And again, I changed the lyrics of one line and that idea amused me enough to make a song out of it. Men hunting for tofu had always been an idea that amused me and wanted to make true on video. I was going to do flash animation but later I figured that shadow puppets would be faster. Was shadow puppets faster to do? I’m actually not sure but I definitely had more fun making shadow puppets. This happened to be picked up by several vegan sites and became the most viewed episode so far. That was a pleasant surprise.

Episode 15: Godfather Nightmares

This was inspired by work, sort of. So at work we were working on this Godfather game, so we watched the film again (more of an excuse than real research). The very classic horsehead scene had been a subject of parodies in many cases, including a commercial from the most recent Super Bowl. I thought I’d do my own version too. Also I was getting back into watching the old Twilight Zone episodes at that time. I love the old black and white Twilight Zone. They didn’t have that many special effects available to them back then, but the writing is so good. They can totally play with your mind, create that eerie feeling, and make you think about the what-if’s. The show is totally awesome. Also, due to the success of the last episode, and some stuff I’ve been reading, I’ve decided to try to keep the episodes even shorter and snappier. I tried to crank up the tempo, cut down the set-up time, go straight to the main story, and keep the episode more focused with less random talking head chitchat, and I liked the final product.

Related Posts:
What inspired me to write each episode (1-5)
What inspired me to write each episode (6-10)
Episode 11: The Truth Behind Halloween
Episode 12: Daylight Saving
Video Special: Enchant This!
Episode 13: Tis the Season to be Charlie
Episode 14: Tofu
Episode 15: Godfather Nightmares

How I Made My Shadow Puppet Show in My Bedroom

Time to wrap up on these shadow puppets related posts!

In Episode 14: Tofu, Mac and Cheese and Bottle Monster talk about how Soy Milk is made. There’s a dramatization of the whole history and I was originally going to do it using flash animations. Later I decide that it would take me too long. So what’s the alternative? I was going to do paper cutouts and then move them around as puppets, and then an idea hit me: why don’t I do shadow puppets instead? That was definitely an exciting idea for me.

I decide to do this in the style of Chinese shadow puppets. You need three things, essentially. You need a screen, some puppets, and a light source. I already have a lamp (duh) so now all I need is a screen and some puppets.

The Screen:

shadow puppet screenIn Chinese shadow puppetry, the screen is traditionally a thinned layer of animal skin. I guess back then that was the best material they can find. Nowadays it’s probably some synthetic material. Either way, it needs to be semi-transparent. It should be transparent enough to show the shadows and opaque enough so the sticks, rods, and puppeteers controlling the puppets are not showing. Originally I was considering using tracing paper but I couldn’t find any in my local pharmacy. I just decided to go with a piece of paper towel. That’s probably the best choice at my place that’s the right degree of transparency.

Shadow puppet screen set-upInstead of a fancy stage, I was just going to make some kind of frame out of cardboard. After all, this is going to be on video, not in front of a crowd. And then I realized that I should just tape that paper towel between two lamps (apparently I have quite a few lamps in my room due to all the filming I do). Shine a light (or two) behind it and that’s our screen. So, was paper towel a good choice? Yes and no. It was the right degree of transparency I want. It was the right size. It was easy to obtain, and it even has an interesting texture to it. But there is a problem: The puppets tend to get stuck in it. In that case, maybe other kind of paper that offers a smooth surface would’ve been a better choice. The puppets probably would’ve moved a little more if I wasn’t having trouble unsticking them, particularly with the shot in which an arrow or spear was flying across the scene.

I didn’t really try this out, but I think tracing paper would’ve been a much better choice. If that was too transparent, you can always layer it with a piece of paper towel. Maybe printing paper would work, too, but I didn’t try.

The Puppets:

Again, traditionally they are made of leather due to the lack of other durable materials. Since I don’t have leather and I’m not about to go buy any, I use what I use all the time: index cards. I seriously use index cards for everything. I use them to write to-do lists that I carry around in my pocket. I use them to write down directions when I go somewhere. I use them for puppets’ eyes. And then now I am using them to make shadow puppets.

First you want to draw your design on the index card. I use a permanent marker. Now you want your design to be connected and in one piece. Look at this following picture. The face on the left has all the parts connected so it’s one piece. The one on the right is not a good design, because once you cut out all the white parts, the eyes and mouth will fall out.


And a blank face is just not flattering in any way.

Once you have the design, carefully cut out all the white parts with an Xacto knife. I bought mine at a local pharmacy.

Careful not to cut yourself. And if you don’t want to damage your table, put some newspapers in between the index card and the table. (That’s a well-known trick to Taiwanese students who had crafts classes in elementary school. I don’t know if American kids do this since we seem to be more scared of kids cutting themselves or others in class over here.)

And then you want to attach the paper cut out to a stick/rod. I use bamboo skewers… same thing I used for arm rods for the other puppets. In this picture, the paper fastener go through a hole on the paper cut-out and then I tape the paper fastener to the bamboo skewer. Later I decided that these paper fasteners look a little too big, and the purpose for using them is to make the puppets more flexible for motions, but that was kinda lost when they are stuck in the paper towel. I started to leave small tabs on top of the cut-outs so I can just fold that little tab over and tape it to the bamboo skewer. Normally I would probably use a glue gun but someone borrowed it at that moment.

hand holding shadow puppet.jpg

So that’s it. Put the lights behind the screen and then put the puppets in between. Now let the show start!

Related posts:
Episode 14: Tofu
Shadow Puppets: The Best Anti-depressant
Chinese Shadow Puppets

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