Attaching tentacles to the inside of a puppet/costume

Hey Folks,

  I'm a novice so I'm not familiar with the proper terms or jargon used in this industry so forgive me if I use an incorrect term or word.

In short, I want to learn how to securely install, connect, attach tentacle mechanisms into an eight-foot tree puppet made of foam so that I can move the two side branches and the roots; the branches and roots will move independently of each other.  (the suit or costume will be worn by a puppeteer)

I've already created a two-foot maquette out of clay and from that I pulled the pattern to make a two-foot version from foam.  I also made a bust so I can make a harness that will mostly carry the weight of the costume/puppet.  Although most of the weight will be from the side branches down, I plan to add wheels to help with the weight if need be.

The expectation is that this tree will be puppeteered from the inside by one person; me, if I find no other takers.  I plan to have the arms of the puppeteer, my arms, fit into the opening of the side branches and then have the tentacle mech fit from where the arm ends to the tip of the branch so only about two feet will be mech; haven't quite figured out how the root section will work, yet.

I’ve watched Richard Landon’s “Cable Mechanism Basics – Tentacles” a couple of times so I get the how to make the tentacles (I also bought the video) and I also watched Amy Whetsel’s “FX Corset Harness Fabrication” because I thought it would show me how to attach the tentacles to the inside of a costume; and, although it didn’t I learned quite a lot by watching her video.

So not sure which lessons will teach me the how-to install, attach, connect the tentacles into a foam body, the way I need them.  The videos I've skimmed over show the mech within a hard shell or body where the moving parts are all managed by a puppeteer outside the suit, not from within.

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Jose Antonio


  • Hi Jose,

    I don't know on any lessons that would apply to a challenge this specific, but I know a lot of the skills learned in them would apply here.  You've already found the tentacle and cable mechanisms lesson that covers most of what you need here, so you are off to a great start.

    Part of the challenge to me appears to be moving mechanisms inside a flexible foam suit.  Those mechanisms either need to be anchored to a rigid framework inside the tree, or to the actor.  If they ancho to the actor they will need to be able to remove from the foam tree easily.

    The branch tentacles could anchor to the actor pretty easily by making braces that go around the forearm.  Just be aware that puppeteering in that position with heavy mechanisms and the weight of the foam branches on the performer's arms would be physically demanding.  You may want to look into having an internal frame that takes some of the weight off the performer.

    This mockup shows a quick frame outline.  It could be anchored to the ground, on castor wheels to allow moving around, or free standing.  You would just need to add an access point for the performer to enter/exit, and possibly hinge the arms so they can support weight but have some movement if needed.

  • Chris,

    Thanks for the feedback, much appreciated.

    Of course, I want to make the whole costume as light as possible and still have the movements I want, but having the puppeteer be safe and comfortable is my number one priority.  I started performing in children's theater in my early twenties so safety has always been a priority.

    I personally have an issue with being restricted by having anything attached to me, within a confined space, but I appreciate the idea, and if there's no other way to do it then I'll have to get over my issue ... somehow.

    My original idea was encased within a framework but I thought that approach would restrict the body/trunk bending forward movement, I wanted something more organic.  So, I then thought I could use a harness instead and simply apply support (fiberglass rods) on the sides of the trunk allowing forward-bend movement while still helping to support the weight of the costume, somewhat.

    My original design also divided the tree into three sections, crown, trunk, and roots, and taking it one step further I thought each section's mech would attach individually.  I thought this would also help make the repairs and exchanges easier when needed.

    Yeah, I agree, casters seem to be the way to go, regardless.  I can still use them with the harness approach and help remove some of the weight off the puppeteer's shoulders.  As I'm writing this I'm realizing the root section can be a more rigid framework which will allow for the casters and even a more structural support, overall.

    As mentioned, this is mostly all new to me but I'm willing and able to learn, even at sixty and still young.  Since I have zero knowledge about servos, Arduino circuits and the like, I'm stuck using the good-old-fashioned analog method approach; head and shoulders, knees and toes.

    Again, thank you for your feedback on this.

    Jose Antonio
  • edited August 2019
    My frame suggestion was also made without knowing the specific performance needs.  I was picturing more of a stationary character with just the limbs and roots moving, which is likely not what you are after.  If this is more of a character that is designed to perform (move, bend, etc) a rigid frame would get in the way of that.

    If the performer is able to lower their arms during the performance to rest, or if the arms are not always in the raised position, you could get away without any additional support beyond that required to keep the tree trunk elevated.  For that I recommend a "drum harness," like those used in marching bands.  They can be pretty inexpensive, and give a good framework to attach supports to.  There are also some inexpensive steadicam harnesses out there that might be a good option.  A quick google shopping search will show you a lot of options for both of these. 

    For the tentacle mechanisms on the hands to work you would still need some kind of rigid support on the forearm.  This could be a simple fiberglass brace or aluminum and some straps.  It's the same as you would use for an arm extension, which this technically is.  Its purpose is to keep the tentacle in line with the forearm so you can control the wires with your fingers.

    Looks like an cool project!

  • Chris,

      Again, thank you for taking the time to answer and provide input; I know how valuable time is so I'm very grateful.

    This may sound dumb but one of the issues I've encountered is not knowing the proper words to use in searching for what I want.  I know what it is, or rather I can see the picture in my mind but not what it's called, so I've spent a lot of time searching trying to find what it is I'm looking for.

    I'm hoping it will be a cool project.  If nothing else, I'm gonna learn a lot of stuff that I'll be able to use in my other children's plays, in the future.

    This one, Brother Elm, Guardian of the Meadow, is one I've been working on for years.  I'm finally at a place where I can at least start designing and learning the how-to create the tree puppet and the other costumes for the play.

    Jose Antonio
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