What Are Little Bears Made of?
I am pretty sure that most of the children watching Colargol's adventures on TV would have loved to have had their very own stuffed Colargol teddy bear. As soon as I found my old friend again I knew that I did. However, with the resources and abilities of an adult, I was also in a position of being able to grant that wish or even better, nothing prevented me from making an actual, fully functional replica. I could hear a four years old boy whispering somewhere deep in my mind: "if you make it just right, then it might become alive like the original one". Indeed, being able to breathe the illusion of life into inanimate matter has always been the reason for why I find stop motion animation so fascinating. There appears to be a deeply symbolic connection with reality, for life only exists as movement in time and in the cold eternity between moments everything stays frozen and lifeless like a stage that its animator has forgotten. But I digress. It is not necessary to wallow in obtuse philosophy when loving the little bear is all the reason that is needed, and thus I decided to find out how stop motion puppets are made. My approach was not to create an exact replica of the original puppets used for the show. Instead, I wanted to make a puppet that could in principle be used for making animations but at the same time would serve as a travel companion.
While it is possible to make stop motion animation with all kinds of objects, a typical stop motion puppet is a rather complicated construct that hides an intricate structure under its skin. The pose of the puppet must be at the same time easily adjustable and infinitely sustainable. This requires a support structure known as armature which functions and sometimes even looks quite like an animal skeleton. The two most common armature types are twisted wire and ball joint. Most aspiring stop motion animators start with twisted wire because it is excellent for fast prototyping and provides flexibility at low cost and without special tools. The downside of a twisted wire armature is that it will inevitably break after a certain number of adjustments. This may be acceptable for minor characters, or even main ones if you are willing to mass produce identical puppets. Mr. Wilkosz has mentioned that about 120 Colargol puppets were used for the production of the series! On the other hand a ball joint armature comes with a significantly higher initial cost but provides at least an order of magnitude more mileage.
When evaluating the alternatives I first ruled out a full twisted wire design because of the durability issue. Replacing the entire armature because of a snapped leg while traveling abroad with the puppet just wasn't an option. Lacking suitable machining tools, I shortly entertained the idea of a plastic (Lego Bionicle) or even wooden armature before finding what was needed from an unexpected place - an off-the-shelf vise grip soldering stand at an electronics store. I bought and disassembled two of them, replaced the wingnuts with M04 machine screws and nylon lock nuts, and after cutting some of the parts to the required measure and augmenting the set with pieces of aluminium sheet and 1/2" tube from a hobby shop I was looking at a sturdy armature just short of hands. I then made the hands from 1/16" annealed aluminium wire that should suffice for the time being but I hope to be able to make fully ball jointed hands at some point. The fixed size of the ball joint parts dictated the size of the finished puppet; at 26 cm it is somewhat taller than the original.
I sculpted the skull out of EPS foam and glued an aluminium tube inside it to distribute the torsion. The tube was attached to the armature with a screw that can be reached through a small hole that is hidden behind the hair at the back of the skull so that the head can be taken out for maintenance when necessary. After that I made the stuffing out of soft PU foam which was rather difficult to sculpt even with a sharp razor because it would yield rather than cut.
Then came the really difficult part, finding proper surface materials. I have never seen an actual Colargol puppet outside a TV or computer screen, and thus had to make decisions based on images and video clips found on the net, most of them with atrocious image quality and color balance issues. The issue was further complicated because, apparently, textile work as a hobby is in decline in Finland and shops mostly cater to those who want to sew some curtains or knit a stylish pullover. Even in the capital region with the best array of hobby shops it took me several weeks to find a piece of fur and matching yarn that were anywhere close to the original color. Eventually I had to go with mohair fur that was a shade too dark and slightly too long, straight, thin and glossy, with unpleasantly unyielding base fabric. Although the yarn was an almost perfect match for the original model it left me with a noticeable color discrepancy because the fur was less than perfect in this regard.
I'm still unsure about the actual color of Colargol's paws. Depending on the image, they can be anywhere between light and dark brown to dark purplish gray, and the base material is not immediately apparent. This is where I made a conscious deviation from the original design and crafted the paws out of black felt to give them better contrast against the rather dark fur. Likewise, the nose of the original model might be made of some rather glossy material like leather but I was unable to confirm it either way and made one out of pink felt, for the time being. I didn't have any predefined cut patterns for various pieces. Instead, I just cut and sewed around the core structure as the work progressed. I also prepared a number of mouths of different shapes and sizes out of red felt; these can be fixed to the proper place with a small pin.
The last but certainly not the least important detail was to make the eyes. After browsing through available button models I realized that the only way to get what I wanted was to make them myself. For this purpose oven hardened polymer modeling clay is an ideal material and it appears that the original Colargol used a rather simple design. Unlike the common ball-and-socket model that can be swiveled freely, Colargol's eyes were essentially fixed and the rare cases when he took a sideways glance could be implemented by replacing the eyes with a special set. I used the same approach and attached the handmade and lacquered eyes to the skull with magnets, thus making them easy to swap if needed. Counting all parts, the total cost of the materials used for the puppet was around 70 EUR though in many cases the smallest available quantity that I had to buy would have been enough for 10 puppets or more!
When the time came to put everything together a quite literally large mistake became apparent. I had forgotten to take into account the thickness of the fur when making the pieces and thus my Colargol was way too plump. To my dismay I realized that he couldn't even sit straight because his belly would be on the way! You can still see a photo of this first version on the right but soon thereafter I disassembled it and recut all the pieces. After fixing some other issues like unkempt hair (I don't know how the original Colargol kept his hair so neat but I ended up using actual hair spray) and too long fur on the face my Colargol finally started to look the way I had imagined.
This is a non-commercial tribute site. The author is not associated with Procidis France, Se-Ma-For Poland or other right holders for the original Colargol franchise. Unless otherwise indicated, all the material including the puppets is created by the author and is provided under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license. The author doesn't take any responsibility for puppets made as described above.