Whilst I was away in New Zealand, I got contacted by a theatre friend in St Albans who knew I could make little furry animals, and wanted to know if I could make one a bit bigger.
How much bigger?
Just a touch bigger. Imagine that little girl is an actress and the bear... the bear had to be that big. This illustration is by Lisa Stubbs and is from the popular children's book Lily and the Bear. It was turned into a live action mini musical stage performance by Irrational Theatre Company, in collaboration with the publisher Boxer Books - complete with original lyrics and written music, puppets and - and here's where I come in - costumes!
[Here is where I owe an apology - my big iMac where I store all my photos is currently throwing a tantrum and I can't access my WIP shots. If, in the future, I'm able to get to them I was add them to the blog, but at the moment it will just be descriptions of the work done and a few casual photos from the final production sent by the director Paula Chitty]
In the words of the publisher, the bear was 'the most important character' in terms of translating into a live action figure. He had to be big, friendly, cuddly and most importantly, had to be the bear from Lily and the Bear, not just any old big ole fuzzy bear.
I was only making the headpiece, but it was still a big challenge. Because of the sheer size of the bear in comparison to the character of Lily, I knew it had to be a huge headpiece, and the shape of the head sloping into the shoulders and body of the bear had to be simply enormous - and not just front on either, it had to be enormous and very 3D!
There was no way this head wasn't going to be fairly heavy and very bulky, between budgets constraints and simple physics. There had to be a certain amount of straps and clasps inside the head connecting it into the body so it wouldn't tumble forward. Making something that big and bulky and also secure isn't easy!
The inside hood was made with cotton, and had a tight fit to wedge it onto the top of the head. My head is a lot smaller than a man's, so my boyfriend had a wonderful couple of days having it wedged on his head during his video games, and being asked to try and wiggle it off without using his hands. I added a chin strap and a strap on the back of the skull and sent the corresponding buckle to the costumer working on the body.
Next came the fur! I got a few metres of the shaggy faux fur sent over by the director, and was able to hunt down a very close colour match for the snout and tummy, and then the sculpting started. The snout was built up at the front of the hood using a mixture of crafted cardboard, foam and a lot of hot glue. It had to be rigid and match the shape of the illustration from every angle - which is tricky to do as each illustration is a little bit different. I padded it and draped the fur over, hand-stitching into place, before adding a nose and the smile.
Adding the sheer amount of volume of the skull was a handful, and I practically had to wrestle with it at a few points. A little craft hack for anyone who wants to make massive heads like this - I stuffed a bunch of pillow cases full and pinned them together to make sure the size was right and rough stitched them together to test the weight and wobble. The snout by itself was heavy and kept sliding down the face, but adding weight [and the strap] in the back balanced it out fairly well.
No one likes cutting up fake fur. You can trust that as soon as you get scissors anywhere near it that you'll be finding little clumps of fake fur in every crack and crevice of your home, stuck to the back of every item of clothing you owe, and even in your tea. I hate it. Even as I write this, there is fake fur from this bears head I cut back in February stuck to the mirror I keep in my studio space, hiding inside my pin pot and just lingering in the air like a bad smell. I think at this point I might be 1% fake fur from inhaling it.
Anyway, enough griping - next came the fake fur for the rest of the head. The ears were easy, just scaling up a pattern I normally make the size of a postage stamp to the size of a dinner plate! Scaling up the teddy bear head I normally make was a lot harder, and in the end I tackled it with a few measuring tapes, a bit of technical know-how from years of twerking patterns, and a few prayers. Lucky me - it worked! Three massive panels cut out, stitched together and turned out, and slipped over the pillowcase bundle easily, and created the dome of the head with the two flappy ears. A bit of handstitching and anchoring to the snout, and we suddenly have a bears head inside of a ghostly snout...
I don't have any photos in progress [poor iMac...] but here's a rough idea what it looked like before I added the fur:
Well now I had an enormous bears head, grinning from ear to ear but lacking any eyes. Sealing up the neckpiece, and creating a fake fur flap to cover any visible cotton from where it rested on the shoulders, I focussed on the two last important features - the cheeks and the eyes. The cheeks were achieved by criss crossing stitching over some red fur to mimic the cross hatched blush of the bear, and hand-stitching into place.
Lastly, I arrived at adding the whites of the eyes either side of the snout before going back and forth with both the director and the publisher about the size and direction of the pupils - should he be looking forward? Down? Slightly to the side? Should the pupils be bigger to match the illustration or in proportion to the head, making them smaller? All the way through the conversations I had a giant bears head in my armchair smiling at me with dead white demon eyes. Naturally, I sent a few photos to several of my friends and freaked them out.
What's the point in having a demonic Care Bear if you can't share it with the world?
In the end, we agreed on smaller pupils looking down slightly, as the actress playing Lily would always be more petite than the lucky actor getting to wear the equivalent of a duvet suit and an old-school pimp coat onstage.
By the time this commission was finished, my studio had gone through three pillowcases, a few bolts of fake fur, and several kilo bags of stuffing. And probably a few thousand metres of thread, but that's pretty standard. Wrapping it up to send was another fun mission - as this thing was too big to fit on my desk and had to be manhandled in and out of the armchair.
But finally it was done - it fit, it was sturdy, and it was the Bear!
So another head gets added to my collection of bizarre costume heads I've made! And what a fun one this one was - a lot of fun little technical details to play with and tweak, and so much fur! It's so lovely to see such a big design come together so well!
Hopefully this won't be the only time Lily and the Bear will be performed or shown off, as so much work went into this production from so many people that it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.
All the credit for the book Lily and the Bear comes from Boxer Books, and design and illustration from Lisa Stubbs. Many thanks to Irrational Theatre Company for involving me in this project, and for sending me a handful of photographs of the head in use!