Jelly, a wearable kinetic sculpture.

Iredea features some great visual effects live on stage. We want to push these effects as far as they can go to make an immersive post-apocalyptic world inside of the live theatre. One of the best effects is the wearable jellyfish sculpture known as Jelly. This piece went through many designs, and is a fantastic synthesis of visual arts, textiles, engineering, and physical performance. It’s come a long way and will continue to evolve. Today I wanted to share how it was made and some of the inspiration behind this piece.

Here is what Jelly looked like a few weeks before Iredea premiered in May 2014.

Click here to jump ahead to the making-of section.

The significance of a jellyfish in the show

The role of Jelly in  IREDEA is a metaphysical one, much like the relationship between jellyfish and human beings in general. Jellyfish have been around on earth a very long time, more than 500 million years. That’s at least a thousand times longer than human beings, by current estimates. They have no brain, no blood, no spine. They’re about as alien a creature as most of us could ever imagine. The venom carried in the tenacles of some jellyfish -like the box jellyfish- is so harmful that merely brushing past one of them causes unfathomable pain, scars, and often a quick death. As with many things that we fear and don’t really understand, we are fascinated by them. Photographs of the seemingly infinite variety of jellyfish show phosphorescent tubes, threads, and pillows of light bundled together into intricate structures. These pictures seem to show us the hidden thoughts of nature in the forbidden depths of the ocean. Nothing except the jellyfish is simultaneously as beautiful and fragile as it is disgusting and fearsome.

The things we least understand are marvelled at from a safe distance but become increasingly fearsome as we approach them. So it is with the jellyfish. So it is a sure sign of the apocalypse when jellyfish emerge from the sea and saunter accross the landscape, mindlessly confronting and devastating anything in its path.

Jellyfish point to a more specific event happening in the world. Global climate change is warming up the oceans and making them more acidic, which is causing a domino effect we only vaguely understand. News outlets have reported jellyfish blooms (colonies) proliferating to unprecendented scales, overwhelming fishermans’ nets in Japan, clogging up power plant cooling systems in the U.S., and destroying ecosystems. The basic scientific rationale for why this is happening is that warmer and more acidic water doesn’t bother jellyfish but is harmful to a lot of other sea life, including those that hunt jellyfish. Since jellyfish have been in the oceans far longer than most other sea life, they have adapted to more variable conditions and can outlast other species.

It’s a commonly heard trope that in the event of a nuclear cataclysm, cockroaches and ants will survive while many others go extinct. Jellyfish should surely be on this list of the hardiest survivors. Seeing them rise from the sea to conquor the land would be a bleak but fitting epilogue to our stewardship of the planet.

Mushroom-Cloud

Inspiration: tradition

Wearable puppets and kinectic sculptures are used more and more in contemporary circus productions, as part of public art performances, and by visual artists everywhere. Seeing the show Raoul by James Thiérrée (grandson of Charlie Chaplin) at Montreal’s Festival Completement Cirque was a major revelation, in terms of the synergy between physical performance and wearable art. Check out this pinterest board to see some amazing puppets and sculptures artists around the world are making.

Follow Paul Hersey’s board giant puppets on Pinterest.

How was Jelly made


The goal was to make a hybrid of puppet, textile sculpture, and costume of a jellyfish and that allowed a trained dancer to manipulate it freely and expressively. The most important part of making art are the mistakes, happy accidents, and things you just don’t expect. So the design had to give the performer as much physical freedom as possible. Freedom to make mistakes.

Design iterations

Working with visual artist Marigold Santos, several design concepts were proposed and experimented with to varying degrees. Here are some sketches along the process.  Keep in mind the piece had to be made on a minimal budget, with no special equipment.

3designs

Marigold eventually hit on the final design, which used an umbrella as the armature supporting the textiles. Tucked on the underside of the umbrella is a bundle of faux fur that has a string of green LED christmas lights inside. And draped delicately overtop is a large sheet of silk gauze that was meticulously sewed into a dome shape with additional tentacles attached. The silk was dyed with a fluorescent green acquous dye that allows it to glow under black lights.

later_design1

Materials and fluorescence

A jellyfish must appear to float weightlessly in air. So we needed the lightest possible fabric. A very light silk gauze is sold by Dharma Trading in California and supplied about 15 yards at a very fair price. The silk is beautifully delicate and floats nicely.

The next production goal was to use black lights in the theatre’s lighting grid to make the puppet fluoresce. So we needed to colour the silk with a dye that is fluorescent, but that would not add any weight as this would ruin the floatation effect. Much googling ensued. It turns out that fluorescent dyes have a variety of esoteric applications (not just glow sticks). Civil engineers use highly concentrated fluorescent dyes to trace water flows throughout a city’s waterworks. Because they are so concentrated these dyes are very economical to use as a fabric dye. I bought a bottle of Bright Dyes green from a civil engineers supply; this product is capable of dying 10,000 gallons of water in tracing applications.

After some testing, a batch of acquous dye was made by mixing about 20 parts water to 1 part dye, and soaked the roll of silk overnight. The silk was carefully drained and hung it to dry. To smooth wrinkles, use steam. See the image of the dyed fabric lit by a UV flashlight. At this point the fabric is ready to work with. It was cut and sewed into dome form using a pattern similar to a hot air balloon. If the fabric were ever washed, a lot of the dye would come out because it is a simple acquous solution; it is not a permanent dye.

  • Dying silk in UV sensitive green dye.
  • A pattern for making a hot-air balloon shape.
  • Faux fur and LEDs = jellyfish neural cortex. So evil.
  • Early draping test.
  • Black zentai suit helps our dancer to disappear under the puppet.
  • UV black lights like this one from ADJ are used to illuminate jelly.
  • Silk fabric after dying, ready for the next step.
  • This dye is messy. Use gloves.
  • Bright Dyes is a product used by civil engineers to test water supplies. It's also a cheap way to achieve UV effects.
  • Ultra-light silk gauze was purchased from the nice folks at Dharma Trading in California.

Performance

If only UV lights are illuminated anything black should disappear from an audience’s view. In theory, only fluorescent wavelengths will be activated. So the performer had to be black from head to toe. To accomplish this we used a “Zentai” bodysuit. Silicone glue was applied to the hands for grip, plus black shoes.

To get an idea of what it’s like to manipulate jelly watch the video at the top. Below are shots on stage and back stage during prep. Maria Paula Cano is our maitre meduse, performing the part of Jelly.

Supplies

  • Faux fur
  • Large diameter clear umbrella
  • Silk gauze (approx. 15 yards)
  • Green LED christmas lights
  • Concentrated fluorescent dye
  • Zentai bodysuit
  • UV blacklights

Next steps for Jelly

This piece will continue to evolve, as we try to give the performer more physical freedom to manipulate the puppet and add more beauty and expressivity to the puppet itself. Here are some things we’re working on.

  • Fiber optics are used in lighting design to create long strands of light that can be threaded into any form. They are the perfect medium to describe the long whiskers and thin tentacles of a jellyfish. Inspiration and guidance has come from this stunning fiber optic dress found on the website Instructables.
  • Ideally the performer should have all her limbs free to move. Mounting the puppet to a backpack rig will be the next stage in design. This is similar to what sports videographers wear for documenting their skiing and mountain biking adventures.
  • Parachute fabrics are engineered to float and hold air in different ways. We’ll be exploring whether parachute fabrics have suitable properties for this puppet. One drawback of the current silk gauze is that it is very delicate, and easily frayed and torn.
  • Animatronic and DMX expressions. Eventually I’d like to see the internal lighting elements (LEDs and fiber optics) have programmable sequences that can be triggered by the performer or an off-stage tech. And, I’d like for the wire armature to have one or two dimensions of expression to echo some biological features. These details will allow for more nuanced performance possibilities, and more jaw dropping stage magic.

What do you think?

We’d love to know what you think of this project. Do you have any ideas for future development of Jelly? Have you created or dreamed of creating something similar? Are you friends with a Jellyfish who is offended by what we’re doing? Leave us a comment below, we want to hear from you.

References

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