20 January 2016

How to Build a Giant Lantern

For our third annual Firelight Lantern Festival I wanted to build something really special for the parade. When I saw pictures of giant lanterns from the Minneapolis Lantern Festival, I was totally inspired. I contacted my friend, fellow puppet artist Mary Plaster, as she'd assisted in making the lanterns, and she gave me some great tips.

The inspiration came from the MPLS Lantern Festival.
Photo: Dusty Hoskovec/Minneapolis Downtown Council
With artist friends Susanne Larner and Nell Casson on board for this project, we decided to make two giant lanterns, a rabbit and a turtle, to go with this year's theme of 'earth.' Both animals are local to our area and are resplendent with symbolism, from fables to literature to First Nations' mythology. I had seen the sketches the MPLS Festival artists had made; they were very elaborate. I guess we're into a more organic approach.

Planning? Yeah, that's enough planning.
We acquired the requisite materials: 6-foot lengths of bamboo, lots of plain white sheets, masking tape and hot glue. To begin, we had to split the bamboo, which was its own learning curve. Pro-tip: wear gloves! Split bamboo is very sharp and splintery, our hands got terribly cut up the first day. I found the easiest way to split the bamboo was to use a pair of garden shears to split the end and slide the shears down the split. Generally splitting them into quarters seemed to work quite well. The bamboo becomes very flexible yet is still very strong.
L to R: Nell Casson, Susanne Larner, Krista Dalby
with our bunny skeleton
We started out building the frame of the rabbit's body, a big oval shape, and made cross-bars from unsplit bamboo for structural support. We attached the bamboo together with joints of masking tape. Once we'd made the body, we could divide up the different tasks: someone made the hind legs, someone else the head, tail, and front legs. We attached it all together, but left the head separate. When the structure was finished we sprayed the joints with Rockerguard - an automotive product that is basically a rubberized glue that ensured that if the masking tape dried out all the joints wouldn't spring apart.

Nell channelling her inner bunny.
Next we had to install the lights. This was a bit nerve-wracking as once the fabric was applied to the outside, it would be difficult to change them. We did a few tests using a three different types of LED lights: strings, hanging bulbs, and push-lights. We needed somewhere for the battery packs to go, so we hot glued some tube socks to the inner part of the frame, and fit a few battery packs in each one. 
Lighting test
We wanted to be able to carry the lanterns atop of large poles, but have the ability to take the poles out for transportation and storage, so we added cardboard tubes and sealed up the tops, so the poles could easily slide in yet be quite stable.
Carrying test
Satisfied with our structure, we started applying the covering. We worked section by section pulling the sheets tightly over the structure and hot gluing the fabric to the bamboo.
As we needed access to the battery packs to light up our lanterns, we decided where the best access points would be, and created flaps held in place with velcro.
Artist Don Maynard (R) joined our lantern-building crew
I'm glad we started this project early, because it took quite a long time. Final touches included adding black felt for eyes; being a puppeteer I know that eyes really bring characters to life. We left the head off until after it was lit up, and attached it with zip ties, then tied a flowy ruff around the neck to hide the seam.
We were all really happy with how our giant lanterns turned out, and they looked so magical floating down Main Street Picton in our parade.
Photo by Ramesh Pooran
The lanterns were very lightweight and easy to carry. We provided our "lanterneers" with cumberbunds, small pouches worn around their waists, giving them a place to rest the ends of their poles.
Team Turtle having a great old time. Photo by Ramesh Pooran.
Photo by Eve Harvey
Big thanks to everyone who helped make and carry our giant lanterns. What should we make next year? 

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