Photoshop tutorial – How to turn your model into a marionette puppet

A little while ago, I posted an image of Nat, a previous model of mine I turned into a puppet. I’ve had a suprising number of messages asking how it is done and though I have no gone into every detail, I have outlined the steps that should get you started turning your own friends into puppets.

To start with you’re going to need the right photo. Obviously the positioning contributes a lot to the final image so I asked Nat to give me a broken doll pose. Shooting against a plain background of black or white will make the first try easier, once you have mastered cutting images out you can start transferring your puppets into other backgrounds but as this will involve some complex cloning it’s best to start with a block colour background. If you want to shoot outside or against a specific backdrop use a tripod for your shot and take another image of your set without the model. It it much easier to bring in the background from a reference shot than it is to create it!

If you can’t wait to get started and would like to use this image and get started straight away you can download this jpeg here.    This is an old snap from a 6mpx D70 but it serves well for the purposes of this tutorial.

Remember as you read that there are many ways to achieve the same results with photoshop. Here is just one method to get results quickly and easily. Aimed at those who are fairly new to photoshop techniques. We will use the smudge, shape, dodge, burn and brush tools for this effect. All steps can be completed with alternate methods so use the tools that your are familiar with.

Step 1 – Skin smoothing

For this image we want to make the skin look smooth and plastic like. When we smooth skin for portraits we use masking and layer effects to preserve skin tone. Here we want an artificial look so try using the smudge brush with hardness set fairly high. Use small brush strokes and paint along the limbs and skin and watch the texture turn smooth without losing the colour range. This method is much quicker than masking. If you find the effect to strong, use a low opacity on your brush and go over the area multiple times until you get the right look.

Plastic skin with the smudge tool

Step 2 – Dodge and burn skin

This lighting for this image is quite flat so you may not need this step. Here it really adds to the rounded plastic feel of the limbs. Start with a the dodge tool, zero hardness with an opacity of 5-15%. Set your brush to dodge only highlights and go over the middle of the limbs to provide the shiny highlights. Use a smaller brush to go over the cheekbones, nose and chin. Once you are happy with the result we’ll add some shadows. Next switch to the burn tool, again with a low opacity but this time set to burn the shadows. Use this brush to add shadow to the outside of the limbs, don’t be afaid to be bold with your contrast, this only adds to the toy effect. Frequently zoom out as you work to check how the image looks as a whole.

Dodge and burn to create depth

Step 3 – Removing the joints

This is no doubt the trickiest part. We will be removing a section of the limb and painting in a background. First use the eyedropper to select a colour close to the skin tone, then with the ellipse tool draw an ellipse to represent the flat end of  limb. Then use the transform command (apple/cmd T) to rotate and stretch your end shape into position. Now we must either paint in a black background with a brush or if you are familiar with masking, copy your background layer (apple/cmd J) then paint over your background in black and mask off the remaining area until you have the correct gaps in the limbs. There are as many tutorials are there are different ways to manage masks, if you have trouble with this step why not book a one to one photoshop session. When using a detailed background you will need to create a false image and mask through your original. Start with block colours.

Paint or mask the background to create gaps

Step 4 – Connecting the limbs

You can be as creative as you like here, use robotics, wires, bearings and joints. This is the simplest way to connect the limbs as if its just a single piece of bendable wire. Start with a medium grey circular brush at 100% hardness and opacity. On a new layer draw a small connecting line from the middle of your ellipse shapes and over the gap we created in the last step.  Then simply use the eraser tool, or create a masking layer to clean up the overspill. Don’t worry that it looks flat at this stage, once your wires are drawn and cleaned up, use the dodge and burn tool exactly as we did to the limbs in step 2. Zoom in and use a small brush with low opacity and hardness to first add highlights to the centre of your wire and shadows to the edges. Repeat this step until the wires appear to have depth even when viewing the whole image.

Painting in the connecting wires

Step 5 – Adding strings

Again there are many ways to do this, for the full look import images of strings or chains and mask away what you don’t need. For this simple image select a light grey with the line or pen tool and start to draw your strings from as many anchor points as you wish. Remember to select ‘stroke path’ with the chosen tool otherwise you’ll just be selecting a path. Once your lines are drawn create a layer mask to delete the strings where they pass behind the body. The more complex the body shape the more work you’ll have to do here. If you use a thin string you can get away with them attaching directly to the skin. If you use a thick string try adding a ‘bevel and emboss’ layer style to quickly achieve a realistic look.

Adding the strings

Step 6 – Final touches

The last thing to make an instant marionette is that creppy dummy mouth. Use the pen tool or polygonal lasso tool to draw around the top of the lower lip and straight down to the chin. Once this selection has been made, copy the contents from the background layer with (apple/cmd C). Now use the eyedropper or palette to select a dark reddish brown and with a soft brush paint into your selection. Because you have an area selected you can draw a clean shape without effecting the detail we want to keep outside the selection. Once you are happy with your new mouth, deselect the area (apple/cmd D) and paste the chin back on top (apple/cmd V). Drag the mouth down a little to reveal your handy work.

At this stage go back to your dodge and burn tools. Dodge and burn are your friends. Always making little changes with a low opacity add depth to your joints, wires and anything you have painted/created until you are happy that it does not detract from the main image.

All finished with final dodge and burn

That’s just about it. Now look away from the screen, make a cup of tea, have some toast or something. Come back and look at the image again in a few minutes. You’ve been working on it for a while so try to see it afresh. Now is the time to clean up any details you’ve missed before selecting all layers and hitting merge layers (apple/cmd E) to create a single layer before saving. If you want to come back to work on the separate layers be sure to save as a .psd first.

This image was produced in photoshop CS6 but should apply to all versions.

Let me know how you get on, or what you’d like to see next by leaving a comment. Why not post a link to your version and show everyone how you did?

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