Model behaviour: The puppet maker behind Tim Burton’s films

When twelve-inch puppets are blown up in HD on a huge cinema screen every detail must be perfect. Trafford-based Mackinnon & Saunders are the go-to people for those ruler-length puppets.

The model makers use a combination of traditional methods and advanced technology like additive manufacturing to build their iconic characters.

The puppet master

“It is a misspent youth,” says Peter Saunders, co-founder of Mackinnon & Saunders.

“I was fascinated by animation as a child and instead of concentrating on school work, I spent a lot of my time making models and short films. I managed to make a career out of my niche hobby.”

Saunders was born in North Manchester and studied animation at Guildford college. He was offered a job making puppets in Manchester so moved back, before staying and starting his own business in 1992.

“We specialise in making puppets for animation. These puppets are complex because they often have steel ball and socket armatures. “Some of the puppets we make for feature films can take months to make and cost tens of thousands of pounds because of how intricate they are,” Saunders says.

Technology and tradition

“People come to us for the best stop motion puppets you can get, to do this we use digital technology and traditional techniques like sculpting and costume work.

“Technology enables us to speed up processes and make things better and stronger. It’s more tools to work with to make the best models, and we are careful to get the balance right.”

Mackinnon & Saunders has embraced technology like 3D printing. But with the rise of digital graphics and animation, is there a risk that tech could swallow this traditional industry?

“We make models which are then manipulated frame by frame to create the illusion of life, it is a very old style of animation compared to computer graphics.

“The threat of digital graphics has been with us since 1995. Back then, we had people tell us that computer graphics will put us out of business in two years. But we are still here, and there is still an appetite for stop motion animation.”

Model making, Made Smarter The business has been named as one of the first to be offered funding from the Made Smarter North West Pilot.

“We want to use the best technologies and that is why we are so excited by the Made Smarter project,” Peter Saunders said.

The Made Smarter North West project’s – launched at The Manufacturer’s Digital Manufacturing Week last year – chief aim is to grow manufacturing businesses through the adoption of digital technologies.

“There are some amazing things that are just beginning to break with 3D printing and the grant will help us try out that technology.

“The Made Smarter funding is a great thing as R&D can be costly for smaller businesses. This money will support and allow us to test technologies, which could offer us long-term benefits.”