From Iceland — I’ve Got No Strings To Hold Me Down!

I’ve Got No Strings To Hold Me Down!

Published July 7, 2024

I’ve Got No Strings To Hold Me Down!
Catherine Magnúsdóttir
Photo by
Supplied by Pilkington Props

Ever wondered what the office of the god of creation might look like? After paying a visit to Pilkington Props, I am starting to think there might be a lot of foam, machinery and “body” parts involved. But how do these elements all get formed together into grand beings like trolls, aliens, sea serpents and flamingos? For this edition of my purpose-procuring pilgrimage, I spoke with Daniel Pilkington and Björg Einarsdóttir, two of the creative minds behind the puppets, props and prosthetics that prowl the Reykjavík prairie.

I sit down with Björg and Daniel under the watchful gaze of Tufti the Troll, one of Pilkington Props’ biggest celebrities, to learn about the work they do, how they got into it, and what goes into prop and puppet making, as well as performing as the characters they create. “We come from a very mixed background,” Daniel explains. “I come from a visual effects background, specifically in the gaming field in Iceland.”

Daniel also has experience as a performer, namely in a circus setting, as do his collaborators, Björg and Thomas Burke. As CTO at Pilkington Props, Thomas has both a performing and programming background, as well as experience with a circus rigger, so he keeps an eye on technical and safety aspects of the operation. Björg, meanwhile, has a background in psychology and linguistics, but now manages much of the extensive organization, contacts and bookings, while also supervising performers.

Daniel says that he has always been interested in costuming and cosplay, designing in games and in real life. “The first professional work we did was building a sculpture for Fly Over Iceland,” he explains, referencing the massive troll figure that watches over the gift shop of the popular attraction. “It was kind of a one off job. I was working on that in the evenings, doing game development during the day. It was fun to do stuff physically, not just sitting in front of a computer screen. It was during that project that we started to realize that this could be a profession.”

Combined with their ongoing cooperation with the circus culture in Iceland, specifically Hringleikur, the small team was able to create characters to perform for crowds at big annual events like 17 Júní. In fact, it was Iceland’s independence day that served as Tufti the Troll’s public debut.

“Reykjavíkurborg came to the circus and asked if we could do something spectacular — and we accepted the challenge,” Björg recalls. “We can be tall because we can do stilts. In that way we can also extend the limits of normal puppetry.” This helped cement what has become the signature of Pilkington Props: large scale puppets.

As for the creation process itself, it’s a marriage of old school techniques and modern technology. “We do a full digital model of the expected build as I kind of assume it will work out,” Daniel says. “Then I can break parts down individually and send them to our little 3D print farm. Some of the pieces I will sort of flatten out and make stencils for, so then we can cut them into upholstery foam or EVA foam or those kinds of materials.”

I am told upholstery foam is pretty good for puppets that have to move a lot and the EVA foam works well from an understructure perspective, holding its shape better and adding bulk without adding too much weight. They also work with traditional clay, plaster and silicone mold techniques, as was standard in crafting props for older films, though they’re able to skip a few tedous steps with the help of advanced digital modeling and 3D printing.

The design and story for Tufti were created in cooperation with Daniel’s father, Brian Pilkington — yes, the Brian Pilkington of writing and illustration fame — as a sort of continuation of his work. The core personality of the friendly and curious troll is additionally something that all of his performers carry into the act. “All our characters also move very organically thanks to Dan’s background in model making,” Björg adds, explaining that the digital models are often quite close to actual physics.

There is, of course, always some trial and error in the process but the end results speak for themselves. “I really enjoy being able to make people smile,” she says. “Seeing that you are forming long term memories for people, not just kids. It’s such a privilege to get to do this.”

Want more people doing strange stuff? Check out more of our On The Fringes series.

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