Everyone knows what a puppet is. Or do they? Just so we’re clear, here’s Howard Berger, co-founder of KNB EFX, with his definition:
“A puppet can be anything you want it to be. It can be a paper bag with googly eyes drawn on it. It can be a sock. It can be a million-dollar mechanical T-Rex. It is whatever the puppeteer wants to bring to life.”
What a puppet is not – for the purposes of this article at least – is the kind of cunningly-jointed figurine used by stop-motion animators. Our topic here is real-time performances created by manual or mechanical means. (Don’t worry, the VFX ABC will get to stop-motion soon enough – what else do you think the letter “S” stands for?)
Puppets in the Past
Puppetry is ancient. Greek historian Herodotus was writing about it in the 5th century B.C., and you can bet your life that puppets are a good deal older than that. Certainly, by the time the motion picture industry took off at the start of the 20th century, puppetry was deeply embedded in cultures worldwide, with a dizzying range of techniques on offer, from hand puppets to marionettes, Japanese bunraku to Java’s shadowy wayang kulit.
Hollywood embraced puppetry from the beginning. Georges Méliès, grand master of stage illusions, conjured countless fantasies that relied on large-scale puppets for their visual effects, including his 1906 film The Witch, which features a bizarre menagerie comprising a giant frog, an oversized owl, and a sinuous fire-breathing dragon.
An even bigger dragon puppet roared onto cinema screens in 1929, when Fritz Lang unleashed Die Nibelungen, featuring a 50-foot-long mechanical serpent called Fafnir. Concealed inside the puppet’s head was a can of gasoline hooked up to a pair of bellows, a basin of burning acetylene, and a generous supply of lycopodium powder. When this health and safety nightmare let rip, the result was a burst of flame 30 feet long.
Watch a scene from Die Nibelungen in which Siegfried slays the dragon:
Already active in supporting roles, puppets soon found themselves taking centre stage, in films like Jack Harrison’s Dimples and Tears, a seven-minute vaudeville short from 1929, with singing and dancing puppets by Gorno Italian Marionettes. Reviewer Raymond Ganly, writing in the September 14, 1929 edition of Motion Picture News, couldn’t get enough of the little troupers:
“The possibilities of these little puppet shows are practically limitless – there are so many things that they can do with them. This series opens doors to cinematic entertainment with something distinctly different to offer.”
It was one thing to point a camera at a miniature stage. However, the growing popularity of early cel-animated shorts like Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie, and George Pal’s stop-motion Puppetoons series of the 1930s and 1940s, encouraged filmmakers to ask whether more imaginative forms of staging were required.
In the June 1930 edition of Close Up, journalist Hay Chowl asked marionette filmmaker John Grierson if he intended always to film his puppets through a proscenium arch, or if he planned to “break down those limitations with close-ups, rhythmic cutting and so on.” Grierson replied:
“Well there enters a problem yet to be worked out. It is possible to succeed too well. In a previous Marionette film, a Wild West Rough Rider leapt over canyons and raced the prairie with such filmic perfection that the sense of marionette-show was lost … I think we shall prefer to keep a reminder in the film that it is a marionette performance that the audience is looking at. Doubtless we shall break up the Visuals, but in such a way that the cuts assist the grotesquerie and stress the rhythm.”
Despite the popularity of puppet shorts, there remained a notable lack of puppet features. In 1966, Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds Are Go brought the marionettes from the Thunderbirds TV series to the big screen, but it wasn’t until Jim Henson showed his hand that puppet movies hit the big time.
Henson’s string of puppet films began in 1979 with The Muppet Movie. Three years later came The Dark Crystal, a dark Tolkienesque fantasy that performed only adequately on its first theatrical release, but which has gained popularity over the years. In 1986, Henson’s puppet-centric Labyrinth was an outright flop, yet has since attained the same almost legendary status as its predecessor.
The Special Effects of Puppets
Feature films that are entirely performed by puppets may be few and far between, yet puppets have graced countless live-action movies in supporting – or even leading – roles.
In George Pal’s 1953 production of The War of the Worlds, the iconic scene in which an invading Martian puts its three-tentacled hand on the shoulder of Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson) involved the use of a full-scale puppet. Here’s Pal himself, writing in the October 1953 issue of Astounding Science Fiction:
“The Martian was the handiwork of our talented young unit art director Albert Nozaki who worked throughout with us from start to finish under Paramount supervising art director Hal Pereira. After Nozaki finished his design I called in a sculptor, make‑up man and artist named Charles Gemora … He built it out of papier mâché and sheet rubber, created arms that actually pulsated – through the use of rubber tubing in them – and painted the whole thing lobster red … Gemora is a short‑statured man who could fit into the contraption too, so we hired him to operate it. When he got inside he moved around on his knees, holding his arms hunched out. His hands came just to the elbows of the Martian’s formidable looking tentacles … It was a startler all right, something right out of your worst nightmare.”
Speaking of nightmares, puppet techniques were also behind what’s arguably the most terrifying movie alien ever – the biomechanical predator from Ridley Scott’s Alien, which scared not only theatre audiences, but also special makeup effects professionals like Legacy Effects co-founder John Rosengrant:
“The alien insert puppet head from the original Alien is a combination of great design and ‘What the f*** is it?!’ That crazy inner tongue with teeth coming out of its mouth!”
Dreams can sometimes be sweet. The 1980s sent a whole troupe of cute critters trotting across movie screens, including Carlo Rambaldi’s alien star of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Gizmo, the adorable mogwai created by Chris Walas for Gremlins. Sophisticated combinations of cable controls, servo motors and pneumatic bladders – allied with traditional hand- and rod-puppet techniques – enabled such creatures to deliver complex, subtle performances, as Gino Acevedo, creative art director at Weta Digital, will testify:
“If I had to pick my all-time favourite puppet, I would have to say E.T., simply because he was alive in my eyes when I saw him. It was a case when everything fell into place to make a great character: strong design, sculpture, fabrication and puppeteering.”
Puppets have also colonised an eerie middle-ground, facilitating the transformation of human actors into supernatural forms. For John Landis’ 1981 comedy horror An American Werewolf in London, Rick Baker deployed an ingenious array of puppets to effect the metamorphosis of David Kessler (David Naughton) into a slavering lycanthrope. To power his bone-wrenching collection of “change-o” heads, Baker supplemented push-pull cable controls with pneumatic rams, enabling a full-scale replica of Naughton’s face to elongate right in front of the camera lens … and before the eyes of astonished audiences.
However, few films can match the extraordinary blend of technical sophistication and muscular performance exhibited by Lyle Conway’s storeful of puppets in Frank Oz’s 1986 fantasy musical Little Shop of Horrors. Conway’s team built and operated a staggering array of carnivorous plants to portray the ever-growing alien infestation known as Audrey II. Capable of lip-syncing to a pre-recorded music track, the twelve-and-a-half-foot “Mean Green Mother” functioned via cables moved by steel control rods that were over five feet tall. The operation of this behemoth – which Conway likened to “lip-syncing a pair of mattresses slapped together” – required a physical therapist to be on the set at all time, just to manage the physical strain imposed on the puppeteers.
With Heads Held High
Through the 1990s and beyond, puppet techniques continued to bring to life characters of all shapes and sizes. For Jurassic Park, artists at Stan Winston Studio fashioned numerous full-size dinosaurs, none bigger than the 20-foot, hydraulically-operated T-Rex, the initial clay form of which took a team of eight sculptors 16 weeks to complete.
At the other end of the scale, Winston’s team created more than 200 puppet versions of the 12-inch protagonists of Joe Dante’s 1998 film Small Soldiers. Actuating systems for the diminutive Commando Elite warriors, and their sworn enemies the Gorgonites, incorporated tiny radio-controlled mechanisms with the intricacy of Swiss watches.
Even recently, puppetry manages to hold its own. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has championed the practical approach in films from Pan’s Labyrinth to Crimson Peak, frequently integrating puppet elements with performance suits. Hellboy II showcases a host of weird and wonderful characters created by Spectral Motion. These include the winged Angel of Death, performed by Doug Jones in a mechanically-controlled costume, and the lumbering Mr. Wink. This latter is a winner in the eyes of Pietro Marson, workshop operations analyst (formerly head of animatronics) at Weta Workshop:
“I’d have to say my favourite animatronic suit is Mr. Wink from Hellboy II. It’s such a big, powerful character, and the movement is so natural-looking. The facial animatronics are superb, and the facial skin works really well with all of its deep creases and heavy texture. That’s one character I go back to for inspiration.”
Watch a Spectral Motion showreel, featuring the Angel of Death from Hellboy II:
The reputation of practical effects – of which puppetry is an integral part – has been further strengthened by its use in features as recent as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the marketing for which made quite a fuss about the film’s employment of “old-school” effects. A team led by Neal Scanlan developed a bevy of adorable BB-8 droids as functional props, working with Industrial Light & Magic’s CG robot to form a well-oiled tag-team that seamlessly fused practical and digital techniques.
Movie Puppets – A Round Table Q&A
Now that we’re all up to date, let’s see what four of today’s puppet professionals have to say about the state of the art.
Which movie puppet really got you thinking, “How in the heck did they do that?”
JOHN ROSENGRANT – Rick Baker’s puppets from An American Werewolf in London.
HOWARD BERGER – My all time favourite movie puppets are in Little Shop of Horrors. The way Audrey II is puppeteered and photographed in slow motion, to make sure each syllable was correct, is sheer genius – I think it was the first time this had been accomplished. I saw the film when it opened and could not believe my eyes. How did they do that? How does it look like the puppets are actually forming words, let alone singing? It was true movie magic.
GINO ACEVEDO – That would have to be Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. When I first saw this film, I could not believe the fluidity of the motions and lip sync. I watched it again recently, and still felt the same. CG couldn’t do any better!
Rod puppets, hand puppets, cables, animatronics … which control system do you favour, and why?
PIETRO MARSON – I love rigid linkages and direct servo connections with animatronics, and avoid Bowden cables whenever possible because you are always plagued with cable management and adjustment thereafter. If everything can be self-contained that makes on-set life much easier.
HOWARD BERGER – It’s all about organics. It’s not enough that it moves – it has to make sense and be familiar, so the audience says, “Hey, that looks real.” I love hand puppets. I feel you can get more out of that type of puppet than anything else. It also connects the puppeteer directly with the puppet, which means the performance will be great. When you have a cable or radio-controlled puppet, it takes many brains to make one character come to life. If you have a weak link with one of your puppeteers, then it’s all gone to custard.
GINO ACEVEDO – I love a mix of all techniques. For the gross movements, hand puppetry can give you that natural, fluid movement you only get from a human performer. Then, you can add in animatronics for the facial movements, rod puppetry for arms and legs, and cable control for hand movements. All are still great mechanisms to use, but you need to realise their limits, and you need great puppeteers who understand natural movement.
JOHN ROSENGRANT – All the above! It’s all job or shot specific. I love them all!
Watch a Legacy Effects showreel:
What’s the secret of a great puppet performance?
HOWARD BERGER – Feeling like the character when puppeteering. Bob Kurtzman would always make noises when he would puppeteer. If it was a creature, he would growl and roar. It was awesome. Monster-makers make the best monsters. It’s all part of the Dr. Frankenstein syndrome.
JOHN ROSENGRANT – You simply have to think of it as a character. It’s an actor, not an effect.
GINO ACEVEDO – Two things: having great mechanisms to work with, and having a great puppeteer who understands natural movement. If you don’t have either one of the two, your performance will not be believable.
Of all the puppets you’ve created, which one are you most proud of?
GINO ACEVEDO – Among my favourites are the Jack Nicholson and James Spader puppets we created at Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. for the film Wolf. I loved the design, based on Rick Baker’s makeup. We used silicone, which was then pretty new to the industry as far as using it for skins. On Death Becomes Her – again with ADI – we created some animatronic puppets of Meryl Streep. I believe that was the first that this silicone skin was put on screen. I developed a technique for painting the silicone then which I still use today.
PIETRO MARSON – An early test goblin animatronic mask for The Hobbit trilogy. It was the first time I had created an animatronic mechanism solo. The design of the creature was very different to anything that was ever seen on screen, but it had a really fierce snarl. In about two days, I put together a test animatronic mask rig controlled by real-time facial motion capture. The performance from the eyes and brow area was uncanny.
JOHN ROSENGRANT – The Terminator endoskeleton, the Queen Alien and warrior puppets from Aliens, the T-Rex and Spinosaurus from Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park 3, numerous puppets from Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Real Steel, and the Apatosaurus from Jurassic World. I’m very proud because they all became iconic film characters. That is truly what I enjoy the most – creating characters.
HOWARD BERGER – I love the Deadite Captain from Army of Darkness, as that was the very first slave mechanism we ever built at KNB. Wayne Toth was the mastermind behind all the puppets on that show. That puppet worked so well on set. It weighed 75 pounds – it broke my back, but I was young! It was like wearing a red badge of courage to carry that sucker around for months in the desert at night. Director Sam Raimi would destroy them all the time during takes, but Wayne had designed them so well that they could come apart in moments and have parts replaced.
Watch a Weta Workshop showreel:
What value does the craft of puppeteering bring to the movie set?
JOHN ROSENGRANT – The first thing is a presence on set – another “actor” for the actors to react to. It offers a chance for the spontaneous performance that happens between actors, that little bit of magic. In today’s world, the side benefit is that it anchors the character into the real world, and makes the CG versions that much better, in my opinion.
GINO ACEVEDO – It gives the actors and director something to react to, and the director of photography something to light. Now, there are cases where a CG character is the only way to achieve the effect – like Gollum, or Caesar in Dawn and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. With Caesar, I remember when it was announced that Weta Digital were doing the film. A lot of my colleagues back in L.A. asked if we were going to use prosthetics. I said no, because these apes were still very much normal-looking apes. The exception was Caesar himself, who was based on some of the features of Andy Serkis, but he still had the anatomy of a chimpanzee, which a human performer could not have got away with.
PIETRO MARSON – Despite what visual effects can do to a shot, there is nothing like a performer’s reaction to a physical puppet on set. From my perspective, it’s all about the interaction between puppets and actors, rather than just how the puppet performs.
HOWARD BERGER – I love every aspect of what we do. I love makeup, suits, puppets, you name it. I also love the resurgence of stop motion – Anomalisa was brilliant, one of my favourite films in 2015. At KNB, Greg Nicotero pushes the envelope with wanting to use as many puppets and radio-controlled severed heads as he can. Mike Elizalde at Spectral Motion is a huge advocate for puppets, and has one of the best mechanical geniuses working with him, Mark Setrakian. But I think that, for some reason, pre-production is a dirty word now in filmmaking. If you spend more then two weeks prepping a film, you are wasting the production’s money – the bean counters don’t understand that we do this for the love and art of filmmaking. We are professionals, and have lasted this long for a reason. It would be great if people would listen to what we bring to the table.
Watch a Stan Winston School Monster Maker interview with Howard Berger of KNB EFX:
- KNB EFX
- Legacy Effects
- Weta Digital
- Weta Workshop
- Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc.
- Spectral Motion
- Stan Winston School
Special thanks to Ri Streeter Alien photograph copyright © 1979 by 20th Century Fox, production still unit photography by Bob Penn. Little Shop of Horrors photograph copyright © 1986 by The Geffen Film Company, photograph by Murray Close. Small Soldiers photograph copyright © 1998 by DreamWorks SKG and Universal City Studios, photograph by Chuck Zlotnick. Death Becomes Her photograph copyright © 1992 by Universal City Studios.