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Puppet Magic On Camera

© Copyright 1999 Larry Engler

We all want magic in our lives. One way that film and video producers create magic in their productions is through puppetry. Quality puppetry succeeds in part because adults and children relate to puppets as if they were alive. In performances before live audiences, children will respond directly to the puppet on a well-trained, even unconcealed, puppeteer’s hand. Even when no effort is made to hide the fact that the puppeteer is supplying both the voice and the manipulation, a child will respond directly to the puppet.

But this suspension of the rules of reality is a craft that only the well-trained and experienced puppeteer has mastered, and typically, a less-trained (though usually less-expensive) puppeteer will be unable to achieve the desired result. Few are truly adept at bringing a puppet to life with a convincing voice and appropriate and credible movements. To accomplish this on camera takes even more skill, and to succeed, producers should be knowledgeable in how to use puppets effectively on camera.

Why Use Puppets?

There are a number of good reasons for using puppets on camera. One is to add a fantasy element to the project. E.T. is an excellent example of successful fantasy puppet. Animated products, such as talking hamburgers, express packages, loaves of bread, cream cheese topped bagels, detergent boxes, and even talking fingers, are good examples of puppets making the incredible perfectly credible through fantasy.

Puppetry can add humor and bring dull or sensitive material to life. In an award-winning series of training films on life insurance, people were both entertained and educated as they watched puppets bring policies to life. If puppets can make non-forfeiture provisions entertaining, they can do anything!

Puppets can also handle sensitive material more effectively than humans can. Telling salespeople that they need to dress neatly, smile, listen, and brush their teeth has the potential to offend or threaten, but not when it is done by puppets with a little comic exaggeration. Puppets have also tackled topics such as child and drug abuse, safe sex, and product safety, and have held audience attention in a way that humans could not.

Viewer-puppet psychology skills are critical to successful puppetry. If the viewer feels superior to the puppet in every way: bigger, smarter, more sensible, then the viewer thinks “I’d never do that,” and the point is made without anyone even noticing it.

Types of Puppets

If puppets are to be used, there are dozens of kinds to consider. A frequent mistake is to opt for whatever type appears to be “hot” rather than to carefully marry the type of puppet to the specific goals and objectives of the production. Time spent familiarizing oneself with the range of puppet possibilities before choosing a particular style, is time well spent. One good way to sample the range of puppet types is to visit a good video rental store or library. The children’s section will be full of popular puppet personalities such as The Muppets and Shari Lewis. These familiar puppet types are called “mouth puppets” because the main moving feature is the puppet’s mouth. Ventriloquist figures, such as Charlie McCarthy or Jerry Mahoney (both available on video), also fit this bill.

Other types of puppets also abound. For example, the M.G.M. film Lili features beautifully done “hand puppets.” This style, currently utilized in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, has a distinctly different feeling than mouth puppets. Another type of puppet is a marionette, or string puppet. “The Lonely Goatherd” song in the film The Sound of Music features the famous Bil Baird marionettes in one of their finest moments on film. Marionettes, such as Randy on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” add a unique flavor to a production. Other major types include shadow puppets, rod puppets, body puppets (costume characters), remote control puppets, and finger puppets. The list goes on.

A key consideration when selecting the type of puppet is the extent of the physical movement required. If talking is one of the main actions, then a “mouth puppet” might be best. If the character must handle a lot of props, a puppet with one or even two “practical” (i.e., a real hand in a glove) hands may be most appropriate. Since one of the puppeteer’s hands is usually needed to work the mouth, a two-handed mouth puppet will probably require two operators. If the hands of this mouth puppet can be worked with rods or sticks, then one operator can work a puppet that has two hands, each with a rod. If working with props is the puppet’s main assignment, then more traditional hand puppets might be the best solution. One operator can often work two hand puppets at the same time, a valuable economic consideration.

If flying is important, string puppets might make that easy to accomplish. Marionettes can also show the entire figure of the character, especially below the waist, a feature that other types of puppets often lack. Marionettes are often used as doubles in long shots to show what the character looks like walking, dancing, riding a bicycle, or in other situations in which legs need to be seen.

One of the oldest types of puppet is the shadow puppet. Shadow puppetry translates to camera well because it is often designed to be seen within the perimeter of a rectangular shadow screen. Shadow puppets can be flat or three-dimensional, black and white or in color, and can, under the right circumstances, be produced much less expensively than other types of puppets. One can get a good idea of the look of this style of puppetry from the Indonesian shadow figures featured in the opening credits of the film In the Year of Living Dangerously as well as from the hand shadow sequence performed by Mary Martin in Peter Pan.

On the other, more expensive, end of the puppet spectrum are remote-controlled, or radio-controlled puppets. These are among the newest puppet forms. Robotic figures, such as the mice in the film The Witches and other animals in Babe, are very useful for characters too tiny for a human hand to operate directly. Aside from being good for tight places, radio-controlled animation is often used to move facial features on large body costume figures, such as those in the TV series Dinosaurs or in the film versions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This technique is also useful when the look of “no visible means of support and manipulation” is important.

Body puppets, or costume characters, represent another type of puppetry in which the puppeteer is usually inside the puppet. They work well when you want larger-than-life-size figures to interact with human players. Other familiar examples of this type of puppet are Big Bird and Barney the Dinosaur. They are wonderful for dancing, fighting, skating, and any physical actions that require the whole body. This type of puppet is usually expensive to construct.

It may also be appropriate to mix and match puppet types. You can have many types of puppets in the same show, and often one character may be “doubled” in different sizes and types for special shots. The critical test is whether or not the character comes alive and is convincing at what it does.


When pricing puppetry for on-camera production, think in terms of three general categories: (1) the puppets, (2) the talent, and (3) creative services.

The cost range for puppets may vary widely. You may rent an existing puppet “as is” (i.e., one that requires no additional work, such as costume, hair, color, etc.) for a few hundred dollars, or you may custom design, create, and purchase all the rights for a full-size body puppet with remote features — costs for such puppets have exceeded seven figures!

Puppet builders usually base the price on the estimated number of hours required to complete the figure, plus the materials. The deadline is important and can determine the number of people required for timely completion. Timing can also affect other projects that might be in progress; the more lead-time given to the production team, the more likely a lower quote. Jobs that must be done at the last minute invariably cost more.

Much litigation and confusion often revolves around the issues of ownership and design rights, and it is always a good idea to be clear about them at the beginning of a project. They are important considerations when negotiating agreements for cost, construction, and use of the puppets.

Talent is a relatively cut-and-dry category. It usually boils down to how many puppeteers per day, for how many days, at what rate per day. This can range from one non-union puppeteer for one day at whatever rate the person will agree to, to many skilled union performers for a longer shoot, at rates that are well above minimum union scale. Usually, you get what you pay for, and a skilled and experienced on-camera puppeteer can save you countless retakes and hours of wasted studio time.

Creative services can include script meetings and script development, revisions, consultations of all sorts, design services, casting services for performers, and voice talent, as well as contributions to scenic and lighting elements. Rates for creative services can vary widely, and indeed, every project has very different creative requirements. These can range from the very minimum of creative services (e.g., come in and operate the puppet on a commercial) to virtually months of meetings and work before the production takes place. Many artists work on a per-day fee basis, and in some cases, an hourly fee makes sense, while others prefer a flat rate for a project.

Special Technical Needs

Puppets are “special actors” and have very specific technical needs. Inside many puppets are full-size human beings that need to be concealed, and sets and prop pieces must be specially constructed to allow for this. Be very clear about the physical working requirements necessary to accommodate the operators (such as both the puppets’ and the puppeteers’ performing heights above the studio floor).

Another requirement of most on-camera puppeteers is a monitor (and frequently many monitors) on the floor. Puppeteers are working blind unless they can see what the cameraperson is seeing. This helps the puppeteer to stay out of the shot as well as to keep proper perspective, eye focus, height, etc. Many performers also prefer “flip scan” monitors that provide a “mirror image” rather than a “true image.” Because the performer can see the frame being shot, the cost of using monitors is usually more than made up for in saved shots and expensive shooting time.

Performing with puppets for film and television is usually very different than for live theatre. Puppets that may have worked well for live stage performances may be inadequate, without modification, for on-camera use. Because of the “close-up” nature of television, the ways that puppets need to be built and operated are greatly affected: choice of colors, patterns, and textures are critical for on-camera puppets.

Finally, attention must be given to building and lighting the puppets so seams do not show and to framing them to conceal their means of operation. All of this technical preparation is, however, only an initial step toward creating the magic of successful on-camera puppetry. That magic is truly achieved when a competent puppeteer brings the puppet to life.

© 1999 Larry Engler