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Talent: No Strings Attached
Originally published in Videography Magazine
You can use puppets effectively
For the tenth, hundredth or thousandth time, the corporate media manager is asked to produce a videotape to help explain a new policy to employees. Even though the subject matter is dry, the media manager must make it interesting; even though the program will deal with complex instructions and abstract ideas, the media manager must see that the message is clear. And of course, it must be different different from the last one.
The problem of maintaining variety in corporate television programs while adhering to managements communications goals is no small matter. Creating interesting programs is a constant challenge. My suggestion: try puppets!
Puppets can add a different dimension to even the most basic talking head program. While I dont advocate using puppets merely as a substitution for actors, there are many valid reasons for using puppets instead of people.
One strong advantage of using puppets is the ability to create nonrealistic living characters. One can credibly have Martians, monsters, cars, elephants or vegetables as speaking, breathing personalities. Weve had a talking hat describe the principles of insurance (Its like passing the hat) for Prudential Life Insurance, and a talking book in a commercial for McGraw Hill. Stuffed toys came to life in a tape for Johnson & Johnson, and puppets even represented computer programs for Young & Rubicam. Puppets, then, can be very different from humans, and as such have a different, magical quality that commands audience attention.
The stylized nature of puppets gives them the capacity to make virtually any script credible. Having accepted the premise that these creatures of foam, fur and fabric are living beings, the audience will usually accept anything that the puppets say or do as perfectly normal in that frame of reference. This suspension of disbelief can be used to great advantage in programs that deal with abstract theoretical material. Non-forfeiture provisions or invoice validation are not everyday topics of conversation among people, but, using puppets, whole dialogues can revolve around these topics without straining audience credibility.
Another advantage is use of related visual material tied to the subject. Some examples of props we used include specially scaled loaves of bread that represented different settlement options, and various sizes and colors of beakers of water to represent cash flow.
We found through follow-up testing on our programs that the strongest impressions were made when the puppets actually handled the prop that emphasized the subject material. And the more way-out a prop was, the more memorable it was, as long as it was an accurate visual metaphor for the subject material.
One last advantage of using puppets, especially for TV commercials, is that you can achieve results similar to film animation at a fraction of the cost. Most of the commercials we have done, such as the dancing duck for Northern Bathroom Tissue, started out as animation ideas. This is a strong selling point, especially when numerous test commercials are being done.
The key consideration in developing a script using puppets instead of actors is that the puppeteer(s) should be brought in on the project at its very inception. We always found that it was a great advantage to have the input of the puppet company from the very first script conference, instead of trying to plug in the puppets at the last minute and only then learn of any special problems.
The most important difference in scripting for puppets is that puppets do not speak well. Even with moving mouths, eyes, and eyebrows, puppets simply cannot do the range of facial expressions humans can. Therefore, one should write puppet scripts with a pencil in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other: Make every word count and question each line for its necessity. As a general rule, never have more than three consecutive lines by the same puppet character.
The writer should have some knowledge of puppet movement vocabulary. The words in the script should be tailored to words with which the puppets can do meaningful movements. Words such as yes, come here, and put it there are good examples of puppet-action words.
Once the script has run the approval route, the pre-production work must be itemized and divided up. The puppet company is generally responsible for designing and building the puppets, and often the props and sets as well. The studio is usually in charge of lighting, visuals, and set construction. Casting talent is an area that might belong to either group. Go through the script and make a list of all required props, visuals, and special effects and decide who will be responsible for what.
We often find it advantageous to pre-record the voice track before the actual videotaping. Often many takes of a scene are required before approval. Recording the audio track in advance eliminates the need for cards or teleprompter and live mikes for spoken lines. The lines will sound the same, and keep the same timing, even after many tiring takes.
The material in an instructional program can often he extremely technical. During a voice taping session the actor can concentrate fully on the meaning of the words, and the client can approve the exact interpretation that will be in the final program. Sound effects and music cues can also be dropped into the soundtrack exactly as desired.
I have always found it best for the person doing the voice on a pre-recorded track to be the same person that manipulates the puppet during the videotaping. There is some kind of internal sync or rhythm each person has, and sometimes it is difficult for a manipulator to capture the rhythm in a voice of another person.
We have, however, used actors and actresses to read the lines for the sound track with different people operating the puppets. This allows selection of voices ideally suited to the characters in a script. We have, too, had people that would do one voice for one character superbly and then manipulate a different puppet character in the program.
There are some situations where it is best to do live voices in the studio during taping. Live sound is preferable in shows that have studio audience response. Often we combine human actors and puppets talking to each other, and in this case live voice work is almost always used.
Everyone should have a copy of the shooting script. When the sound has been pre-recorded, the puppet director should have an audiocassette copy to play during breaks. Whenever possible, puppeteers should be given a copy of the script and audio track to study at home prior to the shoot.
We generally rehearse an upcoming scene four times while waiting for cameras to be set up for a dry-run shot. We first run just the audio track to familiarize ourselves with the content and rhythm of the scene. The second rehearsal is strictly for lip synchronization. The third run-through focuses on other body movements of the puppets, and the fourth run-through combines the lip synchronization with the body movements.
These four rehearsals generally do not take much time, because we try to keep scenes short, about 30 to 120 seconds at a time. It is less tiring to divide a program this way, and the chances of getting all the action and camera work correct in the first take are much higher.
Using monitors will save a producer time and money. This is what I always tell producers who complain about this expense. With monitors, the puppeteers can give the director exactly what he wants, and can save countless retakes for things like heads or arms showing or the mismatch of a chromakeyed shot.
There is a big difference between working with puppets and with people in a studio. The puppets always look freshthey do not sweat and always look eager to perform. This is often all the TV director sees in his monitors, and so often he assumes that the puppeteers are in the same shape!
In the studio, the manipulators are usually required to hold the puppets over their heads, while they are cramped below a stage trying to work the puppet, stay out of the cameras view, watch the monitor, and perhaps watch a teleprompter as wellall of this under hot lights. This is why I recommend short scenes and frequent restsat least one every hour. A well-rested and relaxed performer will do many more and better takes than a tired and strained one.
In shooting the series Looking at Insurance for the Prudential Life Insurance Company, we found it best to have a puppet director on the studio floor. This person directed all the puppet manipulation and was the headphone-communications link to the audio-visual director in the control room. Most TV directors are not specialists in puppet movement, so a puppet director can concentrate on ensuring that the movements and lip synchronizations are correct.
We found it best that the puppeteers communicate only with the puppet-director and not to the various people on the technical staff. This saves a lot of time and confusion. For example, directions often need to be translated into puppeteers language. The meaning of the line is not clear would be translated by the puppet director as Point to the product on the word thing and pull the brow string on the yes movement.
Another good reason to have a separate puppet director is that he or she will be free to deal with any puppet-related problems on the floor. The puppeteers are usually stuck in their positions during a take, have their hands in the puppets, and may also have mikes on as well. The puppet director can easily take care of quick repairs such as rearranging a puppets wig or reshaping a control rod.
One last point: There are some producers who ask their staff crews to make puppets, and then hire theatre students, actors, or staff technicians to operate them. The results are often disastrous. While there is some truth to the statement that anyone can build and operate puppets, the same truth applies to the statement anyone can play the piano. Neither statement says how well these art forms can he performed by anyone. This article is based on years of experience with puppets in video, and I hope it has shown that puppetry, specifically puppetry for television, is a very specialized and skillful art form. Only the services of a qualified, professional puppet company will give you the professional results you desire in your corporate programming.
© Copyright 1999 Larry Engler