For years, the entertainment world has been totally consumed by digital imagery. But today, filmmakers are beginning to incorporate puppets, characters that are physical objects animated by human beings, into the digital world of movies, TV shows, and emerging forms of new media.
But the sophistication, beauty, and subtly of expression in computer animation continues to get exponentially better. Newer technology is cheaper and faster. Isn’t puppetry irrelevant?
Actually, the opposite is true. In a world of digital overload, the analog tradition of puppetry is the perfect addition to the toolboxes of filmmakers, creatives, and artists. Puppetry is a mind expander, a sparker of creativity, a barrier destroyer, and a bridge builder. This is the world’s most powerful, unsung art form. And this is why it’s important.
What really is puppetry? Unexplored Potential
Puppetry is, at its core, taking an inanimate object, or almost any object, and imbuing it with the illusion of life. This illusion is one of the purest forms of fantasy– the idea of a spark like that of human consciousness finding its way into… anything.
As one of the oldest forms of expression, early examples of puppetry can be found in ancient cultures around the world. Some of these early puppets survive and depictions of puppet shows appear in records from pre-history to ancient times, to the middle ages, to the Renaissance, to the industrial age and the modern era.
Although these shows have always entertained children, this was not, and has never been the only audience for puppetry. Often puppeteers were roving artists with bawdy, blasphemous, or politically charged plays that audiences of all ages loved. These puppet shows were radical and powerful, challenging the way people think and leading to social change.
But the spectrum of puppetry that most of us today encounter fits into two categories. Programs for preschoolers and the X rated parodies of it. But the truth is, these are just two extreme ends of the possibilities. In between them is a whole world of potential that remains mostly unexplored.
In America, puppetry is sometimes regarded as an old-world vaudeville act noted more for novelty than artistry. In some ways, puppeteers perpetuate these stereotypes out of a deep passion for historical styles that, while beautiful, are a microcosm of the full depth of the art form.
Puppeteers and audiences alike often make the mistake of linking the whole of puppetry too closely with the works of Jim Henson, namely, the Muppets and Sesame Street. Undeniably, these works are some of the best examples of puppetry in modern culture and their impact is immeasurably great, but this style is just one small part of a larger world– a larger world that Henson himself was always eager to explore (World of Puppetry, Land of Gorch, Storyteller)
In reality, puppetry and object animation is an art form unto itself much bigger than a sideshow act. As powerful as theater, as rich as dance, and as evocative as the cinema.
The magic of objects come to life.
According to puppetry enthusiast and producer Jamie Anderson, when someone watches a puppet show, the part of the brain that tells them what they are watching is alive and conscious lights up. Even though viewers know consciously what they are watching is a puppet show, subconsciously their brain is sending signals that these are not mere objects. The better the puppet is performed, the stronger these signals will be. Poor performance leads to a creepy feeling, not unlike the almost-alive feeling you get when you encounter “the uncanny valley” of the almost alive… but not quite. When this illusion is pulled off successfully, it leads to some of the most powerful moments for audience members.
Puppeteers utilize whatever object the story demands as a conduit for their own self expression just as an actor uses his or her body. Once audiences connect with the consciousness of the puppeteer or animator via the puppet object, techniques begin to fade away to the back of awareness and the character takes over. Fans of Gerry Anderson’s marionette series like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet often report that, after watching a few minutes, or even just a few moments, they cease to see the strings operating the puppets and instead become involved in stories and characters. Puppetry becomes, like the proscenium arch, a mere framework within which the events of a story take place and where the characters live.
Puppetry doesn’t seek to hide the fact that it is a method of storytelling. Instead, puppeteers invite you to engage with the medium. This kind of honesty makes puppetry more powerful than methods that “trick” the audience. An audience able to acknowledge the illusion, an educated audience, is best able to move beyond the fourth wall into an imaginary world crafted by storytellers.
When one engages in the fantasy world of puppets, that person is creating an inner imaginary world of their own where the characters and settings are real places, even though consciously one is aware they are watching wood, felt, or plastic. This imaginary world is a place where this person, child or adult, can safely create, foster, and incubate new ideas, adventures, and characters, leading to new ideas that can change the world.
This isn’t fantasy of the kind that detracts from reality, it’s the kind that enhances it. C.S. Lewis reminds us that fantasy and mythology take ordinary things that we take for granted like apples, horses, or gold, and help us see them in a new light. This is the very essence of art; instead of just commenting on life, puppetry can add to the experience of it.
Because the power of performing through an object has such a specific impact on the human mind, it can reach directly into that inner imaginary world, cultivate creativity in those who may not be aware of how creative they can be– even helping those who don’t see themselves as creative to expand their horizons. This creative ability, that puppetry can spark or encourage in anyone, has more than just artistic implications. It is the ability to think creatively that leads to the solving of humanity’s problems whether simple or complex.
Power in abstraction and Puppetry as a Safe Harbor.
One of puppetry’s other unique abilities is that it can make specific the general or generalize the specific.
As Scott McCloud reports in his seminal work on sequential art, Understanding Comics, human beings are born to identify with and anthropomorphize all kinds of objects. He also notes that the more abstract an image is, the more people can identify with it.
A detailed image of a specific person can be easily identified with by people who share a lot of attributes with that person or are used to seeing these specifics, but these details can actually be a barrier for those from different backgrounds. As you start removing details, you start to get a more general image that can be identified with by, well, almost anyone (smiley face). Paradoxically, the less detailed the image is, the more the audience can identify with it. This process is known as abstraction and it’s a process characters like Kermit the Frog, Mickey Mouse, and Garfield benefit from.
The opposite, of course, is also true. Very few of us can identify with what it’s like to be green, have mouse ears, or be an orange sentient tabby cat, but these seeming obstacles for the audience are actually just another route to a safe harbor.
Many performers who would be too shy to act have chosen to put on a puppet and perform this way instead. Many persons with autism, or a disability, or who have suffered from trauma don’t feel comfortable opening up to a therapist or counselor– until that therapist or counselor puts on a puppet.
What’s happening here is that the object of the puppet is actually becoming an intermediary, or a bridge, between the performer and the audience. You might not connect with a shy would-be-actor or a therapist who is different from you in innumerable ways, but an abstracted, tangible object, imbued with a spark of life from the performer, is accessible and less threatening. The impact of this in art therapy, both formal and informal, is staggering.
Additionally, this abstraction has very few limits. The part of the brain that can identify the faces of your friends, neighbors, and relatives is the same part that sees faces in electrical outlets, cars, trash cans, street lamps…
Puppeteers merely have to grab ahold of these cues to access what audiences already have– an ability to connect with animated objects. ANY object can be anthropomorphized into a living representation of a human being or character. The mind can accept it as long as the illusion is immersively maintained, just as the mind accepts the illusions of literature. After all, words are intermediaries between people also.
The link between the dream world and reality (Puppetry and the removal of barriers)
In many ways, puppetry is the intangible made tangible. It is a direct link into the world of someone’s imagination, their dream world, that is simultaneously grounded in a real world where the physics of gravity, light, and mass apply without the need for CGI trickery.
While the mind of the audience is creating their own dream world based on the world of puppetry, the sculptors and artists behind the puppets are accessing their own fantasies, conscious and subconscious, to give rise to new forms that will perpetuate the cycle of myth creation and enjoyment.
Images that could only have existed in the subconscious can be depicted through puppetry. The good and the bad that we may not be aware of from within ourselves can come to life before our eyes. Once an evil thing takes form, it can be defeated in an act of catharsis. Once a good thing has taken form, it can be nurtured, better understood, and sometimes reproduced.
In this way, puppetry is a key means that we can use to understand ourselves.
Small things (or characters) can make the biggest impact. Hobbits and puppets.
Despite its long history and enormous power, puppetry today is seen by some as a small and limited art form reserved for children’s birthday parties. Puppetry is to the art world of today what hobbits were to the world of men, elves, and dwarfs in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Parochial, forgotten, obsolete, small, and insignificant. But I believe, like Tolkein, that there is an untapped power for greatness inside the small and forgotten that can have an impact on the wider world.
Telling stories with puppetry in the age of new media isn’t easy. For one thing, telling stories with puppets has never been easy. There are a myriad of technical challenges. Puppets are hard to operate, hard to light, and hard to photograph. They break. You can’t just call up a puppet to audition. It has to be designed, constructed, tested, redesigned, reconstructed, retested, painted, finished, prepped, repaired, performed, and voiced. It is a cross-disciplinary exercise in problem solving. A director who decides to work with puppetry is committing himself to going the extra mile for his story.
Because of this extra workload, many directors have lowered their standards for puppetry, accepting subpar performances that hurt the perception of puppetry in film and other industries. Too many who have attempted to use puppets have been guilty of becoming caught up in the novelty and forget that the most important part of any kind of storytelling is telling a story. Puppets are uniquely suited for doing this, but only if they are treated like characters in a story not like a flashy gimmick or special effect. Similarly, those passionate about puppetry can neglect or ignore the value of digital tools that, when put to the right use, can actually enhance and amplify the power of puppetry rather than restrict or replace it.
Despite all of these challenges, for those who are brave enough to think differently, the rewards of this unique style of performance are enormous. Puppetry has the power to connect with audiences in a way that nothing else can. It accesses parts of the brain that are otherwise inaccessible. It is a link between the internal world of the imagination and the external world we live in everyday. It can enrich our world with a mythical, new way of seeing the magic of things right under our noses and it can take us out of our world completely into the world of our wildest dreams. It is the power of art made manifest.