People in Puppets

Hello, Peter Slight of the Puppet Challenge here.

Full figure or puppet costumes are an aspect of puppetry that I’ve always found interesting. These larger than life characters blur the line between puppet and costume, forming a kind of hybrid.

The actors inside these cumbersome costumes must endure limited vision and extreme heat whilst totally inhabiting the character with their entire physical being to give a convincing impression of life and personality expressed through a compelling and nuanced performance. A difficult task which requires the strength and skill of an athlete.

There have been so many memorable performances over the years featured in film, theatre and television that I won’t do a role call of  ‘people in puppets’ as it would just end up as a list. Instead I wanted to show two of my favourites.

In 1985 the Glyndebourne Opera House staged a version of Maurice Sendaks classic childrens’ book ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ as a double bill alongside another of his childrens books ‘Higglety Pigglety Pop’

Maurice designed all of the sets and backdrops. Which looked just as lush and inviting as you would expect. How I wish I could have seen this!

 You can see part of the Opera here

Above: Maurice and friend

In 1917 Picasso provided the costume and set designs for Jean Cocteau’s ballet, ‘Parade’ .

Picasso’s designs include this picadors horse which was operated by two people, in the style of an old pantomime horse, as seen in his sketch below.

Panomime Horse study

You can just make out in the sketch that the horse was intended to have a rider. This must have been pretty hard going on the person playing the back legs!

I just love these costume designs below, they are completely mad and pure Picasso. The poor actors inside could barely move they are so encased in their box like housings. I love the pipe holding arm extension on the costume below.

11 thoughts on “People in Puppets

  1. I love the bits of scenery bolted onto Picasso’s costumes, as if the weren’t heavy enough – i do love them, though, just glad I don’t have to wear them for hours under sweltering stage lighting!

  2. The Glyndebourne productions of Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop, were both composed by Oliver Knussen. There was a video released at the the time, and so I’d be surprised if it wasn’t available somewhere as a dvd.

    I saw the costumes in close-up, as they were made at a special effects workshop at Lewes, not far from Glyndebourne, where I was having animatronic bird puppets made to my designs for the THIS production of Robin Hood.

    The Glyndebourne costumes and masks were pretty state-of-the-art at the time they were made. But then came along the costumes constructed for Spike Jonze’ film of Where the Wild Things Are, and the benchmark of excellence shot up stratospherically. Jonze chose to have actors in huge costumes, and not to go down the path of CGI generated characters added in post-production. The performances are wonderful, and the interactions between Max and the Wild Things feel real, because they are real. Apparently a little CGI was used to ‘sweeten’ the mechanics of the Wild Things’ faces, but everything else is right there in front of the cameras.

    I wasn’t at all sure about the film when I first heard about it, as the decision had been made to eschew the picture-book style of the settings as drawn by Sendak, and to shoot on location. But it turned out really well, because the creatures felt more of the real world when in a real world setting, than they would have done in a constructed environment mirroring the island as seen in the book. A film is a film, and is better when not imitating a book, where things are done differently. When I saw the film I thought it excellent, and it seems that Sendak too, was enormously pleased with the result. It has real heart.

    Where the Wild Things Are

    • Yes, they are brilliantly bonkers aren’t they. They remind me of the robot costumes you make as a child by putting an oversize box over your head and body with the features drawn on the front and small eyeholes. It’s a wonder the actors in them didn’t bump into each other or fall off the stage!

      • Long ago as a performer I worked in a lot of ‘skins’, and I can tell you that the conditions, even in the best of them, could be horrific. You have to be in tip-top physical shape to perform in this way, which is why so often there are dancers inside the costumes.

        • oh, is that what they are called, I did wonder if there was a term for them.

          i havn’t been able to look at the film ‘Labyrinth’ in quite the same way since learning that Ron Mueck, a serious intense artist whose work I really like, was inside and voiced the massive cuddly ‘Ludo’ character.

      • “Skins.” Like that. And yes! Reminds me of one year when I was about 6 or 7 and my mother helped me make a giant hat out of cardboard so I could be the mad hatter for Halloween. A very bumpy experience. The eyes were up near the top, of course.

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