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.

Pick of the Puppets – Take 2

Hello, Peter Slight of the Puppet Challenge here.

In this post I picked my own personal top five puppet perfomances.

Puppet Challenge contributor Caroline McCatty has compiled her own top 5 puppet performances which she has very kindly agreed to let me share with the Artlog readers.

All of Caroline’s choices were new discoveries for me and I really enjoyed discovering some lovely surprises and real gems. I think you will enjoy Caroline’s choices too.

So I shall hand you over to Caroline…

I.  Vladislav Starewicz or Wladyslaw Starewicz.

Odd and compellingly terrifying, He made many weird puppet films and I really struggle to chose a favourite.

You can view the brilliant Le Lion Devenu Vieux here

and the equally brilliant Les Grenouilles qui Demandent un Roi here

2. Victor Antonov’s puppets that have brilliant mechanisms.

You can view Victor Antonov’s Circus of the Strings here

3. Puppet heap 

above: Chuck and Ralph

I love the aesthetic of Puppet Heap. Chuck and Ralph the sick bags are great but my choice here is Main Event which includes a Punching Puppet.

 4. The ‘Punching Puppet’

mr t

So maybe the punching puppet is high on my list as a fabulous  toy that never made it past the toy safety standards. I have a punching puppet of Mr T in a pink dress and if you pull off his boxing gloves he has metal spikes for hands.

 5. Blue Scream Theatre Company’s Tom Thumb.  

Thank you again for sharing your choices with us Caroline.

If any other Puppet Challenge contributors would like to share their top 5 puppet performances we would love to see them.

Sea Serpent Sighted!

Hello, Peter Slight of the Puppet Challenge here.

The residents of Nantucket, Massachusetts were in for a big surprise one August morning in 1937 when giant webbed footprints were discovered on Nantucket beach by a local fisherman. This came after a recently reported sightings of  ‘a creature about one hundred feet long with a head like a barrel and red-rimmed glaring eyes the size of dinner plates’  which had reputedly been seen (and reported in the local paper) by another fisherman who was left ‘pop-eyed’ by the incident.

Photos of the tracks appeared in more papers, and copies were sent to scientists in New York City for analysis. Interest in the story began to grow.

The residents of Nantucket didn’t have to wait long to find out who or what had made the tracks. As its carcass was washed ashore onto Nantucket beach in its entirety only a few days later.

The sea serpent was almost exactly as had been described, at around 120ft long and pretty fearsome – but it also turned out to be an giant inflatable!

The creature was left in place for several weeks and generated a lot of interest, drawing in large crowds.

The whole thing had been cooked up in collaboration with the local papers as a publicity stunt to help generate interest in the town. The man behind the hoax was Tony Sarg (1880 – 1942)  a German American puppeteer, puppet maker, animator and illustrator.

Tony made puppet-related animated window displays for Macy’s seen over the Thanksgiving and Christmas period. But  crucially it was also Tony who built the tethered helium filled balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parades.

He was described as “America’s Puppet Master”, and in his biography as the father of modern puppetry in North America.

Above is a picture of Tony Sarg looking rather dapper and pleased with himself in front of his creation. I can only imagine the excitement this stunt must have created among the children (and adults) of Nantucket  (and further afield) It really would have been like Christmas morning running down to the beach to find this massive beastie waiting for you. I have to say I admire Tony Sarg, he was a true creative, in every sense of the word, with the spirit of a showman capable of turning his hand to a multitude of different disciplines, but also for creating things that could generate so much excitement and mystery making the world a more colourful place.

The sea serpent put in another appearance at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade a few months later and could be seen floating over Manhattan this time.

Tonys protégé who helped build his Macy’s helium balloon constructions was Bil Baird who later went on to find fame himself as a puppeteer with his wife Cora. I wrote about them and their rather nifty puppets here

Bil and Cora Baird

Hello, Peter Slight of the Puppet Challenge here.

William Baird, better known as Bil, was a prominent american puppeteer  in the 1950’s and 60’s. Bil worked with his wife Cora. Between them making, costuming and operating many of the puppets that featured in their touring stage shows.

Their hand- or wire-operated puppets appeared in several full-length Broadway theatricals and musicals and on the Bairds’ own television shows in the early 1950s. The Bairds opened their own marionette theatre, the Bil Baird Theatre, in New York City in 1966.

Bil and Cora also produced and performed the famous puppetry sequence of The Lonely Goatherd in the film version of The Sound of Music.

Many of Bil’s associates who learnt their craft with him later went on to work for Jim Henson.

 

pirates

Davy Jones’ Locker

winnih pooh

Winnie the Pooh

You can see part of the Winnie the Pooh production here Is it just me or does Winnie sound like actor Jimmy Stewart with that syrupy drawl?

Alice in Wonderland

peter and the wolf

Peter and the Wolf

dino

Bil Baird 1904 – 1987

 Cora Baird 1912 – 1968

I could spend a long time looking at the first image in this post and not get tired of it.  I’m just knocked out by their puppets, The simple directness of the designs gives them real impact and they convey so much character.  I love the dino skeleton in the picture above too, there really aren’t enough dino skeleton puppets around in my opinion!

Puppets That Dance on Water

Hello, Peter Slight of the Puppet Challenge here.

Water puppetry looks beautiful and mysterious. An extract on its origins from wikipedia:

‘Water puppetry is a tradition that dates back as far as the 11th century when it originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam. Today’s Vietnamese water puppetry is a unique variation on the ancient Asian puppet tradition.

The puppets are made out of wood and then lacquered. The shows are performed in a waist-deep pool. A large rod supports the puppet under the water and is used by the puppeteers, who are normally hidden behind a screen, to control them. Thus the puppets appear to be moving over the water. When the rice fields would flood, the villagers would entertain each other using this form of puppet play.’

I’m Nobody

Hello, Peter Slight of the Puppet Challenge here,

‘Nobody’ was one of the names given to an early Jim Henson creation, an abstract disembodied floating face consisting of two eyes and a mouth which often spoke in a deep and pensive voice delivering thoughtful monologues exploring the characters inner thoughts about his sense of self, personal fears and general mental state.

The mouth and eyes are made out of string and controlled by invisible wires attached to gloves worn by two puppeteers. The deceptively simple construction of the puppet gives a very expressive performance. The character was used in several short films from the early 60’s onward. I found these films fascinating and rewarding viewing and hopefully some of you will too.

You can see arguably his best performance in the short film ‘Limbo’ here

Limbo bw

I'm Nobody

Limbohenson

You can also see an interesting short film about how the effect was achieved here

Pick of the Puppets

Hello, Peter Slight of the Puppet Challenge here.

I recently set myself the task of picking my 5 favourite puppet performances from stage or screen.

I didn’t want to base my judgement too much on the actual personality of the puppet i.e. whether they are cute or funny etc.

My criteria was a combination of the puppets performance, originality, screen presence, construction and overall design. For this reason I didn’t include any of the core Muppet characters because adorable as they are, many of them are just glorified glove puppets.

I was surprised by some of the obscure puppet performances that popped into my head once I actually sat down and thought about it.

ok, here goes…

No.5

The Muppet Show ‘Inchworm’ 

I only had a dim recollection of this one from seeing it on Sesame Street when I was 5 or 6, but it has stayed in my subconscious ever since. After a bit of research I discovered the worm was a recurring character in Sesame Street appearing as Oscar the Grouch’s pet worm. But the character actually dates right back to Jim Hensons first TV show ‘Sam and Friends’ (1955)

The motion of the worms movement is both convincing and satisfying, given that it is just a small piece of foam and two rods I think it typifies the idea that sometimes simple really is best.

You can see the inchworm in action here

No.4

The American Werewolf in London

I’m not especially a fan of gory horror films but this is a modern classic. The effects and make up are iconic, yet it’s the werewolf who steals the show. It has very little screen time, only appearing right at the very end, but boy does he make his presence felt. It Is just such a great piece of design and deliberately minimal puppetry that it had to have a place on my list. Built by the special effects maestro Rick Baker the creature is part puppet and part costume.

You can see the original puppets restoration from tatty old beast back to its former glory here

No.3

Jim Hensons The Storyteller ‘ The Soldier and Death’ episode

The Soldier and Death recounts the tale of a soldier returning home from war being given three magic objects, which he uses to outwit a pack of devils, leading to an encounter with Death himself. Written by Oscar-winner Anthony Minghella. The demons themselves offer a fantastic blend of pitch perfect performance and technical wizardry. I’ve watched this scene countless times and still enjoy it.

You can see the demons up to no good here

No.2

‘Eye Lichen’ from Jim Hensons ‘Labyrinth’

I couldn’t find any larger images or clips of them on the internet. I didn’t even realise they had a name until I googled it. Turns out they have their own (very brief) Wiki entry. The name says it all really. They basically all look in unison at who ever happens to walk past. A simple yet unnerving idea. I have no idea how the effect was achieved either, whether it was an animatronic or a good old fashioned Heath Robinson contraption, with rubber bands and who knows what else, and in a way I don’t think I really want to know either, preferring to exercise my suspension of disbelief.

No.1

‘The Helping Hands’ from Jim Hensons ‘Labyrinth’

These had to be number one on my list, I’ve never seen anything to better the pure fantastical invention and utter simplicity of this idea. Genius.

One of the semi solid inflexible rubber arms (seen in the clip below) came up for auction on ebay a few years ago, I didn’t go for it and have half regretted it ever since, but latex does give off an awful pong as it breaks down over time which did help to form my decision.

You can see an interesting behind the scenes video about how the scene was put together here (eagle eyed viewers will also spot one of the arms falling off during the scene as they shoot it. I have often wondered if that is the arm that ended up on ebay all those years later, maybe smuggled out of the studio up a stage hands jumper, who knows?

A couple of honorable mentions…

Aslan the lion from the BBC production of ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’ (1988)

I was blown away when I first saw this puppet in action. It gives such a lifelike and nuanced performance. It was made by the costume and puppet designer Vin Burnham who has worked on a host of TV and film productions including some of Clives’ own stage productions!

Theres an interesting video about how they made Aslan here

I like the fact that the lions body fur is made from ‘stretchy car seat covers’. My grandparents used to have some of those in rather fetching leopard print! Must have been an 80’s thing? it never occurred to me to make a tiger puppet with them though.

Audrey II from ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ (1986)

I believe this puppet was worked on by one of our very own Puppet Challenge contributors, Graeme Galvin.

Some Puppet Challenge related homework for any that would like it:

Think of your own top 5 puppet performances, using criteria of your own choosing, based on what you feel are important aspects of puppetry.

I think some of you will be surprised by the performances you come up with.

The Stuff of Nightmares….

…and possibly the worst tourist destination ever?

Hello, Peter Slight of the Puppet Challenge here,

The Vent Haven Museum is home to the largest collection of ventriloquist dolls in the world, over 750 of them in fact.

It was founded by William Shakespeare Berger who began collecting them in 1910. Williams collection grew so large that he had to add a second floor to his garage just to house them all before the collection was eventually re-homed at the current purpose built museum.

Ventriloquist puppets are often custom made for their owners, who go to great pains to imbue them with a unique character, making them very personal items. It’s often the case that a puppet will be left to the museum when its owner has died. So I do find it quite poignant seeing them all sat there speechless. It helps to lessen the creepy chill factor slightly, but only slightly.

This is not somewhere you would want to be accidentally locked alone after closing time, however slim the chance that they come alive at night.

10 Creepiest Places on Earth-Part 3

*shudder* please don’t!

‘I ain’t got nobody’

looks like my old passport photo?!

definitely NOT suitable for children’s birthday parties!

FUN FACT: This puppet features real children’s teeth! eww!

Above: more of the inmates

Should you wish to visit it is located in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.

 I wonder if they have a gift shop??

P.S. I’m very sorry if this post gives any of you nightmares! (myself included!)

Missing the Moomins

Hello, Peter Slight of the Puppet Challenge here,

I was recently delighted to discover that Tove Jansons‘ wonderful Moomins were to appear in puppet form on stage in the UK for the very first time in a production of ‘Moominland Midwinter‘ at the Theatre Royal in Bath. That is until I realised I had missed it – darn it!

I cherished the Moomin books as a child and still do, so seeing this would have been a real thrill, but it was not meant to be. I have posted some pictures I found online of what was i’m sure, an amazing production.

The puppets were made by Horse + Bamboo

Assembly Points – Part 2

Hello, Peter Slight of the Puppet Challenge here.

I wanted to share a couple more making techniques with you. You can see what we have already covered in part 1 here

I found this extremely simple but effective method for making articulated limbs in ‘The Know How Book of Puppets‘. Perfect for dragon necks and Hydras!

Above: making the serpent

Above: making the serpent

This is something I came across that I had not seen done before and thought was rather nifty:

Above: Handy!

Above: Handy!

By gluing several pipe cleaners between the two fabric layers of a glove puppets hands, it can then make a gesture and hold objects. Which gives the puppet new performance possibilities.

Above: The Ringmaster in action

Above: The Ringmaster in action

Below: Types of control bar

p6

A. The basic two-handed control

B. The rigid-cross control

C. The dowel-stick controls

The three types of marionette controls vary in degrees of complexity. B and C are pretty straightforward, but I offer the diagram below of the two-handed control (A) to help clarify it:

Above: Stringing the marionette

Above: Stringing the marionette

Charlene Davis Roth the author of The Art of Making Puppets and Marionettes has this to say on the stringing of marionettes:
‘I recommend 12-pound test black nylon fishing line for stringing marionettes.You can use waxed linen thread, macrame twine, or any strong flexible string. Try to use black string. When you string a marionette, be sure the controls are level at all times. On cloth puppets, stitch the strings through the fabric with a long sharp needle and make sure you stitch through the costume to the body fabric. Use square knots to secure the strings and trim off any extra lengths at the knots. For marionettes strung on the basic two handed control, string the shoulders first. This is a continuous string, running through the screw-eye on the underside of the main bar. Have the person who is to operate the marionette hold the controls at a comfortable height and measure the distance between the crossbar and the shoulders of the marionettes. Then cut a string double that distance plus seven or eight extra inches for adjustments. Stitch and knot the string to one shoulder, run the string up through the screw-eye, and ten stitch to the other shoulder. Always stitch shoulder strings toward the back of the shoulders, so they will be slightly behind the head strings – otherwise the puppet won’t have good head movement. Check again to see if the marionette is the right height for the puppeteer and then knot the string.
Keep the marionette suspended from the shoulder strings for the remainder of the stringing. Attach the head strings next, knotting them through the holes in the ears and running up through the holes in the control.Always allow a few extra inches of string in case you have to make adjustments later. Wrap the string around the notches in the control bar. If the notches are tight enough, they will hold the string after a few turns.
String the back next. Make sure the control is level with the ground and that the marionette is standing in a natural position before you secure the string.
Now string the hands. This is a continuous string from one hand to the other, so double your measurement and add a couple of inches. String and knot one hand through the thumb side of the hand, placing the knot halfway between thumb and wrist. Run the string up through the screw-eye at the front of the control and down to the other hand. Attach the string and knot it. Hands should hang naturally at the sides.
Last, string the legs. The string is tied just above the knee joint and runs up to the leg bar. Strings for the legs should be long enough to allow you to hook the leg bar over the main bar when the marionette is standing in one position.
The rigid-cross control has fewer strings, but the principles above apply generally. Since there are no shoulder strings, attach the continuous head strings first. Follow with the hands and finish with the legs.’

 

….phew…did you get all that?!
Feel free to leave a comment if you have any making queries and Clive and I will do our best to answer them. If several of you request the same information then we will try to cover it in another assembly points post.
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