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…
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
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
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
‘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.
‘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.