REAL-TIME ANIMATION: Puppet Film Challenges from Concept to Final Edit

Real-time Animation:  Puppet Film Challenges- Concept to Final Edit
by Steven Ritz-Barr

This article will explore the challenges inherent in conceiving, creating, and operating puppets to be filmed in real time with any puppet style or combination of operating styles. These are reflections based largely upon a direct experience with puppetry in commercial  & art films/ TV in Los Angeles and Paris. Content parallels in the world of stop-motion, motion capture, experimental films, and the theatre exist, but are not the focus of this article.

At the heart of puppetry is Believing– or more rightly– suspending one’s disbelief for long enough to listen, believe, and allow oneself to hear and to be transformed by the puppet. It is difficult enough to believe a flesh and blood actor, but paradoxically it can be easier to believe a puppet due to its neutrality. This article will also explore some of these suspension dimensions of disbelief in regard to concept and execution.


Some people see the puppet as just an object—which in a real sense is what it is. The job of the Puppeteer is to trick the viewer into seeing a human character. Normal people, (not autistic people), when they look at a face, they use a part of their brain called the fusiform gyrus, which is an oddly sophisticated piece of brain software that allows humans to distinguish among literally thousands of faces that we know (picture in your mind the face of Barak Obama. You just used your fusiform gyrus). When we look at a chair, however, we use a different and less powerful part of the brain—the inferior temporal gyrus— which is usually reserved only for object recognition (except in the brain of Autistic people).

It takes a talented artist… or a collection of artists, to trick people into seeing a face when they know it is an object. When this trick is achieved honestly, rather than with too many gimmicks and gadgets, which tend to draw the brain away from the human face and the human emotion, the emotional impact of the message can be very potent.

This is the core of what is Real or what is experienced as Real, even with a puppet. The actor is already a Real human– the exercise of recognition and empathy is already admitted by the audience. The puppet designer, maker, and puppet operator must work very hard to achieve an empathy reserved for humans. When they do achieve it, by evoking a real emotion in the audience, the message can be more powerful than with human actors because the audience is already using their energy and imagination to invest themselves in the character and content of the story. They believe. When they don’t believe, the illusion in incomplete and is just a disinterested audience who sees the object and they are bored.

Many differences exist when filming puppets rather than actors. In regard to the type of puppet (and it’s limited facial and body movement), the type and placement of the puppet’s operation (puppeteers and controls), the camera placement (multiple cameras), and rehearsals meet special challenges when dealing with puppet films. A puppet shoot is one long special effect shot, which means it takes more time, more care, and more frustration than with actors.

The audience is not forgiving with film’s illusions because they know the camera can stop and restart. They also know that Computer Effects (CG), can create stunning imaginative creatures and almost perfect realism. But there need be no competiton between the two techniques. Luckily, today’s screen-viewing audience grew up with puppets, although primarily for a child audience. But from the Muppets to Team America to the proliferation of the Puppet Shorts modern puppet films are in the process of proliferating.


Because of a tendency toward realism found in filmed puppetry as a stylistic choice, the puppets themselves must be different than theatre puppets. The use of the ultra close-up means the details must be perfect, as defined by the filmmaker. Exposed seams, bad hair, and other imperfections not seen from a short ‘theatre’ distance, are immediately perceived with an ordinary HD camera, therefore they must be eliminated.

Sometimes, filmed puppetry attempts to give a perfect match to reality to cause the viewer to believe the object is really Real—(within the context of watching a film). For example, an injured leg. (Even if you don’t call a person’s leg a puppet, it is an inanimate object that must have life, therefore it is a puppet.) To achieve a certain effect of an injury, complete with blood coming out, it must look like the puppet is the actor’s leg, when it is only a fake- leg puppet. There is no disbelief to be suspended. This means the puppet will be conceived in a certain manner, with particular attention given to the exact realism of the leg in the construction and operation of the puppet effect—it is in a realm called creature effects. This leads to one of the most difficult puppet challenges: the locomotion of the puppet (walk and run).

The puppet’s displacement in space is often done with tricks to hide the actual lower part of the puppet’s legs. The Punch -type puppet or the Muppet- type often don’t have legs at all, so it is the upper torso movement that must convey the walk/run. And with string puppets, if one wants to run there are all sorts of stylistic choices to make. The suspended, careful, walk may work for a few seconds but not for much time after that. Due to the gravity being in conflict with the realism of the walk, the audience member’s mind can be drawn toward the ‘puppet’ (dropping the suspension of disbelief) rather than to the message the puppet is trying to express. For this reason it is advantageous to have a different artist make the puppet from the one who will operate it—so they don’t fall too much in love with their own puppet mechanism, therefore, showing that off, rather than applying the character’s movements or the content. Often directors just put set dressing (like grassy shrubs) on the walk pathway so you don’t see the foot hitting the ground.  This is the same with horses and other animals. Team America, in the first stages of the shoot, gave up with the realistic walk in favor of the Thunderbird-esque  imperfect string puppet gate because the directors were fine with that style.

Puppets who talk on film or television usually have a moving mouth (I.E. Muppets). It is almost impossible to get away with no moving mouth with real dialogue. The film Strings does this with varying degrees of success.

Not only does it makes it hard to know which puppet is talking, but they become much more illustrative elements rather than real characters.

Lip synch is a skill an operator must learn to perfect regardless if one’s hand is in the head, or it is a string-control mechanism. Genevieve Anderson’s rod puppets in Olga’s Box of Clover and Too Loud a Solitude both rely heavily upon narration rather than dialogue, which is why they work.


One of the first technical decisions for any production with puppets is hiding the puppeteers and the puppet’s control system, especially for the wide shots. In the theatre one can simply integrate the controls with the style of production and allow the public to see in full view how everything works. One can establish this style and the audience will engage their suspension of disbelief. But in film work; the suspension of disbelief can only go so far—the puppeteer and the controls must be hidden. How they are hidden can determine what kind of puppet to use.

Audience members know when the camera shot changes, it can represent a different moment in real time or a continuation of the same moment. The theatre of puppets usually fit into one of three systems of control: direct system- hand on (or in) the object, the rod technique, where a stick is between the puppeteer and the puppet—the operator pushes the rod to get the movement; or the string puppet, with an operator pulls the sting to engage the movement. The need to create an illusion of life in an inanimate filmed object pushes the puppeteer and the control system out of the shot.  Because of this fact, more complex  (and expensive) systems of controlling a puppet are often employed. These systems include radio control, cable control, hydraulic or pneumatic controlled puppets who work with the aide of computers, and finally that bastard, motion control, where a puppeteer’s movements are recorded and imprinted on a computer generated image. There is no puppet there. Physical puppetry skills are used by the image-operator to replace the need to create each frame in the computer saving time and money– essentially turning puppeteers into animators or vice versa. But, I repeat, there is no puppet there.

The weight of the object-puppet and it’s setting determines what kind of technical system will be used in it’s fabrication. I. E. a 16 foot dinosaur in Flintstones with a steel welded structure needs pneumatic as the force to move it— exactly like a fork lift. The operator needs no more  strength  than he or she needs when using a joy stick to operate thousands of pounds of puppet.

To add to the variables in conceiving a realistic creature-puppet take the example of a shark for the Jack Nicolson film Blood and Wine. The shark’s weight in the water is buoyant, it needs to have a silicon skin in order to slip through the water like a fish. Radio control is the movement control of choice because of an engineering concept, making it less expensive than pneumatic controls.

The vast majority of filmed puppets are cable-controlled. Men in Black’s two control tower operators had tails of 35 cables each coming out their backside. These tails had to be hidden in the set construction and connected to the puppet control ‘brain’ somewhere off set. The puppeteers were under the set and attached to the controls. These operating considerations had to be made in the Production Design faze of the project.  In this scene from the operating team led by Tony Urbano for key designer and boss, Rick Baker, 20 puppet operators slaved away under the footsteps of Will Smith and Rip Torn. Scripted action-requiring Mikey the huge cockroach in Men in Black, to turn tail and dart into the desert night proved problematic on several fronts. Baker was worried about having the operator in the suit run on stilts across the uneven terrain of the set—especially since he was virtually blind within the head piece. Additionally, Sonnefeld, the director, wanted Mikey to run a considerable distance to the desert, which was a physical impossibility within the confines of the stage. In terms of both safety and logistics, the reasonable solution was to have the character transform from a Real puppet operated by 17 puppeteers into a complete CG character.

The controls for Tom Cruise’s horse in Last Samurai, made by Mark Rappaport’s Creature Effects Shop, was over 100 feet away from the action – across the dirt set in a little house  (built to house the 6 people needed to operate it). Pneumatic joysticks and cables was how one version worked.

The original designs of these objects contained the location of the puppeteers. This planning is required to achieve an ultimate Realism of creature effect puppets.

All of these high-tech systems of controlling the object have the same goal in mind: to try to make the object appear to be alive on it own—to trick the mind of the viewer into thinking momentarily that they are REAL. Usually several types of the same puppet character are built to do different movements; I. E. one puppet just for close-ups with RC controls operating servos to get the subtle facial movements, another puppet for the 2 and 3 shots and another puppet to do the long shots or the master/ establishing shots or where the puppet character walks in full view inside a set. Often little people, adults or children, are employed to be inside the puppet for the long shots. ( as the penguins in Batman Returns, and the main character in Labyrinth).

Even the Muppets, who have a over-the-head traditional style, have to consider hiding the Puppeteer because the various sets are constructed for live actors as well as the puppeteers. Holes are placed in strategic places around the set, as well as ramps to accommodate both filming levels.

The solutions for fixing shots, from erasing some glaring strings in front of the faces from Team America, to eliminating the rods in TV productions like the muppets, are found in post production. They vary from rotoscoping the puppeteer out of the shot to simple compositing.

Shooting on green screen and compositing the photo into the background is the direction most productions employ. Green screen depends on the technique in the camera or in the computer to artificially add the background image. Rear screen projection, an old Hollywood trick known mostly when 2 actors are conversing while driving in a car (the background is projected), works very well and is less cumbersome than green screen. But there are constraints to this method too. Trial and Error reigns supreme. The Classics in Miniature film, Quixote, uses this rear screen technique with much success.

When using a combination of actors and puppets, the actors emotive states project into the puppets, therefore defining the puppet’s emotions. The puppet reacts. The puppets can remain in their other-worldly world and the actors can react the way the Greek Chorus acted in Greek plays, namely by being the emotional compass and  liaison from the puppet gods to the human world. Pure Puppet films—like Dark Crystal—who uses only puppet creatures to generate their own emotions are more difficult to humanize. It is very difficult to suspend disbelief for very long with an audience. One has to lean on tricks: light, plot turns, always work to keep the audience looking and allowing themselves to be taken into a world where humans do not exist.

CAMERA or the EYE of the AUDIENCE.

The camera is the eye of the audience via the director in any film. Since the puppet itself can’t see exactly where it’s looking, the Puppeteer must use a monitor to calibrate the regard- or the exact direction of the puppet’s eyes.  A puppeteer must become fluent with the monitor-technique. For this reason the puppeteer simultaneously directs his or her own performance. Complications or challenges come when there are multiple cameras. The puppet’s monitor doesn’t always help with the other camera feeds, so the puppet is left in the dark, until his camera is ‘on’. Television shoots use multiple cameras and simultaneous editing to speed up the process. But it is more complicated for the puppet operators who can be hidden in one camera but exposed in another.

Expressing emotion with light rather than with special movement helps to keep the public from dropping their participation in the emotional scene in a puppet film.


In most film preparation, because of the budget constraints, rehearsal is done in the writing of the script and the envisioning of the director. When the final puppet gets to the set often it has never done the scene before. Puppeteers must get used to this constraint and just quickly adapt to the new puppet.

So if it’s HD, the director just shoots the rehearsals. It is the first shot when the most spontaneity often happens- until the left arm falls off or something.

Many creative people pull together to enable a successful outcome for the scene. And the director is left thinking “I will never use a puppet again.”

STEALING TIME, stop motion.

In Central Europe, home to some of the most conceptually evolved stop motion films of Trinka, Swakmeyer and the Russian school, where they have perfected their system in the 1950s and 60s. Ray Harryhausen, in the USA, made shorts before he was known to produce and direct feature films using only short sequences with the his effects (Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, etc..)

Stop motion animation technique, dating back to early work of Willis O’Brien’s prehistoric monsters in The Lost World (1925) and King King animation, has always been to create a puppet with armature and shoot it image by image (24 images per second=24 frames). Building the creature would involve sculpting oil-based clay and laying it over the machined, skeletal armature to form the basic shape. A mold could then be made, the clay popped out, the armature positioned back into the mold’s hollow impression of the creature, and foam injected into the mold. The mold could then be baked in an oven, then dressed and made ready for camera. The actual hands-on animation, in which a puppet is moved and filmed by each frame, requires a superb sense of movement analysis and an ability to go into a zone of ultimate patience.

Stop motion is an extremely thought out work. It is not a live-action. The character is not manipulated or operated ‘in performance-time’. It is operated by someone who presses a button to get the performance. A film maker. It is not a spontaneous act. The operator steals time. It is the ultimate film trick. Conceptually, it is inanimate objects coming got life—so one can call it a puppet, but this puppet does not rely on the talents of a puppeteer, rather on the talents of the filmmaker, to make it come alive. CGI can also fall into this category. The director first deconstructs Real movements then he patiently reconstructs with the character.

This realization is further complicated by the new live-action animation found in Motion Control systems. These extremely expensive set-ups claim that they will change the way cartoon animation is done in the future.

This system can get a live performance from a talented puppeteer or movement person, without the actual puppet. But it is still a long way from converting the animation world of its superior merits. One reason is the down-time, when the computers crash or glitch, it can take hours to get them up again. These hours of unexpected waiting can be fatal to any production. It is most often used in video game production.


Puppet films allow small objects to be seen as large. The process of telling the story becomes filmmaking rather than Puppetry Arts. The transposition of Puppetry techniques from the theatre with film techniques is the hybrid form called Puppet films. Many levels exist for many audiences.  Particular challenges regarding the Puppet, the operation, the puppeteers, the camera, and rehearsals must be taken into consideration when making a puppet film.

At the heart of puppetry is Believing.


Upcoming Events

QUIXOTE screenings:

April 1, 2011  U Conn : Puppet and Post Dramatic conference

March 1, 2011 U of California at Santa Cruz

FEB. 18, 2011 Friday 7pm private screening for MANSA conference in

Woodland Hills, CA (check site:

Jan. 8, 2011  MLA  Modern Language Association conference and Cervantes Society Meeting.

May 26-June 2, 2010 Prague Puppet Festival      Prague, Czech Republic

July 21- 24, 2010 at The International Puppet Theater and Films festival,  Holon,Israel

Oct. or Nov. –University of So. California, fall 2010

Jan. 2011, Los Angeles, Cervantes Society of America, Annual conference event….

March 1, 2011, University of CA-Santa Cruz  theatre Dept.

Past screenings:

JUNE 12, 2010 San Francisco Academy of Art. 1st San Francisco Bay Area Screening of “Quixote”.

APRIL 16, 2010, 4pm J. BRIDGES Theatre, Melnitz Hall, UCLA.

APRIL 17, 2010, 11am Beverly Hills Film Festival, Clarity Theatre

MARCH 3, 2010 Purdue University   Lafayette, IN, Downtown Theatre.

Appearance at Dickinson University in Pennsylvania. 2009


Welcome to LA Puppet Authority!

THE  LA Puppet NEWS as of Friday March 13, 2004

Our organization is revamping itself because we don’t offer children’s puppet shows anymore to the general puppet. Also new Puppetry Arts course has been developed for UCLA Animation Workshop Dept. in the school of Theatre, Film, Television and Digital Media (TFTDM) at UCLA.

Also, the Classics in Miniature Puppet Film Series, is almost one year into marketing and distributing our first film, FAUST. By clicking the calender at the right (upcoming) you will be able to get more information about each event.

April 1. 2009 Faust at Dickinson University in PA.

April 3, 2009 Faust at Beverly Hills Film Festival in Bev. Hills, CA

April 4, 2009 Faust at SENE film music, and art festival  in Providence, RI.

June  22, 2009  start of UCLA course in Puppet Arts in Film and Television

Our fundraising activities have begun. We are seeking Grant support for specific projects, including the Production of Don Quixote, our next film.

I will be posting photos of the Don Quixote puppets on this site soon.

Stay tuned for our projects to unfold in the coming year. And check out our site,