9 surprising uses of puppetry in film and television

by | Mar 16, 2021 | A look in the depot

Puppetry in Film and Television | Collage: KOLK 17 Puppet Theatre & Museum

Our Sandman, Yoda from Star Wars, Captain Blue Bear, Ernie and Bert, Alf, the suitcase from the show Siebenstein or the Gelflings by Muppet creator Jim Henson all have something in common: they are known to very, very many people and they are all puppets! That Sesame Street with Ernie and Bert is puppetry rather obvious, but have you considered that Star Wars and King Kong are also utilize puppetry?

The puppets mentioned are famous television or film acting stars. Almost everyone knows at least one of the above characters. But I would suggest that most people when speaking about the productions would refer to Ernie and Bert and King Kong rather than saying “the Bert and Ernie puppets or “the King Kong puppet”!

The reason why film and television audiences forget that they are actually watching puppetry in action is because of the great skill of the puppeteers and the production staff involved in the making of the film! The puppeteers bring the characters to life. I would like to present their performance and all kinds of interesting facts about puppetry for films in this article:

1. Sandman, dear sandman: Interesting facts about puppetry in film

Unser Sandmännchen eine Stop-Motion-Film-Figur
Unser Sandmännchen eine gut gelaunte Stop-Motion-Film-Figur © kika

Gerhard Behrendt created the Sandman figure in just 2 weeks. The inner working of the famous 24 centimetre tall puppet with the white goatee and the pointed cap was a movable metal skeleton. This meant that the puppet could be animated in a variety of different poses and positions for the filming. Every slight change was photographed. These photographs of the puppet in it’s various poses were strung together to produce a stop-motion film. Incidentally, there were touching reactions to the first Sandman episode in November 1959: the Sandman fell asleep on a street corner at the end of the episode. After that, some children wrote letters and offered the puppet their bed.

2. “Much to marvel at you still have!” Master Yoda also comes alive through puppetry

Master Yoda and Frank Oz at work © Disney

Who doesn’t know him? Master Yoda from the Star Wars films would say: “Much to learn have you still!” In the films of the Star Wars trilogy released from 1977 to 1983, Yoda was embodied by a “real” puppet. In Episode II and III, the production company chose not to rely on puppetry but on computer animation.  However in Episode VIII they returned to puppetry for the embodiment of Yoda. The Yoda puppet was played by the puppeteer Frank Oz.

Phenomenon 3: Baby Yoda enchants his audience

A 5 million US dollar puppet enchants people © Disney

Grogu, also known as Baby Yoda is an astonishing feat of art, craft and engineering: this 5 million US dollar(!) animatronic figure was animated by five puppeteers. At times with the help of remote controls, they controlled the puppet. Each puppeteer was responsible for individual aspects of Grogu’s movements and expressions: one controlled the eyes, the next controlled body and head movements, the third puppeteer was responsible for the movement of the ears and mouth, the fourth animated the arms. The fifth puppeteer acted as a “standby operator” and also created the costume. An extraordinary form of puppetry!

4. Ahoy Käpt’n Blaubär (Captain Blue Bear), everything rises and falls with coordination

Käpt’n Blaubär in front of the camera © WDR

The production team of the Käpt’n Blaubär episodes consisted of about 30 people! The filming team had to work very precisely, and the coordination of direction, sound, lighting, camera as well as the puppeteers had to be just right in addition to the entire technical effort! There was quite a crowd involved in the process. Often two puppeteers would animate a character, one resposible for the mouth movements and another for the hands. If a puppeteer wanted to take even a few steps with the hand puppet, movement had to be coordinated with the other puppeteer as well as the monitors, cables, dolly rails and various production crew crawling around! The aim of the whole team was to get precise shots of characters played, without the audience noticing the crowd of people involved.

5. Who, how, what and full body action – Sesame Street is puppetry

When puppeteers slip partially or completely into the puppet, the puppet becomes a mask. The character Samson was created in 1978 for the frame stories of the German Sesame Street produced by NDR. The puppeteer Peter Röders slipped completely into this large puppet. The head of the puppet was supported on a special shoulder frame. The puppet’s body was also suspended from this with rubber straps, similar to trousers on braces. The puppeteer had to bring the “swinging” figure to life with enormous physical exertion. But of his great movements and gestures inside the figure, only a very small part was visible on the outside. It was sweaty work more akin to a workout at the gym!

6. Puppet play from the planet Melmac

Null Problemo-Alf and the Tanner Family © Alien Productions. All rights reserved

The work of the diminutive actor Mihály “Michu” Mézáros was also sweaty. He slipped into the puppet of the alien Alf, who turned the lives of the Tanner family so delightfully upside down. In the tight and uncomfortable mask, it was very, very warm under the spotlights on set. Therefore, for most of the filming, another puppet was used: a hand puppet with built-in mechanics for moving the ears, eyebrows or blinking the eyes. The narrator and puppeteer of this Alf puppet was Paul Fusco.

7. Object Theatre on the Children’s Channel: Siebenstein and “Koffer” (Seven stone and Suitcase)

Object theatre: A well-loved suitcase © ZDF

Do you remember the cheeky suitcase from the ZDF German Television station) children’s series Siebenstein? Puppeteer Thomas Rohloff brought the suitcase to life. Object theatre is also part of puppetry and the film quality of Siebenstein was of a high standard! About 20 people were involved per day of filming. This in turn lasted 10 hours. Each scene was set up, lit and shot from different perspectives. The team took editing breaks and played with delayed reactions so that a flow, a rhythm could develop. At the end of the day about 5 minutes of broadcast-quality footage was ready.

8. King Kong, it’s grooming

A groundbreaking film in 1933: King Kong and the White Woman © wikipedia

The film “King Kong and the White Woman” was released in 1933 and was a huge success! Considered a milestone in animated film history, it was also a puppet show utilizing many special effects. Using stop-motion technology, the figure of the gorilla became the imposing King Kong. But in the shots, the ape’s fur always looked as if it had been blown by the wind. This was because the figure was minimally altered many, many times for every second of filming and then photographed.  Every touch ruffled also the fine fur of the figure. Director John Guillermin‘s 1976 filming also used the stop-motion technique, but this time the character’s fur was combed in the desired direction after each touch.

Incidentally, a 12-metre-high, 6.5-tonne figure of the ape made for the 1976 film cost US$1.7 million! Despite the built-in mechanics, it was considered difficult to operate and only featured in the film for a total of 15 seconds. Puppet show productions can be very expensive!

9. The biggest film puppet production ever! The Dark Crystal – The Era of Resistance

Sophisticated puppet show instead of an animated film © Netflix

Another costly decision was made by the people in charge at Netflix! In 1982, puppeteer and Muppet creator Jim Henson realised a fantasy film he had worked on for 5 years. His film “The Dark Crystal” was the first live-action feature film to exclusively feature puppets.

For this film, Netflix wanted to make an animated film as a prequel. However, Netflix quickly realised that it was the puppets themselves which made Henson’s film “really special and spiritual”! So Netflix ventured into a season of 10 episodes of sophisticated puppetry with “The Dark Crystal-The Era of Resistance”.  Deciding against a computer generated film Creative Director, Peter Brooke, was proud to follow in the footsteps of Jim Henson’s creation produced 35 years previously! On 30/08/2019, the series was added to the Netflix schedule.

Puppetry is a true art form! Puppeteers for film productions rarely become famous because they have to work literally behind the scenes. Their work is often physically demanding and hot. They need the patience of angels until a film shoot is perfect as perfection is what they strive for!

The director, Louis Letterier, of “The Dark Crystal – The Era of Resistance” formulated his idea :

” You watch the show and you forget, you are watching puppets!” And it’s true: One does forget that they are puppets!

More on this topic: In this article we report on the beginnings of puppetry in film and television.

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