Behind the Scenes
This page is intended for the producer or director who's interested in working with puppets and needs a better understanding of the technical issues involved.
The type of puppets we use are ideally suited to the video screen. Video puppets are designed to work best in the medium-to-close-up shots that TV employs most. Video puppets emphasize movable mouths and expressive, flexible faces.
Most video puppets are mouth puppets, in which the puppeteer's arm goes up through the puppet's body and neck, and the hand works the puppet's mouth.
The puppet's hands are controlled in either of two ways. With a mouth-and-glove puppet (or glove-hand puppet), the puppeteer's hand is inserted into a glove which is attached to puppet's sleeve. This type of puppet can easily manipulate props. The downside is that if the puppet needs to use both hands, a second puppeteer is required to work the right hand.
With a mouth-and-rod puppet, both of the puppet's hands are controlled by thin black rods which the puppeteer manipulates from below. This type of puppet requires only one puppeteer. Also, the look of the puppet's hands is more consistent with the look of the puppet and more puppet-like.
How our Video Puppets are Constructed
There are three structural requirements for hand puppets: flexibility, strength, and lightness. Flexibility gives the puppet expressiveness. Strength is needed to survive continual use and guarantee reliability in performance. And lightness -- well, imagine holding a puppet straight over your head for an eight-hour shoot, and you'll guess the reason for this requirement.
Our puppets' heads are constructed of an industrial grade of polyurethane foam that is stronger, longer-lasting and much smoother than ordinary polyfoam. The foam is dyed to skin color. The hands are also sculpted from this type of foam.
Facial features are made from many types of materials including fabrics and plastics.
Performing with Video Puppets
Ideally, we would prefer to work standing up, with the camera elevated to about 6 1/2 feet. This makes it easy for characters to run in and out, turn, and so on.
However, many corporate videos are shot in real locations such as offices. As puppeteers, we're accustomed to crouching in various weird contortions to keep our heads out of the shot. For most stationery shots, we sit on the floor, in special chairs that roll or swivel.
While performing, the puppeteers fix their eyes on video monitors. All that matters is how the puppet looks to the camera. A skilled puppeteer can appear to change the expression on a puppet's face just by shifting its angle in relation to the lens.
In the photo, Leo Brodie (left) and Greg Ballora perform Bradley and Punjabi while watching their performance on the video monitor. In this video for Unisys Corporation, the characters learn about Process Improvement from actual employees.
The Voice of the Puppet
In most cases, the puppeteer provides the voice for the puppet while manipulating it. To avoid a muffled sound, each puppeteer wears a lavalier mic attached to a headband. (We provide a Sony ECM-55 microphone for each puppeteer.)
Using a "live" voice in this way imparts a freshness to the performance that can't be matched by a pre-recorded track. It also saves considerable time and production expense. (A pre-recorded track can be used when working with music, or when a celebrity sound-alike must be used.)
Our video puppets have heads which are about 3/4ths the size of an adult human head. The bodies are proportionately smaller. Unless some special effect is needed, our puppets do not exist below the waist.
Nevertheless, they fit in quite well with the real, human world. When a puppet and a human sit next to each other, the puppet looks normal if its head is positioned a few inches lower than the human head.
Don't worry that the scale doesn't "make sense." The audience never questions the reality of how tall the puppet is. (Think of Kermit the Frog talking to a guest star. Although he is only a few feet tall, his head always reaches their chest.)
In some ways, directing a puppet is no different than directing a human. You'll even be surprised to hear yourself talking to the puppet (as in "Bradley, react a little sooner.")
One way it differs is that shots and cuts must be carefully planned ahead of time. With industrial videos, standard practice seems to be to cover the scene with a master shot, then go back and shoot close-ups, deferring decisions about when to cut until post. But as you'll see in the next few sections, getting a master shot is often impossible. The puppets require a little more directorial homework. The end result, however, is always superior.
Hiding the Puppeteer
The puppets' bodies do not normally extend below the waist, which is about the level of the top of the puppeteer's head. There's no problem shooting a close-up of the puppet, or even a two-shot of the puppet and a human. Such a shot can be framed naturally without showing the puppeteer.
Wider shots require some ingenuity, however. One solution is to use a naturally-occurring object for cover. In office situations, puppets are often seated at desks or tables. Some offices even have low partitions which puppets can stand behind. For exteriors, walls or hedges can be used. We can even provide an artificial brick wall with adjustable height for this purpose.
We use low chairs which allow our puppeteers to sit comfortably such that the top of their heads are about 40" above the ground. Unfortunately, the typical office desktop is nearly a foot lower than that. We solve this problem by providing appropriate "apples boxes" to raise the height of the desk or table. Plan for this ahead of time.
Another way to hide the puppeteer is simply to plan your shots accordingly. Let's take a typical scenario: You want an establishing shot to show a human seated at his desk. The puppet enters the room and takes the seat on the opposite side of the desk. The human and the puppet have a conversation.
The conversation is the easy part, because you will shoot the puppet over the top of the desk (remember, it will be raised on apple boxes). The difficulty is the puppet's entrance at the door. If you hold the establishing shot, we can see the puppeteer.
There are several solutions. All of them involve using a series of close-ups. For example, you could begin with the establishing shot of the desk and human; cut to a close-up of the puppet at the door delivering the first line and exiting the shot as it walks into the room; cut to a close-up of the human giving the second line; then back to an over-the-shoulder two-shot or a close-up of the puppet settling into the chair.
A second approach is to follow the puppet in a close-up as it crosses the room (panning).
A third solution is to dolly towards the desk, over the puppet's shoulder, as it enters the room.
Most of our puppeteers are right-handed, so we operate the mouth and head of the puppet with our right hand, as described above. This affects the way you block your scene, because the puppeteer must have room for himself to the left of the puppet.
For example, if a puppet is conversing with a human in a tight close-up, position the puppet camera right.
Suppose the puppet walks up the hall toward the camera, then peers around the corner of the door. Having the wall to the puppeteer's right allows the puppet to stand next to the corner. Otherwise there would be no room for the puppeteer's head.
How Puppets Sit
Corporate video puppets are fairly sedentary. Our puppets spend a lot of their on-camera time sitting down.
Luckily, this simplifies blocking. There is only one problem: When the puppet sits, we expect to see the back of the chair behind him. If we use a real chair, the seat is where the puppeteer must be.
Our solution is to provide chair backs that mount to the backs of the low chairs we puppeteer's sit on. Some of these chairs even swivel (see the photo).
How Puppets Walk
With a raised camera, walking is easy. However, we have learned to walk in a crouching position, with the puppet over our heads. Sometimes walk on our knees (we provide our own kneepads). If the shot permits, we can sit in a low wheeled chair, bouncing the puppet to make it appear to walk, while someone else pulls the chair with a rope.
How Puppets Manipulate Objects
A glove puppet can easily manipulate objects. Rod puppets, however, can only hold objects. Inside their foam hands are thick wires which we can bend to any shape and wrap around objects.
Making a rod puppet appear to manipulate objects takes forethought and a clever use of cutting. Suppose the script calls for Alphonzo to be seated at his desk. The phone rings. Alphonzo answers it and has a conversation.
How can he pick up the phone? Begin the sequence with an establishing shot. The phone rings. Alphonzo reaches his hand toward the phone. Now CUT to a close-up on Alphonzo as he brings his hand to his ear. For this shot, we have placed a prop telephone in his hand. When edited, the effect looks entirely natural.
Puppets and the Camera
Keep the camera close. Longer lenses flatten the subject and makes the image appear subtly unnatural. Instead, by keeping the camera close, you can heighten the three-dimensionality of the puppet's face. The puppet's hand -- or any object it holds -- appears bigger as it moves towards the lens, and smaller as it moves away, increasing the comic effect. (Exaggerated perspective is a hallmark of cartoon animation as well.)
And because the video puppet is slightly smaller than human scale, the camera should be even closer than it would with a human subject. Unless a human shares the shot with the puppet, a good focal length is between three and five feet.
Keep the camera low. The higher the camera, the greater the chance of seeing the puppeteer's head over the wall, partition or desk the puppeteer is hiding behind. The camera should be no higher than puppet eye-level.
Light as you normally would. Video puppets employ rich colors that work well on the camera and can be lit just as you would a human subject. Even the costumes are designed for the camera. Whites are greyed down. And puppets don't sweat, so there's no shine to cover with makeup.
Adding Realism with Sound Effects
Adding sound effects is just one more way you can help make the puppets seem real. For example, when a puppet runs across the screen, the sound of footsteps helps us believe he has legs and feet. Or when a rod puppet is typing at a computer keyboard, the sound of keys being pressed helps us forget that the puppet doesn't have moveable fingers.
Because they are puppets, the effect can be exaggerated more than normal. The result is funnier, yet still believable. Such details take a little extra time, but greatly add to the illusion, and the viewer's enjoyment.
Sustaining the Illusion
The illusion of puppetry is that these characters behave as though they were real. The magic happens when every aspect of the production enhances the illusion that they puppets have minds of their own.
For example, when a puppet has to look at her notes to remember what to say, that enhances the illusion. It makes us believe she can see. When a puppet has half-eaten donuts on his desk, runs late for meetings, and tries to feign knowledge of a subject he knows little about, we can easily accept him as someone we might know, or even as ourselves.
We strive to add as many extra illusion-enhancing bits as time and budget can afford. Even on an extremely limited budget, your audience will enjoy the illusion.
We hope this page has given you some ideas on how puppets can help your production put across its message and stay within the budget.
Our puppets add significantly to your production value, without complicating your production. In fact, everyone who has worked with us -- directors, talent, and crew -- look forward to working with us again. We hope you will, too.