I recently spoke to a puppeteer based in South East London. I wanted to ask him questions about how motion and depicting motion can inform other areas of motion making such as prosthetic making and medical technology.
‘I started performing as a puppeteer when I was 15 in a youth theatre and loved it. I was lucky because all the stuff that I was taught as a teenager was all really proper stuff – it’s stuff that I teach now. Then I went to drama school and did a physical theatre degree. Also while I was at youth theatre I did set building as well. When I was doing my physical theatre degree I sort of thought I would become an actor then realised that I didn’t really, well, I wasn’t very good and it wasn’t really what I wanted and then fell back into puppetry. I did some puppetry while I was training and did lots more after I graduated and then luckily I fell into the world just as puppetry was really taken off again in a really big way. I was in the first West End cast of War Horse then that just snowballed into bigger and bigger things and i’m still working on small things too because you know, that’s lovely to not have the pressure to do something massive. It’s been a bit of a weird journey to get here but most people who I know that work with puppets sort of fell into it. Some people – it’s all they’ve done their whole lives but the majority of people – it’s all sort of just happened and we all really love it anyway‘
‘A lot of inspiration for puppetry does come from the natural movement of whatever it is that you’re trying to create a puppet of. War Horse is a great example – they copied the tendons and ligaments in a horses leg to find out how to string up the puppet and what should connect what from what side, what short of tension should it be – should it be a string, should it be an elastic? They did a lot of that stuff based on real anatomy. You see that in a lot of very simple puppets as well – if you want it to be able to walk, you need to make sure that it’s hip joint is a ball and socket, it’s knee joint is a hinge, it’s ankle joint is a hinge, you have to copy what’s there in reality to make it look real. And so I think that the idea of taking inspiration from biology is definitely something that we do a lot of in puppetry. It’s one of the reasons that it works, it’s one of the reasons that people watch puppets and want to believe in them because they see the reality of it. They see that it’s not this weird nebulous thing, it is something which, you know, if you want something that’s really beautiful and engaging and sort of adult, then you do want something that is as close to reality as possible. If you want something that’s fun and silly like Sesame Street then that’s also great but it doesn’t have the same resonance as… it doesn’t tap into the same thing in a person where they see the reality in it. Whereas taking your cues from what is really there in the anatomy of biology of whatever it is that you’re recreating in puppet form really does make it work, it gives it that something that makes people believe in it.’
‘It’s a really interesting thing that happens with CG work, where, if you’re trying to, it’s why so many studios nowadays especially, they will use more motion capture than they ever used to. They used to just build a rig themselves and just move it around whereas now it’s more likely that they’ll use motion capture because you’re getting the real movements and you’re putting that onto your character. There’s also something great which gets done quite a lot which is they’ll have a rough version of a CG character which they’ll put on a monitor in the volume so that when you’re moving around in your suit, you can see what it looks like on that character so you’re using just your movements to make it more natural, to make it look more believable based on how it’s looking to the human eye because humans are brilliant at recognising what’s real and what’s not, we’re really good at spotting if something is off in a way that you can’t quite put your finger on. No matter how good CGI is, more often than not, you can tell. It’s easier to do CG with things like backgrounds, buildings landscapes because they’re not natural, they’re not anatomical. As soon as you get into anything anatomical you start to see the gaps in it, it’s why a lot of the most successful CG characters haven’t necessarily been real biology. Like you look at Dobby who is successful, but that’s because he’s not based on anything real, he’s a fictional species and you look at Gollum and he’s a fictional species which is based on a human but he’s so warped and twisted but it doesn’t matter if he’s all over the place.’
‘I think that’s really interesting what you were saying and it’s true that you so can easily tell when something hasn’t been done as perfectly as natural life does move in it’s own way.’
‘It’s true and it means that that’s one of the reasons that there was a big shift back to practical effects, you know, we had the big boom in CG effects and sometimes they were used to terrible effect and then there was a big shift in what the public wanted , we got sophisticated enough as an audience that just seeing CGI wasn’t impressive anymore. There was a time when it was like ‘oh look – they’ve included CGI characters, how exciting’ but it got to a point where we were like ‘oh look there’s another CGI character, this is not very good.’ And so there was a shift back to practical effects because as an audience we look at them and go ‘man that looks really real’ and now we’re at a point where are things where you can’t tell if they’re real or CGI. There are even things which are a mixture of the two. And practical has definitely felt like the way to go for a long long time. You look at all of the Star Wars sequels, that’s so much practical stuff. There’s been a big trend back towards it, which just shows that people want reality. ‘
‘I think that when you see that transparency through these pieces of work, you’re in so much more awe. The behind the scenes footage of how animations for example are made, or rigs that they used to make the animations or even with the War Horse puppet, the fact that you’re able to see the people in it and it’s quite a transparent structure, it’s so much more impressive because you get to see the work that’s behind it. When you know the amount of effort that’s been put into something, it becomes so much more pleasing to see. Have you ever done animation and rigging, do you ever do much of that sort of thing?’
‘I dont do any of the rigging but i’ve watched it and know vaguely how it’s done but I don’t do it.’
Do you think that they do take a lot of inspiration from nature and the way things move? I guess you could see a lot of that in puppetry as well – is it all about trying to recreate this movement, how do you see the most successful methods of doing that play out?
‘With animation rigging, I don’t think they’ve always done that because a lot of it is a visual art form it’s just about how it looks. Does it look good or not? It’s arguably the same with puppetry, you know, a lot of what we do is cheating, a lot of what we do isn’t real, it’s just what looks real to an audience and sometimes what looks real isn’t what is real. There’s a certain license that gets taken because it just looks better or more believable but there are certain things where if I ever do research for a certain animal or something, there are times when I will look at something and go; ‘I can’t do that with a puppet’, people won’t believe it. People will think that that’s not real.’ You look at some of the weird positions that animals get themselves into, you look at the strange things that people do, the weird way that people sit and you’re like ‘if I did that with a puppet, nobody would think that’s real so you do an approximation of it so it sort of looks right which is all based within biology but you sort of take what is anatomically possible and then you have to reduce it down to what is anatomically believable to someone who is looking at it for the first time. People’s joints are incredibly supple and you can do things sat at home that you can be like ‘actually if I saw someone do that with a puppet i’d think what are they doing’ And the same happens with rigging as well, there are times when you just have to go ‘I can’t do that, it just doesn’t look right’ and you have to go with what looks believable. There’s a lot of artistic license taken with a lot of this stuff because they are art forms and when it comes to how things are rigged and animated and how things are performed as puppets, you start from a place of anatomical reality and you use that as your jumping off point. Because more often than not, the types of things that you use a puppet for, it’s going to be for things that a human can’t do, so there’s an element of going beyond human. So by and large, it’s not always about what is the most real thing and that’s purely the nature of creating art.’
Yeah it doesn’t have to be scientific, and for the viewer I don’t think it would matter too much, like obviously you can tell when something isn’t perfect but as you said, some things you have to cut out. Have you ever looked into prosthetics or medical equipment? Have you ever thought that the two things could relate?
‘Sort of, so I’ve thought about it in terms of, like when i’ve been working with things like puppet hands and things I have thought about them in terms of ‘this would be great as a way to use this as a prosthetic that doesn’t involve you just using your own hand because obviously that’s not useful. But then it’s like how can you make that work. I’ve seen videos of people creating prosthetic finger to go on amputated fingers which have that same system of like a string and an elastic drum connected to the arm and then it’s about wrist movement. So i’ve found that really interesting because it’s sort of a combination of what I do. I’ve also seen a weird thing where somebody’s had an extra prosthetic finger, so it had like six fingers on their hand. So i’ve looked into it a little bit but i’ve not done much research but I definitely feel like there are applications there. But you do end up slightly getting into arguments because you’re looking at it in terms of what looks real and what looks like natural movement but that’s not always necessarily what is most useful for people. You know you look at running blades and they don’t look like real human legs but they do an amazing job of giving people speed and allowing people to run and walk and dance so then you get into – it’s not about making it look real, it’s not about copying what’s already there anatomically, maybe it’s about copying, well not even copying but maybe it’s about finding a way of replicating the mechanics but not through the same processes, it’s just getting the same result. I do think that running blades are a really good example of that because you’re not in any way trying to replicate a human leg but you are getting a similar result and arguably a better result because they are specifically made for speed and shock absorbency and things which actually the human leg is not very good at.’
Yeah and I guess that with that you could argue that it’s a form of transhumanism because you’re extending your body, you’re doing more than what your natural body could’ve done if you’d had two human legs so then could you put those two people in the same running race? And for example Aimee Mullins who is a double amputee had cheetah legs made for her and then it’s like you’re using these things to completely augment your body which is exactly what i’m interested in but I feel like with prosthetics they’re much more widely available and there’s many more things that you can do to change them depending on your needs, whereas with insulin pumps for example, they’re very medical and it’s the same with dialysis machines and pacemakers, but in the same way they are attached to your body and pacemakers are within your body and so not only does this have an effect on your identity but the fact that you’re not able to change them simply makes you a patient instead of someone who can be as Aimee Mullins calls – ‘an architect of your own body’. And I feel that with prosthetics you can do that but you lose that creative element with these other machines so that’s where my project is coming from but I thought that talking to someone who is involved in movement and recreating movement would be a really good starting point.
‘Yeah and I really recommend that you talk to this puppeteer called ……………….. ……………………… She is a puppeteer and is diabetic and uses an insulin pump and I know that she is not shy about talking about her diabetes and her right to a pump and so she would probably be a good person to talk to about her thoughts on it as someone who works in puppetry and movement.’