The Lost Magic of Cinema Puppetry

NAT YORSKI – Montreal

This is an open letter to the moviegoers of 2016. It’s for those that have sat through an unholy amount of million dollar superhero blockbusters as well as overdone 3D trainwrecks that rehash some of the most memorable movies of the 80s and early 90s. We need to take a step back and start really assessing what kind of visual effects are being paired with modern day cinema and compare them to some of the more influential and memorable movies from over a decade ago. I’m talking, of course, about the ongoing struggle between puppetry and computer generated imaging.

Those that know me on a more personal level are more than likely rolling their eyes after reading the first paragraph. “Here she goes again,” they’re thinking to themselves. As a puppeteer, my goal is not to be viciously biased or lament over the potential death of this particular art, but rather showcase some relevant examples of puppetry over the course of modern cinema. I also don’t hate CGI and would never proclaim that it can’t be an artform in and of itself. It’s just become overused and is a tool that’s saturating the market place without taking into account the experience involved in going to see a movie. The fact of the matter is that CGI can be anything. From Disney’s first usage to enhance some clock gears in The Great Mouse Detective to the almost entirely green screened 300, it’s been a rapidly evolving form of media. Puppetry has an equally vast definition. Though most people think of Jim Henson’s Muppets first, there’s also shadow puppetry, marionettes, and stop motion animation that all fall under the umbrella of puppetry, to name a few.

Here are just a few examples that showcase how a good story and a good puppet can become forever etched in someone’s mind, especially considering that they’re inarguably better when compared to a CGI counterpart.

Yoda and Jabba The Hut – Star Wars

Though the Star Wars movies might not necessarily be categorized as ‘puppet movies’ this seems like the most natural place to start, seeing as the franchise has two really easy characters to compare side by side. These being Frank Oz’s (the puppeteer best known for Miss Piggy and Cookie Monster) Jedi Master Yoda and the six-man puppeted Jabba the Hutt. Both characters could not be further apart in most people’s memories, as Jabba was a slimy, mouth breathing villain and Yoda might possibly be one of the most well known sages to grace the screen.  However, they are two iconic characters that have stood the test of time and when comparing the puppet versions to their CGI reboots, it’s easy to see the difference.  

CGI yoda (left) and puppet Yoda (right).
CGI Yoda (left) and puppet Yoda (right).
CGI Jabba (left) and puppet Jabba (right).
CGI Jabba (left) and puppet Jabba (right).

Helping Hands – Labyrinth

This movie is a cult classic and is probably best known for showcasing David Bowie’s bulge as he dances around tormenting a teenage girl. That being said, the magic lies in the diverse ingenuity that keeps surprising you around every corner. Each puppet is completely different and sometimes could take up to six operators on a single one. Though there are numerous examples of excellent puppets and the skills that go “hand in hand,” sometimes it’s the simplest ideas that have the greatest effect. The scene where the bright-eyed Jennifer Connelly falls down a tunnel of “helping hands” is pretty basic hand puppetry, but the end result is incredibly creepy and something that wouldn’t be nearly as interestingly eerie with CGI.

Skesis – The Dark Crystal

I’m not going to argue with anyone who says this movie is creepy as hell. The honest truth is that time has not been kind to what is now more of a cult classic then a go-to children’s film. However, this was the first big budget puppet film that had nothing to do with Kermit the Frog and friends. It was cutting edge and used technology and visual effects never seen before. To be specific, the band of evil vulture-like creatures hell bent on world domination called Skesis were incredibly well done. These creatures weren’t scary because they had an eerie life-likeness to them like the humanoid Gelflings. Skesis looked unsettling because they were meant to be. They were built by artists who visualized them and worked through them to be an embodiment of selfish and desperate villainy.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Depending on your definition of art, this Tim Burton classic might be the most incredible example of dedication and passion to a particular craft. This 90-minute movie took three years and about 100 artists to create, with 24 images per second. Stop motion animation has to be the most tedious and precise type of puppetry, as every single action is broken down into a series of very slight movements. Every character was carefully designed and thought out with intentional movements and personalities. It hasn’t just become a holiday classic, it’s also become a cornerstone of modern day baby goths as a fashion trend. Trying to run with the success of the movie, Disney has been after Tim Burton to do a CGI sequel for years. Thankfully, he remains steadfast that there can only be one and, of course, only in stop motion.

The Chestburster – Alien

The genuine reactions from those on set are the best proof that a marriage between Ridley Scott’s vision and H.R. Geiger’s artistry in a sci-fi universe could be sincerely horrific. Apparently, the cast gathered around John Hurt’s character, Kane, who’s full body was under the table as a prosthetic chest piece stuffed with real animal organs was laid out perfectly in line with his neck. When the puppet alien bursts through his chest, pig’s blood was shot out of two hoses also hidden in the prosthetic. None of the actors new about the setup and Veronica Cartwright even fainted following the scene. Every reaction to the chest bursting scene was real and unscripted, making it live proof that special effects can have a serious edge over a green screen.  

T-Rex – Jurassic Park

There is no better example of the usage of puppets vs computer generated monsters than that of the Jurassic Park franchise. The first movie, made in the early 90s, used a fabulous collaboration of puppets, animatronics and CGI to create a fantastically convincing island that had been taken over by some large and sometimes vicious dinosaurs. The first movie manufactured life-size puppets, including the enormous Tyrannosaurus Rex. The base design was printed out on a wall for scale before being sculpted and filled with animatronics. The original movie used only 14 minutes of CGI, minimal in comparison to 2015’s Jurassic World. The original raptor scenes were incredible, having people in handmade suits creating a huge amount of realism.

Comparison to Jurassic World, again, is just laughable and quite frankly embarrassing.

CGI has not always been an abused form of mass media, but recently it’s become what autotune is to pop music: an overused novelty to churn out quantity as opposed to quality. This a real shame considering that there have been some really cool concepts around in the last few years. Think of how great Guardians of the Galaxy could have been – especially with nostalgia being such a dominant theme – if Rocket Raccoon or Groot had been Henson-like puppets. The same can be said and applied to Seth MacFarlane’s Ted.

While some directors/producers are using a somewhat minimal approach to CGI, usually to enhance the environment or create an elaborate special effect to give a more “realistic” experience for the movie-goer, it seems that even fewer movie makers are interested at looking into puppetry and prosthetics. However, if we as consumers are a little more critical with what we watch and puppeteers/special effects artists continue to challenge themselves and evolve their artform, we can have some epic movies over the next decade.

Nat Yorski is the effervescent and unapologetic female voice of The Coost. With her love of music and her second love of telling people what’s what, she spends most of her time playing with puppets and signing karaoke to her dog.

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