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What's a Waldo, Anyway?

Harry Medved

"The Waldo will do to puppetry what the word processor did to the typewriter," predicts puppeteer Rick Lazzarini. He should know. Lazzarini is a pioneer in the field of the "Waldo" technique, one of the many new ways to electronically manipulate puppets. This mechanical gizmo detects the movements of an off-screen performer and automatically duplicates them in an on-screen animatronic creature. A current yet somewhat exaggerated example of the use of a Waldo can be seen in the special effects extravaganza FX2, in which Bryan Brown manages to fight a foe by remotely instructing his Waldo-operated clown dummy to kick and punch the unsuspecting villain. The real Waldo puppets have been used in productions as diverse as Ghostbusters II, Radio Flyer, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and TV's Dinosaurs.

Poor little fella (22 kb)
Rick Lazzarini in a "Waldo" suit

Before their application in motion pictures and television, "Waldos'' primarily referred to the mechanical arms, telemetry', and other anthropomorphic gadgetry aboard the NASA spacefleet. NASA engineers in turn took the name from a l940 Robert A. Heinlein novella about a disabled scientist named Waldo who built a robot to amplify his limited abilities.

One of the first wizards to use a Waldo-type device for filmed entertainment was the late Jim Henson in his prime-time Muppet revue. In one memorable episode of The Jim Henson Hour, he introduced an amazing bird character (whose name was - you guessed it - Waldo) that could change shape, size, and color on command. Such a metamorphic critter could not possibly have been enacted by a live actor in a suit or by a performer utilizing a three-dimensional puppet. The off-camera Waldo bird was physically manipulated by a puppeteer, wearing a skeletal framework 20 to 30 feet away from the actual set. Through the magic of computers the featured star appeared in the same frame with the show's human headliners. The Waldo device was so successful that it was re-used on several Fraggle Rock episodes as well.

When faced with the challenge of making a head of lettuce spring to life for a Kraft salad dressing commercial, puppeteer Lazzarini experimented with a new kind of Waldo - one that reproduced facial gestures. Lazzarini contrived a kind of Rube Goldberg contraption that was straight out of a Steven Spielberg movie. He glued sensors to a helmet over his head, affixed sensor probes to his face, routed wires from his helmet's sensor board into a computer circuit board, and attached "servomotors" which acted a s a puppet's "muscles." When he raised his left eyebrow, his on-camera creature lifted its left eyebrow. Lazzarini also found ways to transmit signals to the puppet for head tilts, jaw and lip movements, and smiles. This technique gave puppets the ability to realistically project actors' emotions.

"For the full range of effects you can get with these new puppets, say's SAG Puppeteers Chair Eren Ozker, "you would normally need four or five performers operating remote control devices. The real beauty of the Waldo is that it enables a single puppeteer to control the character's movement, facial features, and body language. It allows even the most fantastical character to interact with live actors. It also cuts down on the amount of heavily choreographed rehearsal that would otherwise be required and t he puppeteer can be more spontaneous in his or her performance.

Actors who are worried about losing jobs to an invasion of Waldos should rest assured. "You will always need a performer to operate the mechanisms," says Ozker "because it's not enough for a character to come alive. It must also give a dramatic performance and that's something only an actor's sensibility can provide." Lazzarini agrees. "You need a puppeteer with a particularly expressive, rubbery face, or else your character is going to be rather boring. The Waldo takes the onus of the technical process a way from the puppeteer, so that you can concentrate on the content of your performance, rather than worrying about 'Who's on the eyes?'"

If these new gizmos are not going to replace actors, what about traditional puppets and marionettes? SAG Puppeteers Committee Co-Chair Tony Urbano replies, "There will always be a place for traditional hand, string and rod manipulation. The challenge for contemporary puppeteers is to add the new electronic technology to their puppeteering abilities." SAG Puppeteers officer Tim Blaney offers, "Puppet technology is constantly evolving - tomorrow it could be laser manipulation. But the basic art and work of the puppeteer remains the same to project a characterization through whatever controls are being used to give an inanimate object the illusion of life."


Rick's note: The Waldo® shown was built for PDI. It's always nice to send in a picture of yourself at 3:00 a.m the morning before you deliver the product!
Article from Screen Actor Magazine, Summer 1991.
Copyright Screen Actor 1991.
Article reproduced for review purposes.


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