Puppet: A replica of a human, animal, creature, or other character, made to move and "brought to life" by a puppeteer's manipulations.

Here at TCS, puppetry plays an enormous part in bringing our characters to life. Virtually all of our creations employ some form of puppetry, from the highest-tech Waldo®-controlled animatronic puppet to low-tech non-animatronic Handpuppets. At their simplest, Puppets are performed with a hand directly inside a character's head. Add limb movements, and you'll need rods. Add facial expressions, and you'll need radio controlled or cable animatronic mechanisms. Need a full body movement and locomottion? Then you'll probably need a Bunraku technique, where the operator is directly behind the puppet (as used in our Plato and Perdue Muscle Chicken, and Collector characters) wearing a green, blue, black, or red suit, and eliminated in post production.

(Clicking links will take you to a larger version or a page detailing the work)

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Gus is the new spokesanimal for the Pennsylvania Lottery, and PA lottery ticket sales shot up from $16 million a month to $22 million after Gus' campaign debuted! He's a sophisticated animatronic rod puppet. He has a foam body and a synthetic fur covering, but underneath he's like the Terminator, with machined aluminum joints, servomechanisms, and cables of steel!

Apple iMac Ad:

In only two weeks, The Character Shop produced two working iMac “puppets”. The first was servo and cable operated, and allowed for complete remote operation. This served for wider, establishing shots. However, for closer shots, another rod operated iMac puppet, which featured smoother motions, was used.. The new iMac is revolutionary in that it allows a tremendous range of freedom in positioning the screen, thanks to a jointed arm that, while chromed and massive, works in much the same manner as a Luxo lamp does. Lazzarini and crew took advantage of this range of motion, and for dramatic purposes, “kicked it up a notch”.

Foster Farms Chickens:

3 kb (Full size 25 kb) These characters are puppets in their purest form. They are completely hand-manipulated; no mechanics, no animatronics. No eye blinks, no brow moves. Their characters are created solely by the interplay, control, and stamina of two puppeteers apiece. It is a real test of a puppeteer's drive and acting abilities that they endure cramped working spaces, stifling heat, and strained and sore muscles, and yet still deliver charming, endearing, memorable performances. The driver's head is controlled by Drew Massey, its wings by Tony Rupprecht. The passenger chicken's head is performed by Terri Hardin, the wings by Rick Lazzarini.

Wilson Golf Ball Gopher:

2 kb (Full size 13 kb) Here's an example of a puppet operated primarily by hand, with some simple animatronic enhancements. This puppet has eyes which move from side to side and blinking eyelids, which are actuated by a simple two-finger cable pull. The puppets arms can be controlled either by fingers on the interior, or for greater range of movement, via exterior rods.

Ironically, the new technology of "painting out" extraneous imagery via computer graphics allows us to operate many of our puppets the old-fashioned way - via directly linked exterior rods. Rods provide the ultimate control over the puppet - easily superior to cable or mechanically operated characters - and the rods (and even puppeteers!) are simply "erased" from the final film. (See the description of our "collector" puppets below.) It's the most effective and powerful form of puppetry I can think of.

Collector bunraku puppet:

5 kb (Full size 57 kb) This alien, created at Boss Films for a Chevrolet commercial, is a bunraku puppet. Bunraku is a Japanese form or puppetry wherein the puppeteer, draped in black, has his head and hands attached to a seated puppet, resulting in eerily lifelike movements that mimic the puppeteer's own. The direct analogy of movement, from head to head, from hand to hand, with nothing lost in the translation, is what makes this form of puppetry so believable. We took it to the extreme with this puppet, linking the puppeteer's head, chest, waist, arms, and feet to the corresponding puppet body parts. The result is a large-scale creature with very natural movements, capable, seemingly, of walking on its own. Wearing black velvet suits allowed the puppeteers to be "matted out" of the shots. Once the puppeteer is "erased", the audience is left to wonder, "how did they do that?" It is not stop motion, it's not a man-in-a-suit, it's not CGI. It is a completely unique and fabulous way of bringing a character to life.

Sarah Jessica Parker Witch puppet:

2 kb (Full size 15 kb) Here's an example of a completely rod-operated puppet. A likeness of the actress was painstakingly recreated in oil clay, molded in dental stone, and cast in foam latex. An internal mechanism (see Animatronics page) allowed this puppet to be passively jointed at the waist, neck, shoulders, elbows, and wrists. With a rigid pylon holding the puppets up, it was manipulated via rods out the front of the broom and top of the head. Extremely detailed miniature costume work completed the puppet. The rods (and puppeteers) were removed via computer by Buena Vista Visual Effects, and composited into the final shots during the post-production process.

Duracell boxers:

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These puppets were servo-driven, potentiometer controlled puppets, with animatronic movements of their heads, waists, and punching arms.

Interestingly, these puppets became the center of debate between the producers who commissioned them and SAG, the Screen Actor's Guild, which represents puppeteers (remember: puppeteers are actors, too!) The producers tried to avoid having to pay residuals, and would not agree that these were puppets, trying to call them "electronic action props." They pointed to an outdated language in the SAG/Producer's agreement, which defined puppets as being operated by "hand, rod, stick, or string." An arbitration took place in which a demonstration proved, despite the existence of electronic gimmickry, that the puppets were indeed manipulated by a puppeteer's hand movements. The arbitrator found in favor of SAG and the puppeteers, opening the language of the agreement to embrace new forms of technology that enable puppetry.

Horse Puppet:

3 kb (Full size 28 kb) Created for Disney's "Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken." When a shot was needed of a horse leaping forty feet and the ASPCA said "no way" to a real horse doing the stunt, this puppet was commissioned. This is an example of a completely cable-driven puppet, with an animatronic skeleton and foam latex covering. Moving axes included the riders head and body, with passive joints at the wrists, elbows, and shoulders. The horse's animatronic movements included head, neck, and 4 axes in each leg, for a total of 26 points of movement. A vertical and horizontal trolley system was used to "drop" the puppet into its fall, while a team of five puppeteers raced the horse's legs in a frantic rhythm.

Advances in the technical end of human/machine puppet interfaces have led to the possibility for "electronic puppetry". The same devices we use in real-time control of our animatronic puppets have been, and are used, to send data to high-powered computers, which take the movement data collected by a Waldo® and update the movements of completely computer-generated images This concept is called performance capture and animation, and it may be used to simple capture key frames, or entire real-time sequences of animation.

Theater Ghost:

2 kb (Full size 21 kb) The Theater Ghost, created for "Ghostbusters II", is a hybrid puppet. It combined Facial Waldo®controlled, servo-actuated head, jaw, and brow movements, with rod-operated wings, arms, and tail. As with the Collector alien, puppeteers wore black suits and were composited out of the shots.

Budweiser frogs:

3 kb (Full size 30 kb) Yeah, the Bud Frogs again. Foam latex skins with R/C animatronic movements of their eyes (side to side), fully closing blinks, mouth, smile, throat bloat, and side breathing. Rod operated movements of body and front feet. Just the simple addition of a slot to enable a foot to pick up and shift position makes a world of difference in such a creature's believability. These required three puppeteers each to fully bring them to life. A good example of state-of-the-art animatronic puppetry.

Regardless of the technology used, the most important thing we keep in mind when delivering a creature to set is the believability of its performance. The individual or team assigned to one of our puppets is made aware that it's an acting job they are required to do. They must be passionate, they must "get into" that character, as any actor would, no matter if it's a chicken, robot, monster, or alien. Our goal is to make the technology as transparent as possible, keeping the number of obstacles between the performer's manipulation and a life-like performance to a minimum. What results, with the help of the director, cameraman, and editor, is that we have created our illusion properly. We weave our spell, the audience falls into a willing suspension of disbelief, and we have "brought to life" a new character.

2 kb (Full size 20 kb) Super Mario:One of the world's first "electronic puppets". Using a custom designed TCS Facial Waldo® and a suite of proprietary hard- and software, SimGraphics Corp. created this real-time animatable Super Mario character for use in Nintendo kiosks and commercials worldwide.
(See our Waldo® page for more exciting developments in this area.)

The human hand will always provide the most dexterous, direct form of puppet movement - whenever we can use a person's hand to manipulate a movement or expression, we'll do it. But some creatures are too small to accommodate a human hand, or there are too many functions for a single hand to operate; in which case we use cable or radio-controlled mechanisms. Other creatures are very large, and human hands may not have the power to move the puppet at all. In these cases we use powerful electric linear actuators, air or hydraulic cylinders, or giant servos. These complex systems also require sophisticated control interfaces, such as the Waldo® or other telemetry-based devices.

But in all cases, our most important consideration is not the technique, but the performance. That's the only thing the audience will see, after all. (It's only here that you can get a glimpse behind the scenes!)


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