A while ago, I gave a talk to my fellow animators at Blue Sky Studios about what inspires me as an animator. The idea of pinpointing what inspires me is pretty staggering because anything can. That’s when the idea came to me. So I decided to take a different approach to the animation inspiration discussions and talk about how I use puppetry as reference for my animation performance. How is that possible?? I’ll explain.
If you were to break down the anatomy of a puppet in computer animation “rigging” terms, a traditional “hand and glove” puppet (like Cookie Monster, Ernie or Fozzie) is nothing more than a body mover, neck/head mover, and jaw mover with articulated hands (hence the name “hand and glove”)and a completely neutral facial expression.
It’s amazing how puppeteers can produce such a rich character performance with something so limited. So I ripped a classic clip from The Muppet Show to discuss how they achieve such a great performance and what makes it great. In this particular clip, Fozzie is put in charge of the stage handling because of a misunderstanding between him and Kermit. Since I’m discussing the similarities of the “hand and glove” puppet to a simplified 3D rig, I will be talking about Fozzie’s perfomance (Frank Oz).
What’s particularly interesting to me about this clip is the dynamic between Kermit and Fozzie. Fozzie knows Kermit is smarter than him. He knows that Kermit won’t buy into his elaborate stories, so he uses physical contact to push his ideas on Kermit, keep him away from the situation and somewhat bully the smaller frog into leaving.
A noteworthy acting choice that is virtually non-existent in animation is the play with Z space to push the performance:
0:48 “I am gonna shift the scenery??”
2:03 “or I get fired!!”
2:08 “That’s not smoke.”
2:13 “Jet exhaust.”
There are also some really good “story-telling” poses throughout:
2:03 internal panic
Along with all this, is some fantastic examples of secondary action that enhances the overall performance:
0:40 slamming his bags down “don’t shout at me!!”
2:01 he rubs his mouth a little which shows that he’s poorly hiding his panic.
The point of all this is that these puppeteers get maximum performance and appeal out of something that’s as functional as a rig not remotely considered “production worthy”. Therefore, if we can achieve the same level of performance with these few movers, the rest of the rig would do nothing but make our animation stronger.