Animation Inspiration Through Puppetry

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.”

4:26 “No.”

There are also some really good “story-telling” poses throughout:

0:57 upset/distraught

1:23 scared/ashamed

2:03 internal panic

3:25 proud

3:30 worried

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.

5 thoughts on “Animation Inspiration Through Puppetry

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  1. It is always hard to find competent individuals for this topic, however you be understood as you no doubt know what you are referring to! Thank you

  2. Great post Pete. There’s quite a bit of cross-pollination between animation and puppetry theory and I’m always surprised that more animators and puppeteers don’t study that. The two artforms are so amazingly similar, especially so if you’re using full-bodied, “Bunraku-style” puppets operated by more than one person.

  3. Excellent article, and great choice of clip — I hadn’t seen this Muppet Show episode since I was little, but wow! Very advanced puppetry. I’ve met many puppeteers who are influenced by great animators, so it only makes sense an animator would be inspired by great puppetry performances. I don’t know if you make CG rigs, but have you found that Rigging TDs tend to over-complicate their controls? Or are they too inspired by the simplicity of a hand/rod puppet form?

  4. Thank you everyone for the awesome feedback!!

    @Brian. Absolutely. A lot of Character TD’s like to show off what they can do and rightfully so. They’re good at what they do. The only problem that comes along with this is that having too many movers usually bogs down the rigs, making it difficult on the animators to, you know….animate. I personally like to get the most personality and performance that I can through using the least amount of movers. There is a large percentage of movers I don’t animate on any given character….less is more IMO.

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