Puppetry in Film

The Progression of Special Effects Puppets
By Holly Hallahan


The following essay will look at the history of puppetry in filmmaking. The essay will start by looking at the nineteenth century and will continue in chronological order. It will also comment on key advances in the technology of puppet making for film. The essay will than will conclude with a comment on digital puppetry in film today.

The First Puppets

Since the nineteenth century, filmmakers have used the special effects of puppetry to bring fantasy creatures to life. Over time, filmmaking has pushed the technological and creative boundaries of puppetry. Puppets have become so much more sophisticated, detailed and realistic. It has grown from simple string and rig puppets to computer driven machines.
One of the oldest puppets to be used on screen was a simple string puppet of an insect. It was in Georges Melies 1896 short film Une Nuit Terrible and was operated off camera by a thin string. The operator would jerk the string in order to bounce the puppets rubbery legs, making the insect crawl across the screen.
Up to and including the late twentieth century, puppets have remained a standard in creature special effects on film. Simple models, hand puppets and Melies-style animals on strings are used for their cost saving benefits.

Puppets in the 1950s and 1960s

Puppets progressed away from string puppets to the traditional marionette; dolls moved by a series of strings or wires. Because marionettes were apparent as being puppets and considered to be more of a plaything, they were used mostly in children’s film and TV. Series such as Space Patrol, Stingray, Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds all used marionette puppets.
Filmmakers in the 1950s and 1960s turned to larger scale puppets for special effects moving away from the idea of smaller puppets being seen as toys. Such a large-scale puppet can be seen in 1954s Gojira/Godzilla. It features a man in a giant latex and rubber suit. Even though it is a man in a suit, it can still be considered a puppet as a puppeteer controls the head. A problem with the technique used in Godzilla is when the rubber dried, it became very heavy and barely flexibly. This made it very difficult on the actor in side. Suit puppets have been improved greatly since.

Key Figures in Film Puppetry

Up to the 1990s, Jim Henson and Stan Winston dominated special effects on film. Both of them changed and improved certain aspects of how puppets were made and used. Jim Henson, the father of the Muppets, was extremely experimental when it came to puppets. He set up a team of artists/model makers whom he could use to make puppets for his films, such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. This team of people formed a company called Creature Shop. Jim Henson did not only use Muppet style hand puppets, but also explored mechanical contraptions and puppets worn as costumes. Henson and Winston brought forth the heavy use of mechanical and robotic puppets as special effects in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Stan Winston and his team worked on 1984 film The Terminator. He and his team used a combination of stop-motion and a physical torso rigged with hydraulics and pull cables. Seven years later, in the sequel, they used machine puppets, which added to the believability of the Terminators, as they are machines.
While working on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Creature Shop worked on the most complicated animatronics they had ever attempted. They created a new type of puppet. They used two different techniques of puppetry; suit puppetry and animatronics, to make a new form of puppet. Because they didn’t want wires getting in the way, restricting speed and movement, everything had to be done with radio control. The computerized heads were a triumph of miniaturization.
Even after Jim Henson’s death, Henson’s Creature Shop continues to experiment with and further develop the techniques used on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by making the first TV series where all the characters are done in this new form of robotic/costume puppetry. This series was called Dinosaurs.

The 1990s started to see a rise in the amount of computer generated visual effects e.g. Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Jurassic Park which uses CG (Computer Graphics) as well as a large amount of puppets. Stan Winston and his studio created the very sophisticated and realistic mechanical dinosaurs used. While a giant version of the T-Rex was being built, a fifth-scale version was also being fabricated. This small-scale version was manually puppeteered and the movements generated were transferred to the larger T-Rex via computer technology. As well as using extremely complicated technology to bring the dinosaurs to life they also used sophisticated computer graphics.

Motion Capture in Modern Day Puppetry

From the late 1990s and into the 2000s, puppetry changed in a big way with the introduction of Motion Capture. Motion Capture is where the actor is put into a bodysuit, which contains about 30 reflective plastic balls. The actor is then placed in a motion capture studio to perform various movements; sometimes with props and set pieces. Several high-speed cameras record the actor from various angles. The cameras emit an infrared light that illuminates a special coating on the plastic balls. The result is an image of white dots moving against a black background. A computer then translates the information into animated digital wireframe skeletons onto which costumes can be placed. Films such as Lord of the Ring’s and Pirates of the Caribbean’s use this technique.


It has been argued whether or not computer figures can be considered puppets as puppets are considered tangible beings and digital is not. However, computer figures are similar to puppets in that they have joints, which are manipulated into different poses, which create movement just like man built puppets. The only difference between these two figures is tangibility. Thus Steve Tillis proposes that:
The puppets as we have known them be thought of as “tangible” puppets, while computer graphics figures be thought of as “virtual” puppets.**[1]**
Through the passing of time you can see the changes in the way puppets are made, used and thought of. New phrases and categories are being created to accommodate new forms of puppetry because of the advances of technology.
Computers may have taken over the need to use puppets but that doesn’t mean that they are a thing of the past. Puppets are still being used in modern films today.

[1] Tillis, Steve. “The Art of Puppetry in the Age of Media Production”. Puppets, Masks, and Performing Objects. Vol. 43. Autumn 1999, pp.182-195.