Puppetry has had a place in film from the very early days of cinema. Stage illusions grandmaster, George Méliès, dreamed up a seemingly endless supply of fantasies that depended on large-scale puppets for visual effects. This included the 1906 film The Witch, with its unorthodox menagerie, that consisted of a fire-breathing dragon, a large owl, and an enormous frog. In 1929, when Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen was brought to the screens, cinemagoers were treated to the visual spectacle of a 50-foot long mechanical serpent by the name of Fafnir. A can of gasoline was hidden inside the head of the puppet. The can was connected to lycopodium powder, burning acetylene, and two bellows. This health and safety hazard resulted in a 30-foot long burst of flame.
Puppets soon found themselves as stars of the screen and not merely bit-role players. In 1929, we saw a seven-minute short from Jack Harrison called Dimples and Tears, with puppets cast as entertainers. A reviewer by the name of Raymond Ganly was certainly impressed when suggesting that puppets opened the door to endless possibilities. The increasing notoriety of early animated shorts such as the Puppetoons series from George Pal or Steamboat Willie from Disney had filmmakers pondering what they could achieve with an injection of more imagination.
Despite how popular these shorts proved to be, however, puppets had still to make their mark on the world of features. In 1966, things began to change when the puppets from Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds series were transferred to the big screen in Thunderbirds Are Go. Puppets didn’t really make their entrance for good, however, until we met a man called Jim Henson. Henson’s big screen debut was with the 1979 feature The Muppet Movie. He returned in 1982 with The Dark Crystal, a fantasy that only received a moderate reception at the box office upon its initial theatrical run. However, it’s built up a large following over the years. In 1986, Labyrinth, starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly simply flopped. Much like with The Dark Crystal, however, the movie has gone on to achieve a cult-like following; perhaps even more so after the death of its star.
There may not be a whole host of films with a cast entirely made up of puppets, yet they’ve managed to appear in a stream of live-action films, in either supporting or starring roles. An example would be in the 1953 version of War of the Worlds from George Pal. In the film’s most famous scene, where we saw Sylvia van Buren’s shoulder come into contact with a three-tentacled hand, we were witnessing the use of a full-scale puppet.
Puppetry techniques were also used in the scariest of all fictional aliens- the predator from the Ridley Scott classic Alien. The creature not only scared cinemagoers; even the special makeup effects crew was scared. Through that whole ordeal, perhaps it was only Ms Sigourney Weaver who remained relatively fearless.