We saw a whole host of critters and cute puppets making their way across cinema screens in the 1980s., including the star of E.T. from Carlo Rambaldi and the loveable mogwai Gizmo from the Gremlins franchise. Advanced combinations of pneumatic bladders, servo motors, and cable controls, along with traditional rod- and hand-puppets, enabled these characters to deliver quiet yet intelligent performances.
Puppets have also been used in treading the fine line between human actors and their supernatural forms. In the 1981 John Landis classic An American Werewolf in London, for example, puppetry was used in creating the metamorphosis effect of David Kessler. Rich Baker was able to create a full-scale replica of the actor’s face using push-pull cable controls with pneumatic rams. When it comes to that rare combination of muscular performance and cutting-edge technology, however, it’s hard to beat the Frank Oz 1988 movie Little Shop of Horrors. The puppetry team, headed by Lyle Conway, operated numerous carnivorous plants to illustrate the alien infestation referred to as Audrey 11.
The plants in the movie were even able to lip-sync to pre-recorded music tracks. The largest plant, which measured some 12 1/2 feet long, needed a physical therapist to be present at all times, purely to manage the strain that it put on the puppeteers.
All shapes and sizes
Throughout the 1990s until the present day, puppetry techniques have brought to life characters of all shapes and sizes. In Jurassic Park, for example, Stan Winston Studio artists created a number of full-size dinosaurs, with the largest being a 20-foot T-Rex, hydraulically operated. It’s initial clay form required 16 weeks and eight sculptors to finish the job. The same team created over 200 puppets to represent the 12-inch heroes of the Joe Dante film Small Soldiers. Miniature radio-controlled mechanisms were used in creating the puppet warriors that required the intricacy of a Swiss watch.
A more recent example would be when director Guillermo del Toro opted for a more practical use of puppetry in movies such as Crimson Peak and Pan’s Labyrinth. The filmmaker often integrated puppetry elements with performance suits. Numerous characters created by Special Motion were on display in Hellboy 11. Included were the Winged Angel of Death. (Dough Jones performing in a mechanically-controlled costume).
Digital technology enables the performance and manipulation of digitally animated figures, in either 2D or 3D, as well as objects, rendered in by computers, in virtual environments. If the virtual figures incorporate the puppet’s movement, they can move in any dimension, as we’ve seen in such films as Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and John Lassiter’s Toy Story. Then there’s motion capture, which is where human actors perform certain actions that are recorded, the results of which are then used to animate digital characters, presenting a realistic look to the motion of these characters. Motion capture is a technique that we’ve seen more and more in film, with The Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers being among the first features to use it.