A history of puppets
In ancient Greece puppetry was practiced. The oldest written records of puppetry can be found in the works of Herodotus and Xenophon, dating from the 5th century BC.
The movements of animals helped people to understand the way puppets should move in a lifelike fashion. One small jolt of the object and the automated puppet would swing into action pushing against levers pulled by string.
Different Examples of Puppetry:
Puppetry is not necessarily what everyone believes it to be. Although yes, some puppets are controlled by a manipulator (Puppeteer) who pulls on strings to make a character move. Real life objects such as signs or inanimate objects can also be manipulated in motion. For example on the stage a man holds up a sign which reads “Look over there” the audience will react to the object he’s holding not to the man himself. Puppets are broad in terms of range and versatility. Below are some historical examples of this.
Carnival or body puppet
Carnival puppets (AKA body puppets) are life size puppets that are either controlled remotely or the manipulator sits inside the puppet itself depending on the size. These types of puppets are commonly found in large festivals like the Mexican day of the dead festival or the Mayday Parade in the United States. These types of puppets have been around for centuries and are now advancing technically so that some of them are also automatically controlled more like Automata.
Bunraku puppets are a wood-carved puppet originally made to be used in a silhouette show. Now the show has the puppeteer dressed in black against the background that controls the puppet without being seen. Their shadow gives a magical effect almost like the soul controlling the character. Bunraku traditionally usually uses three puppeteers to operate one of the puppets.
Black light puppet
Black light puppetry is an illusion making the audience believe that the puppet is moving without the aid of a manipulator. UV lighting is placed above the stage and reflects off the UV clothing in front of a black background. Controlling the puppet are the puppeteers dressed typically in black in front of the black background, camoflaged from view. This can give a really interesting effect as for example you can make objects look like they are flying in mid air. This type of illusion/trick has been used in film, television and theatre productions.
This same style of puppetry was used in the 80s movie “The Labyrinth”. There is a scene consisting of an array of fantasy jungle creatures that dance around knocking off each others heads. To make this possible they used what is now known as chroma key and the puppeteers where hidden against the matching background.
Most famous for his use of puppetry is Jim Henson. A master of his craft, Henson created the idea for the Muppets and designed most of the characters for the famous show. These characters were made out of different forms of fabric mainly felt or rubber felt, which meant that the puppets were easy to create and to control.
Tools of the puppets trade
Luckily you wont be needing big hack saws and drills! Instead you will be using smaller tools as puppet making can be a fiddly thing.
To create a “Muppets” style puppet you will need a hot glue gun this will help to stick your foam together quickly and easily along with your felt and other materials e.g. beads, eyes or clothing. Some sewing needles and thread to sew your felt to your foam will also be needed. Although glue can be used, stitching gives it more of a professional polished look.
Depending on what type of project you are looking to participate in, you may require the use of power tools due to the density of the foam. If you choose to use or have access to them, a great power tool to use would be a band saw or a scroll saw. You do have to remember that these are “extremely dangerous” pieces of machinery and so should be used by a professional or under the supervision of somebody with experience. The use of power tools will increase productivity and help to ensure you get a good end result.
Materials used in puppets
The easiest form of puppets to create mainly consist of soft fabrics and house hold items. You don’t need anything special for the structure, just as long as it is comfortable for the user and is flexible enough to give your puppet realistic movement.
Felt is a non-woven cloth that is produced by pressing, condensing and matting woollen fibres. When you are creating puppets you want to get soft felt as hard felt will be to difficult to manipulate. Soft felt does have it’s issues though. Although it is flexible, it can also be very delicate, so make sure to be careful while handling soft felt. Felt can be of any colour and can be made in and size or shape. Any local craft shop should sell this material.
Foam can come in many different forms, so make sure to get the right type! Reticulated foam is great for durability and puppet control. If your looking to create big or small puppets this is the best foam you can get.
Know what pattern you want. This is good to know, so you can get all your materials you need together before you start making. As an example hair can be created using wigs or fur from old coats. These are especially good for realistic moustaches. If you want the fur to be a different colour then dying it another colour may be a solution.
Techniques of puppets
Carved Wooden Puppets
Artisans often shape intricate puppet figures by carving wood. Consider a detailed wooden knight, armed and ready for a medieval joust, manipulated by rods from below.
Crafted using wooden limbs connected with string or twine, these puppets dance and move at the whim of their puppeteer. Visualise a ballet dancer gracefully leaping and twirling on a miniature stage, directed by strings.
Using thin sheets of animal hide or translucent leaves, these silhouetted figures come to life behind a light source. One might witness a graceful deer prancing in a woodland, its form projected on a white screen.
These are often fashioned from felted wool or stitched cloth. Picture a traditional farmer in tweed, operated by inserting a hand inside, bringing the character to life with animated movements.
A simple wooden stick supports cloth or paper mâché figures. Imagine a jester, with colourful attire, bobbing and jesting as the stick beneath manoeuvres him.
Similar to hand puppets, these are crafted from natural fabrics, with the puppeteers fingers becoming the limbs. Envision a fox, sleek and sly, its tales told through the fingers of its operator.
Ball and Socket Joint Puppets
Crafted from bone or wood, these puppets possess articulated joints for fluid movement. Think of a serpent, slithering and coiling, its every joint articulated to mimic lifelike motion.
Traditionally made of lacquered wood, these figures float and dance on water surfaces. Picture swans gliding gracefully across a pond, steered by unseen rods beneath the water surface.
Crafted with a skeletal structure of wood and covered with cloth or natural fibres, these puppets replicate human size. Visualise a green man from British folklore, wandering through a festival, towering over festival-goers.
With these techniques, puppeteers can transport audiences to worlds both familiar and fantastical, leveraging the charm and tactile appeal of natural materials.
Tips and tricks of puppets
When creating puppets you have to know what your aiming for and what you are going to do with it once it’s been created. Depending on how adventurous you want to be, puppets will take up a lot of room very quickly. So make sure you have a large working space, as it is most likely going to get very messy very quickly!
Design. If you have a good design (mock up) of your puppet you can’t go wrong. Jumping into the making part too early will not only be frustrating but will increase time unnecessarily spent on the puppet. The good thing about creating a mock up is that you can throw away bad ideas. It’s very hard to go back once you have stuck your fabric down with permanent stick glue!
Trying your puppets with an audience of children will give you an idea of what characters work and which one’s don’t. This is your market research if you will. Over time you will understand what works and this will mean your designs will improve and you productivity will increase. It’s not an overnight thing, but you will get there eventually.
If you are looking to get your puppets noticed, you can always be creative and write a script for your puppets to come alive too. Create a video and make people aware by spreading the word of your incredible creations.
If you are thinking, “Gosh this sounds awfully difficult. Don’t sweat it, you can always create a sock puppet. Although its not as professional, it can sometimes be a fun way to get started. All you need is an old (clean) sock and a few house hold items to resemble the features of the face e.g. the eyes, nose etc. Just stick these on with a bit of glue and you can have fun for hours!
Ideas and inspiration for puppets
A puppet is the pinnacle of traditional entertainment and is still used in modern society to help children and adults learn in a fun and engaging way. There are many puppet makers and puppeteers who have worked in the entertainment industry creating some of the best, most realistic puppets ever seen. In the “Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy” film, the characters called Vogons are actually life sized puppets controlled by a man inside the puppet itself. The film industry has many craftsmen and women that are dedicated to puppetry and many of the greatest puppeteers work with the Henson company.
There is really no limit with puppetry. Be as creative as you can - you never know your puppet might be the next Kermit the frog! Good luck and you can always add pictures of your creations to your Website craft listing page.