Designing for movement:
Notes on a puppetry/performance project for
B.A (Hons) students of Technical Arts and Special Effects (T.A.S.E),
Wimbledon School of Art, Summer Term 2005.
By David Neat, Visiting Lecturer
Puppets are most often designed and made in the footsteps of preceding
puppets. That is, the puppet-maker repeats or modifies tried and
tested methods, proven to be effective in previous performance.
Take, for example, the bunraku-style puppets of Japan as an extreme
case. These appear to have changed little, although subject to subtle
evolutionary mutation, over more than three centuries. Puppet families,
just like bats or cheetahs, are developed according to their own
special form of natural selection.
But consider the student faced, rather as Victor Frankenstein was,
with the task of creating a living, moving being from scratch, without
progenitors, without a long evolutionary line. One might as well
ask someone to come up with a bat, where no bats had existed before!
Many of the 1st year Wimbledon T.A.S.E students I teach have a passion
and ambition to match that of young Frankenstein, but few have so
far ever made a puppet, let alone been required to animate one.
Many have both the imagination and drawing skills necessary to create
and develop a character on paper and the ability to realise these
designs in static sculptural form. But creating a moving, interactive,
performing being is quite another matter!
Just to explain at this point, the T.A.S.E course at Wimbledon trains
people in fabrication techniques relevant for both theatre
and film, with the emphasis on film. One can be forgiven for interpreting
'special effects' in terms of pyrotechnical stunts and lightning
flashes but it is much more to do with prop-making, modelling imaginary
spaces or fabricating believable 'creatures'. The course was established
in 1990 and remains one of the very few of its kind. Both the course
and its students benefit from the direct involvement of top professionals,
leading to valuable work-experience with some of the leading companies.
For example, a recent collaboration with Jim Henson's London Creature
Shop led to the students designing, making and manipulating a number
of puppets for the recently released 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to
Throughout their three years, students receive a solid grounding
in modelling from life, mould-making and casting, together with
scenic model-making, construction and painting, film animation and
techniques of digital visualisation. A great many processes and
individual crafts are involved in each of these, even before one
considers the breadth contained within the word 'puppetry'. But
an understanding of the possibilities, and also the limits of puppetry
forms a crucial component of the course.
My initial task as a tutor, therefore, was deciding what on earth
to tell them first! How to condense evolution into a few short sessions
so that they could at least get started along the right lines. Of
course, natural evolution begins and ends with the environment that
conditions it, and in this context that environment is the script.
So our first words had to be about the scripts, or rather 'scenarios'
I was offering them - how to interpret a script, how to read between
the lines, how to visualise possibilities. What movements does the
script call for and how might character inform them? But possibilities,
particularly in terms of performance, can't be visualised unless
one is acquainted with at least some of them, so in parallel I've
had to bombard their senses with images of puppets, traditional
and modern forms, and film excerpts showing different styles of
As if that wasn't enough to take in almost all at once, there's
the third parallel - which also can't be started too soon - how
to make and what to make it from? In this area we've been fortunate
in being able to enlist the help of Vicky Linnett, an experienced
puppet-fabricator and an ex-Wimbledon student. It is Vicky's remit
to take them through various fabrication techniques and materials,
her speciality being the use of soft foams and coverings (whether
these are intended to flesh-out an articulated armature or whether
they provide the whole support and substance of a puppet in themselves)
for the type of large-scale puppet created in Jim Henson's Creature
Shop. As well as introducing the students to the sculptural possibilities,
and how to construct and upholster various body-parts, Vicky will
be dealing with such things as weight, flexibility and durability.
In our initial talks with the students we have both (Vicky from
the practical/ technical side, myself from the performance/historical)
spoken with one voice about the prime considerations when designing
for performance. In this, I have found the advice of Chris Sommerville
particularly valuable. In his Five Secrets of Marionette Manipulation,
he lists: knowing firstly exactly what you want the puppet to do;
designing the puppet so that it is capable of doing this and preferably
little else; establishing an efficient means of control; learning
what is possible from seeing the work of others; and lastly, lots
of practice. To these we have added the general principal of 'movement
before looks': designing for 'distance reading'; use of 'movement
enhancers' such as floppy hair, feathered eyebrows or free-falling
limbs; the degree of anthropomorphism or 'human-like-ness' and how
that conditions what one can get away with in terms of 'puppety'
movement. The list goes on…
I had planned from the outset to put the students into groups of
three/four and give them the choice of three scenarios to work from.
They have roughly six weeks to develop these scenarios as a group,
each person designing and making one puppet character. Once these
puppets, together with performance intentions, are ready and presented
in class, the groups have the remaining few weeks of the term to
rehearse and stage their performances… We wait with baited
In the next issue of Animations Online, David Neat will be back
with a detailed look at the T.A.S.E puppetry project’s development,
enactment and outcome.
David Neat has trained and worked as a writer/performer, theatre
designer, exhibiting sculptor, scenic model-maker and teacher. His
teaching remit at Wimbledon includes theatre set design, film production
design, scenic model-making, technical drawing, sfx modelling, design
Those interested in the course will find information at www.wimbledon.ac.uk
and examples of students' work at www.sfxdesign.co.uk
School of Speech and Drama – Short Course Provision.
A report by Cath Connolly.
Puppetry and Object Manipulation
This is a new course offered by the School, which concentrates its
study upon the history and performance of puppetry. It is one of
the freestanding modules which may be taken independently or progressively
to form a unified programme of practical study. The course runs
over eight weeks and consists of two evenings twice a week, with
one intensive study day of five hours on a Saturday. The total number
of contact hours is 45. I was approached to design and run the course,
which is aimed at those who are adult beginners who have an interest
in puppetry and wish to develop their performance skills and knowledge
of the history of puppetry.
The course encompasses manipulation techniques in glove, rod, table-top,
shadows and objects, both individual and group exercises. Work is
improvised or devised, both textually and non-textually. There are
lectures and videos of performances. Penny Francis delivered her
lecture and slideshow on the history of puppetry and we watched
video performances from puppeteers around the world. We also attended
a performance at the Little Angel Theatre and a B.A student show
at Central which used puppetry. Our agreed aim at the start of the
course was to work towards a showing of work and the students did
this on the last evening before a select audience.
Evaluation is through group sharing and critique, with a final evaluation
at the end of the course. This was very positive and the students’
progression is very impressive. One student is going on to become
a trainee on the Puppet Theatre Barge this summer and two students
who are actors are using puppetry in a new piece of work, The Heartsnatchers.
Another student has decided that she is definitely interested in
pursuing puppetry and is actively seeking experience with companies
The course will run again in the autumn term 2005.
Those interested in finding out more should contact Emily Pollit,
Short Courses Administrator, at the Central School of Speech and
Drama: Tel 020 7559 3960.
See also: www.cssd.ac.uk