This is one of those topics I’ve spoken about quite a bit, but this blog is useful for getting things down in a format that can be easily referred to. Regular live stream viewers (or podcast listeners) will no doubt have heard the Smaller Puppets Are Better lecture, but let’s review, shall we?
This was something I hadn’t actually thought about until I’d been learning puppet building for about a year. It was through the aforementioned most excellent courses by BJ Guyer at the Stan Winston School that I was introduced to the concept that in puppets for the camera, aim for as small a size as is practical. There are a few reasons for this.
The most practical reason is weight. Beginners or people unused to performing puppets sometimes don’t quite grok how impactful every single bit of weight can be. When you’re not only holding something above your head for long periods of time, but also attempting to create a performance with it, weight is probably the single biggest factor.
One of the major challenges when I approach every build is to make it as light as possible. Even something as simple as a solid resin eye vs a ping pong ball or vacuu-formed shell can have a cumulative effect. Bigger puppets are heavier, it’s that simple. I’ve had clients remark on how strangely light my puppets are, and for anyone trying to work with them, that’s always a good thing.
The other reason small puppets are better is the quality of the performance. With a small puppet, a performer can do more subtle, nuanced things. Big puppets need big movements. In a small puppet, a simple delicate turn of a head can impart emotion that would be lost on a large puppet.
There’s a tendency when you begin puppet building to go bigger and bigger, almost a “bigger is better” subconscious trend. The best rule of thumb to follow is: never make a puppet bigger than it needs to be. If you’re building for a live or theatre performance of course it makes sense to build bigger, as they need to be visible at a distance (and therefore it’s even more important to try and make them light), but for camera performances, always go as small as you can for the appropriateness of the character.
After realizing this a couple of years ago I set myself a challenge: how small can I build a puppet so that it still is workable by an average adult hand? The result is one of my most popular models: The Smol.
I love these little critters, and the wealth of design opportunities is a testament to the power of their simplicity. They embody everything I love about puppet design, the minimalism, the abstract weirdness of Don Sahlin, and of course, their smallness.
Time for a small large coffee.