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Puppet Kaos - where Kelvin Kao plays with puppets and tell random stories

Why Being a Puppeteer Is Like Being An Actor

Being a puppeteer is a lot like being an actor. Your goal is to bring a believable character to life for the audience to watch, whether on stage or on film. The purpose is the same but how you do it is somewhat different. Here are the things that both a puppeteer and an actor would need to do:
(For the purpose of this discussion, we assume that the puppeteer is working with a Muppet-type puppet… one with moving mouth and arms.)

1. You Display Facial Expressions

mac_happy.jpgAn actor feels an emotion, whether from interactions with characters in the plot or from past memories, and then he shows that on his face. He does this by using facial muscles. He can create a smile, a frown, a tear and so on, and you get to watch it and feel it.

mac_sad.jpgA puppeteer, however, will need to show the emotions on the puppet’s face instead of his own, so whatever the character is feeling needs to be transferred to the puppet’s face via the puppeteer’s arm and hand. A puppet doesn’t have facial muscles, but it does have a mouth. By opening the mouth to different sizes and tilting the head to different angles, you can create a bunch of different facial expressions. A wide-open mouth shows you a happy puppet. A closed mouth arched upwards shows discontent. A head looking downward and sometimes slightly to the side as well shows a puppet feeling sad or feeling down. A mouth might not be much to work with compared to real facial muscles, but if you can use two dots and one line to draw a basic smiley, a mouth that you can open and tilt is plenty to work with!

2. You Ultilize Body Movements

mac_head.jpg Besides facial expressions, we also use body movements and gestures to convey emotions and intentions.mac_scratch.jpg An actor can show aggression by leaning forward and getting into another character’s space, or he can look around and be hesitant in his movements when he is not feeling all that confident. The same idea can also been done with puppets, although some of the movements aren’t quite the same. For example, Muppet-style puppets don’t have legs. The movements you can do, unless you specifically rig the puppets, are limited to the upper body. However, puppets are also capable of doing certain moves that’s impossible for a human actor to do such as twisting their necks and arms at weird angles. Sure, a contortionist might be able to do the same thing, but when puppets do them it looks funnier and less painful.

3. You Provide a Voice

This one is more self-explanatory. If you have a speaking role, you need to create a voice for them. With puppets, you usually look at them and figure out what kind of voice that puppet would have (or you can also do one that has a totally different feel from the puppet to create an element of surprise). Some say that once you can figure out a character’s laugh, then you already know a lot about the character. I agree with that, because a laugh tells you a lot about how much inhibition a character can let go.

It might be more or less obvious why a puppeteer is like an actor, because they are the ones bringing on the performance for you to watch on stage or on screen. Next time we’ll talk about why a puppeteer is like a director. Stay tuned. :-)


  1. July 3rd, 2008 | 12:18 pm

    It seems to me that being a good puppeteer would be much more difficult than being an actor. Because instead of doing these things through your own self, you have to now transfer them, and, like you said, you are doing this with an object that does not have the same facial structure, complete with all of the muscles and stuff that we use to make expressions. That’s quite a talent.

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  2. July 3rd, 2008 | 12:49 pm

    It depends. Some people are more self-conscious in front of a camera so puppeteering could be easier in a way. But yeah, acting uses facial expressions that we are born with, while puppeteering uses things that you learn via trial and error. Both take a lot of hard work if you want to truly master them (I’ve mastered neither, haha).

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