Sunday, August 31, 2008

Where have all the puppets gone?

Puppetry has had it rough over the last fifteen years or so. Puppets could once be seen in prime-time TV shows, films, and touring companies around the country. Now puppetry has all but disappeared from the cultural landscape. Perhaps the worst part is that no one even talks about this phenomenon, like it's not even worthy of discussion.

But here is a great article about the state of puppetry called Pulling the Strings, from the Canadian website the National Post. While the contention that puppetry is now "enjoying a renaissance" seems a bit optimistic (maybe in Canada it is!) -- nonetheless it offers a very insightful analysis of the forces working for and against puppetry, the most recent being CGI animation, which has all but displaced puppetry in feature films.

Read the full article here.

It's sad to think that after all these years, and the amazing work pioneered by Jim Henson and others, that puppetry hasn't made greater strides as a cultural force in this country. I think one reason is that puppetry is really hard to do well, a fact which no one seems to take seriously. And when someone sees a bad puppet performance, they blame the medium rather than the performer. And the perception that puppets are only for children is sadly entrenched in this country. There is hope, though, as the internet is bringing together puppet enthusiasts and giving them an audience. (I will include some puppetry links in a future post.)

By the way, the photo in the article (and above) is from the amazing Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers, in Maine.


Bob Flynn said...

Great post, John! I'm gonna pull out my John K wand and direct folks over to his blog post about vintage puppets:

What makes Funny Puppets

I thought this line in particular was interesting:

"I love vintage puppets. They are totally different than post-muppet puppets. The muppets were great, but they ruined puppetry by making everyone else think that they had to copy them. Sort of like how Peanuts ruined comics, even though it was wonderful itself."

It's kinda true. So much of the contemporary puppetry I've seen is so muppet-derivative. Why?

I doubt we'll ever see a ton of puppets used for special effects work anymore (specialized and mechanical, at best). And I'm not sure it will find a home again in film anytime soon. Traditional animation is having a rough enough time as it is. I think puppetry is akin to stand-up comedy in that it's best experienced live. But I'm all for puppeteers reinventing the form a bit to make it fit into contemporary media.

John said...

I dearly miss some of the ingenuity, imagination and energy of the puppetry-anchored movies I remember from my childhood. The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth to name two, were both Henson vehicles that I still find highly more imaginative and fun then today's run-of-the-mill CGI fantasy clones such as the Spiderwick Chronicles or The Chronicles of Narnia. There was a certain personality and life in those characters that has yet to be captured by computer artists. I hope it never does!