Mary Murphy is a professional maker and senior technical instructor in stop motion animation at the University of the West of England in Bristol. She has an eclectic background in ceramics, craft design, prop making, live action puppetry and film. We sat down with her for a coffee and chats, to find out about her passion for puppet making and her thoughts on the differences and similarities between stop motion and traditional puppetry.
What’s your background? How did you get into puppetry?
My mum and Dad are Irish, but emigrated to the United States, so myself and my sisters were born out there. My earliest memories of television are shows like Sesame Street. We had a lot of friends with older children and inherited a lot of toys, and as this was America in the 1970s, these were Jim Henson muppets and Fisher Price toys – all with very bright, saturated colours. We were plucked out of that in the early 80s and dropped into the middle of nowhere in Ireland knowing very little about the culture. But what we could watch still was Sesame Street, so all the puppets and characters were like all of the friends we’d left behind, a little piece of America.
Also in the bag of stuff that we bought back to Ireland were the Fisher Price velcro muppets and some marionette puppets. They weren’t the type of thing you could buy in Ireland at the time so they made us like celebrities in our little housing estate in the middle of Tipperary. I think that had a big impact on us all. I became a compulsive maker.
It came to going to college and I decided I was going to do stop motion animation. I took a little bit of advice from a chap who worked for Aardman that my teacher knew, who said, ‘tell her to do mould making, casting, sculpture, ceramics and to just keep making characters.’ So I went to the National College of Art & Design, spent my foundation year making puppets. Then the second year, I decide to do ceramics. I really enjoyed making and the process of making, and was able to transfer those specialist skills into stop motion fabrication.
I came to Bristol to visit my current partner, I was just visiting and I still am (smiles). I got a job teaching ceramics at Bristol City College and started teaching a little bit of media on the side, so that I could use the cameras for stop motion. I then applied to do the MA in Animation at UWE. All of it was about getting into industry and keeping moving and learning. In the second year I was given the opportunity of being the teaching fellow at UWE and since then, I’ve continued being really interested in processes and learning. I gather processes, I gather information, I gather knowledge and I disseminate it out. I am the conduit through which stop motion happens; I am the cause of stop motion in others (laughs).
How do you see yourself?
If you boil it right back to what I do, I am absolutely driven by materials and what materials do, and I would say that, more than anything else, I’m a maker – a maker who wants to share knowledge. I’m very interested in how you can push something, in how you can maximise the potential in something. If you introduce me to a new material I am going to work with that material until I know exactly what it does. As soon as I figure it out then others want to know, and it’s nice, it’s gratifying. I would never say that I am this thing or that I am that thing… It depends on who you’re talking to and where you are, but if you did put a gun to my head, I’m a creative person. If you took stop motion out of the world tomorrow, I’d find something else. I enjoy working with young artists. I see what I do a lot of the time here at UWE as collaboration. I see myself as a kind of production assistant or producer. It’s enjoyable to problem-solve. It’s enjoyable to help figure that out.
It means that you keep learning and that is really important to me. I think if you go into an industrial context and get a job somewhere you’re learning but within a very tight pipeline. I quite like knowing I can sit at a desk and with around £50 worth of materials make an entire puppet from scratch that will work and perform really well.
In your opinion, what are the key differences between stop-motion and live action puppetry?
I think if you look beyond education, beyond the needs of students, and into stop motion, then you do have quite a high proportion of young, hungry creative people who feel that the mastery of particular materials or of silicone casting, for example, is the answer – that if they have a ball and socket armature, for example, they will make a better film. I think the more questioning, experimental kind of creatives don’t want to go into a very specific, highly intense pipeline for something that is quite risky. It may or it may not work. They are the same people that if the had just a feather and a bit of foam, could probably produce something gorgeous. I think with live action puppet making that happens because you make a puppet and you then perform with it.
With stop motion, there is the further hurdle of knowing how to stop motion animate in order to make well. So you’re kind of constantly one step forward and two steps back. You can make something that looks amazing, but if it does move properly then you have to go back to the drawing board and re-make it. You can animate really well, but if you don’t have the technical ability to present that on screen at 25 frames per second, with all of the terms and conditions that you need, you might have the most amazing looking puppet in the world, but if it moves like a truck, it hasn’t done the job. The problem is that the process is so lengthy, requires so much focus, I think a lot of people that are experimental – are very witty and have a light touch – can drop off. In stop motion, what you wind up with in the end are the very tenacious people, the very driven people and quite often the people with their eye on industry. Independent animated filmmakers will quite often decide on a less intensive processes, such as paper-cut out. Not that cut-out isn’t stop motion, but compromises often have to be made.
Traditional puppetry and its relationship to stop motion is something I wish I had more time to play with because if I go right back to when I started, for me it was rod puppets and string puppets. It was that thrill and joy, not of just creating movement, but having a performance with the puppets communicating. At that level, it’s the same process between stop motion and live action puppetry. It’s just the interface is different. The interface isn’t the craft, it’s just the interface. The actual creative process is exactly the same. I think a key difference between the puppets for stop motion and stage performance, are that stop motion puppets are self supporting; the joints are flexible but self supporting. For most theatre puppets the joints are non-self supported. I think that’s the only major difference. If you look a little bit deeper, what happens between the frames is exactly what the manipulator of a traditional puppet is doing. It’s just they’re doing it in front of an audience. In a way it makes it easier and in another way it makes it harder. So for me, they are just two versions of the same thing.
Interview by Emma Windsor
Mary Murphy’s book, ‘Get Started in Animation‘ is the complete beginner’s guide to making animation. The book starts with clearly illustrated instructions on how to set up a simple animation station at home and includes a list of low cost but essential items that make a complete animator’s toolbox. Buy a copy on Amazon.co.uk here.
Based in the heart of Bristol, Puppet Place offers workspace for artists and creatives including puppeteers, prop makers, graphic designers, animators and filmmakers. Benefits of becoming a resident at Puppet Place include a profile on our website, advice and information, discounted rates on hire rates in the fabrication and rehearsal studios and more. To join us, contact Rachel McNally at rachel [at] puppetplace.org or call 0117 929 3593.