Provocative Ramblings on Puppets – Stop Motion Or Otherwise by Barry JC Purves

Barry JC Purves is an OSCAR and BAFTA nominated Animator and Director, who is passionate about the art of film-making. As well as his film work, he directs and designs for theatre and writes about, teaches and promotes the art of animation. In this, his first in a series of reflections, he considers how puppetry in its broadest sense serves as a means to express inner-most worlds and connect with audiences in visceral, tangible ways. 


So, here I am, and I want to talk about myself.

I want to share my opinions, my loves, and my experiences with the world, or with anyone who will listen or read. I want to shout, before I go, that I was here. I want to question the world as I have seen it. I want to pass on what has excited me, or what I have learnt, and I want to warn others. I want to show, that however small I may be, that I have mattered.

This has been the familiar cry since we all sheltered in fire lit caves contemplating the day just gone, and wanting to celebrate our hunt or a birth or a death. A cave wall was a blank canvas, and became suitably adorned with stickmen figures, showing various sequential events, almost as a storyboard. There was even a suggestion of movement with the various buffalo sporting eight smudged legs in various positions. Maybe in the flickering firelight, these drawings gave an illusion of life.

But most interestingly, next to the drawings were several handprints, in dried blood or mud, screaming ‘I was here and this was our story’. The hand; the humanity so much in evidence. We’ll keep coming back to that. These paintings, showing the progression of the events, have already broken the fourth wall, editing and shaping events, cutting out the dull bits, to make an interesting, and personal story. Every story is just the best bits of an event, told with much construction, and with just the bits that are significant or contribute to the tale. No story is simply a record. Artifice is rampant, and was even back then.

Flash forward a good few centuries to 1434, with Johannes/Jan van Eyck and his world-changing surprisingly intimate and domestic portrait of ‘The Arnolfini Betrothal’. This is a picture crammed with potential symbolism that has had the art world arguing for centuries. Claiming to be the first oil painting, it could be also seen as the first business card. Yes, there is a documentation of the wedding, but there is also the undoubtedly amazing display of skills – he can paint oranges, he can paint wood, he can paint fur, he can paint perspective, glass, brass, and so on.

It is an outrageous display of talent, and Van Eyck even has the understandable audacity to place himself in the mirror at the back and very prominently add his signature ‘Johannes Van Eyck fuit hic’. If there had been Facebook back then he would have had his own page and many likes. Yes, this is recording a real event, but it is doing so in a wonderfully artificial and theatrical display. There is a real, even if unnatural, sense of presentation. Something is so gloriously fake but it is also telling the truth, and in probably a more interesting way; the celebration of artifice that will come to define art.

‘The Arnolfini Betrothal’, Johannes/Jan van Eyck

Jumping back a bit, the ancient Greeks, for example, were happy to take away the individual personalities of the Chorus performers by putting them in masks, and this way, not only could they be heard in the huge amphitheatres thanks to the acoustic properties of those mouths, but their artificial and usually neutral faces allowed them to become whatever Aristophanes or Euripides wanted – anything from clouds, wasps to weeping women, or even a public conscience. The artifice allowed a more directly honed and honest presentation. The structure of the plays, alternating consciously between scenes with two actors and then with the chorus, and all the while using deliciously heightened language and singing, cannot ever be said to be realistic but there were certainly realistic issues being discussed. Even the very nature of theatre, with Aristophanes, were discussed – the Meta the better.

And glancing forward once again by the great medieval Mystery plays with the moral dilemmas facing Everyman personified, and ‘The Castle of Perseverance’ with its human representations of abstract ideas of virtues and vices, we race to Shakespeare. For all his psychological observation that still holds oh so very true today, he was one of the most consciously artificial writers. His plays, simply, are not realistic in the slightest, no play is or can be, but we can recognise the joys and torments of the characters. His Chorus striding boldly onto the stage in invariably overcast daylight to ask for some hush and a use of imagination leads to a shared experience. A game, a partnership, a play. Play.

Shakey and Globe
Shakespeare, and the Globe, from my film, NEXT, Aardman Animation 1989

Hamlet is probably one of the most theatrical plays ever written, but that does not stop it becoming one of the most astute. It’s possible to think that the barrage of tricks Shakespeare uses to reveal the characters’ thoughts, might get in the way of the narrative and the characters, but no. With the right approach and integrity, none of the audience would question that a plainly artificial character such as a ghost can kick start and carry the weight of the great tragedy. Along the four hour heavy traffic of that stage, Shakespeare throws in many theatrical moments of fakery that allow the characters to reveal their thoughts or further the plot. There is madness, song, platitudes, soliloquies, fools spouting the truth, as well as the magnificent play within a play of The Mousetrap – a wonderful device to echo the situation in the play and to sum up the journeys of all the characters so far in a condensed and highly enjoyable scene, all the while setting up the exposure of Claudius.

Best of all, is Yorick’s skull. This simple, resonant prop becomes a device that allows Hamlet to be profound in a way normal conversation would prohibit. This is some external and knowingly artificial, or theatrical, trick to allow the audience to understand the internal workings of the characters. These devices, the external expression of internal thoughts, are at the very core of all drama and storytelling in whatever medium. We just have to find that device that allows us to interestingly spill forth our ideas.

The mask can be physical or otherwise, essentially a liberating device, such as a red nose, a wig, a piece of costume, white face on a clown, or Charlie Chaplin’s tramp persona, or Bart Simpson’s yellow skin, a gloriously witty epigram, a piece of music that allows us to dance, a clever rhyme, or a funny walk, or a song, or a slash of unexpected colour or a change of perspective, or a striking composition or an angle of the camera. In our own lives, we often talk through a third person to address a partner, or through Facebook, or we talk to our cat or teddy; a change of perspective that makes sense of our days. This device, this change of perspective could even be a simple cup of tea offered as an invitation to open up – it’s seldom about the actual tea.

139 Sherlock Holmes
My own very stylised and artificial set for a stage production of Sherlock Holmes, its’ fluid artificial space allowing for many locations and tricks.

This device can also be a musical number – remember Laurie in ‘Oklahoma!’ worrying about which suitor to take to the dance that evening? She doesn’t know who to choose so she dances a dream ballet in which the different scenarios are played out. A moment of great artifice making sense and clarity of a dilemma. With these safe, distancing devices we touch on myths and fables, and even religion – heightened stories to guide us and to warn us and to instruct us and to entertain us. Time and time again, artificial devices speak the truth, a mask that reveals. It’s safer, and more imaginative to use metaphors than mere didactic narrative.

This ‘mask’ can also be the theatre space or the camera itself, or a technique, such as animation or, yes, a puppet. It is something that distances the real us, but allows us to speak unhindered. We need an audience, or witnesses to our lives that won’t judge, and speaking through a ‘mask’ is more comfortable, and dramatically interesting.  Puppets, whether animated on screen through stop motion, or manipulated live in front of us, are most joyfully fake, and work best when we see the technique, and yet something else rises above the technique and communicates to us.

Illustration from my book by Saemi Takahashi, showing the Kuroko operating a Bunraku puppet in full view.

Gone, essentially, are the days when puppets were used, as a last resort, pretending to be live action. King Kong, for example, was animated only after other methods did not deliver, and I suspect a stop motion puppet, today, devoid of the stylistically beautiful and distancing black and white photography, placed in a live action background would fail to be credible, though there are still, happily, some studios producing amazingly convincing animatronic creatures. Today computer graphics can happily and seamlessly put convincing fantasy characters amongst live actors, though secretly we still prefer those animatronic characters, as we know they have been built and that there is a human hand involved somewhere, and that this produces some random element to their performance. This is of course irrational as there are still human hands involved with computers.

‘King Kong’ (1933)

Maybe it is the element of spontaneity and slight erraticism we respond to, and more importantly, the fact that they exist and could be touched – we will never lose the need to touch things. Puppets, animatronic creations, stop motion figures all are clearly tangible, dead inanimate objects, but they are given an appearance of life. Again, it about confounding the norm or the rational. We know a puppet is wood or clay or fabric, but through the performance, we are moved and engaged and willingly believe. It takes some contribution from ourselves. Enjoying the performance is one thing, but enjoying the performance in spite of or because of the technique is far more satisfying.


In the next article in this series, Barry will examine the appeal of puppetry on stage and on screen, in particular against the backdrop of computer generated imagery in our digital age. [Read part two here.]  Read further insights and information on the art of stop motion animation in his excellent publications.  Find out more about his film and theatre work at his website:

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