Provocative Ramblings on Puppets – Stop Motion Or Otherwise by Barry JC Purves [Part Three]

Barry JC Purves is an OSCAR and BAFTA nominated animator and director, who also directs and designs for theatre and teaches the art of animation.  In this, the third and final in a series of insights, he considers the the art of artifice and stop motion animation as a puppetry form.  [Read Part One | Read Part Two]


462977_10151088927322388_31257347_oEvery time we see a puppet, we are aware of the technique, well the technique becomes part of the performance. We know the limits of the materials, the puppet, but something much richer is happening. Currently, Broadway is enjoying the colourful spectacle of Bette Midler playing Dolly Levi, but I doubt that there is ever one second where the audience forget they are watching Ms Midler, and just enjoy ‘Dolly Levi’.

Midler is the whole point. Puppets are free of this overt baggage (oh dear, I didn’t intend to call Ms Midler an overt baggage), but they are still invariably a reflection of their manipulator.  I hold no truck with actors having to be cast to resemble other members of their onstage families, or being criticised for not being the right age of the character, as long as they can deliver the performance – we so often get bogged with everything being so literal, when there is nothing literal about theatre or even film. Orchestras, scenery, costume, delivery, lights, editing all throw any sense of the literal out of the window in the non-existent fourth wall. Oh how I would like to cast the identical twins, the Dromios and the Antipholus’, and this has to have been done, as wildly different physical, and racial performers. If the characters tell me they are identical, then I believe them. If a puppet of bamboo convinces me that he thinks he is a dragon, then I’ll go along with it.  Puppets rise above all the dull literal, and have to celebrate their artifice, and enjoy the metaphor that they are. I’m not sure that being literal has any place in any of our work.

figure 17.3
A still from my film ‘Achilles‘ (1995) , a very theatrical film – ‘theatrical’ in that the artifice allows everything to have a significance and not get bogged down with the literal.

My own area of puppetry is stop motion, and to the public the manipulators have disappeared and the characters are happily performing by themselves. This is of course far from the truth, it’s just that the animators are hidden, not through wearing black, or out of the light, or under a set, or at the end of cable out of sight, but we are there, just in between the frames. We are still touching the puppets, often leaving our fingerprints in the clay, or unavoidably ruffling the clothes. But we are there, and the characters, despite what lexicon of movement they have been given by the animation director, still reflect the animators’ own body language.

A still from my film ‘Tchaikovsky – An Elegy‘ (2011).

There is as much of a connection as between a ventriloquist and his character. The hand is still involved, and for all the hi-tech developments of frame references, and playback, and onion skin (a device that shows the previous frame as an opaque layer), the hand and plain concentration are still the best tools. Stop motion has developed enormously and many puppets often now have replacement faces and often different body shapes, offering an enormous range of stretch and squash that mere mechanics might not provide. As usual with new technology, there is resistance and, personally, I’m a bit hesitant about anything that takes some of the performance away from the animator’s hand, just as I’m cautious when the performance of puppets on film is created in the edit suite, or when the previously mentioned scenic delights are provided by digital means – ah how ironic, that digital also means to do with the finger, as well as the 0’s and 1’s.

The beauty of puppets is that they have limits, and that they have physics that we conquer. We get a huge amount out of little. They are there. I like the rawness of a puppet, and the integrity of a complete puppet. Having stunt puppets for different scenes and with different capabilities, to me, takes away some of the basic essence of a puppet, which is the direct contact between the puppet and the puppeteer. This cannot be lost or diluted. The audience can feel this communication.

me animating achilles
Me animating one of the many intimate scenes from ‘Achilles’ (1995).  A Bare Boards production for Channel Four Television.

As long as puppets continue to celebrate artifice; continue to be worked obviously by hand, and continue to be their manipulators’ voice, and this is especially effective when the manipulator, through reasons of gender, race, politics, culture, disability and such, is unable to speak up for themselves, well, puppets have a lively future. Hopefully, I’ll still be involved in this utterly beguiling world, telling the world what I think, but through the more eloquently articulated actions of my puppets.


[Download the full article as a PDF ]


The full article is now available to download in PDF format.  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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