Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge: Thoughts and advice from our Judges

With registration about to close and the Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge weekend fast approaching (27-29th August, 2021), we caught up with three of this year’s Judges to get their thoughts and advice on puppetry, fabricating, and film making.

What are you looking for in a Puppet film? What is it that excites you about puppetry in film?

Colleen Smith (CS): I prefer performance over fancy puppetry. I mean, I’m always impressed by beautiful puppet work. But it needs great acting to back it up. I love puppets over special effects. I like how you can forget it’s a puppet and think that it’s a living breathing creature. But I also get excited when people embrace the fact that you have a doll on the end of your arm that you make talk with your hand. I guess, I mean, I like it when people don’t take it too seriously and have fun.

Dik Downey (DD): Personally, I’ll be excited to see anything where they’ve made an effort. Obviously weird, dark worlds are something I’m drawn to, but I wouldn’t rule out the opposite either. Passion and attention to detail are things that will stand out for me.

Olivia Racionzer (OR): The most exciting thing for me is creating a world for your Puppets to live in, using everyday materials in the process. Puppets are non-prescriptive and can be whatever you want, the world comes with them and is an exciting part of it for me. Filming gives you the chance to curate what the audience will see. Every shot is a thought out frame, which means you can really focus on the parts of the puppet that will be seen, for example a single moving tentacle rather than a full body with ten moving tentacles.

THE BARBARIAN AND THE TROLL – Colleen Smith (Photo: Colleen Smith)

What are the key differences and challenges in doing Puppetry for film compared with live performances, such as theatre?

CS: It’s the same for any kind of performance. In film you can build elaborate sets, travel all over the place, and do smaller more nuanced work. As well as insanely complicated work. Especially with greenscreen. Stage has the benefit of the energy from the audience and the excitement that comes from not getting multiple takes. I’ve seen an audience gasp when they saw Big Bird walk out on stage. To see a giant puppet like that in person is incredible. But then again Kermit and the rest of the muppets riding bikes in The Great Muppet Caper is incredible too.

Dwynwen puppet for LLYFR GLAS NEBO – Olivia Racionzer (Photo: Olivia Racionzer)

For those new to puppetry, taking up this challenge for the first time, what would be your advice on fabricating and puppeteering?

OR: Playing and having fun is the key to it all. Puppetry gives you the opportunity to create life from any object. If the making scares you, just start simple and add onto existing objects, for example a potato masher, a teapot, or a pillow. Once you’ve discovered the character you can develop it from there and see whether you want to translate it into a full puppet build or whether the found object does the job.

Puppeteering was, and is, the hardest part for me. What made it less daunting was the idea that I don’t need to use my voice to communicate a story. The aesthetic and movement of a Puppet can be extremely effective and finding that out has relieved the pressure for me. I usually start by recreating specific gestures and movements, then put the characters personality into them.

COULROPHOBIA – Adam Blake & Dik Downey (Photo: Stephan Poller)

Any additional advice or tips for the folk taking on the Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge?

CS: Make something you love. And make it for you. That way whatever happens at the end of this you have something you like and you can take with you. Have a point of view. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary, but show us how you see the world. Even serious stuff should have humour in it. Life does. Keep your head out of the shot and watch your eye focus!

OR: I would say don’t get caught up with complicated storylines, start with a simple idea and develop it from there. Play with light, levels, rhythm, and sound. Most importantly have fun, improvise and accept that things might change once you start filming. 

DD: Don’t stress and document the process as you go along, as this may inform other work you do if you continue working with puppets… and try to enjoy yourselves!


There’s still time to register for the Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge, which is taking place on the 27-29th August, and is being run by Puppet Place in association with the House of Funny Noises.

An international challenge to make a short puppet film, the event is free to enter, but donations are warmly welcomed, and it is open to all-ages and levels of ability – first-timers and professionals – in puppetry, fabricating, and filmmaking.

More details, including how to register, can be found via: bristol48hpuppetfilmchallenge.co.uk

Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge 2021 Trailer by House of Funny Noises

Colleen Smith is an actress, comedian, and puppeteer who has worked on several Jim Henson Company projects and most recently The Barbarian and The Troll for Nickelodeon.

Website: colleensmi.com / Twitter: @ColleenSmi

Dik Downey is a Puppet maker, puppeteer, performer, director, sculptor, artist, and clown! And is part of Opposable Thumb with Adam Blake.

Website: opposablethumbtheatre.com / Twitter: @dikdowney / Instagram: @dik_downey

Olivia Racionzer is a designer, maker, and puppeteer, freelancing in theatre and film & television, most recently working on His Dark Materials for the BBC in the Creature Effects Department.

Website: oliviaracionzer.com / Twitter: @oliviaracionzer


Interviewed by Matt Gibbs


The Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge will run this August bank holiday weekend, 27th – 29th, and is open to people of all ages and backgrounds, from absolute beginners to seasoned professionals. You must register in advance to join in with the fun and registration closes at 12:00pm (BST) on Friday 27th August. The Challenge is free to enter, but donations are warmly welcomed.

All films submitted will be screened online from 11th – 12th September, 2021, and the winning entries, selected by a team of top judges, will be screened at the Finale on Sunday 12th September, 2021, at 7:00pm (BST), both online and on the Big Screen in Bristol’s famous Millennium Square.

Don’t miss this fantastic opportunity to flex your puppetry prowess on the silver screen – there will be prizes! Find out more at bristol48hpuppetfilmchallenge.co.uk and keep up to date with all the latest news about the Challenge on Facebook and Instagram.

About mattgibbs

WGGB Award nominated writer, narrative designer, and editor. Part of Talespinners and Improper Books. Resident Puppet Place. (he/him, bi/pan)

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