WRITING FOR PUPPETS – Top 5 Rules
Because animation is primarily aimed at the kids market, it goes without saying that animation writers are also children’s writers. But there are other formats in the children’s market that have their own rules you need to consider when writing, like puppet shows. Writing for a show that is partly (or fully) a puppet cast has rules and pitfalls all its own.
THE CARDINAL RULES FOR WRITING PUPPETS
“What the heck is this doing here?!”
Most animation writers are also kids writers but not all kids’ shows are animated. Sometimes they are strictly live-action, sometimes they are nothing but animals, and sometimes they are partly or fully composed of puppets. So I thought I’d share some insights I’ve gained, having worked with, written for, produced and directed puppets. A brief list of dos and don’ts (mostly don’ts) might be all you need the next time you find yourself writing for our fuzzy friends.
1. PUPPETS CAN’T PICK ANYTHING UP OR PUT ANYTHING DOWN.
This isn’t exactly true. But if you keep in mind that whenever a puppet needs to get something in their hand or out of their hand, the production needs to stop tape and actually sew the hot dog, bullhorn, apple or whatever they are holding onto the puppets hand, then you can appreciate the level of difficulty involved.
Puppets can pick things up, but it takes time. So if you write a scene where the puppet picks up and puts down 7 things, the director may come over to your house and strangle you. Fair warning.
2. PUPPETS AND FOOD DON’T MIX.
Not just food, also paint, water, ink… etc. These constructs can be very costly and depending on the level of show there may only be one or two copies of any single puppet. What’s more, you can’t exactly throw a puppet in the washing machine if they get a little tomato sauce on them.
So keeping puppets and real food (or anything else that would stain their fabric) far away from each other is a worthy goal. This also means if you have a puppet ‘eating’ the food itself will have to be faked, sewn onto their hands and then chewed but not swallowed.
3. PUPPETS HAVE NO FEET.
I know. I just blew your mind. In fact, this isn’t exactly true, most puppets do have legs and feet, but they don’t often attach to the puppet and are only used if you want them sitting up on something or a POV of their feet.
There’s a big, out-of-context human right below the waist, and we need to always keep them in mind – and out of the shot. Sure, it can be done. We’ve all seen that awesome shot of Kermit riding a bicycle in The Muppet Movie, but that was an amazingly complicated shot that Henson really wanted to pull off because no one had seen a puppet do that before.
So when you picture your puppets, always picture them behind something or in a medium shot. A wide-angle shot of a puppet in the middle of an empty street is simply not possible.
4. A PUPPET IS A PERSON HOLDING THEIR ARM ABOVE THEIR HEAD.
Puppeteers are some of the hardest working people I’ve met in this industry. They cram themselves into small spaces under tables or behind boxes, and hold their arm in the air till they are sweating with the pain. Neck and shoulder injuries are commonplace for puppeteers.
Henson built all his sets up high, so the puppeteers could walk standing upright, with braces on their arms to avoid fatigue. This elaborate design is usually too costly nowadays, so puppeteers are sitting down on rolling apple boxes, craned over to the side, holding their arm in the air all day long. Just remember that if you are writing a huge monologue for a puppet.
It’s often very humane if you are writing a long scene to add a moment where the puppet needs to disappear behind their counter (or box or garbage can) for a moment. This will give the puppeteer a second to rest their arm, sometimes just a few lines is enough. This is especially true if you find yourself writing a LIVE show. A human being cannot keep their arm in the air for 30 minutes. The puppet needs to go away and come back several times.
5. PUPPETS ARE AWESOME!
Puppets add a lot to a live-action show. A puppet is like a live-action cartoon character. They can be big, they can be ridiculous and they can be the comic foil for nearly every situation. Though there are certain things to keep in mind when writing for them, puppets are a great addition to any live-action show.
The Canadian industry is filled with top-notch puppeteers whose creativity, performance and characterizations are a wonder to behold. Consider them when coming up with a live-action property.
So there you have it, a primer on puppet proclivities. Hopefully these few simple rules will help you if you find yourself writing for (or, better yet, decide to augment your own pitch with) puppets.
All photos courtesy of Phil McCordic and Kids CBC.