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On Puppetry & Animation

Let me begin with this statement, puppetry is not animation. Puppetry is also not Kabuki theater, nor is it Ballet, nor is it Opera. But at times it has been - and has informed, all of these things. We are an old form, often mimicked, occasionally feared, rarely given our due. I would suggest that puppetry is not animation much as a magician is not an actor. We may share similar characteristics but our craft comes from different places, speaks through different vocabularies of time, motion, and process. Yet, when it comes to puppetry and animation we might find other common ground, lineage. The argument can be made that animation, or at least narrative animation, sprung from puppetry. Where did Lotte Reiniger, an early mother of animation, find her inspiration? Shadow puppetry. Her masterpiece, “The Adventures of Prince Achmed”, is undeniably an evolution of shadow puppetry. So yes, I would agree that animation is a very different beast than puppetry, as all progeny are different from their ancestors. To truly understand the connections of puppetry to animation, you need look no further than shadows. Shadow puppetry is most certainly the origin of animation. Both work with the manipulation of the passage of light to produce an image on a surface. In the simplest of terms, shadow puppetry uses objects to obscure light and project the result onto a screen, just as a camera uses its lens and aperture to manipulate light and project it onto film. As a result the two can produce very similar effects. Lets move on to classifying and delineating the parameters of puppetry.

Puppetry’s presence in the consciousness of the art world is in a fairly regular state of flux. We go years unnoticed with brief moments punctuated by editorials with headlines such as the ever fashionable, “Puppetry Isn’t Just for Kids Anymore!” or the more reserved “Puppetry as Art?” Puppetry was relegated long ago to the cemetery of art frequently referred to as “Children’s Theater” or “Arts and Crafts”. Any deviation from those two aesthetics is seen as an act of powerful subversion, ignoring previous millennia when puppetry was a valued form of expression. As a puppeteer one might work for a director of film or theater, but you do so knowing that this will be that one time that the artist chose to work with your form. That, or you can go and work on the Muppet Show and its related forms, if you are tired of living in a studio apartment. I imagine you understand the spirit of what I am saying here. Animation too, has a similar connotation of child-oriented entertainment.

As contentious as puppetry’s “proper place” in the art world might be, its perceived role and methodology may be even more hotly contested within the ranks of its practitioners. Even the name of our art is under constant scrutiny and debate (Object Theater seems to be in vogue these days). The classification of puppetry is grossly underdeveloped. Within our community there is constant debate on what qualities designate something as puppetry. Our art is an amalgamation of many things, or the root of them, depending on your interpretation of history. What do we define as puppetry? This is a question similar in nature to “what is art?” If I a fabricate a puppet using wood and a chisel does that mean that I am a sculptor and should exclusively present my work in forums for sculpture? Should the narrative automatons of penny arcades be counted as puppetry? If I build a puppet, perform it live, and then create a pixilation of it does that count as animation or live-action? These are difficult questions to answer. I would choose not to play gatekeeper on such things. Many art forms are in a state of flux and cross boundaries, I view this as a positive thing. A territorial debate has a chilling effect on all of us, animators and puppeteers alike. Suffice it to say that the manipulation of an object through space is a difficult thing to place squarely in one form of art.

I have experienced the differences between puppetry and animation, as well as the confusion as to their relationship firsthand. When I first went to college as a young puppeteer, I was placed in the Experimental Animation Program of my school. I had absolutely no idea how to interact with this medium. I had basked in the visceral joy of feeling the tremors of an object moving in my hands, I relied on those sensations to create the qualities of movement I desired in my work. Suddenly I found myself asked to draw walk cycles and the like. I could not discover the movement vocabularies I sought, I felt incompetent and impotent. I was not an animator, it was not the language that had drawn me in. I was a puppeteer. Coincidentally, I didn’t spend much time in the theater school there either. The musicians, dancers, and writers stole my attention, and with them I created puppetry that was dance, music and poetry. They saw fit to include me in their events, different though my work might be.

Outside of the semantics of classification and ancestry there are other more pragmatic concerns that relate to a film such as ours being brought under the big tent of animation. Many have clearly stated where you believe puppetry does not belong. I would ask you, where do you think we should go? We have few venues available to us for the distribution of our work. Those that do exist are typically a disparate slurry of varied style and quality from the vast diaspora that makes up the contemporary puppetry milieu. Those of us that are attempting to make considered, thoughtful work using puppetry face decades if not centuries of western misconceptions of our art form. Any attempt to enter the mainstream is fraught with difficulty and obstructions. In recent years, we have found that animation festivals seem willing to play host to our work. Puppetry and animation both use figures other than live humans, similarly constrained and enhanced by their lack of a devilishly complex system of mechanisms generated by the summation of humanity’s current place within its evolutionary process. What this means is that puppetry may well be a live form but its style of narrative through movement and a simplified character aesthetic has far more in common with animation than with typical live-action film. Any form of curation is going to prefer to group it with animation as a result. Art forms thrive when they are removed from the vacuum of their own cloistered disciplines. What is lost, exactly, by the inclusion of puppetry in an animation festival, or the community of animators as a whole? Purity is so often invoked as coded language, disguising other agendas, it is dangerous language, and cruel. Rather than strive to codify the boundaries of our related art forms we should be having an open discourse about the work we create with them and the reasons for the perception that they are connected. Animation and puppetry can be informed and enhanced by their parallel pursuits. Hermetically sealed art forms, much like languages, tend to be of the dead variety.

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