Animal Puppeteering- An entirely different kind of acting

July 26, 2018 Post by Chuck Johnson in Uncategorized

Working with the leallynasaura- one of the smaller Dinosaur Zoo creations that is puppeteered as a “wrangler”.

So as some of you who follow our blog may have already read, recently, we have had the honor of working alongside Erth for their Japan Dinosaur Zoo tour. In the spring, Yutaka and I went on the promo tour, and this summer,  I have been working on the full tour. One of the things that makes the show so unique is the fact that they use live puppetry instead of more conventional models of storytelling.

For example, instead of an animated or CG-based TV show or movie that kids just sit and watch, the show offers kids dinosaurs that they can see with their own eyes and even touch- but unlike static or even animatronic dinosaur models, the dinosaurs can actually interact back as living things. In this show, every bat of an eye, or movement of a body part is controlled real time by a living person who is either next to the dino or inside of it. This makes every dino’s personality different, based on who is puppeteering it, and how exactly the audience interacts with it.

With all of Erth’s creations- even large Dinos like the Triceratops- by design, at least part of the puppeteer always remains visable.

Given the importance of the puppeteer in this role, and the fact that all of Quiet Flame’s performers focus on physicality, I thought in working with Erth, we could could offer them locally-based performers who could be stronger than average puppeteers. For us, (paycheck aside) I also thought that this would be a great opportunity to develop entirely new skill sets outside of our usual film/commercial/tv show stunt work and an opportunity to work with a new type of acting than we are used to.

Thus far, being about 3 weeks into the tour myself, I haven’t been disappointed in the least. All of the people on the Erth side have been fantastically cool to work with, and learning to puppeteer has been really amazing. Aside from learning how all of the various inner mechanisms and electronics work, how they are assembled and disassembled, how they interact with the stage, etc) learning how to puppeteer as an actor has been endlessly fascinating.

As an actor, your goal in every project is to bring a character to life. What makes puppeteering unique however is that the character you are bringing to life is outside of your own body. They are still in your head. (Or you are in theirs, rather), but they have their own body that you have to animate in their way, not yours. In the case of some of the larger dinos like the T-rex or the Triceratops, as you are inside of it; when you act and interact with the other dinos or the people on stage, you simply become the dinosaur. In the case of other ones in the show, like the leallynasaura, you play an animal wranger next to it, which means that you are not only doing the acting for the dino, but sometimes for yourself as a seperate entity as well. In effect, you are acting as two different characters at once. Both of the characters you are playing are interacting with each other, and the rest of the environment all at the same time. This really took a minute for me to get my head around; and really made me appreciate just how complex of a task something like vantriloquism must be. Now that I am starting to get used to it though I can really appreciate it as an artform. And the most interesting thing about it is that when you puppeteer the dinosaurs well, when you don’t want them to, people don’t even see “you” as the wrangler at all.

Parents have told me that even though see you when you first appear, after the show starts they actually forget you are there. Because of that, as an actor, it doesn’t actually “feel” like you are on stage because no one is actually watching you. When I brought my own 3 year old son to see the show, even though I was on stage for half of it (and his mother told him so), he never actually noticed me at all- even when I was right in front of his face. He only saw the dinosaurs. That blew my mind. I also noticed that as the kids (and sometimes even adults) interact with the puppets, even though logically, they all know they aren’t real, the responses and reactions to them when they move are completely natural and organic. (Like the fact that even with the smaller hand puppets, no one ever wants to put their fingers in the dinosaur’s mouths). The psychology of it is really quite interesting, and little things like that showed me just how powerful of a medium good puppeteering could be; and that even in a live puppet show you can still create suspension of disbelief. Fascinating.

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