The Perpetual Power of Puppetry

Why We’re Bringing Firestorm to Life with Puppets…

Thousands of years ago, and hundreds of years before plays came to exist, puppetry was mankind’s chosen method to communicate stories. The power of the puppet has pervaded our culture for millennia and has recently made a comeback on our stages and screens. Netflix’s recent steps into puppetry with the Dark Crystal series, which is currently in production, is the latest in a new rank of puppet-driven productions to enter the entertainment fray.

Ancient Chinese stick puppets

But why puppets? What is the magical thing about them that continues to captivate us in an era of $100M+ live-action blockbusters packed full of computer-generated wizardry?

There’s clearly something special about the puppet. Something that is overlooked by TV and movie execs. Too often puppets and the fine art of puppetry are relegated to ‘cute’, ‘naff’ and ‘old fashioned’ entertainment. But this is a short-sighted view… you see, something magical happens when you’re watching puppetry.

Puppets + Your Brain = Magic

Something rather special happens when you watch a puppet performance — be it live or pre-recorded, in person or on the screen.

Marionettes from the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre, New York, USA production of “Cinderella Samba”

In the first few moments, you are consciously aware that you are watching a puppet. But then the magic happens. Whether it takes a few seconds, or a few minutes, parts of your brain that are wired to spot consciousness in the external world start to light up. You know this inanimate object doesn’t have a brain, heart or soul, and yet somehow… it seems… conscious. Alive!

Once that transition has taken place in your brain, then the puppetry-driven suspension of disbelief is engaged, and you are under the puppet’s spell. The puppeteers, wires and rods somehow become unimportant (or even invisible) and you invest fully in that puppet character as if it were a human actor.

Except that, in this case, the connection goes beyond the one you might have with a human actor. The extra work the brain must do in the initial stage of enjoying puppetry brings an extra magic and depth of connection that is unique to puppetry — and it is that connection that makes puppetry such an important way of telling stories.

Thunderbirds’ creator with some of its marionette cast. Left to right: Scott Tracy, Brains, Gerry Anderson, Lady Penelope and Parker

Many people who watched Thunderbirds (1965) through their childhoods tend to have a belief that ‘seeing the strings’ was what made the marionettes of the Supermarionation era so magical. But this is a conscious misinterpretation of an unconscious process. Seeing the control mechanism isn’t what makes puppetry so appealing and engaging — it’s the very fact that an inanimate object is given consciousness.

Physics and Physicality

The power of puppets to connect and entertain is only underscored and enhanced by their inherent tactility and physicality. This, again, is something unique to puppets that cannot be mimicked by computer generated 3D or animated 2D characters.

Thunderbirds’ Scott Tracy in the cockpit of Thunderbird 1

The translation of a puppeteer’s human movements, by the control mechanisms (be it wires, rods, direct hand control etc) produce a very specific type of natural and real-time caricaturing of human movement. The puppeteers’ breath and heartbeat, quirks of movement and uniquely-human fine motor control bring a unique living physicality to the characters that cannot be recreated in any other medium.

Puppeteers controlled the Supermarionation puppets from above via hand controls connected to the marionettes via thin tungsten wire

Add to that the real-world physics acting upon the puppets (and their puppeteers) and you have a magical combination of attributes which is being woefully underused in on-screen entertainment.

Where did they go, and why are they back?

In recent years, theatre puppetry has become extremely popular again — thanks to shows like Warhorse, featuring beautifully constructed puppets and incredibly talented puppeteers.

We’ve also seen new TV and SVOD shows featuring puppets, puppets being used in huge movie franchises like Star Wars, and even a resurgence of my late father’s Supermarionation style with Thunderbirds 1965 and last year’s Thunderbirds Halifax advert in the UK, both great tributes to the past, and the timeless quality of shows like Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet.

But for some time puppets have, rather unfairly, been shoved to the bottom of the entertainment pile. New (and amazing) tools like CGI and incredible post production tools have taken their place, and they’ve been left behind.

Jim Henson and Kermit

In my view this wasn’t helped by the incredible work done by Jim Henson, my father — Gerry Anderson — and their teams. You see, these two giants of puppetry created memorable characters that became well-known and successful all over the world. Supermarionation and the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop are unique in the worlds of on-screen entertainment. But whereas the Henson style has enjoyed continuing exposure, Supermarionation has been left behind.

Once the Century 21 Studios (home of Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet etc) closed, nobody dared to try to imitate the Supermarionation style. And as the years have passed, we have lost so many of those with the skills and experience to reproduce or advance this classic art form.

Bringing Puppets Back

The time to bring puppets back is now. The opportunity in the world of entertainment is unparalleled. A sense of nostalgia for the generations brought up on puppet shows all over the globe, combined with a sense of the new for kids who haven’t really been exposed to this magical art form.

Putting aside CGI for now, modern post-production techniques (like compositing and 21st century digital FX) present an enormous opportunity to make advances in puppetry, bringing puppets back to the widest possible audience.

Combining those modern techniques, with advanced rod-driven puppetry and animatronics means that we’re able to use more advanced control techniques to convert the movement of highly skilled puppeteers into fluid and dynamic action.

Supermarionation to Ultramarionation

It’s because of the above reasons that we’re working on the latest generation of Gerry Anderson puppets. Taking the next step in puppet evolution from the strung marionettes of Supermarionation, to the rod driven, animatronic-enhanced puppets of what we are calling ‘Ultramarionation’.

Ultramarionation puppets have been in development for several years, and are now ready to take to our screens

This new generation of puppets has all the charm and engaging qualities of their predecessors but meet the expectations of a modern children’s audience. And we can’t wait to start work on the first Ultramarionation series: Gerry Anderson’s Firestorm. The possibilities are phenomenally exciting!

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