A salute to the art of puppeteering

As Star Wars and BB-8 prove, movie puppeteering is very much alive and kicking. With the help of Brian Herring, we've been taking a look...

Most who aspire towards a career in the film industry dream of the most sought-after jobs. Acting, directing and screenwriting are all professions that have people queued out the doors for a chance to break into. But there’s one role within media that’s a little more niche and unusual than these other giants.  

Puppeteering is the art of bringing an inanimate object to life, making them perform in their own way and interact with actors to compliment a scene. Some of the most recognisable figures from films are in fact puppets, ET and Gizmo from Gremlins both being prime examples of characters who have struck a chord with the nation.

Puppeteering has a rich history, with recordings of the art form being traced back to Ancient Greek times. Hollywood also embraced puppets within the industry from an early age, as the classic horror film The Witch proves. Released in 1906 and directed by Georges Méliès, the movie featured giant puppets of various animals as the monsters.

There are various different types of puppeteering, from standard handheld models, to animatronics and digital work. As times have changed, puppeteers have learnt to adapt to new styles and work with different production members to create new and exciting pieces of work. To learn more about the art form, we spoke to Brian Herring, the puppeteer behind one of the most popular robots in sci-fi, BB-8.

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Brian has been honing his craft for many years, working on other major film and television series including The Muppets and The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. He has managed to work with some of the most lucrative actors and directors in the industry and by doing so, he’s also created characters that have left lasting impressions on audiences.

How Brian started his career was far from the standard route: “If I’m perfectly honest, I lied at an audition for a TV show called Spitting Image in 1992. They asked me if I’d done puppetry before, and I said yes. I hadn’t. But I passed the audition and they took me on as an assistant puppeteer and trained me up.”

This audition led onto valuable training at The Jim Henson Company, who are the masterminds behind arguably the most well-known puppets, The Muppets. Operating puppets such as Kermit the Frog requires puppeteers to possess the stamina to work under tough conditions, such as cramped spaces, for long periods of time. Depending on the character, puppeteers may also have the chance to branch into voice work, and must be able to simultaneously operate the movement of the puppet whilst delivering the dialogue.

Brian’s training opened up new job opportunities for him, as he went on to work on films such as Hellboy II, The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy and of course, the Star Wars series. Each new project allowed for a different type of challenge. For example. larger or more complicated puppets need multiple operators to make them work properly, making for a more collaborative process.

BB-8 is an example of a puppet that requires group work, as Brian explains. “I’m a part of a very large team who work on him and it’s great fun. Josh Lee and Matt Denton are the engineers, and the brains behind how we’re going to implement all of the ideas that we have. Once they’ve sorted the logistics I then join them, and we complete the job.”

Brian also operates BB-8 alongside his fellow puppeteer Dave Chapman, who has worked on projects including the 1996 101 Dalmatians film and the iconic Doctor Who series. The robot has created a stir amongst audiences, mainly due to its unique round shape. This causes the character to move in a very recognisable style, which allows the two puppeteers to experiment with new styles and techniques to development BB-8’s quirky personality.

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Digital work requires puppeteers to work closely with members of the special effects team, as well as other crew members, such as the engineers in Star Wars. This often means that the puppeteer will have creative input in the movements, working alongside the mechanics to convey to the technical team how important certain movements are for a scene. For example, in The Force Awakens BB-8 is extremely well-known for his ‘flame thumbs up’, something that has been incorporated through the aid of CGI.

Brian believes that one of the most exciting parts of puppeteering comes from working on projects that are world renowned. “I was a Star Wars fan in 1977. So to suddenly find myself on the Millennium Falcon with Harrison Ford, Chewbacca and Anthony Daniels was very surreal. What’s interesting about the Star Wars franchise is that that’s going to outlast me. It has a legacy.”

Breaking into puppeteering doesn’t appear to have a straight path, and Brian cited that those who he’d known had all come from different walks of life. He does believe however that experience is the key. Getting work on a small television show, in the theatre scene, or even putting work on YouTube can lead to new opportunities for aspiring puppeteers. There are also courses and classes available through various drama schools and colleges that may assist in opening new doors.

Brian has demonstrated that to successfully master puppeteering, a person must be able to marry creativity with technical ability. They also have the opportunity to embody the character of the puppet, bringing in acting skills. Equally, they may also have a say in the development of the technical aspects of puppetry, moving into a more directorial role.

Their role is to change a lifeless object into an iconic character, just as Brian has done with BB-8. In 2015 the droid was named as the breakout character of the year, and a fan-favourite of the Star Wars franchise as a whole. Puppeteering, and the physicality that comes with it, remains therefore a real art, and one that continues to be relevant, even as blockbuster cinema swamps itself with CG.