VGx Puppetry | Video Games and Puppet Animation

VGx Puppetry | Video Games and Puppet Animation


What do Cuphead and The Dark Crystal: Age
of Resistance have in common? If you had asked me that question a few months
ago, I would have said, “not very much” One’s a run and gun video game and the other’s
a fantasy tv series But then I came across an interview with Chad
Moldenhauer, one of the creators of Cuphead, talking about the upcoming Cuphead TV show The interviewer asks if the Cuphead show will
use the same animation style as the game And the answer kind of caught me off guard “…we’re keen to stay as far away from
computer-assisted puppeteer animation as possible and are proud to be working with a creative
team that really believes in the value of hand animation” The fact that they’re sticking to hand drawn
2D animation is exciting, but it’s not surprising The animation style is a huge part of what
makes Cuphead so unique and recognizable now that they’re expanding the Cuphead franchise
beyond videogames, it makes sense to stick with this look that we’ve come to know and
love What surprised me was the mention of puppetry They’re staying away from “computer assisted
puppeteer animation” I had never seen that phrase before in my
life: “computer assisted puppeteer animation” I had to read it three or four times before
I realized it means 3D Computer Animation or CGI And I couldn’t believe I hadn’t recognized
the influence of analog puppetry on CGI before The rig in computer animation is just like
the Armature in a puppet The virtual camera rendering individual frames
mirrors stop motion And in video games…not only are 3D animators
puppeteers, but, in moving a character around a space, the player does a kind of puppetry Reading that interview, I realized Cuphead
and the Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance actually have an important commonality They both lovingly recreate and update a unique
historical animation style The Dark Crystal Team mixes the Traditional
Analog Puppetry of Frank Oz and Jim Henson’s movie with Computer Assisted Puppeteer Animation The Cuphead Team avoids puppetry in their
animation, opting for a hand drawn aesthetic – but then gives the reigns on Cuphead, that
hand drawn character, over to the player to control Reading that interview and suddenly seeing
this relationship between Cuphead and The Dark Crystal kinda blew my mind And since then, I’ve been obsessed with
the relationships between Video Games and Puppet Animation That was months ago – and that obsession has
not faded – if anything it’s only gotten stronger And I’ve reached a point where I just have
to talk about it to anyone who will listen And I figured…what better way to do that
than in a video series about a fake museum Welcome to Video Games Exhibition, or VGX In each installment of VGX, we’ll look at
one Video Game, and one other work of art in conversation together. Each series of VGX videos will culminate in
a plan for a museum exhibition that displays the video games and other works we’ve discussed,
hopefully producing an aesthetically interesting dialogue between media The first series of VGX videos will examine
relationships between Video Games and Puppetry Thank you for joining me on this journey of
Video Game curation And I hope you’ll enjoy the first installment
of VGX Puppetry Wii Sports is all about hands But I’m getting ahead of myself – before
we get to wii sports, there’s someone else I want to talk about – one of the most beloved
puppet characters in America’s cinema history, Kermit the Frog. The famous amphibian was first introduced
on Jim and Jane Henson’s Sam and Friends Though at the time, it wasn’t really clear
he was an amphibian – in his earliest appearances, Kermit was more of a lizard kind of creature There’s a visual delineation between Kermit
the Frog and Kermit the Lizard-type-thing Frog Kermit has his famous green collar, and
Lizard Kermit is naked But aside from the lack of the green collar,
both versions of Kermit have a very similar design Whenever we’ve seen Kermit over the years,
with the exception of a few unique puppets for the movies or special stunts, he’s pretty
much always had the same simple hand and rod puppet design A hand and rod puppet is essentially what
it sounds like – a puppet controlled by one hand on the inside and an external rod held
in the puppeteers other hand The puppets torso contains a sleeve for the
arm On the original Kermit puppet, that sleeve
was actually a pant leg cut off of a pair of Jim Henson’s blue jeans The arm goes up the sleeve, and the hand goes
in the foam skull of the puppet, where two hard plates form the mouth Four fingers control the upper part of the
mouth, and the thumb controls the jaw That’s the skeleton of the most basic Muppets There are 2 other common puppet types in the
Muppets First are the Live Hand puppets, which are
like hand and rod except instead of controlling the puppet’s hand with a rod, the puppeteer
wears the puppet’s hand like a glove Second are the full body puppets, where the
puppeteer wears the puppet like a costume They all have different features on top, and
some have special internal mechanisms, like the one to wiggle Fozzie’s ears, or the
one to open and close Gonzo’s eyelids, but the basic constructions are pretty consistent:
hand and rod, Live Hand, and Full body I mention the major Muppet construction types
not just because I’m a puppet nerd Though, I am a puppet nerd, and getting to
talk about this stuff is super fun But I bring it up because Kermit’s puppet
actually does have an interesting, unique element to it The basic hand and rod design is a sleeve,
a foam skull, and a rod But Kermit is missing one of the main structural
elements – he doesn’t have a foam skull There’s nothing between the fabric of Kermit’s
head, and the puppeteer’s hand And that kind of sock-puppet-esque construction
gives Kermit a special kind of expressiveness It allows Kermit’s face the full range of
motion of the puppeteers hand Even small finger movements change the shape
of Kermit’s head, since his “skull” is just the shape of the hand inside And those simple changes in shape all convey
different emotions Not only can Kermit smile, and frown, and
grimace, and furrow his brow – but he can do all those things in any number of ways One of the many amazing things about real
time puppetry is how present and alive the characters feel When a puppeteer is performing, the subtleties
of their movements are breathed into the puppet And for Kermit, because of his simplified
construction, the subtle movements of the puppeteers hand show straight through to the
audience So Kermit is not only physically present in
the performance space But, because of how expressive his face is,
and how subtly and naturalistically those expressions can change in response in response
to what’s happening around him, he feels emotionally present Looking at Kermit, it feels like there’s
a lot going on behind those eyes Those of you who have taken an acting class,
like ever in your life, I’m sure have heard a lot about the importance of listening to
acting Being genuinely attentive, and having an honest
interaction on stage or on camera really brings a scene to life And it really seems like Kermit would be a
wonderful scene partner Kermit’s simplified construction seems tailor
made for live interaction, not only with other puppets, but with on-screen human actors In a way, it’s surprising it took him so
long to become the star of one of Jim Henson’s series He was a prominent character on Sam and Friends,
and Sesame Street, but he wasn’t the main character until the Muppet Show aired in ‘76,
more than 20 years after his first appearance I don’t think it’s any coincidence that
Kermit stepped into a leading role when the format of the show called for human characters
and puppets interacting on screen in a relaxed, informal, variety-talk style setting as opposed to the early-childhood educational
angle of Sesame street In addition to being the host of the Muppet
Show, Kermit is also the stage manager – and in that role, he spends a lot of his time
backstage doing emotional labor for the cast Kermit’s personality has changed a lot over
the years, but in his classic muppet show days, he was snarky, witty, a little quick
tempered, but reserved, and focused on theatrecraft to the exclusion of much else Much of Kermit’s comedy on the Muppet Show
is derived from his frustration with having to put up with a lot of big, over the top,
personalities, and still put on a show He really reminds me of the stage managers
I’ve known in real life And I think Kermit’s puppet, with it’s
skull-less design, really lends itself to that kind of role, centered on managing emotions Do I think Miss Piggy, or Fozzie, or Gonzo’s
puppets could have filled that role? Sure! All the muppets are expressive and engaging,
and the performers behind them could absolutely bring that range to those characters But I think Kermit ended up being the puppet
in that role at least in part because of how easy it is to form an emotional connection
with him through the medium of the human hand And it’s that quality of the hand, that
simplicity and immediacy, that relates Kermit the Frog to Wii Sports The
Nintendo Wii had an unorthodox controller for its time, the wii remote, a motion controller. So Nintendo decided to make a collection of
simple sports games making use of the motion controls to serve as a kind of tutorial for
how the Wii works – that collection of games would become Wii Sports It was packed in with the Wii, became a huge
runaway success, and the rest is history But I want to take a look back at what made
Wii Sports interesting, engaging, and, unfortunately, also alienating I’m sure a lot has been said about how Miis
let people see themself in the game – but the options for customization on the Mii Channel
were so limited, I could never really see myself in the Miis I mean they have like two black hairstyles So I don’t think the Miis are what created
that sense I had that I was inhabiting the space of the game And looking back at it now, I don’t think
it was the motion control either There was a certain novelty to the motion
control – swing my arm, and the bowling ball rolls down the lane, the tennis racket whips
around to hit the ball – it was very cool But there wasn’t a lot of precision in the
Wii’s motion controls, especially not in the first run of Wii Remotes, before the Wii
motion plus got added later – certainly not enough precision to make me feel physically
situated in the space of the game But I did – the awkward, janky Wii Remote
made me feel physically connected to Wii Sports But it wasn’t through the motion controls
– those actions, the punches, and pitches and golf swings It was the Motion Out-Of-Control The motion that comes from me not as some
intentional input, but as an accident of my body Take for example the golf game – the ball
goes further or shorter depending on how hard I swing the wii remote – but I’m not really
in control of how hard I’m swinging it I can know “okay I want to stop at the second
little dot here on the power meter” – but figuring out how to get my body to do actually
do that isn’t so easy I’m always at least a little off – usually
a lot off – way more so than in a game like Golf Story where you stop the meter with a
button press And it’s those moments when I have so little
control that makes the golf feel almost real – it’s not a lifelike simulation of golf,
but it really nails how frustrating golf is (even if the wii sports rage quit isn’t
as the real thing) Or take Wii Sports Baseball No matter how hard I try, as long as I’m
holding the Wii Remote, I can’t make the baseball bat stop wiggling around Part of that is a specially animated wobble
– if the controller is flat on a table, it still drifts back and forth But any time I’m holding the bat, there
are little jitters I don’t feel my hands shaking – I’m not
nervous – I’m not squeezing too hard – as far as I can tell, I’m standing still But Wii Sports is picking up accidental motions
so small that I don’t even notice them In a way, Wii Sports knows my body better
than I do If I fidget, or shift my weight, or make any
other kind of tiny subconscious movement, it’s replicated and put on display It’s that Motion Out-Of-Control, that plasmatic
organic noise that the game generates from my body, that really connects me to the game
in an intuitive and exciting way – and it’s a similar kind of intuitive connection to
the one I feel to Kermit the frog, watching his face smush and shift and settle Kermit uses Motion Out-Of-Control to make
an emotional connection through facial expressions, produced by the puppeteers and Wii Sports uses Motion Out-Of-Control
to make an emotional connection through play, using the player’s hand Both Kermit and Wii Sports were designed to
appeal to as broad an audience as possible. The Jim Henson Company and Nintendo both used
the intimacy of the hand to try to create entertainment for everyone – and I think Kermit
got a lot closer to achieving that goal than Wii Sports did The wii remote and Wii Sports make a lot of
assumptions about the player’s body, about how they’re able to interact with the remote,
and about the space they play games in And since Wii Sports doesn’t have any options
for button mapping or changing controllers, if you don’t fit Nintendo’s idea of what
a Wii Sports player looks like, as far as they’re concerned, you don’t get to play The Kermit Puppets aren’t designed for a
“general hand” (something that doesn’t exist) – they’ve been built specifically
for Jim Henson, Steve Whitmire, and Matt Vogel’s hands, and the stories that those hands tell Thank you so much for joining me for the first
installment of VGX Puppetry I wanted to talk about something Muppets related
in the first installment for a couple of reasons One, I’m a total Muppet nerd, and I just
couldn’t wait to talk about Kermit But more Importantly, Two, I kind of wanted
to get the Jim Henson talk out of the way There’s so much to talk about with the Muppets
and Jim Henson in general, that I’m sure this could easily have been a whole series
just on Video Gdx̦ames and the works of Jim Henson But that’s not the series I wanted to make So as much as I could talk about the Muppets,
like, forever, I also really want to push myself to go outside the Henson stuff, and
cover a broader range of Puppetry and Cinema I think I’ve got some great Puppets and
Video Games lined up to discuss, and I can’t wait to share them with you in future installments
of VGX Puppetry

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