Search form

Puppetry is Not Animation

Animator Tess Martin takes exception to festival inclusion of filmed puppetry alongside stop-motion and other ‘straight-ahead’ techniques without contextual distinction.

When I was 20 years old I saw a puppetry show that changed my life. It was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, between the first and second year of my Fine Art Bachelor's, where I had, until that point, been making conceptual installation art. It was a show where the puppeteers were not hiding themselves but rather were interacting with the puppets. I had never seen inanimate objects brought to life this way and I loved being able to see how it was happening – the mechanism was not hidden, but was instead a feature of the performance. I returned to art school and began making little puppets out of wire and paper and animating them one frame at a time under the camera. I've never looked back.

I'm still not sure why this experience inspired me to make animated films rather than puppet shows. I think I liked the control that frame by frame manipulation provided and I was happy to be able to perform, in a sense, without an audience immediately in front of me.

I tell this story to show that I have an insane respect and admiration for puppeteers. I wish I remembered the name of the puppetry troupe that performed that night (all I remember is that one of the puppets was made to look like Kevin Spacey and it must have been 2005 - if anyone knows who the company was, let me know!).

But recently the Documentary and Animated Shorts Jury at the Seattle International Film Festival, for which I also have tremendous respect, awarded the Animation Grand Jury Prize to a puppetry film, The Mill at Calder's End [trailer: see below]. This to me, is disrespectful to both the fields of animation and puppetry. [List of festival winners -]

Full disclosure: Yes, I also had a film in competition [The Lost Mariner - trailer: see below]. No, that's not why I'm writing this.

Animation is a very broad medium, and when it pushes boundaries, definitions are hard to settle on. Time-lapse photography, machinima, code-generated visuals, these all push our definitions of animation, and each deserve their own discussion. For this argument I am comparing filmed performances of puppetry with what I believe to be their closest neighbors: stop-motion puppet animation, or other ‘straight-ahead’ techniques such as paint-on-glass, sand, etc.

There is something fundamentally different about manipulating a puppet one frame at a time versus manipulating it in realtime. Any animator that's ever tried to perform a puppet show knows that it requires a whole different set of skills. Yes, when animators animate they are also performing, especially with straight-ahead techniques. They have one shot to get it right under the camera, or they have to re-do the whole scene. But we are performing in extreme slow motion. We are not actually moving objects, we are making them appear to be moving by stringing together all the frames afterwards. Our skill comes from knowing how to break down these movements into 12 or more pictures per second. Puppeteers on the other hand, are actually moving their character in realtime. Their skill comes from being able to effectively move all the parts of their character at the same time.

Another major difference is how long it takes to create these two different art forms. Both require a lot of time to make all the puppets and props, and both require a lot of practice to make their performance most effective. But frame by frame animation is a performance squeezed out at 12 or 24 pictures per second. One minute of animation could take as long as a month to create, depending on technique and complexity, whereas a video of a puppetry performance would take just that – a minute.

This is not to say that to be called animation, a film must take 10 years to make. I am actually a firm believer in making your animation manageable so that it doesn't take you forever to create. And that's not to say that one minute of performance on the part of the puppeteer is not more intense than any one minute out of an animator's day. But no matter how fast an animator works their production time will always be miles beyond that of a puppeteer.

Each art form has its own skill sets, history and context.

What do the makers of The Mill at Calder's End call their film? You can see in their Kickstarter video [] that they clearly state their film is a 'puppet film' that uses 'live action puppets, not stop-motion, not computer generated.’

But via email, director Kevin McTurk elaborated with a slightly different point of view, stating, “I think puppet films fall between the cracks of what is strictly defined as an 'animated film.’ The characters are being ‘animated’ in realtime by the hand of a human performer, and for this reason, I consider it to be animation.”

While I respect this attitude and am grateful to Mr. McTurk for being game for this discussion, I consider this definition of 'animation' to be too broad. Just because something is 'brought to life' does not automatically make it animation. If that were the case one could say that an actor bringing his character to life is also animation. Anything that is not documentary could be called animation.

The Mill at Calder's End is a beautiful film, and inspiring, on a number of levels. My argument is not against the film, but rather its automatic inclusion in the category of Animation at festivals without proper context. If the Seattle International Film Festival had included the film in the animation section, but then changed the name of section to 'Animation and Puppetry,’ I would have no complaint. This would have acknowledged that the two are not one and the same, and that the film was so good that they had to change the category, and later, the prize to accommodate it.

When I inquired about the inclusion of The Mill at Calder's End in the Animation category, SIFF told me the issue had not come up, and that they assume a very broad definition of animation. One representative also cited the film's inclusion in the Annecy International Animated Film Festival as broader consensus on the issue. But I was just at the Annecy Festival, and attended the program in which the film was included. It was a special program called 'Handmade Puppet Dreams,' curated by IBEX Puppetry, a company dedicated to 'promoting the fine art of puppetry,' founded by Heather Henson, daughter of Jim Henson. I would say that the Annecy Festival appropriately contextualized these films within their animation festival.

Everyone loves arguing about semantics, and I too am guilty of this. But the words we use are important. Each word comes with its own history and associations. By mislabeling something we inadvertently discount the history and context in which it was created. Please, everybody, stop calling puppetry animation. Just call it what it is.


Tess Martin is an independent animator who works with cut-outs, ink, paint, sand or objects. Her most recent award-winning films are The Lost Mariner, an animated interpretation of an Oliver Sacks case study, and Mario, a paint-on-glass film based on an Italian folk song. Her films have displayed at galleries and festivals worldwide. She curates touring programs of films from Seattle and the Northwest and runs a monthly animation event in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Tess Martin's picture
Tess Martin is an independent animator based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Her hand-made films have been displayed at galleries and festivals worldwide. She runs a monthly animation event called Manifest: Animation Show & Tell.