Animation, Puppetry Is

Happy Drinko De Mayo, folks! Or, as it has become known in nerd circles, Revenge of the Fifth!

In honor of yet another Star Wars themed day, I’m going to talk about a different kind of animation: puppetry. I know. Many of you are going to say that puppetry doesn’t count as animation, but let me at least try to convince you. I understand that puppetry isn’t the standard frame-by-frame manipulation that everyone normally associates with the term “animation”, but believe me, it is directly related. Good puppetry also was a very integral part of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. If Frank Oz hadn’t gotten that Yoda puppet to work, the entire film would have fallen apart. If you still haven’t seen Empire, stop everything that you’re doing right now and go watch it. It is easily the best film in the Star Wars series.

So, I‘m sure that some of you are wondering how puppetry falls into the animation category. Let’s take a look at the actual definition of animation:

Animation (noun) - Process of giving the illusion of movement to drawings, models, or inanimate objects.

It’s pretty self-explanatory at this point. Star Wars is the reason why I have such respect for puppetry. In Empire, Frank Oz brings that Yoda puppet to life. Upon watching Empire recently, I couldn’t help but be struck by how well the performance of the Yoda puppet and puppeteer hold up. It’s just not the same as watching other films with puppets. When you watch the Muppets, you do believe them as characters, however, you never forget that they are puppets. With Yoda, you’re watching not watching a puppet, you’re watching a performance. That is the ultimate goal for any good animator.

While breaking down the specifics of Oz’s portrayal of Yoda, it’s very easy to see some of the principles of animation at work. Even with the limitations of working with a puppet, you see how well timed and well staged everything is. Yoda never feels like a glorified sock puppet. There are so many subtle actions and movements that many people overlook, but if they were taken out the performance would have been flat. Slight movements in Yoda’s face and posture just add so much to the performance. Also, pairing Oz’s work with Mark Hamill’s performance just makes relationship between the characters that much more believable.

Watching Frank Oz’s work in Empire gave me a deep respect for the art of puppetry. I urge all of you to watch the performance again. Even if you have already seen the film hundreds of times, the next time you watch film pay really close attention to what Oz does with Yoda. Personally, I have not seen better work with a puppet. And while the CG versions of Yoda are well animated on a technical level, they just don’t have the same presence as the physical version. I cannot stress enough that Oz’s work is a real performance and not just some guy with a backwards talking puppet. The culmination of everything that created Yoda is both one of the most amazing technical and artistic achievements in all of film history.