SPRING 2018 - Technology of Puppetry (Eli Presser)

30 May 2018 8:00 AM | Elysia Segal (Administrator)

Technology of Puppetry 

By Eli Presser

A group of children recite lines from the Book of Going Forth by Day (commonly known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead), they hope to guide the shadow puppet of a recently deceased woman through the trial of having her heart weighed on the scales against the feather of truth. Occasionally she passes the test unscathed.    

A collective scream surges through a small theater as an adult Smilodon fatalis roars. The host is surrounded by the audience at the performance’s conclusion

A timid hand rises to meet the snout of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex. Expressions of pride, terror, and curiosity flash rapidly across their face.

A crank is turned for the first time, bringing life to a series of levers, which in turn animate the wings of a miniature pterosaur. The newly minted mechanical engineer responsible is ten years old.

An anthropomorphic Mountain Lion sits for an interview with an advocate of Community Science. Is the Community Scientist flirting with our feline representative? Surely not…

Every week the staff of the NHMLA (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) Performing Arts Program use puppetry and its associated arts as a means with which to explore the museum’s collections and touring exhibitions. The Performing Arts Program began in 2008 as a temporary measure intended as a stopgap during the renovation of our Dinosaur Hall.  We began with two life sized juvenile dinosaur puppets (typically referred to as “full-suit puppets”) built by the skilled fabricators of the Australia-based creature effects and performance company, Erth, in collaboration with museum Paleontologists. It soon became apparent that these programs offered an irreplaceable guest experience. In light of this, the program was not dissolved following the Dinosaur Hall’s completion but was instead expanded. In the years since our formation, we have diversified our programming both in subject and medium. Current programs run the gamut of puppet related disciplines: animatronics, toy theater, shadow theater, digital animation, rod puppetry, mask theater, and automata have all been used as means of interpreting museum exhibits. Our collaboration and subject matter have grown in scope as well. In addition to our work focused on dinosaurs we have developed performance experiences that interpret biomechanics, community science, Egyptology, marine biology, living history, and Pleistocene paleontology.

As our subject matter, medium, and audience has expanded, so too has our interest in exploring those tools and techniques that might be added to our repertoire. We now use professional lighting, sound, and projection equipment for our performances.  These technologies assist us in creating a strong context for the work we create, but for the purposes of this article I’d like to focus on the technology as it relates to the mechanisms and methodologies of our specific puppetry practice.

Puppetry is an old art form with roots in early animistic traditions. Over the millennia it has served as a vehicle for worship, popular entertainment, fine art, and political subversion. The 17th and 18th century playwright, Chikamatsu Monzaemon wrote highly regarded dramas for the bunraku puppet theater, the mechanisms of which continue to inspire roboticists to this day. In the 1920’s Lotte Reiniger would adapt shadow puppets for film, creating the first animated feature film and setting the stage for the animated films of Walt Disney. In the 1980’s puppetry would became a fundamental contributor to pre-digital special effects. Many of the current generation of military remote controlled robots use interface systems adapted from those systems originally used to manipulate animatronic puppets.  The methods and mechanisms of puppetry are as varied as the cultures from which they were born. It is, at its heart, an art of crafting the illusion of physiology and physics. A puppet show may seek to animate the movement of planetary bodies with equal efficacy as it might animate a cat. With this history in mind I think puppetry serves as a useful, if simplistic, means of viewing the evolution of technology. With puppets as with industry, the promise of new technology is usually a promise of old technological innovations - reimagined or recontextualized, miniaturized or enlarged. The puppets we use at NHMLA are no different. The steel cables that run the length of our animatronic smilodon fatalis are simply a lateral counterpart of the strings of a marionette. The sound system that gives our tyrannosaurus its growl is built of a car stereo and a guitar effects pedal. The mechanical components and systems that allow our triceratops to emulate the movement of a quadrupedal animal were harvested from bicycles and orthopedic forearm crutches. It is my belief that at nearly any moment the technological solution to a problem exists somewhere in the world as a tool or component designed for an entirely unrelated objective.  

This article can be found in Spring 2018 - "The Future is Now: Tech in Museum Theatre" (Volume 28, Issue 2) of IMTAL Insights.


Eli Presser is a Chicago-born puppeteer living in Los Angeles. He began his study of puppetry under the mentorship of Redmoon Theater and Michael Montenegro in 1996, completing his formal studies with Janie Geiser at the Cotsen Center of Puppetry Arts. Over the course of Eli's career he has had the privilege of working alongside a variety of prominent artists including Norah Jones, Kanye West, Joey Arias, Richard Foreman, John C. Reilly, and Bill Viola. His most recent contributions to puppetry have been as co-writer and director of "Kafka in Wonderland" with half past selbur schuldand as lead puppeteer on "The Mill at Calder's End", conceived and directed by Kevin Mcturk. In his current role as Technical Coordinator for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County's Performing Arts Program, Eli continues to work towards the creation of performances that fulfill the public's need for artistry, education, and inspiration.

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