Developing Excellence in Puppet Manipulation

by Steve Axtell © 2002 AXTELL EXPRESSIONS

EYE CONTACT – The eyes of the puppet should be considered one of the most important feature of the performance. Most people are masters at reading the attitude of others by watching eyes. As a puppeteer you can use this to your advantage. Direct the eyes of the puppet to your audience when it is speaking to the audience, and not just toward them….tilt the head downward so that the actual eyes of the puppet are “looking” into the eyes of the audience. If you just point the head at the audience, the eyes may be looking at the ceiling or at their hair. Many amateur puppeteers make this mistake and even some television performers ignore this point – Ugh! Please not YOU! Strive for excellence.

You can even have the puppet look from individual to individual, and the effect is very realistic. Now the puppet appears to be thinking about what it’s looking at!

Eye/head gestures can express much on a non-verbal level. Use eye contact like an actor would. Quick glances back and forth from an object to a person expresses concern over that object. Double takes at a person or object are funny and express surprise.

Not using eye contact is also very useful! If you’re calling the puppets name and it’s looking at the ceiling, it is obvious to the audience that he is ignoring you for a reason. Stiff head and fixed eyes in the opposite direction would express anger and rejection. Slow glances back toward you, while mostly looking away would express embarrassment or hurt.

Study the eye movements of human comedy greats like Lucy and then study great puppet performers like the Muppets and watch the eye directions. You’ll learn one of the secrets to puppet excellence.

Puppet Manipulation

HEAD MOVEMENT – On a puppet with fixed eyes, (non-moving eyes) the head movement becomes one with the eye movement. The head in many ways is like a car with the eyes being the head lights, moving around so it can see where it’s going. However head movement can also be used to express emotion separate from the function of directing the eyes (although it’s difficult to separate the ideas). A drooping head expresses sadness and slow movements express depression or sleepiness. Directing the head in a side to side motion can express disagreement and can be used either while it is speaking or while it’s listening. Upward tilt of the head can express stubborn-ness . The tilt of the head to one side (one side higher than the other) expresses concern or confusion.

Play to the audience with head movement. Be aware of the direction of the audience or the camera. Don’t direct the head so that they cannot see the face/eye area of the puppet for very long. If you lift the puppet’s chin to look up at the sky also turn the puppet’s head to the side, so they can still see the puppet’s face. Otherwise they’ll be staring at a neck and a chin and soon loose visual interest and become more aware of the puppet instead of the “character”. Again, be aware of the importance of head movements and watch great puppeteers work.

MOUTH MOVEMENT – Whether you use your own voice to speak for the puppet, or use a voice tape, you will need good mouth movement to make the character believable.

Generally, the mouth opens on the vowels (A-E-I-O-U) , and closes on the consonants. Another way to think of it is that the mouth opens once for each syllable. Yet another way to think of it is that you want the puppet to look like it is shooting out the words not eating them. Example, The word “Hello”:

Puppet Manipulation 2

Open the mouth on the sounds., don’t “eat your words”!


Another important thing to do is try to move the lower jaw of the puppet more than the top. Notice your own chin movements, and try to copy it with your puppet. One other reason for not moving the upper hand much, is that you don’t want the eye contact of the puppet to be broken with the audience every time it speaks. For fun, try to do this with your own head. Hold your chin still and try to make your mouth movements by tilting upward with your head instead of dropping your chin! It’s very unnatural for your head and it looks just as strange with the puppet, yet your hand finds it easier to raise the upper part, rather than the lower jaw, and needs to be trained to do it right.

Don’t worry about keeping the head perfectly still while isolating the lower mouth movements, just try to keep the movement of the upper head to about 20 – 30% and the lower jaw 70-80%, rather than 50/50. Again watch great puppeteers, not bad ones. Strive for excellence in mouth movement.

Hint: The beginnings and endings of a long sentence are the most noticeable to an audience for mouth movement synch. If you open the mouth on time and begin to mouth the syllables correctly, and then you end the sentence with good mouth movement closing on the ending of the voice, you sustain belief in the character. (What goes on in between is much less noticeable, as long as it approximates the pace of movement to speech.)

The mouth of the puppet can remain slightly open while listening, and this can simulate a “smile” on the face of a puppet or happiness or openness. Tightly closed mouth can express anger especially when used with quick jerky head movements back and forth.

Here’s a great practice tip I learned as a child. When someone is speaking you can mimic their mouth movements with your hand. There is an enormous wealth of practice you can gain using this technique during TV, seminars, sermons, speeches, classes etc. I recommend that you do this on your lap, or with crossed arms, so no one notices. Also it is not necessary for you to look at your hand at all. You are training your EAR-HAND coordination here.

The above is just the tip of this exciting puppet iceberg. There is much more to eventually learn on manipulation, such as big emotional responses, body manipulation, arm / hand gesturing, ad-libbing non-verbals, and beyond puppet manipulation is choosing a voice, vocal attitudes, stage professionalism, TV puppeteering, and much more.

Remember that excellence is an attitude and you get better every time you practice manipulation. Most of the practice can be done mentally and with your naked hand.

You can purchase a set of eyes from us called “PEEPERS” invented by puppeteer Hobey Ford. You slip them on like a ring and it turns your hand into a puppet great for instant practice. Keep them near you when you are watching TV and you can quickly mimic attitudes and emotions that you see on actors. Also you can synch your hand movements to the speech of new reporters and comedians.


BODY MOVEMENT – You might not think of a puppet as having much body movement because many times it’s just fitted over your arm. The hands or wings of the puppet can be giving great motion by the use of rod arms. With rod arms you can make the puppet gesture, rub it’s head, point toward something, straighten it’s hair, touch something or someone, etc. Even without a rod arm you can help convey emotions with the simple movement of your arm inside the puppet’s body. For example if the puppet is excited, simply moving your arm quickly up and down about an inch will convey excitement as if he’s bouncing or jumping! If he’s sad, you can “slump” your wrist, lowering the head and lean the body over toward your own body so the puppet can lean against you, or a stage wall. You can also make him look like he’s breathing deeply by bringing your elbow forward and then retracting during a big audible sigh. If he is afraid, you can vibrate your whole arm very tightly.

Also heres a pantomime exercise that works well with a soft puppet. Forcing yourself to work on manipulation without dialog:


Have the puppet explore a grocery bag you put down in front of him. Have him be afraid of looking inside, with double takes to you and the bag, he looks it over good all over the outside then as he approaches the top he retreats from it afraid. With your gentle nudging you bring him back to the top and he begins to shake, then you comfort him and encourage him with some pats to go inside. The puppet and you exchange looks and you smile confidently at him with a nod to go ahead. He puts just his head in slowly, then darts out looking at you with a full happy expression of excitement! You smile big. He jumps in the bag and rumbles around…..comes out and looks up excitedly again, then goes in and almost destroys the bag with motion.

Your look changes to concern and you look into the bag to investigate. Shake your head no, and the bag stops. Pull your head away and it starts up again. Repeat a few times. Finally you snap your finger and demand that he comes out. The bag rumbles very shortly. You gesture with your finger “come here”. Slowly he retracts his head first looking at you, then glancing back at the bag. You redirect his face to look at you. He glances back and then giving up he lets out a big sigh and drops his head defeated.

Finally, feeling sorry for him, you let him into the bag again. He jumps in, rumbles around and finally pulls out a small ball. With the ball still in his mouth, the puppet is bouncy and excited and thrilled that you let him get it, and he leans his head into your chest as if giving you a hug, and you give him a pat.

While you’re at it, give yourself a pat on the back! By taking the time to read this section on manipulation excellence, you are providing yourself with a great start toward professionalism.

Steve Axtell