Puppetry career tips: 'DVD extras are your friend'

Iestyn Evans, who’s worked on Star Wars, The Fimbles and Mongrels, talks technique, experience and how to make the ultimate sock puppet

Put a sock on it

If you really want to be a puppeteer, start now. Put a sock on your hand and sing along to your favourite tune in a mirror. I landed my dream job (puppeteering animatronic animals made by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in the West End musical, Doctor Dolittle) with no previous professional experience or training. What I did have was years of practice making puppets as a hobby and performing them with my youth theatre, Theatrix.

From there I managed to get a job as an assistant puppeteer on a children’s television programme, The Fimbles, and a few years later started my company, Talk to the Hand Puppets, with my best friend and fellow puppeteer Andy Heath. We were both members of a very large and talented team who brought the creatures to life in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But I’m most proud of the Royal Television Society award we won in 2012 for the puppets and puppetry on TV comedy series, Mongrels. All that can be traced back to making a cardboard eagle’s head with Sellotape eyes at my grannie’s house.

Make mistakes

You can’t be really good if you’re not prepared to be really bad. For a while I was lucky enough to work just on large productions, but I felt like my puppetry was becoming stale. I realised that on these large projects, because there’s pressure to get it right quickly, you play it safe, working within your comfort zone.

Puppeteering is more interesting (for audiences and performers) if there’s a chance to take risks and make mistakes. So I’ve always made the point of working on a mix of large and small projects. We’re currently working on a short film, The Truthful Phone (support our Kickstarter). It’s inspired by the films that got me into puppetry (Labyrinth, Gremlins and so on). These smaller projects allow you to be experimental and make new discoveries, and that energy feeds into everything on which you work. If it takes you a few years to break into the industry, use that time to make some big mistakes.

DVD extras and commentaries are your friend

Being a puppeteer isn’t just about how good you are at performing; it’s also about how good you are at solving problems. When I was a kid, there weren’t any DVD extras, so you had to record the “making of” programmes off the TV. I watched the making of Labyrinth avidly, until certain bits of the tape wore out. I’d watch the same bit over and over until I understood how they were doing things.

There’s an outtake in which the dog, Merlin, runs over the stepping stones in the Bog of Eternal Stench. He slips and levitates into the air. To this day I still don’t know if it’s a puppet or a dog in a harness!

This knowledge goes into your head and you forget about it, until one day something comes up and you remember it. For example, puppets usually don’t have moving fingers, so picking things up can be tricky. On Mongrels we developed a technique where we would have spare hands with the prop rigged in. You’d drop the empty hand down and then bring up the hand with the prop. Because you can’t see the elbow, the illusion is perfect. I first saw that trick in a behind-the-scenes shot from An American Werewolf in London.

Some tips to get you started

  • How to make the ultimate sock puppet: Put your thumb into the heel and your fingers into the toes. That way you get a proper open-and-close mouth, which you can use to lip synch properly.
  • Understanding eye lines: Ping-pong balls or false eyelashes are options, but even without eyes, the pointy face of your sock puppet tells you which direction it’s facing. To begin, try looking from left to right and up and down. Then try looking at specific things, or getting a friend to tell you when the sock
    puppet is looking directly at them.
  • Classic lip synch practice: Put your hand under your chin and count to 10. You should notice that you open your mouth once for every number, apart from seven, which has two syllables. If you can open your puppet mouth in the same way yours does, it will look like the puppet is talking. Practice until you can talk at your natural speed.
  • Puppet voices: Your puppet voice probably won’t sound exactly like your voice. Experiment with changing one thing at a time – higher or lower, quicker or slower, softer or gruffer. You could also try doing impressions. If your impression is less than perfect, then you’ve probably invented a new voice
  • Get out there: Your puppet is now ready to meet people, so make sure it does. The more people it meets, the more evolved the character will become.

Iestyn Evans is co-founder of Talk to the Hand Puppets

Support The Truthful Phone, which you can support via Kickstarter

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Iestyn Evans

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