DIY: Puppeteering Your Protagonist

    Recently I wrote and directed a film called Hoops. It was the story of a basketball seeking revenge after a man at the park chooses a newer ball over Hoops. It was a ridiculous comedy that was ridiculously difficult to film.

    In order to film it, I had to figure out how I was going to make an inanimate object feel alive and natural. That meant simulated movements for every emotion, how does a ball move when it’s sad, or angry, how does it look when it’s happy?

    All of those emotions required specific movements from the prop of the ball. Today I’m going to take you step by step through my process to bring the lifeless to life, so you don’t have to go through the headache that I did.

    STEP ONE: PICK YOUR PROTAGONIST.

    I used a basketball, but this applies to literally any inanimate object.

    STEP TWO: LEARN ITS MOVEMENTS

    Now that you have your inanimate protagonist learn the movements of your object. What kind of movements are going to look natural on screen? When shooting Hoops I

    Made sure to give him as much stationary movement as possible. Remember your puppet is supposed to look and feel alive and not like you just filmed some random thing you found on the side of the road.

    My puppet was a ball so I made sure to keep him slightly wobbling whenever I could, just to give him that extra sense of reality.

    Try to look at characters like C-3PO or Yoda in Star Wars. Even though C-3PO was played by an actor, Anthony Daniels made sure to add minute movements to the character to give him an added sense of life.

    It’s something that you don’t notice when you see it, but you would feel the absence of it if it were gone.

    STEP THREE: FIND YOUR PUPPET’S FACE AND PERSONALITY

    Since Hoops was a mostly silent film, I had to find a way for the basketball to be relatable without a voice. The eyes are the window to the soul so I gave the ball these big cartoon eyes with a black marker so I could change the expressions.

    However you don’t have to give a character eyes to be relatable.

    The short film MELTDOWN created a whole cast of refrigerated foods.

    Instead of connecting through the eyes, we connect through the foods’ movement and their mouths. The film wouldn’t have had the same comedic effect that it did without creating movement and a way to orientate yourself with the character’s direction.

    You also need to come up with different expressions for your character. When I started with the basketball I had to ask questions like:

    • How does a basketball look when it’s happy, or sad, or mad?
    • How can different angles affect the look?

    Coming up with distinct movements and emotions is key. You don’t want your audience guessing what your ball, or sandwich, or soda can is feeling, you want them to instantly pick up on it.

    STEP FOUR FIND YOUR METHOD

    Lastly you need to know how you’re going to disguise the fact that your character is being puppeteered. Unless you’re making a 50’s B movie, it’s not really advised to show your strings.

    This is a tough one, because there really is no best way to puppeteer your protagonist. One thing you need to do is to keep it simple. When I did Hoops I ended up just settling on hiding my hands just out of frame to achieve the fluid motion I needed.

    There’s a million and five ways to bring a character to life, so just relax and find a solution that doesn’t require you inventing a new form of robotics.

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    • While a great many would see him as a hero, there are some that would prefer the term vigilante. Gregory is an aspiring filmmaker who loves writing, directing, coffee and long walks on the beach.

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