Puppets in film – ‘une inquiétante étrangeté’

I’m currently working on a new project:
This is to create a short film using live puppets. To give you a better idea, this is not stop-motion animation where photographs are taken of each movement, and are then put together to form a film.
Below are examples of live puppet films that have inspired me.
The first is Strings, directed by Anders Rønnow Klarlund. This film contains the work of Stephen Mottram, who first introduced me to it.

The second is by Wael Shawky, an artist and filmmaker who creates work ‘exploring transitional events in society, politics, culture and religion in the history of the Arab world.’

Experiencing the work of Shawky at the Serpentine Gallery, London in 2014, left me with a huge curiosity with regards to the use of puppets in film.
And many films do use them nowadays. Many are used in special effects, but I find that there are few films that use pure puppetry (not attempting to mask its true nature) as an artistic means, such as in the aforementioned films – but if I am wrong then please let me know!

Anomalisa is a film directed and produced by by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, which recently came out. I had the opportunity of seeing it whilst in London on holiday.

Although this is a stop-motion film I thought it worth mentioning as the puppets are so life-like you forget they are puppets as you are watching. This was the intention of the creators. Many films use puppets as a means to create fantastical, other-worldly or differing-from-reality characters filled with life.
However, I’m more interested in what is not human in the puppet. I recently spoke to a puppet-maker who said puppets on film had something unnerving about them.
They have recognisable features, most commonly we identify with the eyes, or from where the puppet appears to be seeing, but we know they are not real. The illusion of a puppet coming alive works beautifully when it is happening live in front of you – but on film it is a different story. There is something strange, on the edge, not quite right. Perhaps it’s as if the puppet cannot be fully alive – between life and death, an attempt to exist that is unresolved.
I read a book which described this as ‘l’inquiétante étrangeté’ ¹ (a worrying strangeness).

This is a quality I am interested in exploring in my film, alongside the theme of the film which will be the embodiment of bird-like traits within the human body and mind.
This I will talk in a future blog post, as well as inspiration I found in stop-motion animation films.

Here are two books worth reading, if you can read French, including the one from which the quote I mentioned is from:

¹La vie filmique des marionnettes
SCHIFANO Laurence
Presses Universitaire de Paris Ouest
2008

PUCK N.15 Les Marionnettes au Cinéma
ERULI Brunella
Coédition Institut International de la Marionnette et l’Entretemps
November 2008

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