restricted access The Art of Puppetry in the Age of Media Production
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The Art of Puppetry in the Age of Media Production

The figure I have just created has the beautiful sheen of polished wood. As it walks along, its face catching the light just so, I feel a little proud—and more than a little amazed. For I have neither touched nor carved into the figure, and I control it with neither strings nor rods. This figure—which, if I were to continue my labors, I could place amidst similar figures in a production of, say, Hamlet—has never had any tangible existence. It is nothing more, and has never been anything more, than a series of computer commands that have resulted in a moving image on a screen. 1

The figure—my Hamlet, let us continue to say, who makes bold enough to tell the traveling Players “to hold [...] the mirror up to nature”—is not itself of nature: it is of a new breed of figures that perform primarily in the media of film, video, and cybernetics (i.e., computers). More specifically, it is like certain of the dinosaurs in Stephen Spielberg’s The Lost World (1997) and all of the characters in John Lassiter’s Toy Story (1995), being a figure of computer graphics (Duncan 1997:81 and passim; Pixar/Walt Disney Pictures 1995).

Computer graphics figures (also known as CGI, “computer graphics images”) are not the only members of this new breed. Somewhat older in their technological origination are the kind of figures in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and in the central portion of Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach (1996): stop-action (also known as stop-motion) figures. For the moment, let me speak of the characters created through computer graphics and stop-action as “media figures”: figures whose performance is made possible through technological mediation. Indeed, there is yet another kind of figure that in many respects may be said to belong to this new breed, and though it is not strictly a media figure, it is most often to be found on film or video. One can see these figures in a great many contemporary films, including Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black (1997), but also among the resident nonliving characters at Disneyland: these are animatronic figures (Pourroy 1997; Anderson 1997).

It might seem that the various figures I have mentioned do anything but “hold a mirror up to nature”—being, in the main, figures of fantasy; but this is as much a function of economics as artistry: Why bother with the expense of a “naturalistic” media image when an actor can perform such roles easily enough? [End Page 182] Media figures are, thus, left most often to enact non-naturalistic roles, at which they happen to excel. In this regard, the figures are rather similar to puppets as we have known them, which have frequently held up the mirror less to nature than to the untrammeled imagination of the puppet-artist.

It has proved difficult, however—at least from the perspective of puppetry—to make much theoretical sense of media figures: How are they like or unlike puppets as we have known them, and on what basis might some or all of them be considered puppets? Media figures share with puppetry the crucial trait of presenting characters through a site of signification other than actual living beings. 2 While this trait is certainly necessary for their inclusion into the world of puppetry, is it sufficient? What follows is a preliminary attempt to answer these questions. As computer graphics figures seem to offer the greatest challenge to puppet theory, they will be the primary subject of my remarks. What I have to say, however, will have a bearing on stop-action and animatronic figures as well, and so I will mention them again toward the end of this essay.

It seems almost obligatory to refer, preferably in one’s title, to Walter Benjamin’s landmark essay of 1933, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” 3 Such a reference, however, is useful here primarily to show how Benjamin’s critique of mechanical reproduction (most especially as it occurs in film) is inapplicable...