Puppetry Theory

Puppet staging: Creating Emphasis

By November 17, 2006 September 12th, 2014 No Comments
Sesame Street's Yip Yip Martians in their famous 1971 telephone skit

Photo: Sesame Workshop

If you want to see some great examples of puppet staging, watch old Muppet segments from the `70s and early `80s. Almost all of the early Muppet segments on Sesame Street were shot in one long continuous take with only a couple quick cut-aways to close-up shots. That’s sometimes hard to do from a puppeteering perspective, but shooting this way ultimately makes you a better puppeteer because you don’t get to rely on cut-aways and editing to cover up mistakes.

A good example of simple, brilliant staging is Sesame Street’s “Telephone Discovery Sketch” with the Yip Yip Martians from 1971:

Notice how this is very minimalist and economical, only two puppets and a few props that are essential to the story. It hasn’t been “art directed to hell” (as a puppeteer I know is fond of saying) with lots of clutter, unnecessary props or a set that overwhelms the characters. All that’s there is what’s necessary to tell the story. The window sill both frames the Martians nicely and tells us that they’ve landed near a house and are outside looking in. The shot includes the phone (the focus of the sketch) and gives the puppeteers enough space so that they can play and go back and forth in the frame.

Watch how the camera moves and more importantly think about when and why. Most of the scene is done in a wide shot. The shot itself is very nicely composed with the Martians higher in the frame than the phone (see my previous post on composition for more on that subject) so our focus is on them, but they can still refer to and interact with the phone. When the Martians do get close to the phone and put their emphasis on it the shot zooms in accordingly. Once they are no longer focused on it and move away and the camera zooms out and goes back to the wide shot.

This scene is so well staged that you can watch and understand most of it with the sound off. Although some of the humour is verbal (the Martians making their funny “Yip Yips” and animal sounds) even without audio you get about 80% of the story. In fact, since the Martians speak their own language there’s very little English used at all!

Lots more great, classic Sesame Street sketches can be found on the Sesame Street “Old School” Volume 1 DVD.

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