Remember this scene in The Empire Strikes Back? Much like being a Jedi, the key to mastering the art of puppetry is control…in order to be a good puppeteer you must learn control! (wise Master Yoda is, isn’t he?).
More important than lip sync, eye focus or any of those other puppetry concepts, the first skill you have to master in order to be a good puppeteer is to control your hand. This sounds very simple and straight-forward, but it’s actually quite difficult.
Watch this video of a basic puppetry exercise:
I’ve removed the audio so you can better focus on and compare the movement the two hands. Which hand’s looks better in terms of puppetry? Which hand is more expressive and consistent in its performance? The one on the right belongs to a fairly experienced puppeteer with years of practice, the other to someone relatively new to puppetry. Neither performance is perfect and you could pick apart this video on a variety of technical aspects – lip sync, eye focus, etc. – but the real difference – the only one that really matters – is that one has better physical control over their hand than the other. That’s it.
Learning control requires you to (as Yoda would say) unlearn what you have learned. You have to learn to think through your hand and be mindful of where your hand is and what it is doing at all times (more Yoda-isms!). Only once you learn control can you really start to learn puppetry technique properly.