Relations between puppetry and cinema are numerous and take various forms. Examination of similarities raises issues of how one influenced the other both theoretically and thematically, as well as in their symbolic and formal relationships.

Since early “pre-cinema” entertainments led toward the invention of film in the late 19th century, these two genres have shared clear affinities. Puppetry and early cinema have overlap in the idea of using the object to represent the living being, in the personnel who perform, and the venues in which they present. Early optical machines, primitive viewer apparatuses, magic lanterns, mondi nuovi (peep shows), and other visual phantasmagoria of that period link with puppets and automata. Furthermore, the theme of the “double”, inherent in the mechanical creation of an image (a fundamental element in the origin of cinema), joins the two genres: these new visual inventions were often presented in ways similar to the shows of itinerant pupeteers and shadow puppet showmen. In fact, the devices developed in the 18th century in theatrical dioramas or in the eidophusikon (a miniature moving set emulating phenomena of nature such as sunsets achieved with mirrors and pulley devices) of Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) were close relatives of small puppet theatres. Similarly, the fantasmagories (phantasmagoria) of Étienne-Gaspard Robertson (1763-1837) are linked to the tradition of shadow theatre puppetry introduced to the West by Séraphin and the work of the magic lantern showman who made his images change with accompanying words and music, like a puppeteer.

Moreover, from its beginnings, cinema wanted, in its staging, to exceed the limits imposed by natural and man-made laws, and artificial figures are intimately related to this idea. For example, consider the work of Georges Méliès, who in playful scenes that anticipated the surrealists, gave repeated images of the fragmentation of the body as a theme. Thus, in Le Mélomane (The Music Lover, 1902), an orchestra director takes off his head and throws it on a musical staff formed by wires strung between two poles, his body parts thus creating a series of musical notes, while in Un homme de têtes (A Man of Heads, 1898), the use of heads recalls a magic show. It was also from among magic acts that Méliès recruited his first players, notably the artists of the Robert-Houdin Theatre. In a similar vein, in “animated” film, which generally refers to a cartoon, the process of cinematographic repetitions approaches object theatre. Thus, in 1906-1907, in the United States, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (including stop motion and stick puppetry) and The Haunted Hotel (with its stop motion sequence) by James Stuart Blackton became well known for the invention of object animation, moving things frame by frame: photographing each frame and later playing it back at regular intervals Blackton was able to give the objects via film, a lifelike movement impossible in real life.

The 1920s: The Puppet Effect

In the 1920s in Europe, puppet-influenced technique was used in cartoons created by Vladimir Mayakovsky (1925), in German experimental films such as those of Oskar Fischinger and Walter Ruttmann, and in the many films that Lotte Reiniger produced until the 1930s, inspired by Asian traditions of shadow puppetry and experiments at the Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat) cabaret. Implicit references to the disturbing figure (unheimlich) of the double – a supernatural or demonic presence, with a shadow’s unsettling dimensions of hallucination and distortion – infuse expressionist cinema: examples include The Student of Prague (1913) by Stellan Rye, The Golem (1920) by Paul Wegener, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) by Robert Wiene, Warning Shadow (1923) of Arthur Robinson, and M (1931) by Fritz Lang.

The doll, the puppet, the automaton, the Golem, the homunculus, are recurring images of this movement, as illustrated by the robot in Lang’s Metropolis (1926), the prototypes of which we see in 1920 in the drama RUR (or R.U.R., Rossum’s Universal Robots) of Karel Čapek and even earlier in Gustav Meyrink’s 1915 novel, Der Golem (The Golem): such soulless figures invaded the screen to express the power of the machine attacking its own maker. We find a similar trope in The Devil Doll (1936) by Tod Browning where a scientist creates a substance that allows him to miniaturize humans and drive them to crime. The same theme reoccurs in Die Puppe (The Doll, 1919) by Lubitch Ernst, a nod to E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 short story, Der Sandmann (The Sandman), about Olimpia, a mechanical doll with which a young man falls in love thinking her human, a story which plays on the ambiguity between a doll and the female beloved, or in Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, 1924) by Paul Leni, the stories of Harun al-Rashid, Ivan the Terrible and Jack the Ripper set in a museum of wax figures and where the staging and the acting – clumsy, chopped, and anti-naturalist – are close to the puppet’s distorted universe. This puppet-like theme is also found in the late expressionist works of Max Ophüls, Lola Montès (1955) where the eponymous diva ends in a fairground booth, as a wax figure. We find the trope of the artificial figure in many avant-garde films: especially in the surrealists’ work, the dummy and the simulacrum are repeated ideas as evidenced by films by Man Ray (Emak Bakia, 1926, Le Mystère du château du Dé The Mystery of Mr Dé’s Castle, 1929) and work by Germaine Dulac (La Coquille et le Clergyman The Seashell and the Clergyman, 1928).

From a formal point of view, film editing and the use of mechanical figures are related. The “montage of attractions”, an idea created and theorized in 1923 by Sergei Eisenstein (who was then leaving theatre for film), came from the “biomechanic” exercises of his teacher Vsevolod Meyerhold, who sought a theatre in which the presentation would have a quick pace based on the interest which was created by an anti-narrative structure, proceeding it by “paratactic juxtapositions” following the example of the circus, music hall and the cinema. Also in the 1920s, the abstract “visual symphonies” by Viking Eggeling, Walter Ruttmann, Hans Richter and Kurt Schwerdtfeger are experiments on the relationship between image and rhythm. Similarly, the Futurists conceived film compositions, “object dramas” which were, it seems, never completed. The machine aesthetic was also present in L’Inhumaine (The Inhumane) by Marcel L’Herbier, not only in the female figure but also in the staging of this “fairy tale” whose sets had been created by Fernand Léger and which had its showing in the United States in 1926. It was accompanied at that time by Le Ballet mécanique (The Mechanical Ballet, 1924), an unscripted, experimental film Léger created with Man Ray and Dudley Murphy. It is a montage of disparate elements with a “ballet” theme, but the dance was created by mechanical movement in the abstract sense, activity in the dynamics of bodies and machines. It was introduced in an iconic representation through the manipulation of a paper image of Charlot (Charlie Chaplin but also a pun on the producer’s last name) as a cubist-style figure in a sequence created for the “film poem” Die Chaplinade (The Chaplinade) by Yvan Goll. Indeed Chaplin, an actor popular in the avant-garde theatre, himself can be likened to a puppet as he distanced his performance from psychological identification.

To Chaplin, anti-hero and director of Modern Times, we can add other puppet-like performers, including Buster Keaton (with his strange, articulated body and impassive face) and, years later, the Italian actor Totò (Antonio De Curtis, 1898-1967) particularly in his interpretation of Pinocchio which coincided with the character of Carlo Collodi. This Neapolitan actor took the puppet as a model, and did not interpret a character but played a “fixed” role as with a mask in commedia dell’arte, where the character becomes one with the actor. Another of Totò’s encounters with the world of puppets and performing is in Che cosa sono le nuvole? (What Are the Clouds?) where Totò along with Ciccio Ingrassia appear. Finally, let us think back to Sur un air de charleston (A Look at the Charleston, 1927) by Jean Renoir, dedicated to the dancers’ puppet-like movements.

The Puppet in Cinema

Until the 1950s, the puppet is only indirectly present in film. The movement of well-known, non-living creatures was created by the animation, not a manipulator. One should, however, mention some exceptions such as Richard Teschner who collaborated with UFA in 1926 and worked on several films where puppets appeared, as in Der Spiegel geheimnisvoll (The Mysterious Mirror, 1927) by Carl Hoffmann, a work in progress which probably gave him the idea for his future film Figurenspiegel (Figure Mirror). The films of Jan Švankmajer constitute an exceptional case. Trained as a puppeteer with the Laterna Magika, this Czech artist created film series starting in 1960 with a fantastical atmosphere where he introduced figures using the most varied techniques, such as in Alice, where the human actress moves alongside puppets. This work fits into the girl culture using the repeating themes of alchemy and the cabala as well as puppet traditions (Punch and Judy, for example) from other countries.

In the last decades of the 20th century, the relationship between puppetry and film completely changed. Film uses the puppet to give a narrative, symbolical, or metaphorical functions. Among the most notable examples includes the puppets and manipulation of Bruce Schwartz in the French and Polish-language drama film, La Double Vie de Véronique / Podwójne życie Weroniki (The Double Life of Véronique, 1991), directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski that serve, on one hand, to support the “mirror frame” of film which tells of two women, one Polish and one French, who look the same and whose lives are somehow mystically intertwined. The puppet which can be replicated when one is damaged symbolically reinforces the idea of the double. The relationship is even more evident in Dolls (2002) by Takeshi Kitano: the Japanese Bunraku tradition is not only at the base of this love-suicide narrative based on a well-known play of Chikamatsu Monzaemon (Double Suicide at Sonezaki, 1703), but the ningyō-joruri dolls of Japanese classical puppetry physically appear in the opening scene, symbolically permeate the story, and determine the slow and basic movements of the actors who take a michiyuki (journey) that carries them toward their love suicide. The pair seems guided by a “controlling hand”.

The Danish Anders Rønow Klarlund in Strings (2004) uses his technical skills to direct a score of puppeteers using hundreds of figures within a mythical fantasy film that shows men at the mercy of the destiny that guides them: as puppets suspended between heaven and earth, all figures are controlled by the titular strings. The young hero who seeks to avenge his father’s assassination gradually comes to a fuller understanding of the universe in which all are marionettes. One must also mention the group films which are performed by actors but where the puppet is used as metaphor, as in Aus dem Leben der Marionetten (From the Life of the Marionettes, 1980), written and directed by Ingmar Bergman or puppets in L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) by Alain Resnais in which the characters feel as if they are moved in space by a “time” that is outside them.

Directors like Jim Henson used the set characters of his group created and led by his Kermit the Frog and Frank Oz’s Miss Piggy in a continuing series and which continued after his death, most recently under the Disney label (The Muppets, 2011, Muppets Most Wanted, 2014). The characters remain constant while the plots change and the works often explore and spoof classic Hollywood genres from the road movie (The Muppet Movie, l979), to the heist (The Great Muppet Caper, 1981), to the Judy Garland and Andy Rooney “let’s put on a show” narrative (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984). The organization explored fantasy and mythical themes in The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986) which looked respectively at the male and female quest from a 1980s perspective. The group in this period of the 1970s and 1980s began developing elaborate animatronics which were first explored by Disney in the 1960s – using pneumatics (compressed air), and, in special instances, hydraulics (pressurized oil), or electrical means to control figures from the distance. Animatronics which uses electronics and robotics in mechanized figures sometimes is combined with the human manipulators inside the figure and animatronics to control the facial features or other realistic details. Most often used are creatures designed with the technique of remote control (control from afar). This involves figures that differ from traditional puppets by the absence of a direct physical relationship between the figure and the puppeteer. Simultaneously, movie studios developed science fiction extravaganzas and horror films that might use elaborate special effect figures or fantasy characters, as with Yoda, the wise teacher of the young Jedi knight hero in George Lucas’ Star Wars films or animals as in Babe (Chris Noonan, 1995), featuring a pig who herds sheep.

There are also a vast number of film productions, from Walt Disney classics to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) of Robert Zemeckis, or the films of Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg, which mix animation, puppets, and actors. Robots can be very large or small depending on the scenes and settings: the movie Jurassic Park (1993) by Steven Spielberg, to cite one example, used all kinds of dinosaurs handled by all sorts of techniques.

Finally, digital technology allows the manipulation and performance of digitally animated 2D or 3D figures and objects in virtual environments that are rendered in by computers. The virtual figures, if they incorporate the image of the puppet, move in space and in any other dimension, as exemplified by John Lasseter’s Toy Story (1995) and Corpse Bride (2005) by Tim Burton. Motion capture refers to recording actions of human actors, and using that information to animate digital characters in 2D or 3D computer animation, giving a lifelike and realistic feel to the movement. This technique has become increasingly popular in films. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) was one of the first feature films to use real time motion capture for the Gollum (Andy Serkis). Avatar (2009) directed by James Cameron used this system extensively. The robotic, animatronic, and movement toward the virtual puppet seem to reach toward the ideal, born in the early 20th century, for a figure with unlimited possibilities, completely free from the laws of physics, and whose manipulation technique is invisible to the viewer. The original challenge of the puppet, to surpass the human with the invisible but ever-present manipulator, has thus been lost.

Meanwhile other artists return to other puppet roots. Dante’s Inferno (Sean Meredith, director, 2007) used hand drawn figures and the image of a toy theatre stage with head puppeteer Paul Zaloom in this adaptation of the book by Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders. Team America: World Police (Trey Parker, director, 2004) used 200 puppets to satirize global implications of American politics in the post-2001 environment. The Beaver (Jody Foster, director, 2011) had Mel Gibson using a beaver puppet to relate to the world exploring the puppet as alter ego and therapeutic tool. There are of course films about puppeteer characters (Lili, Charles Walters, director, 1953; Dom Roberto, Ernesto de Sousa, director, 1962; Shadow Master, Larry Reed, director, 1979; and Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze, director, 1999), which contain footage of puppetry. There are puppet shows inside films (Monkey Business, Norman McLeod, director, 1931 with a Punch and Judy show; The Sound of Music, Robert Wise, director, 1965 with a marionette sequence; To Live, Zhang Yimou, director, 1994 with a shadow puppet show) and documentaries that deal with puppet history or practice (Puppet, David Soll, director, 2013 which includes the work of Dan Hurlin; Being Elmo: A Puppeteers Journey, Constance Marks, director, 2011; Beauty is Embarrassing, Neil Berkeley, director, 2012 about artist Wayne White; The Last Caravan, director Ida Hledikova, 2008).

As a practice, as a metaphor, and as an object of contemplation, the puppet has been significant in cinema since its beginnings.

(See also Animation, Automata, Androids and Robots, Television, Walt Disney Company.)