Everyone knows what a puppet is. Or do they? Just so we're clear, here's Howard Berger, co-founder of KNB EFX, with his definition: "A puppet can be anything you want it to be. It can be a paper bag with googly eyes drawn on it. It can be a sock. It can be a million-dollar mechanical T-Rex. It is whatever the puppeteer wants to bring to life."
What a puppet is not – for the purposes of this article at least – is the kind of cunningly-jointed figurine used by stop-motion animators. Our topic here is real-time performances created by manual or mechanical means.
Puppets in the Past
Puppetry is ancient. Greek historian Herodotus was writing about it in the 5th century B.C., and you can bet your life that puppets are a good deal older than that. Certainly, by the time the motion picture industry took off at the start of the 20th century, puppetry was deeply embedded in cultures worldwide, with a dizzying range of techniques on offer, from hand puppets to marionettes, Japanese bunraku to Java's shadowy wayang kulit.
Hollywood embraced puppetry from the beginning. Georges Méliès, grand master of stage illusions, conjured countless fantasies that relied on large-scale puppets for their visual effects, including his 1906 film The Witch, which features a bizarre menagerie comprising a giant frog, an oversized owl, and a sinuous fire-breathing dragon.
An even bigger dragon puppet roared onto cinema screens in 1929, when Fritz Lang unleashed Die Nibelungen, featuring a 50-foot-long mechanical serpent called Fafnir. Concealed inside the puppet's head was a can of gasoline hooked up to a pair of bellows, a basin of burning acetylene, and a generous supply of lycopodium powder. When this health and safety nightmare let rip, the result was a burst of flame 30 feet long.