Interview with Puppeteer Calvin Lester

Last year I had the fortunate chance to meet Calvin Lester, a puppet specialist for the Walt Disney Company. He’s worked on great live shows like Disney, Jr. Live, The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas. His work also includes muppeteering with Sesame Street and his own live show BIRD CALL. He’s always up for talking puppetry, so I thought I’d shoot him some questions and post his answers here. He was obliged to offer his expertise. A lot of what we covered is the mechanics of good puppeteering. Here we go!

First things first, tell us how you got started puppeteering!

It was never on my radar in becoming a part of my entertainment future. I always knew I wanted to write, sing, act, and so on. I was very interested in animation as well. I had grown up watching Jim Henson’s Muppets and various other puppet-based programs as a child. The interesting aspect for me of what puppets can do is similar to what animated characters are meant to do. You are animating a puppet’s movements just as you would an animated character. Each movement is critical and adds character, a thought process, and so on just as an animated character would have. With that I found an interest in puppetry. In 2005 I had an opportunity to audition with The Muppets and Sesame Street.

How did you learn to puppeteer?

For me it was sitting in front of a mirror and mimicking emotions through the puppet as I would if I was acting out a scene. I taught myself ways to manipulate the puppet and make the movements my own. That’s what makes your role as a puppeteer unique. You can play ANY type of character as long as you keep the integrity and set boundaries for yourself as that character.

What are common mistakes new puppeteers make?

Often new puppeteers will “bite” or “clip” words or “flip top”. If you don’t know that terminology, then I’ll explain. “Biting” your words with a puppet means your puppet’s mouth is closing on words when your puppet’s mouth should be open. “Clipping” words means you’re cutting words short. For instance, if your puppet is singing and holding a long note but then closes the mouth while the vocals are still singing, you’ve closed too early and the realism of the character is lost. “Flip topping” means you’re letting your puppet’s head flip up and losing the focus with the eyes while lip synching. Sustaining your top four fingers to stay flat and in place to isolate your thumb to make the bottom jaw move can be difficult at first. Overtime, those muscles in your hand and arm will accommodate to these movements. Also NOT stretching your arm muscles before performing a puppet can really do some damage on your body. So always stretch! I can’t stress that enough.

When you’re building a team, what kind of people are you looking for?

If the performer’s puppetry is good, but their acting is AMAZING then you’ll want him or her in your cast. We have had some excellent puppeteers come in, but their acting suffered. You can’t have a great character unless the performer is in it to win it. We want the audience to fall in love with these characters and it’s the puppeteer / actor’s job to do so. That’s always something to keep in mind when casting shows with puppet characters who play a large role.

What makes a great puppet from a physical standpoint?

This is all my opinion, but it’s the eyes. It all stems down from the design. You wouldn’t want a character with large widened eyes to be dull and lack luster. The eyes are indeed, and I don’t mean to sound corny, the windows to the soul of that character. The eyes are always something that will draw in your audience because THAT is where your puppet character sees the world. They connect with you and depending on how they’re placed on a puppet can be a win or lose situation. They can have wacky colored fur and silly costumes, but if the eyes are set in a way to connect with an audience of 5 or 5 thousand then you lose that realistic quality.

What are your top 5 puppeteering tips?

5) Stamina. Always remember stamina to performing a puppet is important. You’ve gotta keep that arm up in order to sustain a good height for your character.

4) Gestures / Arm Movement. When using a puppet, some may have arm rods that are connected in the wrist of the puppet’s arm. Some puppets are called “live-hand” where the puppeteer is using one hand to work the head and the other is working the puppet’s other free hand by wearing it like a glove. With this, you are able to make your puppets movements and body language read more as a believable character by gesturing, pointing, clapping, waving, and so on. The character doesn’t have to constantly keep moving their arms to show movement. Less is more when it comes to puppet’s arm movements. Using them to scratch the puppet’s head or place on the puppet’s hip are all great subtle movements to keep the character active.

3) Focus. And by focus I mean... FOCUS! Keeping your puppet alert and active is a must. You do have to keep their line of vision connected. If your character is talking to another character, keep the character’s eye focus connected to the character you’re talking to or else there’s a disconnect and it’s not believable.

2) Bigs and smalls. When you’re lip synching a puppet, you want to make sure the inflections on words you’re saying match the mouth. Also you want the volume of the character’s voice to match the mouth. If you were to whisper with your puppet you would keep the lip sync small and timid. If you were yelling with your puppet, you would have the puppet’s mouth opening BIG and WIDE. It’s all about matching the inflection of the vocals.

1) Keep your character alive and breathing. Small tilts of the head or nodding when listening to someone talk just adds volumes of life to them. Keeping in the moment of what’s going on in the scene or around you will make the character believable. Sometimes even a puppet character just sitting and checking out their surroundings is more fun to see than a puppet violently shaking for no reason just trying to be “funny”. Always think what you as an actor would be doing in those moments. That’s where you’ll win over your audience.

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