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Practice 10

By Amy Harder

This article is 14th in a series on learning to use video monitors for puppetry. So if you’ve just linked in here, you might want to check out the Video Monitors lesson index to get the whole picture.

Boundaries: Merry Pop-Ins

A skilled television puppeteer will not only know the boundaries of the screen, but he will also be able to use them to his advantage. In this lame-name exercise, we’ll play more with our boundaries and challenge our accuracy at the same time. And, unlike the last game, this one will be a little more interesting to watch on screen. As a matter of fact, it has the potential to be particularly humorous. Don’t get so caught up in the details that you forget the character that is on your hand. Let the personality of your puppet show through and have fun!

Set up. This exercise can be (and should be) done in a variety of camera shots. Start with a fairly wide mid-shot, one that would easily allow two to three puppet characters to share the screen space. As you feel more comfortable with the exercise, zoom in to a tight shot or zoom out to a wide shot and play some more. It’s up to you. The more, the merrier.

Action. Hide your puppet just below the shot and have him “pop in”. Is he in the middle? That’s the key. Drop him back out and try popping in again, but this time make him come in perfectly centered. Oh, and don’t forget that focus thing we worked on before.

Repeat this a few times, But–just to make sure you can hit that center screen thing any time–we’re going to make it a little harder. Ready? OK. Wait a minute. You’ve GOT to do this now. No cheating. I’m serious. Ready now? OK. Before you pop in again, spin around in a circle. That’s right, you heard me. Do a 360. Now pop that puppet up again. Did you find the center? Drop him down and turn around again. Now try another pop-in. Drop out. Turn around. Pop in. Etc.

OK. I can hear the complaints already. “Why do we hafta do this? I feel silly!” Well folks, if you’re so self-conscious about spinning around in an exercise where nobody can see you anyway, you’re probably in the wrong line of work. What we’re trying to do here is train your brain to instinctively know where the middle of the screen is. If you just pop up and down in the same place, you’re just wasting your time. You need to KNOW where that spot is and be able to get there from any other spot on the set.

Think about the classic Muppet bit “Mahna Mahna”. Henson did a brilliant job popping in and out of the shot. And he could do that because he was comfortable with the area in which he worked. He KNEW how to use those boundaries to his advantage.

Variation. So far, we’ve played with a vertical pop-in. Now it’s time to try the horizontal variation. Have your puppet poke his little head in from the side. He should be parallel to the ground as he pops in horizontally. Can you find the (vertical) middle of the side of the screen? Is your puppet focusing on the camera? Try it again, following the same method we used a few minutes ago (pop-drop-spin) and see how consistent your pop-ins are.

Once you get the hang of popping in one way (right handers will feel most comfortable popping in from stage right, left handers from stage left) try the opposite side. It’s much more difficult to remain accurate when your elbow doesn’t want to bend that way, but stick with it! This is a skill that takes time to master, but like I’ve said so many times before, it’s worth it.

Wrap up. Many puppeteers find this a particularly difficult skill to grasp. At first, the exercise feels like no big deal until you start changing your approach, the set-up, and the tightness of the shot. Then, it seems, accuracy is out the window. Take your time. Play with popping in every time you find yourself working with monitors. You’ll need to discover your boundaries on every shot in every scene in every shoot. But the more you have played and prepared, the easier it will be to adapt to new spaces. Take the time to hone your instincts and you’ll have a much easier job ahead.

Now, we’re not quite finished with our boundaries practice. We still need to have a parade.


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