Puppet Manipulation For Ventriloquists
Manipulation That Keeps Your Puppet “Alive”
Puppet manipulation is extremely important for the ventriloquist to master.
The object of ventriloquism is to create the illusion of life. If your puppet sits still and stares into space, it becomes lifeless and you lose the illusion.
In this article, I will be focusing on soft puppet manipulation. Many of these principles also apply to the traditional hard figure.
Proper mouth movement is important to creating the illusion your ventriloquist puppet is the one talking, so let’s start there.
One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is what we call the “Flapping Head Syndrome.” (This does not apply to hard ventriloquist figures, so if you are working with one of those, you may move on to Other Mouth Manipulation Skills.)
With soft puppets, your fingers are usually on top of the mouth and your thumb is operating the lower jaw. When holding your hand this way, it is natural to open the hand by moving both the fingers and thumb apart at the same time.
Because the fingers are longer, they tend to travel further. If you watch this in a mirror, you will find yourself looking at the inside of your hand, rather than the outside.
When inside of a puppet, this movement causes the puppet’s head to flip back so you no longer see it’s eyes. This is the flapping head, and it is not natural.
Looking in the same mirror above, watch how you open your mouth. Your head doesn’t flip up. Your jaw lowers.
Here is a simple technique to help solve this problem:
Cross your index and middle finger.
Now open your fingers and you will find the thumb moves down, rather than the fingers moving up. Your puppet’s head will no longer flap!
Keep in mind, it is okay to move the top part of your puppet’s head on occasion, but you want the puppet’s jaw to open downward most of the time.
The next part of the movement equation is Mouth Synchronization
Have you ever watched a foreign movie with your language “dubbed” in? The actors’ mouths move out of sequence with the wording. It becomes laughable and after awhile it can be difficult to watch.
Most ventriloquism courses teach you that the mouth opens once for each syllable of a word. Perhaps a better way to say that is: the mouth moves once for each syllable.
The puppet’s mouth does not need to open and close fully on each syllable.
Look in your mirror and say the phrase: “The telephone is ringing.” This phrase contains 7 syllables:
The(1) / Tel-e-phone(3) / is(1) / ring-ing(2).
Does your mouth open and close on each syllable? Chances are it doesn’t, but your mouth does move with each syllable.
Once you have watched how you say the phrase, now copy that movement with your puppet’s mouth. When practicing with your puppet, this technique of saying the puppet’s line and then copying the movement will be invaluable.
Things to keep in mind:
1. The mouth is generally open when saying the vowels: A, E, I O & U.
This means on a word like Hello, the mouth would open on the O instead of shut. You don’t want the puppet’s mouth to close before the sound is finished, because that hurts the illusion you are creating.
2. Mouth synchronization is most noticeable at the beginning and end of a sentence. If you start with the puppet’s speech and end with synchronized movement, as long as you approximate the pace of the speech in between, your illusion will be maintained.
Watch television and use your hand to mimic the mouth movements of the person speaking. You don’t even need to look at your hand. Practice to make this manipulation automatic. This allows you to be free to concentrate on other things during your performances.
I also recommend you watch clips of the Muppet Show or Seasame Street to study mouth movement. You will see how some of the best puppeteers create this illusion on their characters.
Other Mouth Manipulation Skills:
With the mouth of your puppet open slightly, it appears to be smiling. This can create the impression of your character being happy.
A tightly closed mouth with the puppet turning away from you can express anger or resentment.
A great book called How To Vent Your Expressions by Cliff Taylor is available on MaherStudios.com. It is a literal encyclopedia of creating expressions and emotions using your puppet or ventriloquist figure.
The eyes of the puppet are an important part of believable manipulation.
To create the illusion of life, your puppet must be aware of its surroundings. It must be able to look at things. This means you need to know where you are pointing the puppet’s eyes.
Many beginners make the mistake of assuming because the puppet is looking in a specific direction, it is looking at something. However every puppet has a different gaze.
You may think the puppet is looking at something when actually the eyes are looking above it.
If your puppet has fixed (non-moving) eyes, then movement of the entire head is required to point the eyes in a given direction.
I suggest starting with a mirror and making your puppet “look” at different corners. Follow that by having them look at the reflections of other items in the background. This will help give you a feel for how the head must be tilted to look at a specific thing.
Next, get a family member or friend to help. Have them sit in front of you and tell the puppet what to look at. They can then help you correct the gaze until the puppet is actually looking there.
This practice will give you the ability to know exactly where the puppet is looking at any given time.
Why is that so important?
The puppet should be making eye contact with people in the audience. It creates the illusion that:
- The puppet actually notices that person.
- The puppet is thinking.
- The puppet is aware people are there.
- The puppet is alive.
Eye contact and head movement can also create comedy or emotion. A double take can cause a laugh. Looking back and forth quickly between objects can appear to be confusion.
Your puppet not making eye contact can also create an emotion. It may be angry and avoiding you. The puppet may be embarrassed and afraid to face you. Or perhaps it is reluctant to tell you something so it is being evasive.
I recommend you study the eye movements of great actors and comedians. Watch how they create comedy through eye movement. Then emulate (don’t copy) with your puppet.
When it comes to head movement, it is important to keep your audience in mind. You want to make sure the audience can see the face of your puppet most of the time.
When people can no longer see the face, they slowly begin to lose interest in the character. At that point it once again becomes a puppet, which goes opposite of the ventriloquist’s illusion of life.
Head movement can be used to express emotions too. If your puppet’s head droops, it appears to be expressing sadness, depression or sleepiness. Shaking the head side to side expresses disagreement. Tilting the head to one side can express confusion.
Once again, for a complete listing of emotions and manipulations to express them, the I.V.S. highly recommends:
How To Vent Your Expressions is the complete guide to portraying Emotions, Expressions and Actions! Originally released in 1989, the book has not been available in print for years. Maher now releases an updated PDF format version, with easier to read text and built in links to make finding the information fast & easy. Download to read on your computer, Kindle, tablet or phone, or print for your enjoyment. For more information click here …
Professional puppets have an amazing amount of body movement.
If you are working with a toy puppet that is tight on your hand, I highly recommend you consider an upgrade. At least once you learn the art of ventriloquism.
It is important to keep in mind the type of puppet isn’t as important as what you do with it. But a puppet that allows you to easily manipulate it will aid you in creating the illusion of life.
Body movement can be as simple as extending your arm so the charcter’s body stretches out. This could show interest or excitement.
Pull your hand down and the puppet slouches. This shows sadness or defeat.
Shake your arm and the body of the puppet vibrates with excitement. Move the arm up and down and suddenly the puppet is jumping with joy or anticipation.
Vibrate your arm strongly and the puppet shakes with fear.
Some puppets work well with arm rods. Arm rods allow the puppet to gesture, point, scratch his head, cover it’s mouth or even adjust it’s clothing.
Dan Horn is a master puppet manipulator. His course Master Manipulation is a must have for any serious practitioner of the art.
One of my favorite examples of puppet manipulation by a ventriloquist is Bill DeMar’s Feldon The Frog. Feldon does not speak, so technically there is no ventriloquism involved, but Bill created amazing comedy with this routine. Bill passed away several years ago, although watching his work is educational for everyone and a wonderful way to remember this “Master Of Manipulation”
I highly recommend you take out your puppet, stand in front of the mirror and see what movements you can create.
Becoming an expert puppet manipulator will be an important step toward becoming a successful ventriloquist.
This is a free resource on Puppet Manipulation for ventriloquists (and puppeteers.)
Courtesy of the International Ventriloquist Society.
The International Ventriloquist Society - A Subsidiary of Maher Ventriloquist Studios - All Rights Reserved