Muppetology 101: Intro to Full Bodied Characters

MuppetologyMichael Wermuth – No two full-bodied Muppets are built the same. Okay, maybe that’s not entirely true, but in many cases, if you know how one full-bodied Muppet works, that doesn’t mean that’s how others work. The first full-body Muppets I learned the inside workings of were the Gorgs, and thought that’s how all of them are performed, but then I found out how Big Bird is performed and thought the Gorgs example was the only exception. Then I’ve learned more about how they are performed, some I figured out on my own, but today we’re going to learn about the many types of full-bodied Muppets.

I don’t think there’s an official title for each of these, but for the sake of this lesson I am going to designate titles to different types of full-bodied Muppets. Knowing how I “title” them will likely not be on any tests.

The Big Bird
5647b-bigbirdredcarpetA full-bodied character whose performer holds its right arm up into the head and has a video monitor strapped to its chest, though there are often other ways for the performer to see outside the character. The left arm will be controlling the characters left arm, and if the right arm moves at all, it’ll be controlled by an invisible wire connected from the hand to the chest to the other chest, or a second performer will operate the left hand if the other performer can be hidden (particularly if a green screen is used).

Characters of this type include Big Bird, Bear, Thog, and Debert the La Choy Dragon, though in the case of The La Choy Dragon, the performer was completely blind inside the character. In fact Big Bird was originally performed without a monitor (a tiny hole covered with features is another alternative to seeing) or a movable left arm. With Thog, the performer can also see through a light blue part of the chin. With Thog I think that the performer can either alternate performing the head and right arm, or maybe alternates which arm is active, as I’ve seen Thog move both arms at times. I don’t really know for sure how it’s done, so that’s just a guess.

The Gorg
2b956-pagorgPerformed by at least two puppeteers, one who wears the costume, and another who controls the face movements via a Waldo (the face performers may or may not be the ones doing the voice). The most common characters used this way are the Gorgs, though it seems this is normally how most full-bodied puppets from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop are performed as well. With the Gorgs, there’s also a special camera inside the heads that allow the performers to see as if they weren’t wearing anything over their heads, though I think the various Creature Shop characters have other ways of allowing their performers to see.

The Sweetums
SweetumsUsed mainly for monster characters, the performers inside these alternate between using their right arm to control the mouth or the right arm. When controlling the right arm, the mouths usually stay shut, while when performing the mouth, the right arm will be pinned to their bodies or just hanging loose. The performer sees by looking out the mouth of the character, if the mouth is open.

The biggest example for this is Sweetums. While Sweetums’ right arm may be stuffed and pinned when the mouth is more active, there have been times (such as the “Two Lost Souls” number) where the performer has been able to switch from the mouth to the right arm in a single take.  I’m pretty sure this is also the case with Doglion, Mean Mama, and Timmy, though those characters don’t really move their mouths a lot so it’s less common for their right arms to be inactive.

ee137-snuffyThe Snuffleupagus
Used mainly for Mr. Snuffleupagus and other Snuffleupaguses his size, though it’s also been used for Sopwith the Camel, this type of character is often performed by two performers like an elaborate horse costume. The performer in front controls the face and voice, and also has a monitor strapped to its chest, while the one in back follows (and may or may not use a monitor).

The Bruno
3e995-brunoUsed mainly for Bruno the Trashman, though it has been used similarly for Big Bird when holding Shivers the Penguin, and with Pop when holding Picklepuss in Wow, You’re a Cartoonist! (must be a talent Caroll Spiney was fond of), this kind of full-bodied character has an active regular-sized character with him, with a hole or opening somewhere to allow the other character to be performed properly. With Bruno, the arms are usually on the trash can, which covers his stomach, freeing the performers arms to perform Oscar and his left arm (and to cover the opening in his stomach), while an invisible wire is connected from the mouth to inside the can, so if he needs to talk, Oscar’s left hand hides into the can to pull the wire, but the character is usually silent so this isn’t a big issue. The performer can see through some light material in the eyes area (though Bruno doesn’t have eyes).

The Puppet-Costume Switcher
Some full-bodied characters, such as the villains from The Muppet Musicians of Bremen, Crasher, and I think Betsy Bird, are worn as costumes for long shots and switch over to puppets for close-up shots, allowing almost any kind of body movements. There have also been full-bodied characters, such as Horatio the Elephant and Mean Mama, who would often switch from puppets to full-body costumes, but not for the sake of making it easier for full-body characters to move their mouths through good editing.

The Short Full-Bodied Muppet
Full-bodied costumes are not just used for characters who are supposed to be big. Sometimes, a costume will be used for smaller characters, such as Barkley, Alice Snuffleupagus, and the Dodos.

35ab5-barkleyfull

The Dancer
58806-mutationsA number of full-body characters exist primarily to dance. These characters include The Mutations and Fletcher Bird. As a result, the costumes are more like regular costumes, not allowing much in the way of mouth movements. I assume that the performers see through the mouths of the characters. While not a dancer, the farmer from Tale of the Bunny Picnic is pretty much worn this way as well, as there’s no need to worry about facial movements (since there aren’t many clear shots of his face).

The Live Show Walk-Around
Full-body walk-around versions of the Muppets have been used for such live shows as Sesame Street Live, The Muppet Show on Tour, and Muppet Babies Live. From what I understand, the performers see through a hole inside the mouths of the characters, and they squeeze a ball inside the hands which allow the mouths to open. The live version of Big Bird is also performed a little differently from the real version: the performer uses both arms to perform Big Bird’s arms, and the head is propped up. Additionally, the performer inside this walk-around does not use a monitor, so this Big Bird has a bigger hole in his neck, covered by a tie. The official version of Big Bird has also occasionally been dressed in a tie on occasions where a monitor couldn’t be used.

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