puppet design

Design Influences

I started making puppets whilst studying Theatre Design at the Slade School of Fine Art. There were two initial influences on the style of puppets I wanted to make:

Bunraku puppets

Traditional Japanese Bunraku puppets are about about 0.8-1.2m tall. They require three people to puppet them: one on the head and the right hand, one on the left hand, and one on the feet. The head is carved from wood and sometimes has moving features such as eyes or eyebrows, it has a mechanism by which it tilts up and down, controlled by a trigger on a handle connected to the neck which is held from within the back of the puppet and which also supports the puppet body. The body is soft without legs, it has feet suspended from the torso with rope.
Although our bunraku style puppets have many similarities to the Japanese originals, the materials and construction methods vary greatly. However, our larger puppets are similar in height to bunraku puppets (about 1 metre high) and as in bunraku they require three people to puppet them fully.

Marionette porté

I came across this type of puppet in France, whilst on a course with the French director Philippe Genty, whose puppets have had a big influence on my own. It is very simply a puppet which is carried by a handle on the back of the head with a second handle on the puppet's back. Otherwise, it is controlled directly by the puppeteers holding the puppets wrists and ankle joints, there are no other mechanisms involved.
This type of manipulation and style of puppet is very appealing because of the control you have over the puppet's movements and the close relationship between the puppet and performer.
I love the fact that it is a seemingly basic construction with no mechanisms and no life until it is operated by the performer.

General Design Considerations

Designing puppets can be quite challenging. It is not always easy to predict on paper how an object will behave when it has been realised in three dimensions. Where possible we try to create a mock up of the puppet to scale using materials and objects to approximate the movement and bulk of the finished puppet. I find it really helps to have an idea of what you are making. However, many of the potential problems will only become apparent during the make, meaning many of the design decisions have to be made as you progress. That said, there are some principals which provide a starting point for many of the puppets I make and which it helps me to think about before I begin. Perhaps most importantly, the design of a puppet is driven by it's character and the context in which it will be used, in particular how many puppeteers there are available to operate it, and what it is required to do. Other considerations are discussed below. Although some of these are perhaps more relevant to the Bunraku style puppets we focused on originally as a company, I think the principles can be more broadly applied to all styles of puppets.


We make puppets of all sizes, ranging from about 25cms tall to life size and beyond. However, the larger the puppet, the more difficult it becomes to operate, bigger puppets tend to be far heavier and take a lot more effort to manipulate. They also tend to move more slowly and can therefore become less realistic.
I usually do several drawings before beginning a new puppet, including full size sketches of the head from the front and side and a full size plan of the puppet.
The proportion of the head to the body.
Classical human proportions are eight heads to the height of a man, some puppets are measured using 9 heads to body height, making the head smaller in comparison to the rest of the figure and resulting in a more elegant looking puppet. However it is a case of deciding what works best for the character you are creating. For example, 'Moses', one of our most successful puppets, has a head almost as big as his body.

Character/Facial Expression

I tend to sculpt expressions that are not too extreme, this seems to allow the actor/puppeteer to play a wider range of emotions. I usually sculpt the mouth slightly open, it seems to give more possibility that the puppet is talking or perhaps just active.
I always sculpt from some sort of visual reference. Either a photo of someone in particular, or a drawing. Even when working from a photo, I find it useful to do a drawing, as it helps me to understand the features and structure of the face.

Leg Technical Drawing


The position and type of joint will determine to a large extent how the puppet moves and will create it's style of movement.
I often do technical drawings for certain parts parts of the puppets, particularly the arms and legs, in order to work out the exact shape of the limbs and the positions of the pivot points for joints. Depending on the material you are working with, there is usually some sort of a compromise between the maximum movement in a joint and the best possible shape for the profile of the limbs. For example, in order for a leg joint to bend enough to allow a puppet to kneel, you must cut away above and below the back of the knee. You then need to position the joint so that it gives the best possible shape to the knee at each stage of its rotation and allows you to keep as much as possible of the volume of the leg. It is a balance between having enough of a gap between body sections and around joints to enable movement, whilst retaining as much volume in the limbs and body parts as possible.


The strength of a puppet is always a consideration. Our puppets can take quite a beating during rehearsals and performances, and a lot of time and thought goes into making them durable and choosing the best and strongest materials. Handles need to be really secure and strong too, or else the puppeteer will struggle to control the puppet movements. Unfortunately strong materials are often also heavy, and I am constantly on the look out for strong but light materials. However, it is also worth remembering that the lightest of structures can become instantly 'heavy' if it is awkward to hold, if the handles are badly positioned or if it requires the puppeteer to hold it in a difficult position for long periods.
In all cases it is likely there will be a compromise between the strength of the puppet and the material used and its weight.

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