Make Your Arms Live
Rod arms are the bare-knuckle precursors to animatronics manipulation. They have to be one of the most useful tools in a puppeteer’s arsenal when trying to make a puppet seem more realistic. The arm rod allows for the puppeteer to easily move the arms of a puppet even while the puppet is talking.
This is definitely one of those things where practice makes perfect. You will need to practice your technique frequently to be able to use puppet arm rods.
Using two rods at once is not difficult once you have gotten used to operating one, but it does take time and practice to do it properly.
Here are the basic steps for two-arm manipulation:
Hold the puppet in front of you just below stage level, tipping slightly forward so the rods hang freely in front of the puppet.
Cross the rods so they form an X near the bottom of the rods and slide your pinky finger into the bottom portion of the X.
With your pinky in the lower portion of the X, now press the center of the X into your palm with your ring and middle finger for support and to hold the figure X in place.
Use the thumb and index finger, as shown. By squeezing your thumb and index finger together, you can make the puppet clap its hands. When you release the thumb and finger and push up a bit with your pinky finger, the arms will spread apart
With practice you can not only have the puppet clapping to music, but rubbing his hands together as if they are cold, picking up boxes, flying like superman, etc.
As mentioned in a previous chapter, you can lift both hands to the puppet’s mouth to help give the illusion that the puppet is yelling.
With small, lightweight objects, you can have your puppet actually pick up items. When you practice it enough, a good way to further give the illusion of life is to actually pick up objects and pass them to other puppets or people on stage.
Many times, there will only be one arm in use, so if you need to, go ahead and drop one of the arm rods. Just because I don’t care for the completely limp appearance, I will sometimes position the unused arm rod in the bend of my elbow or in the buttons of my shirt, so as to give a slight adjusted movement to the unused arm, thus giving it the illusion of life even though it is not being used. By doing this, you can concentrate on the movements of the one arm, making it easier on you.
Be sure to keep the puppet arms in a semi-neutral position unless you are deliberately moving the arms for a specific reason. Spend time in front of your mirror watching how you speak, pay close attention to body language when you are speaking with others. We are not robots, therefore we constantly are moving our hands, shifting, moving our heads, etc. when we communicate. So, in short, unless you are operating a robot puppet, then you need to factor in all of these minor hand gestures to help with the suspension of disbelief in your performance. When most people talk, their arms don't move about. Try to imitate this with your puppet.
Note: I cannot stress enough to remove the arm rods before packing your puppet. I have seen so many puppets (and arm rods) get damaged because of arm rods staying attached.
Mimicking a three handed puppet
Something else that is sometimes done, that looks pretty good when done properly, is having a second person operating the arm rods as if you were doing a three handed puppet.
This requires some extra skill to ensure that the arm operator doesn’t poke you in the face with the arm rods.
Some other issues to look out for
The broken arm effect. If your audience is engaged and have reached that level of believing the illusion, then you must remember that they feel a sense of empathy for the puppet. If the puppet is in pain, they feel it, so if the puppet’s wrists or arms are in contorted positions, then the audience will be feeling an, almost subconscious level of discomfort which will keep them from enjoying the show as much and they will then begin to disengage from the performance.
Always be aware of every action that your puppet is doing
In most of my posts I will stress in no uncertain terms that there be purpose behind everything that your puppet does. At all times, make sure that you aren’t creating arm movements simply for the sake of making arm movements; use the arm rods to bring deliberate action that adds to the believable action of the character.
I know that this is a shorter blog, but there really isn’t a whole lot to say on arm rod manipulation. It is one of those things that requires practice, practice and more practice in order to master. At the top of this post I have embedded a great training video from a master puppeteer who was taken from us years ago at age 23. If you haven't yet, I suggest going through and watching him in action a few times.