New Technologies in Puppetry: I-MAG (paper)

There have been many exciting developments integrating new technologies with puppetry – from the machinima’s live manipulation and rendering of three-dimensional graphics found in the virtual puppetry of the Jim Henson Company’s Meet the Skrumps, to advances in robotics, like wireless servos responsible for the facial expressions of the puppets in Team America. Audiences have witnessed the combination of video and puppetry in the development of video ventriloquism (central in Evan O’Television’s cabaret acts), the use of video Foley tables in Cynthia Hopkins Accidental Nostalgia and most popularly, the use of live feeds, otherwise known as “I-MAG”. In puppetry, I-MAG, an abbreviation for “image magnification”, involves  creating a live feed of all a performance captured with video camera and viewed simultaneously on a monitor or projection screen. In this paper, I will be exploring the use of I-MAG in contemporary puppet theatre – excavating its roots and looking at its evocative range such as uncanny doubling, changes in scale, cinematic effects, economy of space, and a reframing of the proscenium).

Evan O’Television, the video Ventrilaquist, Source: pan9/evano.htm

            Outside of puppet circles for the past two decades, video engineers have  employed I-MAG in event production ranging from touring concerts and political rallies to corporate stages and the pulpits of mega-churches. Simply put, I-MAG started as

      . . the process of utilizing extremely bright projectors to put a close-up image of the speaker onto large screens for large audiences. This allows everyone in the room to get a clear view of facial expressions, gestures and body language. It is especially effective with animated speakers such as motivational speakers, celebrities or corporate CEO’s. When the message is very important, I-MAG is vital for the best audience communication. The equipment is un-obtrusive (it doesn’t cut into audience seating) and high performance, yet very affordable.

– commercial message from Francis Audio-Visual Website)

A matter of taste?
A matter of taste? Bad subject continuity, faint projection, source: Videomaker

As a consumer of events like these (except for maybe big religion and share-holder meetings) and as a veteran audience member (I sure have seen my share of some bad performance art over the years). I have developed my tastes and pet peeves about the staging of live feeds with regards to thoughtfulness, stylishness and originality. Just as in film, the issue of subject continuity is important in I-MAG. When a subject faces one direction and the magnified image faces the opposite, it appears discontinuous and awkward (unless that’s what your going for). I’m not a fan of the stagnant shots either, when today’s cameras present an array of dynamic possibilities. A subject who casts obtrusive shadows over the screen is another big No-no. And who can see anything when a projection is faint? . . But I digress.

Although I-MAG is a big trend in contemporary puppetry (and dance and performance art), it was still challenging to access specific information on the topic. It appears that little has been written. Googling different combinations and variations of “puppetry” and “I-MAG” or “live feed” drew up little. And Dewey Decimal failed me big time. It was in this difficulty, however, that I did, stumble upon a wealth of information through websites about the use of I-MAG in places of worship – from ginormous McChurches to Gen-X raver inspired congregations. Puppeteers, performance artists, dancers take note! In an article called, “Video for Worship”, the website, Videomaker, has many innovative tips for visually interesting and polished live feeds. The article suggests over-laying text or lyrics using similar techniques and design concepts found in Power-Point presentations or on the bottom two thirds of the screen in commercial newscasts. It advocated inter-splicing photo and music montages and injecting pre-recorded clips, a technique that has been used by Vee-Jay’s such as DJ Spooky. One of the best suggestions was to practice (Practice. PRACTICE!) the transitions between projectors ahead of time – Who really wants to be subjected to a lengthy scroll-through of menus or clunky screen calibrations? A tip I plan on subverting sometime in the future is to use the projection screen before and after the service/(performance) to display announcements similar to the advertisement-scape and sprinkled with trivia factoids found before most motion pictures. These are but a few of the historical moments and technical underpinnings that led up to the development and popularization of the live feed in puppetry.

Multiple Perspectives at the Puppetron source:

Aesthetically, staging puppet theatre using I-MAG can evoke an uncanny doubling quality. A recent example is a 2006 Beck tour in which Beck performed alongside The Puppetron – essentially a stage on top of the stage with marionette doubles of Beck and the band members operated by former Team America puppeteers. Live feeds of these marionette doppelgangers were then projected onto a large screen, making them visible to the majority of the crowd.

 By using I-MAG in staging this concert, doubling (or in this case tripling) occurred between the human performer, the real marionette and an I-MAG projection of the marionette. This set-ups a number of possibilities in which the viewer’s attention can be focused. For example, the viewer could choose to focus on the “real” Beck, the puppet version of Beck, the puppeteer of the Beck puppet, the magnified projection of the Beck puppet, the magnified projection of Beck, the magnified projection of the puppeteer or some combination of the above. On the one hand, I-MAG as a doubling agent can produce a textured, dynamic viewing experience with a number of focal possibilities layered on top of each other. On the other hand, it can present a cacophony of visual multi-tasking, crippled by deficit levels of attention and sensory overload. This is probably subjective to the viewer or dependent on the staging.

In addition to doubling, I-MAG be used to re-vision scale and scale relationships between performer, object, projected image, and viewer with regards to the position of the viewer. To illustrate this principal, let’s pretend that I am not sitting here writing this paper, but instead, at the previously mentioned Beck concert.

In my first visualization, I have gotten front row seating. . .

I just love those Team America people for comping me in!  How lucky. Wow! Beck is standing right here, right in front of me, filling up the immediate foreground. I just love his new long hairdo.  

Here, Beck is the largest visual element that I perceive. The puppets in the Puppetron are smaller, not only in relative scale to Beck, but also because they are behind him. Additionally, Beck’s star power further draws my attention on him and less on the projection screen in the background. I am so close that the screen extends beyond my range of vision has become a backdrop of irrelevant digital wallpaper.

In a second scenario, I have gotten the furthest away seats, past the rows of stadium seating and on the furthest reaches of the lawn. . .

      This sucks! I can’t believe I wasted all that money AND FOR WHAT? Beck. Speck. I can barely see his baby face or his new mane of grown out hair that everyone keeps talking about. I wish I brought some binoculars. Well, at least there’s supposed to be puppets in this. . But, I can’t even see the frigging puppet stage. . . Wait a sec. . . I can totally see the puppets hovering over him on the screens, blown up huge and in super close up detail How cool!

            In this case, the scale relationship has inverted as the puppets have become larger than life and Beck has become miniature.

Just to recap: from a closer perspective, Beck appears largest, the puppets are the smallest and the screen effectively becomes inconsequential in perception of the viewer. From the further away perspective, the puppets (as projected images) become the largest, Beck becomes the smallest and the Puppetron becomes inconsequential all thanks to I-MAG and positioning of the viewer in the concert arena.

Tim Lagasse performs an early version of Sammy and Sofa live source: Sagecraft

I-MAG presents additional possibilities, often producing a hybrid genre through the collision of flat, televised, pixilated cinematic components and the real world, dimensional, analogue live theatre realm of performance. This summer at the PofA Festival in St. Paul, I witnessed a live version of “Sammy and Sofa”, Tim Lagasse’s show about Sammy, a slacker with a green mohawk and his sock monkey-obsessed talking Sofa. Although Lagasse originally conceived of this story as part of a live cabaret act, most (including myself) who are familiar with the subject recognize it from being a short film in the Handmade Puppet Dreams Series. When performed live, Sammy’s living room is presented toy theatre sized. Two color security cameras are aimed at the set and what is captured is projected onto a screen nearby. Lagasse injects cinematic elements, by having one camera set up as an establishing shot and the other camera as a close-up shot on the puppet. He quickly switches between shots during a scene and the simultaneous resulting video image appears similar in format and genre to a sitcom. Additionally, The puppets have an asymmetrical aesthetic to them, which produces a number of expressive effects when filmed from different angles.

Christine Jorgenson on a Halfshell source: Great Small Works

Another contemporary puppet artist who riffs on the cinematic is Brian Selznick. In The Christine Jorgensen Story about the life the first American male-to-female transsexual to receive genital reassignment surgery, Selznick performs from behind a small toy theatre stage (no larger than a foot and a half across) with a video operator in front of it. The images are then projected onto a large Another contemporary puppet artist who riffs on the cinematic is Brian Selznick. In The Christine Jorgensen Story about the life the first American male-to-female transsexual to receive genital reassignment surgery, Selznick performs from behind a small toy theatre stage (no larger than a foot and a half across) with a video operator in front of it. The images are then projected onto a large wall sized screen. I viewed this piece at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn and guesstimated seating capacity of about 250. A toy theatre piece of that size would not be visible to the naked eye in an audience of that size without the live feed. Technically, what I found striking were the choreographed camera movements that accented beats in the piece, including zooming in on specific details, panning, and blurring. In a school scene, words of trailblazer, Kate Bornstein on gender scroll through a black board. Viewed through the magnified image, the scroll becomes like the ticker found at the bottom of the television screen during a news program.

photo posted on
Cynthia Hopkins performing in front of I-MAG model house in Accidental Nostalgia source: Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Cynthia Hopkins, a multi-media theatre artist has similar cinematic moments in her use of a live feed during Accidental Nostalgia, her performance piece about memory.  Hopkins’ staging includes five projection screens, with what she calls a “video Foley table” on one side and a band on the other. At one point, Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg (her technical assistants) maneuver a security camera through a handmade landscape similar in look to that of a model train set. Moving the camera through the set as supposed to just side-to-side or zooming, produces a real cinematic sense of depth in the I-MAG not seen in the other works sited.

Both Selznick and Lagasse take advantage of an economy of scale through I-MAG. Their pieces appear relatively lightweight and easily transportable. To loosely paraphrase Lagasse from a Video Anarchy lecture at the Eugene O’Neill Puppetry conference in 2005, you can put your whole puppet show in a duffle bag, bring it to a nightclub and fill up the whole place in a few minutes. (Lagasse, 2005).  Another puppet artist, who exploits economy of scale through I-MAG, is Laura Heit, who performs “The Match Box Shows” all within matchboxes. Like Lagasse, she too, is able to fill up an entire stage at a nightclub or film screening, all from within and around the frame of her matchboxes.

Puppet Up! source: losanjealous

On the other end of the scale is Brian Henson’s Puppet Up! Uncensored, which is anything, but small. In Puppet Up!, Henson re-frames the proscenium through image magnification almost by getting rid of the proscenium. Henson’s improvisational troop of puppeteers uses puppets similar in look to that of the Muppets. However, unlike the Muppets (who are viewed through the proscenium of the television set) the puppets from Puppet Up! are performed in front of a live audience, with the puppeteers fully visible underneath them. They are I-MAGed onto a nearby screen where the framing is more traditional and reminiscent of T.V. puppetry. All of the puppet artists mentioned in this paper are in one way or another re-visioning the proscenium through I-MAG.

The technology of image magnification presents puppeteers and audiences with fresh ways of seeing and new challenges. An exciting range of possibilities and metaphors is emerging beyond the strings-attached, control issues of marionettes, the violence of Punch, the creepy uncanniness of ventriloquism, the noir shyness of shadow puppetry or the off-kilter cuteness of plush walk-arounds. As a development in puppetry, I-MAG is in its infancy and its metaphors are just beginning to be explored: doubling and simultaneity, changes in scale and perspective, multiple viewpoints and scattered attention, the collision of highly constructed cinematic effects with the real world, boundless expansiveness through economy of space, and a radical reframing and a schizophrenic fracturing of the proscenium. It will be exciting to see how this trend further develops.


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