5 Movie Puppets That Are More Effective Than CGI

yoda puppet
Posted on: June 19th, 2013

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There was a time long before CGI (it was called the 1980′s) where practical effects and puppetry reigned supreme, and when you saw something on film there was a good chance (with the exceptions of matte paintings) that it was a real effect, made from models or using puppets, and in spite of it’s humble origins, there was no question in your mind that it was real.

Nowadays those effects have been replaced by Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), which has advanced beyond anything special effects companies of 20/30 years ago could have dreamed of, and offer worlds and characters that are not only photo-realistic, but have all the looks, movements and gestures of real things and people. They are for all intents and purposes technological masterpieces.

Trouble is, they just don’t seem as real though.


In fairness this is a really bad example

In fairness this is a really bad example


There’s something about them that makes us say: That’s not real. That’s CGI.

Perhaps these constructs are too perfect? Perhaps we humans like to see the flaws.

Steven Spielberg summed it up quite aptly when talking about his 1975 blockbuster Jaws:

Jaws shark


“Today, I would probably shoot a Jaws movie with CGI, but you know something? The audience can tell the difference.

“The second you see a million soldiers charging, you know that no-one hired a million soldiers charging any place in the world, and you know that it’s artificial.”

And he’s right. There’s something intangible and artificial about CGI. A perfection that makes the effect seem fake. A viewer doubt that in no way affected the practical puppet creations from 2-3 decades previous, whose authenticity we never would have for a moment questioned.

Director Christopher Nolan took the argument a step further when he said:


“The thing with computer-generated imagery is that it’s an incredibly powerful tool for making better visual effects. But I believe in an absolute difference between animation and photography. However sophisticated your computer-generated imagery is, if it’s been created from no physical elements and you haven’t shot anything, it’s going to feel like animation. There are usually two different goals in a visual effects movie. One is to fool the audience into seeing something seamless, and that’s how I try to use it. The other is to impress the audience with the amount of money spent on the spectacle of the visual effect, and that, I have no interest in”

When we look at today’s modern effects, created on computers and pumped full of cash, it is a simple truth that they generate none of the warmth of feeling, nor character investment of the simpler puppet characters created using practical effects from decades ago.

Transformers Optimus Prime is a massive, soulless CG construct and modern Star Wars Yoda is a back-flipping, wisdom spouting parody.

With this article I invite you readers to join me on a look backwards at some of the best puppets to ever grace the big screen. Puppets so good we have never since, and may never again see their like. Puppets that take a massive steamer over the so called CG advances that have come since.

I was going to name this article ‘CGI Must Die: Jar Jar Binks, Avatar and Michael Bay Are Not Okay!’ or something to that effect, but instead I opted for 5 Movie Puppets That Are More Effective Than CGI. Because nearly 3 decades on they still hold up, and if you ask this writer; do a much better job.

But don’t take my word for it. Check em out below (and don’t forget to comment)


5. Falcor


Falcor      (The Neverending Story, 1984)



(The Neverending Story, 1984)

There were two models for Falcor, the Luck dragon from Wolfgang Petersen’s big screen adaption of the Michael Ende novel. The first and most imposing one, was over 15 meters long with a tail measuring around 4 meters, a neck of 3 meters and a head with a weigth of 100 Kg. It was constructed by Guiseppe Tortura, with a frame made of airplane steel.

Due of its size, only special parts could be moved and it had 16 moving facilities which controlled 36 tackles enabling this Falcor to speak, laugh, roll its eyes, twinkle and frown. The skin contained around 10000 hand sized scales and 100 kg of pink Angora-wool. The face of the Luck dragon was created by Arthur Collin who had to make several tries until the final version was to the directors content.

This should give you some idea of the craftsmanship that went into Falcor, that not only made him an amazing puppet, that took a skilled team of puppeteers a long time to master control over, but would also bring to life one of the most vivid and memorable characters from a child’s fantasy novel.

Pre-Lord Of The Rings – Neverending Story, Willow and the likes were the simpler fantasy of their day, and succeeded through the use of puppetry in doing what bigger films with much bigger budgets and millions pumped into effects still fail at. Creating memorable and amazing characters.

Falcor may look pretty choppy by today’s standards, but in 1984 there wasn’t a kid in the audience who didn’t believe that in a giant puppet (voiced by Alan Oppenheimer) they were dealing with a real life luck dragon. Or that the movies final pay-off wasn’t the best thing ever!

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