Not Your Ordinary Wooden Puppets

Nov. 18, 2004
Marionettes custom made for Team America: World Police act out an irreverent plot thanks to servo technology and wireless controls.

Not your ordinary wooden puppets

Marionettes custom made for Team America: World Police act out an irreverent plot thanks to servo technology and wireless controls.

Eyes only for you — Designers at Chiodo Brothers Inc. devised animatronic modules for puppets in the Paramount Pictures film, Team America: World Police.

Because female puppet heads were slightly smaller than those for males, some of the electronics had to go in the torso with a wire bundle that fed through the neck joint.

Puppet heads before faces and hair are applied. In the event of problems with the animatronics, technicians could unbolt a plate in the back of the puppet head to access the electronics.

Most theatergoers who watch the all-marionette cast of Team America: World Police probably don't appreciate what's going on behind the flexible foam latex skin.

Master puppet producers Edward, Stephen, and Charles Chiodo made 95 generic mechanical heads that, by changing the makeup and hair, constituted more than 300 individual characters in the recently released film. Marionettes are each controlled by 8 to 10 strings made from specially formulated Dacron dyed a medium gray so the strings wouldn't be too distracting in the finished film.

But the most sophisticated work went into the animatronics behind the puppets' facial expressions. Each head contains nine servomotors that are more typically used in radio-controlled model airplanes. The motors (from Futaba and Hitec RCD USA) make the jaws move, shift the eyes so the puppets can look around, move the brow, and change the position of lips so puppets can not only lip sync to spoken lines, but also smile and frown. The Chiodo brothers and their employees devised custom linkages to get the various parts of the face to move up and down or contort as necessary.

The animatronics of World Policecan be contrasted with those in the British TV series of the 1960s called The Thunderbirds, which World Police loosely parodies. Thunderbirds puppet heads just didn't move as much; they blinked, their eyes moved left and right, and they had a lip flap. Power for their motorized features fed down two tungsten or steel wires that doubled as head strings.

In addition, World Policepuppets carried their own rechargeable battery packs which rode in the pelvis area. External power supplies handled lengthy scenes that didn't show the full puppets.

And the control system managing the servomotors communicated to the puppets via wireless link. The wireless facilities came on a beta version controller from Gilderfluke & Co. in Burbank, Calif. The Gilderfluke electronics are designed specifically to handle show type applications, including puppets. "We had hoped to get about a 300-ft range with that system," explains Ed Chiodo. "But with all the equipment on a movie set, we ended up with antennas 5 to 10 feet away at most. And if people walked in front of them we'd lose control of the puppets."

Low-torque output (1.2 and 2.6 kg-cm, respectively) from the small, 0.5-in.-long servomotors led to a number of early burnouts until puppeteers got the hang of manipulating the Gilderfluke controls. Low-torque capability also put a premium on precision machining of the linkages that constituted movable features on the puppets. "Any kind of extreme load would make them burn out," explains Chiodo.

Chiodo Brothers Inc. mechanical designers David Nelson and Mecki Heusin first developed physical prototypes and then sent them out to machine shops that fabricated the required joints. "Usually marionettes are hand crafted. But because we had to produce over a 100 copies, we molded the bodies and had the mechanical parts fabricated," says Ed Chiodo.

It took about three months to design and refine the puppets. "There are some basic systems in this business that you can call on. Eye-blink mechanisms, for example, are pretty standard. But the real estate within which you have to build is always different," explains Chiodo.

Designers found the biggest challenge to be squeezing all the electronics into the cramped quarters inside the puppet heads. "We designed works-in-a-drawer around the eyes and lips. The male heads were a little bigger, so we could get the WiFi transceiver in there as well. Female characters had WiFi electronics in their body and a bundle of wires feeding up through their neck," says Chiodo.

Additional Photos

Images ™ & © 2004 Paramount Pictures

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