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Voicing Animation & TV Puppetry ... 
Create A Sense Of Character & Truth
 
Note: The author teaches voice over animation and on-camera puppetry at the Actors Connection in New York City. The next classes are TV Puppeteering (starts Aug. 17), and Voice Over Character/Animation (starts Aug. 23). Click on these course titles for details, or on the links below.
 
By Paul Liberti
Voice Actor, Coach & Puppeteer
 
There was a time when you saw an animated character on TV or TV puppet - and knew that it was for kids!
 
Times have changed, thanks to a little boy named Bart. The Simpsons have completely changed forever the idea that animation is just ‘kid stuff’ – ever since they debuted on the Tracey Ullman Show in 1987.
 
Comedy Central was a pioneer with South Park and Adult Swim, as well. Even Beavis and Butthead are making a comeback!
 
The Family Guy was canceled twice ... and fans demanded a return to the airwaves.
 
Adults want their animation and puppets just as much as kids do!
 
TWO LEVELS TODAY
 
Admit it:  Alf was a really funny character (puppeted by a great performer). He was kinda like Rodney Dangerfield … only in fur.
 
A Broadway or Off Broadway show like Ave Q  might not have ever happened several years ago. But thanks to the shift in adult animation entertainment, so have our puppets.
 
Squeaky clean, goofy TV puppets are shown on comedy channels as burning logs at Christmas time, and puppets with conflict have become the norm, even on kids' TV shows. (Interestingly enough, Ave Q was originally conceived as a TV pilot.)
The reality is that animation now is done on two levels. One for kids, and one for adults who will see and hear a different subtext than the kids will.
 
While watching a new Pixar release recently, I noticed the kids were watching a very different film than the adults were - yet both were loving it!
 
CREATING CHARACTERS
 
Whether great animation characters and puppet characters are for kids OR adults – many things will never change.
 
As voice actors and puppet performers, we still have to create characters that are well rounded and have a psychological background.
 
I have been working on puppet improv for adults, but I also still work on puppets for kids' TV shows.
 
The performers in Ave Q have the exact same skills as their counterparts on TV’s Sesame Street. (Many performers have done both).
 
A puppet still needs to have a sense of breath, of eye focus - and everything that goes into allowing us to suspend our belief that we are looking at a real living and breathing character - and not a bath mat with two ping pong balls on it!
 
STARTS WITH MUPPETS
 
As a puppeteer,I had my first lessons with puppets with many of the original Muppet performers and writers from The Muppet Show – Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Richard Hunt, Jon Stone, Jerry Juhl - back in 1984, when I first began working on The Muppet Show On Tour.
 
We had to create full body puppets with dancers in huge arenas, with characters that had only been conceived for an arm to perform on TV.
 
We worked very closely with our director, Jon Stone, and Jane Henson to perfect and get inside the lip sync and movements of the puppets.
 
SENSE OF CHARACTER
 
Very often I was given the opportunity to also puppeteer smaller hand puppets on the show, like Robin the Frog.
 
I studied and worked with the creators of those characters and very often they would look back at us – after all our questions about the character and they would say, “I don’t know why Miss Piggy would do tha t… she just does.”
 
That’s when my sense of character and truth in characters began to rise to the surface.
 
'THAT WORKS'
 
I was working with Jim Henson on the Muppet Babies Live when Jim passed away. He still remains one of the best teachers in my life because he showed us that you need to surround yourself with the very best skilled people you can – so that you can do your best work.
 
He couldn’t tell me how to make a full body puppet of Kermit walk like his arm did when he puppeted Kermit. He could only show me what he did with his arm.
 
It was my job to figure out how to create the same movement in a dancers’ body without breaking my neck!
 
Jim wasn’t big on compliments, so the best and most rewarding compliment he could give me was, “THAT works.”
 
STILL FEEL ELECTRICITY
 
He even brought me back to help him workshop some new muppet full body puppets at the Muppet Carriage House on New York's upper East Side in the late 1980s.
 
I visited there recently and snuck up to the room where I had done some work for him ... and could still feel the electricity in the air, even though the room is bare now.
 
I have puppeted hand and rod puppets, computer puppets, and Motion Capture puppets for films and TV and live performance. It is all part of the same creation of character - only now the techniques for manipulation change.
 
CLASSES EXPAND TECHNIQUES
 
I teach classes in TV Puppetry and Voice Over Character/Animation. Each class is five weeks of study in New York City. And I have turned many voice actors into puppet performers!
 
Normally, classes like these are done on either a full day or weekend. But now, with a continuing class, students get a chance to really expand and own the techniques and skills that we begin on the very first classes.
 
Many of the students bond over the weeks, which only strengthens their ability to work with other puppet or animation performers.
 
It also allows them to build their ‘rep company’ of characters that are exclusive to them!
 
PRINCIPLES OF IMPROV
 
I studied improv with Chicago City Limits in NYC and The Funny Firm and Second City in Chicago.
 
The principles of impov with puppets are the same as without. As long as you learn the parameters of improv, doing it with a puppet on your arm is the same process.
 
Only now you have two performances – one with the puppet and one with the performer.
 
Working with a TV monitor helps the performers see what the audience sees and allows the performer to focus on THAT performance. 
 
ABOUT PAUL ...
 
Paul Liberti is a celebrated teacher and working voice actor based in New York City. Among his many credits are puppet work with Jim and Jane Henson in 1984, and work for Nickelodeon, Noggin, PBS, MTV, VH1, and more. (His students have gone on to work on Nickelodeon, Disney, Noggin, PBS, Avenue Q and Sesame Place). His audiobook credits include projects for Scholastic, Nickelodeon, Tavoli Entertaiment, and the Audie Award-winning series Goose Bumps.
 
Web: www.actorsconnection.com (search Voice Acting)
 
TV Puppeteering Class:
 
Voice Over Character/Animation Class:
 

 

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Comments (4)
Jane Keitel
8/11/2010 at 9:28 AM
If you haven't met Paul, this article will give you a good understanding of this remarkable artist. Paul is quite simply an outstanding talent and excellent teacher. He taught me the puppeteering skills I still use today (this past week, actually) and I took his incredible animation class.

I can agree with what all have said; Paul's classes are run efficiently, professionally and with a healthy dose of humor! He doesn't waste anyone's time (something I've encountered in other V/O classes. He legitimately CARES about each student and challenges them accordingly.

His passion is contagious and will ignite your need to improve! Thank you, Paul, for all you do for so many of us - Jane
Jeannie Stith
8/9/2010 at 3:53 PM
Great article. I recently took an amazing voice over class with Paul, and what a wealth of knowledge he is for us in the performing world! Thanks for another great contribution Paul. Jeannie
Maitely Weismann
8/9/2010 at 2:54 PM
I studied animation with Paul and couldn't have had a better experience. His classes are run like a tight ship and it's clear he really wants to take the time to help you figure out exactly how to those voices out of your head! I'd easily repeat this class because there's just so much to learn and practice, 6 weeks just isn't enough!
Bettye Zoller
8/9/2010 at 1:28 AM
Paul Liberti is a legend and a star. Thank you for writing this article. Puppetry is indeed so vital to voice over and an ancestor from way back in the middle ages and earlier of our craft as we know it today.

When I was a child through teenage years, with my love of acting, as a professional child actor, I begged my parents for expensive marionettes. They bought me several. I put on shows and worked so hard to control the strings, make them come to life. That is when I first realized the art and how skilled one must be with marionettes or puppets (they're different from each other, I know, but both use voice overs).

Those of you fortunate enough to study with Paul ... go for it. I wish I were in NYC for your course!
All best to you Paul,

Bettye Zoller, www.voicesvoices.com
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